Critical Questions: Dave Wakeling
Keeping the Beat in motion.
The glory days of The English Beat's blissful blend of ska, pop, and rock are far from gone. With the release of The Complete Beat box set, deluxe reissues of all three original Beat albums, and a brand-new best-of, Keep The Beat, the band's bold sound breathes anew. Singer/songwriter Dave Wakeling is out touring across America right now with a revamped version of the band in support of this avalanche of Beat bounty, so we hailed him down to discuss the finer points of his group's ska-soaked story.
You've got a batch of new songs waiting to be released - will they come out under the English Beat banner or as a solo album?
I've cut the new songs out of the live set until somewhere in the fall and I will play the Beat game until that's done, and then I'll try and take advantage in every way possible [laughs]. There's been some conjecture, should it be an English Beat record because we've been touring as the English Beat for the last five or 10 years and everybody's accepted it, or should it be a Dave Wakeling record? I made 20 demos, and I gave them to people and said, "What does this sound like?" and they all went, "Duh! It sounds like The Beat!" So I will work on that angle, but there's been quite a lot of unpleasantness between the past members, so I'm happier just to release a song and let people enjoy it, I don't really care what the name is.
One of the key songs in the early Beat repertoire was "Twist and Crawl," which sports a pretty unusual lyric, what inspired that one?
The lyric was written [uncredited] by a friend of [Beat bassist] David Steele's. He said, "Oh I've got this poem," and I thought it was fantastic. David Steele was spitting out tunes, and they were all kind of the same sort of groove and vibe as "Mirror in the Bathroom" and "Twist and Crawl," sort of 2/2 rather than 4/4, and he had one of those that it seemed the "Twist and Crawl" poem fitted on. "Doors of Your Heart," I wrote that lyric with somebody else outside of the band [Colin Osborne], but in the main, apart from the obvious cover versions, they were in-house, with that exception.
Racial unity was a big focus for The Beat, both as a lyrical theme and in the causes you supported. How do you think things have changed on that front since the Beat days?
In certain sections of society you can say that there's been enormous social evolution. Go and walk around a city like Atlanta or Nashville or any number of places where there was a definite vibe in the air 25 years ago which has mellowed now, people seem to get along a lot better. I would say generally things seem to be improving in that regard. But it takes generations. Then the extreme part of it seems to be getting a little bit worse. These are frustrating times for people, and scapegoating is an old tradition. It allows you to express some of your anger or hopelessness by blaming it on some other people who are obviously doing it to you on purpose [laughs]. And that sort of feeds on itself, whether it's religious or whatever the flag is that's used. You don't know where that might lead - nowhere helpful.
I've heard that before Pete Townshend covered "Save It For Later" he called you up because he couldn't figure out your guitar tuning.
He phoned me on a Saturday morning, somebody said, "It's Pete Townshend on the phone." I said, "Yes, of course it is." I just thought it was a friend playing a joke...and it was him! "Hello, Pete Townshend here, I'm sitting here with David Gilmour," two of my guitar heroes from when I was a kid. So I had to explain it was my mistake and it [the tuning] was DADAAD, not DADGAD, and they laughed and said, "We were trying to break our fingers to get these chords [laughs]."
Is it true that you originally had a Velvet Underground kind of guitar sound in mind for that song?
I liked [VU guitarist] Sterling Morrison a lot. "Click Click" is in the same tuning as well, although "Save it For Later" ended up being prettier, less discordant than "Click Click," but it was around the same idea of a sort of droning guitar sound. And in my head, at the very beginning [of the band], I fancied the notion of the Velvet Underground playing alongside Toots and the Maytals. Those were some of the components that went into what became The Beat.
How did you end up working for Greenpeace after General Public split?
