Interview with Dave Wakeling of The English Beat
On March 24 , 2011, The English Beat (known elsewhere in the world as The Beat) visited St Louis to headline a 21+ show at Blueberry Hill. You may best remember them for the late 70’s/early 80′ hits “Save It For Later”, “Mirror In The Bathroom”, “Hands Off…She’s Mine” and “I Confess”. These musicians are well into their third decade of performing (both with The English Beat and other projects) and are still drawing devoted crowds to enjoy their unique, sociopolitically charged blend of reggae, soul, new wave and pop. During their visit to St Louis, interviewer Angie Knost spoke with English Beat singer and guitarist Dave Wakeling about how touring has changed for him over the years, his preturnatural role as Ska-strodomus, playing the musical Carl Jung mass consciousness game and a whole lot more. The subjects of blacksmiths, catheters, and the long reaching effects of 80’s era trickle-down economics also came up without any contrivance at all. Read for yourself….
Angie: I saw you perform about two years ago here in Saint Louis, with Reel Big Fish. That was a great show.
Dave : It was nice playing with them, because we got to play to a set of fans that hadn’t seen us before. Our shows tend to be 21 and over, beause the promoter wants to make the money on the booze, and so we haven’t played that many all ages shows, and so it was great a opportunity. We got some wonderful comments, [from] people that never actually heard of the group. That’s always a surprise when you find that out [laughs]. A young guy in Atlanta says to me, “‘ ‘Scuse me sir, I never heard of y’alls, but y’alls great.” [Note this is an Englishman attempting a Southern drawl, which comes out sounding pretty hilarious].” Thank you young man… I think?” [heavy laughter from both] And the enthusiasum of the young fans is remarkable, isn’t it? We had one young Asian guy in a blue t-shirt, I remember, who managed to get on stage four times in a song… I thought, God, if you could bottle that energy and channel it towards world peace! You know what I mean? There’d be no need to have a U.N. So I liked that very much. I talked to Reel Big Fish a lot about that, how to channel that fabulous, explosive energy of their fans. It’s a positive direction, and that’s what they’re about . I like them for that.
Angie : So how long have you been on tour in the U.S. this time?
Dave: About 28 years, more or less. Yeah.
Angie: Oh, since the beginning?
Dave: Haven’t stopped, haven’t stopped. This is only the fifth show of this particular run. We tour about 17 or 18 shows in a month. Then we tour 8 shows at home the next month. This is the fifth show of 18 shows. That way we mange to do about 150 shows a year, but we’re home every other month, all week. So, we get to see people who have the same name as us and recognize us, that sort of thing. We never get burned out, because we’ve never got more than 3 weeks on the road at a crack, you know. It’s tough though; we’ll be doing 18 shows in 22 days, with only 4 days off. We don’t mess about. Mondays and Tuesdays you have to [take off] sometimes; people will not come out. Who would? I wouldn’t. It works pretty well for us that way. We can keep it kind of fresh, and we can get ourselves around the country in a decent order, most places, once or twice a year. We never overdo anything, so we never get bored of each other’s company. We never get bored of being on the road. And we never get bored of being at home, because whatever it is that gets boring, in two weeks time it’s going to be the other. [laughs] Perfect. Works perfect for me.
Angie: It sounds like you all have a really good chemistry, especially for being together for so many years…
Dave: We’re lucky, because when we started up again, we we’re just back in a van. We had to learn to get on with each other in that van. So that helped. That rubbed a lot of rough edges, you know? Like river rocks. And so now, we’re in a bus, and it’s quite good because we’ve already learned to cope with each other in a much smaller space than this. And in a bus it’s almost luxurious, where you can get to the point of missing each other, kind of.. You know?
Angie: Yeah, that’s nice.
Dave : We’re a pretty sober bunch, compared to how things use to be. Well, I am, anyway. And that makes it easier, too. So we tend to save most of the drama for the stage… Save most of the energy for the stage, and actually have the concerts as the most important event of the day. Which it didn’t always use to be.
