Back with a Special Beat Service – the Dave Wakeling interview

Bathroom Idol: The Beat’s Mirror Man, Dave Wakeling, reflects on his past and looks to the future

It gets a tad confusing with a few of the bands doing the rounds again all these years on, not least when original members have gone their separate ways, starting their own versions of the same group.

Take The Beat, for example, their co-front-men leading their own bands under the old banner. What’s more, there’s further confusion as they were always known as The English Beat elsewhere, to avoid legal issues across the Atlantic. But according to Dave Wakeling, there’s certainly no animosity with his old pal Ranking Roger.

“We seem really good friends. I went to his house, we had a pot of tea together and a lovely talk, and there’s some chance we may work together next year with the 2 Tone 40th anniversary.

“Music’s a bit like farts. You like the smell of your own, and we both like our own Beat a bit better than the other one’s!”

Too much information maybe, but it’s a fair point. And I guess that was always the case. As with fellow Beat bandmates David Steele and Andy Cox, who went off to form Fine Young Cannibals when they formed General Public. In retrospect, they were all pulling in different directions, a split almost inevitable.

“I think so. The wonderful thing is that we ended up making songs people can still be bothered about today. That’s tremendous. You don’t really know that at the time you’d have songs that people would cover. You go into a bar and a band will be doing your song. That really knocks you sideways.

“First, you get a couple of songs in the charts and you don’t have to get another job, so that’s good, then you get wealthy and get all the fame and the cars and all that. But to have one of your songs still mean something after nearly 40 years … you can’t pay for that really. It’s the most wonderful gift a troubadour can ever have.”

There was a spell away from music at one point for this California-based singer-songwriter, although between spells with General Public he was still working on music-related projects for Greenpeace and film director John Hughes. But then Dave was coaxed back into performing by Elvis Costello, and since then there have been two combos – The Beat featuring Ranking Roger, and The English Beat starring Dave Wakeling, the latter of whom have played an estimated 1,000 shows, mostly in North America.

One thing led to another, Dave adding new songs to his live set, fans then asking for those on the merch stand, the idea of a new LP beginning to come together.

“That started the ball rolling. I wouldn’t have wanted to have done a vanity record – I would’ve been just as happy to keep the songs in my head rather than go to the bother of making a record if no-one was interesting.”

And the success of a subsequent Pledge Music album campaign suggested those fans at the live shows weren’t the only ones ready for another Beat album.

“Yes. People started asking, ‘Can I get a copy of the CD with that new one on?’ So we felt we better make one. The pledge thing took a while to start up, raising a little money before starting to record, but it’s worked out incredibly well and just went over 200% of its target.”

You may recall lead single How Can You Stand There? being aired on Jools Holland’s Hootenanny as part of the BBC’s New Year celebrations. And it’s been around a while, as I was reminded, seeing Dave play that on a filmed radio show in St Louis in 2014.

“That would have been exactly the same time I first contacted the Pledge people, so it didn’t really start until the middle of 2015, recording towards the end of that year.”

I think first and foremost of all the bands The Beat came on the scene with and their primary ska and reggae credentials, but – reappraising them – there’s an early rock’n’roll, Buddy Holly feel to that new single in its bare form. I guess those influences were always there. Maybe I chose not to hear them.

“I think so. I liked an equal balance of on-beats and off-beats – so it’s either Buddy Holly or Bo Diddley. And on the other side you’d have a Toots and the Maytals, Desmond Dekker and Bob Marley sort of feel. And for most of my songs, you can play them as pop songs or reggae. They transpose pretty easy.”

Similarly, I get a Who vibe when I revisit a performance of Save it for Later for American radio in 2011, not least that guitar sound, again putting him in a different light. Or was that just because I know Pete Townshend (as well as Pearl Jam) had covered it?

“Yeah. Mind you, when I see a video of him playing that song – he can really play guitar! I’ve been practising that one for nearly 40 years, but boy … he can stretch his fingers to 11 frets, I reckon. It’s stunning, and I’d love – if I could ever get the chance – to sing the song with him and Eddie Vedder. That would be lovely. They both covered it a few times, and I’ve enjoyed their music a lot.