When I was a kid I wanted to be in a group, I wanted to work for Greenpeace, and I wanted to be a Buddhist Monk. It was very lucky really. In 1986 we'd done a show in New York with Suzanne Vega that was a benefit for Greenpeace and I got to meet some of the staff, including their media boss at the time. And he said "If you ever fancy doing something with us in the future, give me a ring." About two years later I had come to Los Angeles to make a solo record, and the record company had had some financial troubles during the process, and I sort of felt I'd come over and been promised the earth but was given dirt. Basically my little artistic heart was broken, I think. I phoned the guy up...he said "We're bringing out this [benefit] record that was released in Russia and in Europe, and they're bringing it out in America and Canada now, and we need someone who speaks green and who speaks record industry. But the job's in Los Angeles." I said, "That's exactly where I'm calling you from." That was ‘87 I think I first came over here, and it was ‘89, ‘90 that I first started working for Greenpeace, and I think I did it about four, five years.
What were some of the other projects you were involved in for them?
We made a solar-powered album, everybody had to think of something to do to promote the conversation about global warming and atmosphere and energy issues, and our department thought of making a solar-powered album, using a lot of the stars that had been on previous Greenpeace albums doing a live version of one of their hits, but recording it with solar power. And then I did stuff like [promotions involving] TV shows and posters - if somebody puts a Greenpeace poster up in a kids bedroom or something [on a TV show], then its there for the whole season of TV, every time they go into the kid's room, there's the poster. And all sorts of different benefit events and project proposals.
How did you move back into music after that?
Slowly but surely, my feet were itching for the stage, and I started doing shows but only at Greenpeace events. I performed as Dolph Whaleking. I had a hankering for this and it was growing, and I'd got some songs. I went to an Elvis Costello concert that had a Greenpeace table at it, and I'd been showing off, frankly, to my co-workers, "Yeah, I know Elvis, I'll introduce you." So I went backstage with them and introduced them, and he said, "Oh Wakeling, I could bang yours and Jerry Dammers' heads together!" "What?" He said, "Yeah, all this Greenpeace stuff, all the anti-Apartheid stuff, that's all well and good, but your place is on the stage, and you know it." And my friends giggled at it, "Elvis told off Dave, Elvis told off Dave." So I sat brooding in my office for a couple of weeks, and a guy asked me, "Would you be interested in doing a song with Roger as General Public for this movie [Threesome] that I'm doing the soundtrack for? Roger was up for it, and we did it ["I'll Take You There"], and it went to Number One on the dance charts. And that was it, really. I was back in.
What led to your reestablishing The English Beat?
I had a combo called Bang, it was just a four-piece band, it was sort of back to roots. The General Public album that had followed the success of "I'll Take You There" was a bit too much of a technological exercise for me -- too much programming, and banks of synthesizers. It sounded glorious, but I had to work like crazy to make the words fit to my own tunes. So I got this group Bang together, two guitars, bass, and drums. As the shows progressed, more and more requests, more and more of the Beat catalog, then the keyboards, then the saxophone, then I was back to the lineup of the English Beat configuration.
You and Ranking Roger are both leading bands playing Beat material on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Will you ever join forces?
It has always been the idea, but it's never actually come off yet. There's been a couple of invites. Roger said yes, but it never quite came off. Of course one of the complications now is, it's all well and good to say Dave and Roger are gonna work together, but then immediately everybody in Dave and Roger's band wonder whether they've got that week off [laughs]. But I think there's a chance that we might do some shows as General Public next year. That's my invitation at least, because if things are overly complicated trying to do anything with The Beat, then it might be better to do it as General Public and see how me and Roger get on with each other, working without it further complicating anything about our various Beat outfits.
How do you feel about the new generation of ska-rock bands you've influenced? There must be a percentage of your audience that overlaps with theirs.
The ones that have got really good songs were great and the ones that were just singing about being in a ska band were not as good. A lot of people came to see us like, say, with Reel Big Fish we did a tour, and then they [Reel Big Fish fans] would carry on and come see us when we did our own shows. So it's nice -- we've got various pockets of fans everywhere from the teens and early 20s up to 50s and 60s sometimes.
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