Angie: Yeah, I was going to ask about those early days…
Dave: The concert was sometimes just a short noise in the evening that got in the way of the party. It didn’t last long, normally. [laughs] But now it’s the whole raison d’etre . How well can we do these songs? How well can we connect? How much fun can we have whiles we do it? And so it’s taken us 30 years to learn the obvious, really.
Angie : It seems like there are quite a few bands, in the Ska genre, so to speak, of all genres, that seem to have a lot of longevity.
Dave: Does seem, doesn’t it?
Angie: There’s not a turn over of where it’s ‘out’ or where it’s ‘ in’…
Dave: Well, it’s never been so in that it falls fully out. I think that’s what it is. It seems to go in waves. There was a third wave with No Doubt and all that lot. And then there seemed to be a fledgling fourth wave. I’m going to see how that one turns out. The beat of the music is uplifting, so it’s great for depressed times. And it has a history in ska, same as in punk, bringing clarity to social issues. In a way, to sing about the world, about whats really going on outside everybody’s window. So that suited us, as well. We wanted to do that, as opposed to punk, where you can get kind of angry all day about it. That was hard after a few years. This was a way of protesting and smiling at the same time, and enjoying life’s ironies, as well. There’s much of which to enjoy isn’t there, watching the news now.
Angie: Yes, very different times.
Dave: It really is. We could headed towards the end, by the looks of it, I think. But we thought that in 1979 as well. We were convinced the world was going to end. We couldn’t see that America and Russia were going to keep their hands off the buttons much longer, and that England was right in the way. A book came out in’79 called “The Third World War” , which we were very excited about. I bought it, and it starts with a bomb going off a mile away from my house. I’m like, “You’re kidding me.” What? The first bomb of the third world war goes off above Winson Green prison in Birmingham!? Taking out all the industrial communications systems for Britain? I was like, “Oh my Lord.” So this was the background of us. And it was written by some old general guy. This was the most likely scenario, he thought, how it all would roll out. So we thought this is our last chance to dance, really. We’ll either have a dance that will cheer enough people up that somebody will think of a way of steering us out of this, and we’ll avoid the axe of the Armageddon, or it’s coming down the pike and there’s nothing we can do, and we’ll have a dance before we die. And I’m afraid 30 years later, the situation has not changed one bit. [laughs] Seems to be coming a bit close, isn’t it? Some of the songs we wrote 20, 30 years ago, some of the lyrics are starting to resonate as though they’ve been written about now. Selected circles are calling me Skastrdomus. [laughter from both] So apparently, it’s a lovely time to travel the country, do songs and be a troubadour. You can spend the whole of your life thinking the sky is going to fall in on your head, and eventually it is, but so what! Life is tragic, but it’s still beautiful. And we try to focus on the combination of those two. But in fact, if you can accept that life’s tragic, and stop pretending that everybody should be having a nice day all the time, that sort of stuff…accept that it is tragic. It does all end in tears. Then there’s more oppertunity for real joy in the moment. And that’s what we try to promote in our concerts. And so far it’s been going smashing. Really good.
Angie : It seems like ska concerts always have this party feeling in the air.
Dave : It’s just that basic uplifting beat of it, isn’t it? It’s funny because I don’t think it was so much a party music when it started. I think it was a music of survival. I think it was a beat people used to listen to instead of dinner, not after dinner, right? I think it was, and I think that’s why it has a nobility to it; that’s why reggae has a nobility to it. So there is a sense of joy, but it does take on board the fact that life is tough and tragic. And so ye should gather ye rose buds whiles ye may, or catch whatever smiles are available. Try to make whatever connection you can with the world, because it’s an awful cruel place, and we should stick together and have fun, whilst we can. That’s the way we go about it. It’s worked pretty well for us. We have an amazingly diverse set of folks in the audience, sometimes from [age] 16 to 60, and all different colors and fashion choices. We hardly ever see them fighting. Hardly ever see a punch up. And if one starts off, we usually say something, and it stops pretty quick. Just like that. It’s got a kind atmosphere to it. We try to play Carl Jung’s mass consciousness game, watch as it flashes over the audience, and they begin to dance and move in time with each other, but they’re not aware of it yet. We can see it on stage when it started. That’s probably the most exiting time of the show for me. Oh, Carl Jung is in the house, as they say. Then we know we’re there, we’re going then. [laughter from both]
Angie: Sometimes it’s like the ocean, the audience becomes like a wave.