“Pete Townshend was one of the reasons I wanted to be in a group in the first place and I was lucky enough to meet Eddie Vedder early on in his career, when he was feeling the strain of being a social spokesperson band, with the weight of Paul Weller – a spokesperson for a generation. But we had some good chats back in the day, and I’ve been very pleased with the way he’s used his fame for lots of really great causes, brought to people’s attention. And I’d love for the three of us to play Save it For Later on three acoustic guitars.”

Well, you heard it here first … possibly. In the meantime though, we have the new album, Here We Go Love, out on May 11th, with Dave backed by his regular seven-piece band on the first Beat studio album since 1982’s Special Beat Service. And as his record company put it, it’s ‘a brand-new collection of 13 vital songs that have their feet in the here and now, but lose none of the fire and frenzy of those timeless immediate classics that made the band’s name.’

What’s more, Dave remains as engaged and switched on as ever judging by our conversation and what I’ve heard of the LP so far, its lyrics typically drawn from observing life and tumultuous recent events, as you’d expect from the man who co-wrote timeless hits Hands Off She’s Mine, Mirror in the Bathroom, Best Friend/Stand Down Margaret, Too Nice To Talk To and the afore-mentioned Save it for Later, while helping put a winning spin on old classics Tears of a Clown and Can’t Get Used to Losing You.

There were those three previous great albums too, not least my personal favourite, their stunning May 1980 debut, I Just Can’t Stop It, which along with follow-up Wha’ppen reached No. 3 in the UK album charts, before Special Beat Service proved to be the last for the original line-up.

The new LP was largely crafted over two years in breaks from touring, Dave still creating quality pop hooks with an occasional political edge, plenty of wit and wisdom, and lots of ska, punk, soul, reggae and pop moments.

When the Birmingham sextet first hit the charts in 1979, Ranking Roger was just 16, while legendary saxophonist Saxa, who previously played with the likes of Desmond Dekker and Prince Buster, was pushing 50, and along with The Specials’ trombonist Rico Rodriguez was already a ska icon.

“The shocking thing is that when Saxa died (May 2017) we realised some of us were the same age now as when we’d first met him … when he was the old legend. Whenever we went out with him, he’d call us, ‘You young boys.’”

Dave missed Saxa’s funeral, struggling after hernia surgery, adding, “The combination of travelling 6,000 miles and then crying your bum off when you get there would sting a bit!

“But I found out what pub they were using straight after and arranged to put £500 behind the bar. Whenever you asked Saxa if he wanted a drink, he’d say, ‘Yes, get me two beers,’ so when the funeral crowd came into the bar I had someone shout out, ‘Get me two beers!’”

And the man himself was involved with the album, despite a tendon injury.

“That was lovely. I played some of the songs to him as they were developing, and he had a bad finger so couldn’t play the flat notes on his saxophone anymore, but was still in great form, and hummed some melodies for me and I put what I remembered of them on there.

“And it sounds just like him. He gave me some starters for melodies, and they were that good that they were easy to remember. Our sax player learned that and it sounds just like Saxa. It’s just a pity he’s not here to hear it.”

He’s not the only … erm, Special guest, so to speak. There’s also recent writewyattuk interviewee Roddy ‘Radiation’ Byers, these days fronting The Skabilly Rebels.

“Yeah, I love Roddy, and he plays on If Killing Works. And there’s a cartoon drawing of him on the record sleeve – he’s the tiny guitarist who looks like a Teddy Boy!”

Roddy came from a band that fused punk and ska together, so how about Dave’s own entry system to the music business – did he grow up listening to all that music later reflected in his work?

“We were very lucky in that Birmingham and Coventry were very industrial cities which had seen a huge influx of all sorts of different people and all sorts of different music. You’d hear ska, bluebeat and rocksteady coming out of houses and at your fingertips, and also played at football grounds because of all the skinheads – to keep them quiet at half time!

”I didn’t realise until I came to live in America what a jewel Radio One had been for us – music was quite separated over here into black and white music, whereas we only had Top of the Pops, Radio 1 and Radio Luxembourg. So you had the best of The Rolling Stones, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Kinks, The Four Tops, and we were lucky to grow up in that late ‘60s and early 70s period where we didn’t realise there was anything special about that. We were so lucky to get that musical education.”

