RAISE A TOAST Dave Wakeling & the English Beat

The band’s gregarious frontman talks politics, records
and former members. Oh, and the REAL story behind “Mirror In the Bathroom,”
too.

 

BY DAVE STEINFELD

 

The origins of The English
Beat are now part of postpunk legend. 
The band formed in Birmingham, England in the late ‘70s. As the original
wave of UK punk rock began to fizzle, those who had been a part of it went in
several different musical directions, ranging from rockabilly to electropop.
Another direction was “two-tone,” a musical hybrid based on a mix of pop, punk
and, perhaps most significantly, ska. Along with The Specials, Madness and The
Selecter, The English Beat were one of the first, biggest and best purveyors of
the two-tone movement (which also spawned the Two-Tone record label). Known
simply as The Beat in the UK, they had to change their name to The English Beat
here in America to avoid being confused with an L.A. power pop band already
known as The Beat. One of the band’s objectives was to uphold the social
conscience and rebellion of the punk movement but without its nihilism – and
add an element of danceability in the process.

 

The original English Beat was
a sextet that featured singer-guitarist Dave Wakeling, toaster Ranking Roger,
lead guitarist Andy Cox, bassist David Steele, drummer Everett Morton and
saxophonist Saxa. In addition to being an interracial band (three black members
and three white), The Beat was also a diverse group in terms of age. While most
of the members were in their twenties, Saxa was in his fifties. Originally from
Jamaica and a veteran of Prince Buster’s band among others, Saxa lended an
element of authenticity to the band as well as being old enough to offer its
members fatherly advice.

 

The English Beat released
their debut album, I Just Can’t Stop It, in
1980. The disc was a commercial and
critical hit, and it’s not hard to see why. I
Just Can’t Stop It
was that rare album that was catchy and danceable yet
socially conscious. It paid homage to the past while being completely modern.
And it integrated an assortment of different musical styles into something
truly fresh. The disc led off with the hyper, bass-driven “Mirror in the
Bathroom,” which remains popular more than three decades later. But “Mirror”
was just the beginning. Other highlights of I
Just Can’t Stop It
ranged from the fast, punkish “Click Click” (only a
minute and a half in length) to a reggae-tinged reworking of the Andy Williams
ballad “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” to the bright, buoyant “Best Friend” to
the overtly political “Stand Down Margaret,” an anti-Thatcher diatribe.

 

The band released two more
studio efforts. 1981’s Wha’ppen? was
a bit more downbeat, both musically and moodwise, “Drowning” being the
centerpiece. The following year’s Special
Beat Service,
meanwhile, was somewhat more polished, and as such, it was
the Beat’s most successful album in America by far, containing the radio hits
“I Confess” and “Save it for Later” plus the lesser-known but lovely “End of
the Party.” But the ska influence was still present in songs like “Spar Wid Me”
and “Pato and Roger a Go Talk.” Sadly, Special
Beat Service
proved to be the band’s swan song, as they broke up in 1983.

 

After their demise, the
members of the Beat headed in various directions. Steele and Cox hooked up with
singer Roland Gift and the trio eventually scored massive success as The Fine
Young Cannibals. Interestingly, the band’s two vocalists – Wakeling and Roger –
had some chart success as General Public, but nothing to rival that of the
Cannibals. That said, the duo’s 1984 debut did respectably and produced a
delightful hit in the form of “Tenderness.” Wakeling and Roger released one
more General Public album, 1986’s Hand to
Mouth,
before calling it a day.

 

Dave Wakeling unveiled his
solo debut, No Warning, in 1991. In
addition to the title track, No Warning featured
the catchy opener “I Want More” and “She’s Having a Baby,” a song Wakeling
wrote for the John Hughes movie of the same name. Several years later, he
teamed up with Ranking Roger for the General Public reunion disc, Rub it Better. Although he hasn’t
released any new music recently, Wakeling remains busy. Now based in Los
Angeles, he tours the States incessantly with a new version of The English
Beat. And unlike many bands, the fact that he is the only original member
hasn’t affected their sound much. Wakeling was, after all, the “voice” of the
Beat in more ways than one. “It’s really nothing to do with us anymore,” he
says. “It’s to do with the fans. If they want to see us perform, I think it’s
the fucking least we can do.” And if the show I caught recently at New York’s
Irving Plaza was any indication, the fans definitely still want to see the band
perform.

 

Before the show, I had a
chance to speak with Wakeling backstage. An open and charismatic guy, he entertained
my friend Anuja and me with tales from back in the day, political theories and
info about English Beat songs past and present.

 

***

 

BLURT: Last time I spoke with you, Obama [had] literally just started his term.
Now that it’s two and a half years later, where you think America stands right
now?