Dave: Moves like one thing. The band and the audience and the song all become the same thing, and time stands still or the song seems to go on forever, or takes no time at all, both in the same concern. It’s magical. Very lucky, really, I suppose because people have had thirty years to weave some of my songs into the soundtrack or tapestry of their life, so it means a lot to them when they sing the songs along with us. And the stories they tell me why the songs mean so much. Lord, the things people have done to my music! [laughs] Bless them! Every little bit of life you can think of… births, deaths and everything in between. Really remarkable. And that’s the greatest honour I’ve had now, the last few years. Now I’ve reached this delicate legacy artist phase in my career. People just blow you away with the things they say. [How] your music, songs have helped them over the years and have become part of family traditions and stuff. You know, I like the money, the wild times, the wild women and the fast cars, all of that. That was exciting to do that, to be in a pop group. But it’s nothing in comparision to somebody saying that your songs have meant something to them for 25 years. That you can’t buy. [laughs]
Angie: Yes. I imagine that’s a priceless feeling.
Dave: For every thing else there’s Visa. [laughter] Yeah, it is. It’s fabulous. And it really helps me because I only wrote them because I felt distant from people. I felt socially isolated. I thought the world was mad. I didn’t think I was mad, I thought the world was mad, ever since I was twelve. Why are they killing each other’s children? It seems stupid, doesn’t it? I hope they’ll stop that by the time I grow up, won’t they? Yeah, of course they will. Not. Thinking about it just recently, the poor bloody children of Afghanistan. Could you imagine that? How many generations now some country’s had a go at blowing them up? Britain, Russia, America. So who’s go is it next? Why do people have a taste for Afghani children? It’s disgraceful, isn’t it? Disgraceful. Times in my life I wished I was dead so I wouldn’t have to look at it any more, you know? But anyway, I’ll bear witness. I’ve done half my sentence, over half my sentence probably. So you do what you can. The songs now, the new songs, it’s like, sod it, I don’t care if it sounds naive. If killing works, it would have worked by now. That’s the title of one of our new songs. It’s like, “duh”. It just appalls me…. And so it’s lucky for me; I get to be a troubador and sing about stuff like this.
Angie: You mentioned growing up in Birmingham [England]. That’s kind of a legendary place, musicwise. Can you speak to how that influenced you?
Dave: Well, it turned out it was Detroit. I didn’t know it at the time, but loads of music came out of there. The big bleeding heart of England, we call it. It’s the midlands, you know. The big bleeding heart of England….um… Led Zepplin, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Moody Blues [all came from that area]. And then around our time, all of a sudden within a two year period, UB40, The Beat, Dexie’s Midnight Runners and Duran Duran. It’s because it’s a dump. It’s a dump!
Angie: You think dumps breed good music?