Also featured on the album is Train guitarist Luis Maldonado, and backing vocalists Durga McBroom, Kevin Williams and Jelani Jones. And didn’t I spot former Specials singer Rhoda Dakar and former Belle stars vocalist Jennie Matthias with his band on Jools Holland’s show?

“Yes, and they’ve always been really lovely. And there was something really nice about 2 Tone – there wasn’t the same kind of competitive drive you’d see in other music scenes, and so many of us were from a bit of a backwater of the Midlands, and there was a lot of camaraderie that stuck us together.”

As it happens, Dave returns to his old Midlands stomping ground when his band play Birmingham Academy on June 2nd, one of 17 UK and Irish dates lined up, right through to Brighton’s Concorde 2 on June 17th, the tour starting at Manchester’s Club Academy on Friday, May 25th.

“Yeah, and the day after we’re up to Scotland (Scone Palace, Perth) for the BBC’s Biggest Weekend, so the Manchester show, really, is going to be our warm-up for that.”

That promises to be a relatively-intimate affair, as opposed to a few of the bigger Academy-type venues.

“Yeah, they can be a bit cavernous, but that one’s quite good. We were there last September and it went very nicely, so I’m looking forward to returning. We’ve only got a half-hour set in Scotland so I’m wondering about putting that set in the same order at Manchester, giving it a dress rehearsal … we might even tell the crowd!”

Did Dave spot a recent Facebook post featuring The Beat playing Stand Down Margaret on ITV’s Tiswas spin-off OTT back in the spring of 1982?

“I shared it on my own page, and remember that show very well. It was a good accident, I suppose – it was filmed in Birmingham and happening the same time as us. We’d done Tiswas quite a lot, so it was a natural extension.

“And I suppose I can tell you now – it’s been long enough – we were the band who played Mole in a Hole for Lenny Henry. We were his backing band for that single. In fact, that was probably one of the finest versions of Mole in a Hole that’s ever been recorded!”

The band’s OTT appearance came two years after Stand Down Margaret’s initial release, and it seemed that the message was starting to get through, even though we had another eight and a half years of Thatcher’s premiership to endure. I asked Dave how much of an influence that rather direct political approach might have had on The Specials recording Free Nelson Mandela in 1984.

“Well, you’ve got to be sensitive, because your shoes don’t fit everybody, so there’s no reason why your views should. But I liked that we went down as making the politest protest song ever. I think it says ‘please’ over 30 times. That was very English of us.

“What else is interesting – and also I suppose a bit sad – is that a lot of those issues being dealt with in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s seem to have come back, whether it’s the spectre of nuclear war, fear of immigrants, or of people struggling to make ends meet. We’ve got some striking similarities.”

Speaking of which, the day I spoke to Dave marked the 50th anniversary of West Midlands-based politician Enoch Powell’s infamous, highly-inflammatory ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech.

“Ooh … at the Midland Hotel in Birmingham. You know how everyone’s got very keen on these ancestry websites and the need to meet relatives? Well, one of mine sent a scrap of a newspaper for Smethwick, Enoch Powell’s constituency, mentioning how a by-election was being called, the candidates not in place yet. They were working on the Conservative candidate, and the party organiser for that area was Mr F.D. Wakeling. We don’t know if that was my Dad or my Grandad, but one of those bastards got Enoch Powell in! I think it must have been a DNA crime.”

Ah, the perils of digging too deep into your family history. Although – on a less contentious note – Dave told me how one of his 18th century relatives, James Wakeling, possibly the first to move to Birmingham, was a mechanical beer-pump maker, and how, ‘Dad joked that we’ve had the suds in our blood ever since.’

Despite that earlier possible link to Enoch Powell, I pointed out to Dave that he should be proud he was part of a band that played a role – along with the likes of fellow Midlands outfits The Specials, The Selecter, and UB40 – in promoting a far more positive view of race integration and inclusion. As he put it himself in an earlier interview, The Beat were ‘an incongruous set of people from all different cultures and upbringings.’ They certainly proved a great example of the more positive aspects of a multicultural Britain.