DAVE WAKELING: Well,
considering the extent of the world’s financial crisis and the extent of the historical
level of obstructionism in the Congress, I’m amazed he’s done as well as he
has. I mean, I think he’s been treated fairly disrespectfully – a lot more
disrespectfully than he would have been if he was white.

        However, I don’t know whether the
crisis is one of imagination and more than any one politician could get his
head ’round anyway. What really worries me – Osama bin Laden used to do
speeches, right? You’d see it on the news but all they’d ever tell you is
whether they could verify whether it’s actually him. They’d tell you next to
nothing about what he’d actually said! But there was a really scary theory that
[bin Laden and company] understood there was no way that they could beat us
militarily. However, his opinion of us was that we were arrogant and that they
could wrap us into wars that we 1) could not win and 2) would not want to leave
until we won.

        So you do worry about that. Like I
worried about my Dad as he watched the sun go down on the British Empire. He
was born at the time where England thought it owned between a third and half of
the world and it was very hard for him to get rid of that notion – even when we
didn’t own England anymore! And I hear echoes of it here. Empires come and go.
They peak and they wane and it may be that that’s what’s happening in America.

        I think that the two [political]
extremes are becoming louder as they become more distanced from the society
they’re complaining about. And in the middle, there’s a huge load of people who
are just saying, “What do we have to do to make this work?”  More ironic, I find, like in Ohio you’ve got
people marching for collective rights for unions – including the police unions
– and just down the road, the police are beating the demonstrators up!
“Alright! Are we in this together, brother, or what?”  (laughs
maniacally
)

 

What new music have you recorded in the last [couple
of] years?

I have plenty of songs
started, some smashing songs. I have beautiful drums, backing arrangements,
keys. Just some guide keyboards and guitars and vocals. [But] I have to start
deciding what to do with them. I’m not particularly keen on albums.

 

You’re an EP fan, aren’t you?

I like EPs, yeah, and I don’t
know whether a full album is the way to go. I have a couple of publishers that
are interested in songs. I’m more interested in working with them and finding
places where I can license the song, finish it off and let it get a bit famous
as a working song. But then only really bring out an album if I’ve got a
collection of greatest hits, you know? Just bring out the songs that have
already done good business elsewhere but haven’t been available on record.

        It’s a difficult one because a lot of
my fans, when they buy music they want something they can hold. It doesn’t feel
like a complete transaction to them if they just download something [and] they
don’t have a sleeve and all that sort of thing. So they’re not a great bunch of
downloaders and I don’t know where there’s any record shops [anymore].

        Too many of my ‘80s buddies, they talk
for ages and ages. “Oh, new album coming! New album coming!” You hear that for
a few months and then about three weeks after the release date, nobody’s
talking about the album and you get a sense [that there are] boxes full of them
in the garage! So I think it would be smart not to do it like it was 1981 and
hope that it’s still the same. ‘Cause it’s not. So I’m thinking that’s probably
the best thing to do, to license tracks and do EPs that I would sell at shows.

 

Are [the new songs] similar stylistically to the older
stuff?

Some of them very much are,
yeah. I’d say at least half of them sound like early English Beat and the other
half is Dave the balladeer. More like the third Beat record or some of the
medium tempo songs on the General Public records. [There’s] a nice ballad
called “Said We Would Never Die,” which is a bit about relationships dying but
it’s also about people I’ve known, including parents and stuff like that,
dying. And the way life changes after that.

 

Can I ask you about a few [older] Beat songs?  What led you to cover Smokey [Robinson
with] “Tears of a Clown?”

We had about five songs –
maybe six – and we were trying to blend a punk edge with a reggae edge. We were
trying to get Velvet Underground meets Toots & the Maytals – with Van
Morrison. It was like six different spheres and they’d overlap for a bit and
there would be this beautiful ellipse and we were all more or less in the same
place [and then] somebody’d be off on their own tangent. It went on for a few
weeks and Everett, the drummer, said, “Why don’t we go away and learn a song
that we all know for next Tuesday and play that one?” We said “Okay.” But it
took 10 or 15 minutes to find a song that we all knew!

        “Tears of a Clown” was the first one
everybody in the band knew. We learned that one and we’d play “Tears of a
Clown” and play “Mirror in the Bathroom.” We’d play “Tears of a Clown” and play
“Click Click.” “Mirror in the Bathroom,” “Big Shot,” “Tears of a Clown,”
whichever it was, you know? Until slowly the ellipses started to fall together
and actually hold for about three minutes. And once we got seven songs, David
Steele said that one gig was worth a thousand rehearsals and we had to do a
concert. We started taking any gig we could get. Sometimes the reggae songs
would go down great, sometimes the punk songs would go down great. But every
single night, “Tears of a Clown” went down great!

 

Tell me about “End of the Party.” [That] wasn’t a huge
hit but I loved it.