Dave : You have to close your eyes and dream of something better! It’s an industrial city, like Detroit. And a post industrial city like Detroit, like everyone used to buy cars from there. Now they’re starting to make some cars again a bit. Jags and stuff like that… Jaguars. The motor trade had collapsed, and most of the rest of the industry was making bits of metal that went into cars anyway. So everything just sort of collapsed, just like Detroit did. But because it was an industrial and hard grafting city, and people had been squashed together, industrially, the people have got hearts of gold. Very funny and very kind. And a great sense of irony. I think that’s perhaps where the song writing and the musicality from the city came from. The crest of the city, which we use to laugh at, really, was a blacksmith. There’s a blacksmith on one side, then a shield, and then a woman standing holding this artist pallet with a paint brush. It was the combination of industry and artistry that was Birmingham, supposedly. And it was rough. [laughs] When I saw Detroit, [laughs] I was like ohhh… okay, I know why I grew up liking Motown, you know? I’ve seen this before. You know which streets not to walk down, with broken glass all over the road or a tire burning. Birmingham seems to be all poshed up now, on European common market money, but I don’t really know… I’m going to go back in April for the first time in a little while, and we’ll see what it’s like. I have a theory that I was right about Margaret Thatcher in the first place, that she was selling Britain by the pound and was going to break it’s heart, and I think she did. I think her and Ronald Reagan’s idea of trickle down economics is why we’re in the position we’re exactly in now, where the working class are going to have less of everything, because the bankers still got their bonus. Right? … It’s interesting, because in England, of course you have working class, middle class, who everybody hates, upper class. Here, you don’t have that. You just have “everyone wants to pretend they’re middle class”. And it’s difficult because it’s this collective bargining that’s allowed workers to raise themselves up out of the working class, to even call themselves middle class… But that’s the American dream, isn’t it? To be able to do a normal job, or to have a house and a car, and be able to buy those things, not rent them like they do other places. So it will be interesting to see what happens, because that’s what made America have a middle class or what they call a middle class, was collective bargining. So if that goes out the window, you’re back to a working class, and you’ll be back down with the rest of us. [laughs]
Angie: It’s a strange situation because there are no factories here to speak of; it’s [manufacturing is] mostly outsourced to foreign markets, so…
Dave: That’s right. It’s just service industries now. Everyone servicing each other’s debts. It’s very bizzare. Be interesting to see what the future might bring. I don’t know.
Angie: It seems like the steady work here will be waitress or waiter, or something in the medical field.
Dave: Yes, it seems like the new American dream now is like a clean, fresh catheter for each pee, right? [laughs] “I was getting infections and everything, you know. Not now, I got a clean catheter.” Oh my! [laughs]
Angie: You’ve seen those commercials, too.
Dave: “Diabetic and proud of it!”
Angie: The best one is the person that sticks theirself, then yells “AAAAAHHHHHWWW’ [laughter]
Dave: Yeah, that’s right. They have them in Harrahs now, don’t they? They have red sharp boxes in the toilets all over the place for diabetic, for needles [disposal]. There’s that much of it now. That’s odd.
Angie: That’s the American white bread, white sugar diet.
Dave: These are the same people who are against health care. “Get your hands off of my health care!” [laughs] Okay. Yes it’s odd, isn’t it?…
Angie: …Kind of scary.
Dave: It’s changed very much, just in our life time. I suppose everyone’s lifetime feels like that. I mean, I suppose my dad grew up where there was only horses, then died when horses weren’t allowed on the roads in Birmingham any more. “Hey get that bleeding horse off there!” [laughs] So he probably thought the world had really turned around. Same buildings are still here, but everything’s changed quite a lot, hasn’t it? Changed dramatically.
[A camera crew comes to the door to speak to Dave. Then someone summons him to join the rest of the band for a soundcheck before the concert at Blueberry Hill. It becomes apparent that it's time to wrap up this interview and allow him to stay on schedule].
Angie : Last question, what’s new on the horizon for The English Beat?
Dave : Going to England in April. Going to Canada in June. Going to do some recording in May and July. And hopefully, if I can find the time to get it all done, have an EP to bring out with us when we come on tour in August. I hope when we do, it will be with Ali Campbell for UB40. That’s my dream tour, and I’m hoping on that one. We’ll see if it comes off. I’ve heard there’s interest, so will see how it works. That’s what I’d like. That’s the plan. Should we survive. [laughs]