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By Phil Bonyata
Dave Wakeling - The English Beat
Mar. 15, 2010
The English Beat's place in ska and (music in general) are secure. Their style of 2 Tone was innovative and fresh - they were among the leaders in the ska revivalist explosion in the late '70s and early '80s. The Beat formed in 1978 in Birmingham. England, but had to change their name to The English Beat so there would be no confusion with an American band already called The Beat. The multi-racial band carved out a distinct and tasty flavor of up tempo music. A lover of The Clash, lead singer Dave Wakeling, would infuse socio-politically charged lyrics that were balanced smartly by the band's belief in unity and family. Their music is a flowing texture of rich and sassy horns and pinching guitars.
Phil Bonyata recently got the chance to talk with lead singer Dave Wakeling on politics, music, philosophy and the dreaded concept album.
Livewire: You have such a rich and diverse musical palette - are there any genres that you shy away from?
Dave: That's an interesting question, I've never heard that one before. Well, I'm lucky in a way, I'm not very musically trained. I can't read or write music. I can really only do what I'm capable of doing kind of intuitively or naively. So, there's few genres the I can do, so it doesn't bother me that I can't do rock chamber music, but if I was capable of doing it I would probably steer clear of it. (laughs) It was a conscious decision by me as a youngster. I had friends that were doing music they could play fantastically. They could play great on the piano and they'd be reading this music and I would say play one of yours then and they would look at me sort of blankly. I'd say "like make something up" and they'd say "Well, I'm going to improvisation classes next term" and it really scared me and I'd say "you'd got to be joking, they've taught you how to play those instruments so well, but didn't teach you how to transform the tunes in your head," which was the whole fun of it for me. So, I used every trick in the book to make sure I avoided any sort of formal musical education. At the beginning of every term we'd have to sing for the first hour of class and the various teachers walked 'round behind us tapping people on the shoulder who were given the dubious honor of joining the various choirs, so we quickly learned that when you'd hear the sound of the swish behind you, you started singing tantalizingly flat - the same amount of flat throughout, so as to give the appearance that you were tone deaf. They would always walk on by and pick some other hapless creature.
Livewire: You've toured with David Bowie, The Clash, R.E.M., The Talking Heads and The Police among many others...which one of these bands blew you away the most?
Dave: Yeah, they all asked for me to play with them. And without a shadow of a doubt - The Clash! A mercurial band that were like the Grateful Dead of the punk era. By that I mean, in the first two or three song of their set if they caused a fire, then you could be in for a musical adventure beyond compare and anything could happen in the next two hours. But, if they didn't catch a spark and get some smoldering going in the first three or four songs it would be an interminably long night (laughs) - just like watching The Dead. So, I always thought that there was a similarity. So, anyway it turned from The Clash being my heroes and us being their support band. We actually ended up being their support band quite a lot because they never did a bad gig when they followed us because we primed up the room and we primed up the audience and we didn't try to overshadow them or steal their thunder - we just set the room up perfectly, so they liked us as the opening band. And David Bowie, they all said the same things - The Talking Head, etc. that the audience has never been so primed as when we opened for them. The very last night we opened for David Bowie on a UK tour he said "Your are the best opening band I've ever had and last night the crowd was perfect and ready to go - will you come and tour America with me the next three months?" But, sadly our 15 minutes in the sun was done. Well, it was the first time in my life that I was actually short on something to say, because he was a bit of a charmer as well. And to see him standing there as I just ran offstage from the last last gig with the band in it's original lineup posing that question, all I could do was stand there and babble and mutter.
Livewire: Speaking of these legends, where is your place in rock history?
Dave: Well, some kind of footnote I hope. It's remarkable really, I've always dreamt of being in a pop group. I almost wore out tennis racquets and cricket bats pretending that they were guitars. I finally got a guitar and then I spent years and years trying to perfect it until Andy Cox, our original lead guitarist who started The Beat with me, told me "you're playing the guitar upside down!" But, I told him that he was playing his upside down (laughs) and then I dreamt of being in a group so hard that I convinced myself it was nothing, but a dream. So, when it happened I couldn't stop laughing, which is my nervous response and 30 years later to even consider that I have a place in rock history seems just as absurd - I must be the luckiest man alive. But, I think after everything else, are the things that people say to you, no matter what mental state they're in, and have somebody tell you that one or two or three of your particular songs have cropped up time and time in their lives and the lyrics have been pertinent to the dramas or soap operas that they were going through and that those songs have helped them through those times either with a sense of irony or a sense of humor or even misery shared perhaps, is the most satisfying thing. Far more than any awards or places in rock history or whatever. For a songwriter the challenge is to write from your hearts and that you've touched other people's heart over the course of a century - I mean, you can't get finer than that.