It came from a real situation
but it sort of got extrapolated out, as things often do. It’s about
prevarication, really. When you’ve got situations you need to handle, people
are like, “Oh no, we’ll do that later.” “No, let’s do it now, let’s seize the
moment, ‘cause there isn’t really a ‘later.'”

        I’d just moved to the Isle of Wight
[and was] living by the ocean for the first time. I could see the ocean out my
window and the horizon was amazing to me. It just gave [me] thoughts of eternal
things because you can’t really see the end of it. And I think that’s what that
song was about – wanting to seize the moment. It was one of those songs that
you would just play over and over to yourself. 

 

Tell me a little about “Stand Down Margaret.”

That was fairly overtly
political, although it wasn’t “stand down” as in “resign” – although that would
have been a decent option – it was more “stand down” as in “get off your
soapbox.” [Margaret Thatcher] was one of the most dangerous types of
conservatives, that had grown up working class and developed airs and graces to
pretend that she was of the middle
class. So that makes them all the more cruel, you know? She was just a grocer’s
daughter from Nottingham but suddenly acting as though she was Lady Thatcher –
which, of course, she did become. Now, how wonderful, she’s got Alzheimer’s and
doesn’t even remember she was Prime Minister. How convenient is that? But we’re
still here and we remember.

 

One more: “Mirror in the Bathroom.”

About going to work on a
construction site, a little bit drunk the night before. Forgot to hang my
clothes up to dry and didn’t realize until 6 o’clock the next morning when it
was time to hit the shower and my jeans were still wet and covered in sand. And it was a snowy day and I gotta go to
work on a motorbike. [I was] feeling really bleak, had a bit of a hangover.

        So I decided “Okay, get your clothes,
hang ‘em up in the shower. At least hot and wet is better than cold and wet.”
So I had the shower on, steaming the clothes and shaving in the mirror. And I
just started talking to myself. I was like, “Dave, we don’t have to do this.
It’s just me and you in here. The door is locked as you can see. We don’t have
to do this.” But of course we did ‘cause we needed Guinness money for the
night.

        So it started to amuse me on the
motorbike as I was missing the patches of ice. But by the time I got to work, I
was like, “It’s a brilliant idea but you can’t have a song called ‘Mirror in
the Bathroom.’ That sounds really stupid.” Anyway, one thing led to another and
by the time we got to New York, two or three years later with an album out,
everybody was convinced it was about cocaine – which we’d never had the money
for!  (laughs). It certainly wasn’t about cocaine when it was written! And
to this day, people think that’s what it’s about. Some people anyway. [But] it
was about being so obsessed with your own self-image that you lose [your]
connection to the rest of the world. The more you obsess about yourself, the
more distant everybody feels, so the more lonely you become. Do that long
enough and you drift gently into mental illness!

 

What are some of the other members of the band doing
now, like David [Steele] or Saxa?

I saw Saxa a few weeks ago in
Birmingham [England]. He’s hale and hearty. He had been sick but he beat it and
recovered. I took my 18-year-old son over and I left him and Saxa alone for
about half an hour. I said, “Saxa, put him straight like you did me.” At the
end of half an hour, my son said, “He’s a genius!”  I was like, “Duh!” He just has a wonderful way
of being able to [cut] to the chase.

       He has a problem with one of his pinky
fingers. He’s got a tendon that’s got tight [and] he could have it cut to free
it off, but there’s an outside chance that he could lose some feeling [in it].
He’s terrified ‘cause that would mean the end of the saxophone. Nice problem to
have when you’re 85!

 

Didn’t you tell me that every time he played the sax
he [felt he] was talking to God?

That’s what he said. He had
to leave school early to help his Dad on a fishing boat. Stabbing barracuda was
his first job! So God had apologized for his lack of formal education on his
way out of school, he said. [God] told him to build a bamboo flute and said any
time he played it, that was his direct line. If anybody wanted to dance while
he was doing it, that was fine. They could even record it. But as far as he was
concerned, he was talking to God and God was talking back! (laughs)

       [Drummer] Everett [Morton] and Roger are
still working together [in England] and they call it The Beat. I like my vocals
better than Roger’s. I think I’m about as good a toaster as he is a singer.
Everybody has their role. I tried to invite him to work together a few times
but he’s basically resistant. So I’ll probably stop trying at this point….
Having watched The Specials electrify crowds while they were destroying each
other backstage, I don’t think I wanna go through that. Sometimes musicians
stop working with each other for a reason.

        David and Andy I don’t think tread the
boards anymore.

        The first person we ever met who played
[a specific] instrument became the player in The Beat. We never met anybody
else. And from the moment that happened, you had a sense of, “Well, this might
be a magic moment. ” [But] magic moments don’t last forever. So three records
was pretty good, I thought.

 

 

[Dave Wakeling photo by Bryan Kremkau. Go here to
check tour dates
for the English Beat – a spring tour starts Feb. 12 in Austin
with Fishbone and Outlaw Nation]

 

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