“I think so, and I still see elements of that, although it is a shame the money wasn’t put into helping develop that side of our society, while money could be found for other things, like blowing people up.

“Take the example of Canada, where people who came to live there were given all sorts of opportunities and even a radio station in their language, and a lot of different things to help them integrate and feel they were part of that country. I don’t think that happened so much in the UK. People were brought over for cheap labour and kind of ridiculed, and separate societies developed in some ways. And we haven’t entirely overcome that.

“But when I go home I’m proud in many ways to see that people – whatever colour, whatever religion they are – the thing they are most proud of is that they’re Brummies. That’s a nice feeling. So you can see that the race is on. There is a chance that everybody could get on and give their kids a bit more luck than what they had. Or we could just tear each other to bits with the same energy. And this record is the soundtrack to that race.”

Absolutely, and you’re probably still asking ‘please’.

“A little bit, although I have become the old bloke in the corner saying what he bloody likes because it doesn’t matter what people think!”

Speaking of which, on the new LP, The One and Only tackles Trump’s America. Is that his Stand Down Donald anthem?

Wakeling Up: The Beat, starring Dave Wakeling, are heading your way.

“That song’s really about the Trump in all of us. It’s a bit easy to point fingers but a lot of people voted for Trump out of fear in the same way I would think people voted for Brexit out of fear. It’s hard to take ownership of those sort of decisions afterwards, and it’s hard to make things work sometimes.

“We’ve got to get past the blame game, even though you can see some people who deserve a bucketful of it. Despite all that, we’ve got to try and find a way we can all get along, or we’re all going to sink or swim. It’s as clear as day really. Children of Men was a good film, but I think it’s best left as a film.”

In a similar vein, The Selecter’s Daylight album last year suggested Pauline Black had retained the fire of those earlier records, but – like Dave – was insistent on remaining relevant and tackling real issues.

“Well, we’re very lucky we were popular in the past. But you can’t get stuck there. If you sit on your laurels for too long they get squashed. And like The Selecter and The Specials and Roger’s version of The Beat, it’s striking that some of the things we’re singing about are things that are becoming – more and more – issues to people again.

“It’s like the end of a conversation that started a while ago. And I don’t think that conversation can be put off for much longer. It has to be sorted one way or another. We can aspire to our better angels or be the mammals we are and just bite each other’s throats. We’re capable of both. My biggest fear is what would happen if my record went to No.1 and then it was the end of the world and I never get paid!”

The new LP was recorded at NRG, Los Angeles, with mixing veteran Jay Baumgardner and producer Kyle Hoffmann, Dave building a vocal booth in his home rather than travelling into the city, recording vocals as the mood took him, a swim or a spot of gardening occasionally reinvigorating him.

He’s spent ‘just over half my life’ in America now. Is he still based in San Fernando?

“Yeah, I’m still in the Valley, although it’s getting too hot. I may head back to Redondo, where I was living before, a bit closer to the ocean, with a bit more of a breeze.”

What does he miss most about England and Birmingham?

“Sarcasm. As with Manchester, Liverpool, and any other English city everyone’s been packed together there for so long, so you have to watch your manners, but because of that word play is important, and I like the way that in Birmingham someone can say something and because of the way they’ve pulled their face everyone knows they mean the exact opposite.

“We don’t have as much of that here. It’s available on the East coast and in New England, but it’s a bit more literal in the rest of the States. I do miss a good dose of sardonic wit and sarcasm with a grudge!”

After The Beat split, Dave and Roger’s next project General Public, initially featuring The Clash’s Mick Jones, The Specials’ Horace Panter, and Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ Micky Billingham and Andy ‘Stoker’ Growcott, saw success with their 1984 debut LP, All The Rage, in America, particularly with the single, Tenderness.

A decade later, in their second spell, they had their biggest US hit covering The Staple Singers’ l’ll Take You There, used by both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama in successful presidential campaigns. Has Dave got good memories of his General Public days?

“It was a very big deal over here. In some ways – and it was the same with Fine Young Cannibals – we carried on from The Beat and it got bigger and bigger in the States, with stadium shows and all that. It was lovely having the chance to play with people from The Specials and Dexy’s and write some hits with a whole new line-up. And I always dreamt that one day it would be fun to have a Beat, General Public and Fine Young Cannibals tour.”

