The name's familiar, but perhaps you
can't place them. The English Beat is a two tone ska revival band, who
gave us hits like “Save It For Later,” “Mirror in the Bathroom” and
“Confess.” Original member, lead vocalist and guitarist, Dave Wakeling
was there at the start of the group when it formed in Birmingham,
England in 1978. When the band broke up in 1983, Wakeling
formed General Public and did some solo work. In 2003, he reformed The
English Beat in the United States. Its current lineup is Wakeling,
drummer Rhythmm Epkins, bassist Wayne Lothian, toaster Antonee First
Class, keyboardist Ray Jacildo and saxophone player Matt Morrish.
Other members from the original lineup now play in its "twin,” The
Beat, in the United Kingdom.
I speak over the telephone with
Wakeling, as he relaxes on his balcony in Malibu. He begins our chat
by telling me about how The English Beat first came to be back in
"It was a mixture of the fortunate
climate and the geography in which we found
ourselves and the times we found ourselves in," Wakeling says. "Punk
had just finished or was still grinding its
teeth in death throes and people were
looking for something exciting. But they were looking for
something that was a bit less nihilistic because if you just
stayed awake for the last four or five years
shouting out that you have no future and
then it turned out that you made that come true, you were
looking for a different way. But there was still plenty of
anger to be had, things weren't right. The
punk revolution hadn't changed the world and
there was still much to be concerned about, but people were
sick of being angry and protesting. It was almost as if by
adopting that position of fury over band
things for so long it was almost as if they
got you playing their game."
"It was quite by happenstance (how we
formed). The person who played the instrument
was the first person that we met that played that instrument
that we asked to join the group. Me and Andy
(Cox, guitar) decided to start a group and
we put an advert in a local newspaper in the Isle of Wight
saying I wanted to 'shake some action,' after a song by the
Flamin' Groovies. David (Steele, bass) was
the only person who answered the advert, but
we didn't tell him that.
"We came back to Birmingham and David
got a job as a trainee psychiatric nurse,
which would prove to be very useful later on in
the pop career. He asked a nurse if she knew any reggae drummer and
she knew Everett (Morton). We met Everett the next Tuesday and
that was it, that was the four piece band."
Wakeling continues, "We saw Saxa playing saxophone in a bar that we
used to frequent and when The Specials asked
us did we want to make a single, we asked
Saxa to play on it and he never left.
"And then we were doing our first set
of shows, our residency in Birmingham,
Ranking Roger (vocalist) used to come along with some
friends of his from the punk club on the corner. In the main
part punks and masters were banned from
places, but where we were playing was a new
pub that was trying to build up any kind of clientele, so
he would bring people round to watch us play. He would get up
on stage and do his thing into the
microphone. He said could he join the group
and I said yes, if you can move that bass cabinet into the van
and he did."
I wonder if Wakeling writing process is
different when he works solo than when he works with the band.
"There's not a difference really."
Wakeling explains, "I might sit around with a head full
of ideas normally fueled by MSNBC or NPR on the radio or the
(BBC) 'World Service.' I'm interested in
current affairs issues and that sort of
things, they start to form patterns of human behavior and
eventually something happens and you start to feel so
passionate about that particular subject
that it spreads out into just feeling more
passion on a broader level. Then I find myself in the shower and
all of a sudden it's as though the water is playing music, it
starts playing a tune and words start coming
and the words go with the music. I get
really worried because I think I might enjoy it so much
that I'll lose all my short-term memory, sometimes you can jump
out the shower and it's all gone - oh my
heavens - jump back in the shower and see if
you can find it.
"I think it builds up in you until it
reaches a fever pitch and then it may be
something on a political level, it might be something on
the world stage or it might be a private moment or a personal
challenge or trouble, something just pushes you over the edge
point and everything you've been soaking in and all the little smart
one liners start dancing together and start crawling out of
mouth in order."
As my wont, I ask Wakeling about his
"I started singing as a very young kid
in choirs and things like that and I started
scribbling schoolboy poetry as well. I always enjoyed
singing and practiced trying to be Robert Plant when I was a
young teenager, so I developed my upper
range. He was a local boy made good, so he
was one of my first idols. Him and Ozzy Osbourne were the
two local singers who made it." Wakeling laughs, "I wonder
who's the more famous? I'd probably say
Ozzy's the more famous. More people around
the world probably know Ozzy Osbourne than Robert Plant, how odd is
that? The power of television or the power of Sharon.
"When I was about 12 my dad gave me a
guitar that he bought in a bar from a guy
who was selling a band's gear off the back of a wagon
because he said they hadn't paid him. I got this acoustic
guitar which neither of us knew how to play
and it was ambiguous, it didn't have a
scratch plate on it so you could hold it either way round and
it looked OK. For better or worse, I got a hold of it the wrong
way round and so ever since I've played the
guitar upside down and back to front.