Livewire: Are there some new bands that perhaps most of us know nothing about that are breaking new musical ground?
Dave: Well, I think that Sonic Boom Six out of Manchester, England are. They have the excitement, I think and also that added edge of hip hop. You could, I suppose, draw a correlation with The Black Eyed Peas, but they also have a very integral sense of social and political conscious and I appreciate artists like that. It can be very easy to be talked into toning your message down, so as not to offend people, but I think it's songs that people go out and say "gosh darn it that's what I feel anyway" and they make songs that tend to resonate. So, I appreciate what they are doing and I try to give them mention whenever I can, like now. (laughs)
Livewire: So, you seem like quite the political person - is that correct?
Dave: Well, yeah MSNBC is on the TV around the clock. I even forget to switch it off for the dreadful prison programs. I contrast and compare what I'm seeing with CNN, the BBC, NPR and with FOX and then I like to compare and contrast that with Time, Newsweek and The Economist. But you wouldn't say that I'm obsessed. (laughs)
Livewire: Which of your records gets the most rotation on your iPod or CD player?
Dave: Well, here we go - I don't have an iPod and I only play one record on my Bose CD thing. Which is The Heart of the Congos, by The Congos which in my opinion is the finest reggae album ever and one of Lee Perry's finest productions ever! That's actually the only record that I ever play. I certainly never would dream of playing one of my own. Although, I do get to hear them quite a lot. (laughs) The most interesting thing is the producer Bob Sargent got us copies of all the songs and made us listen to them in preparation for the Best of... that was brought out by Warner Brothers a few years ago. We were worried that it would sound humiliating or a little embarrassing like A Flock of Seagulls (I mean their old image and sound is a bit embarrassing now, and I'm glad that we avoided being monsters of 80's synth, but I do think the songs they wrote were good and sung well) and the most amazing thing is that we quite liked the songs and they seemed to have stood the test of time. They weren't embarrassing afterall. (laughs) The subject matter and lyrics were as pertinent now as they were then. Somebody said these would make a great Best of... album (laughs) but, we were lucky also that Bob Sargent use any of the modern wizbangs of the day. If it was a piano sound it would have to be a Steinway, if it was an organ sound it would have to be a Hammond B-3 with full service Leslie cabinets. For guitar amps it had to be Valve amps. Microphones had to be of a certain BBC quality and blah, blah, blah. And some of us, me included, fought against it, especially towards the end because we wanted to hear some of the modern wizbangs that other bands were using on their records. But, now we thank him greatly because when those band's songs come on the radio they sound just like any old '80s group. I'm not going to say that our songs are timeless, because in 10 years time we'll probably be saying that they're stupid, but they've weathered the storms of time a little bit better.
Livewire: How do you feel about the concept of the album as we know it will be virtually dead in the near future?
Dave: I've always hated albums - I think that they're rubbish. I think that they were only put together for a way to maximize their fan base's financial resources from the record companies point of view. I mean, even myself as erudite and witty as I am, you've only got a limited number of themes, you know. So, when you've got 12 songs in a row you can't help but revisit some of those themes or keep extrapolating on those same themes. It could be some of the greatest that I love - Tim Buckley, Bob Marley, Van Morrison, Toots & The Maytals, 12 songs are just too much. I've heard it - alright I get the picture! Stop telling me over and over again!
Livewire: What about an Exile on Main Street or a Sgt. Pepper's? Do they work or don't work as a complete album?
Dave: Exile on Main Street works a s a complete album because you never really know where you are. Like, am I on side three or side four? Yes, that worked because it was such a rambling mish mosh and thank heavens they didn't try and make, the worst of all things, the concept album! Ohhhh GOD! I hated concept albums so much! I'm a singles guy - I like three minute pop songs that leave me aching for more and singing the chorus long after the song has faded off. With the CD it's like you are now committed to 12 songs. A journey through somebody's subconscious, many of the places revisited three or four times. There's always three or four crap songs on just about every album. There are some great albums though, and as soon as I get off of the phone I'll think of all of the great ones I can't think of right now.
Livewire: Do you feel that you've said it all and there's nothing else left to say?
Dave: There really is a simple and universal bridge of imagery that resonates. As our times become more tense those images and those ways of communicating become even more profound and more powerful. And because of that - I think that this has all been practice for what's coming. People are getting closer together like barefoot penguins huddling against the Arctic winds. We're either going to paddle together or sink together. I'd like to be a cheerleader on the sidelines going "Rah Rah Rah" in ska fashion.