That sounds great … and could still happen, yeah?

“We’ll see, y’know, it would be like pulling teeth, but …”

Do you Keep in touch with Mick Jones?

“I haven’t, but I’d like to. I was looking at old photographs from then on Facebook recently. I liked him very much. He had a lovely quiet way about him … until he got on the guitar – then he was a monster!”

Going back to those initial days for The Beat, Dave recently proclaimed, “When we started, everything we did by accident just went right. Even when it seemed like a tragedy, it worked out great.” He illustrates that point by referring to a show at which they opened for legendary broadcaster John Peel at Aston University. After playing their set, Peelie described them as ‘the best band in the world apart from The Undertones,’ the band inviting their new friend out for a curry to thank him for his support.

“We were sitting there with John, just so full of ourselves, and a car came around the corner and smashed into our blue van. That put a dampener on things, but he said, ‘I’d better give you a Peel Session to pay for that.’”

Lighting Up: Mr Wakeling cadges a light from a fellow David

That recording, in turn, was passed on to Simon Potts, who signed them to Arista Records. I love that story, I tell Dave, not least as a huge fan of the Undertones.

“Well, I was a big Undertones fan too, and for me The Undertones and the Buzzcocks were a sign that you didn’t have to have a lot of equipment – you just needed a good idea and a couple of guitars and you could do it. You didn’t have to have a huge producer in line, or a record company or a video.

“The Buzzcocks and The Undertones, for me, spelled that out most clearly, and that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in a group like them, with three-minute songs that everyone wanted to keep singing after they faded out.”

Was there ever a day-job outside music?

“I was a fireman at one point, but my lungs would be in dreadful state if I’d carried that on, so I’m glad I missed that one.”

He’s 62 now, and in certain jobs would have been pensioned off by now. It doesn’t work like that with music though. But he seems to still have the hunger for it all.

“Yeah, and it keeps me young. I feel younger and fresher when I’m on tour than if I’m loafing about. It’s a good aerobic workout and it does you no harm at all to travel around and for people telling you you’re great. That cheers you up and you get paid for it. I enjoy all that.”

Finally, if he could pick a couple of key moments with The Beat that really made him feel proud, what would they be?

“I think it would be being everybody’s favourite support band., Everybody wanted us to be the opening band, because we created a party for them to swim in to. And the list of bands, which I never guessed when I was fan at the Virgin Records shop – The Pretenders, Talking Heads, The Police, The Clash, David Bowie … they all said we were the best opening band they ever had at the time.

“The second one would be meeting people after shows, when they shake your hand, sometimes even calling you Mr Wakeling, which was a bit worrying, because you think it’s your Dad. You have to look over your shoulder! That would be weird, because he’s been gone for ages.

“But they just want to say, ‘Thank you for everything you’ve given me’. And these are the people who’ve paid for everything you’ve eaten in the last 40 years … and your kids and grandkids even. They get to meet you outside a show, with what hair they’ve got left stuck to their head, just wanting to thank you.”

Maybe it was because you said ‘please’ in the first place.

“That’s right. Be nice and be good-mannered, because you never know how far it might take you!”

For details of The Beat’s pledge music campaign for Here We Go Love, head here. And to keep up to date with Dave Wakeling and the band, you can follow this Facebook page and check out the official website.  

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About writewyattuk

A freelance writer and family man being swept along on a wave of advanced technology, but somehow clinging on to reality. It's only a matter of time ... A highly-motivated scribbler with a background in journalism, business and life itself. Away from the features, interviews and reviews you see here, I tackle novels, short stories, copywriting, ghost-writing, plus TV, radio and film scripts for adults and children. I'm also available for assignments and write/research for magazines, newspapers, press releases and webpages on a vast range of subjects. You can also follow me on Facebook via https://www.facebook.com/writewyattuk/ and on Twitter via @writewyattuk. Legally speaking, all content of this blog (unless otherwise stated) is the intellectual property of Malcolm Wyatt and may only be reproduced with permission.
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