"It's become part of my style,"
Wakeling goes on. "I'm not really left handed, well not
for that. I ended up making up my own guitar tunings because
nothing was working because I didn't realize
I was looking at all the books upside down.
So I made up my own tunings and just started writing my
own songs. I learned the chords for the guitar in time for the
third Beat record, but up until that point
I'd playing everything in my own tunings."
We discuss out free time.
"I spend a great deal of time on my
balcony mulling the world and my career and
all around me and I nitpick at my window boxes." Wakeling boasts, "I
have a superb array of at the moment, but
it's getting to be hot so some of it's
getting a bit stringy. I had it going all purple, yellow and
white for the (basketball) playoffs and I added a bit more gold
on the night of the last game and the Lakers
brought it home. I took a photograph and it
went up on Facebook.
"(I'm growing) flowers, mainly annuals,
it's a mixture of stuff. But it's growing
pretty well, the hanging plants are down to the floor
and the bigger ones are about a couple of feet high. I spend a lot of
time with a pair of tiny scissors trimming everything and I'm
wondering why I can't have any brown bits, everything's got to be
fresh and vibrant. It keeps me out of trouble and I sit there
with my Phone and my computer and then I
have an idea usually of something I've
forgotten to do - oh my god - and I quickly put the scissors
down and get on with that."
So what is the secret to The English
"Again it's something to do with
timing," Wakeling says. "The songs came out of a
recession in England, the late '70s/early '80s recession, which
was a historical sized recession with
massive unemployment and no great sense of
the future, we really did think it was over. So some of
those songs quite oddly have become quite pertinent to what's
going on now. People tell me, 'Wow, you
could've written that one on what's
happening now.' The funny thing, well it's not that funny, the song
'I'm Your Flag,' which is on the second Beat record, it has a
chorus that says, 'I ran into Northern
Ireland, ran into Afghanistan dying to
become a man, I am your flag.' Gosh, that's odd isn't it?
Afghanistan is just bubbling up again now. I've taken on the
guise, at least when I can get away with it,
of Ska-stradamous. I knew it was coming.
"Also I think, again it's the
recession, people want to be cheered up,
they want to feel upbeat for a night out generally speaking.
They've got enough angst in their lives right now without having to
pay to come out for it. Our music has always had an upbeat feel
to it even if the lyrics sometimes are
dealing with some of the bleaker or savory
aspects of life. The music, from a distance, is very uplifting
and makes people want to dance and smile. As long as you keep
the prices reasonable, that can be of great
value in a recession I think."
I ask if Wakeling has any other
projects waiting in the wings.
"This is it," states Wakeling. "It's
more than I can take on frankly. We did 170 shows last
year, I dare say it was the same again, and at the moment I'm
currently self-managing and tour managing. Sometimes you have
to wait until the sun goes down before you
can get the scissors out on the old window
boxes. The best thing about it now is that the plants have
grown so high, they're a couple of feet high, that I can walk
around on the balcony completely naked and
none of the neighbors has a clue- until they
read this interview. 'Hellooo!' I'll wave at them.
Wakeling worked for Greenpeace in the
'90s and produced the organization's album,
“Alternative NRG,” featuring REM, U2, Midnight
Oil, UB40, Annie Lennox, Sonic Youth and more. The effort was
recorded at 14 venues across the U.S. using
a truck powered by a solar panel array in a
trailer dubbed Cyrus. the album touted renewable energy and the
fears of global warming. I wonder how Wakeling feels about the
eco-awareness so prevalent today.
"Now it seems as though everyone is
catching on to the idea. I don't mean to say
that we were so ahead of our time, I think it always
takes about 15 years for thing that are on the cutting edge to
work themselves into the middle of society
where they can be taken on board to where it
makes financial sense to the rest of the system," says Wakeling.
"Let's just hope that those 15 years that
we've waited or wasted isn't too long. I
don't know, I'm not sure whether there is the time or the
will at this point to do much about it, but we shall see."
What's next for The English Beat?
"We've started recording some songs,"
Wakeling shares. "We've recorded the drums for the
first three songs and I intend to bring out a series of EPs
starting later this year and just bring out
a new EP every few months primarily to sell
at concerts. We've had a lot of people asking and
luckily, I think a lot of our fans are old enough that they
still like having a CD or a tangible item."
I ask for his take on CDs versus vinyl.
"The art seems as compressed as the
music. I can't listen to them as much as I
like them," says Wakeling. "I think the only people who talk to me
with great passion about playing music are
the people who play records."
Wakeling seems to have a perfect
afternoon on his balcony that could only be made better with a nice
glass of wine, I comment.
"I don't drink wine any more, I'm on
the wagon. I've been on the wagon for a few
years now so I don't have that escape any more, it's
a bloody shame. I've now become what's known as an 'alcoholic
voyeur,' I love to watch people get drunk,
especially women," laughs Wakeling.
We end our talk agreeing that a nice cup of tea will do just fine.