The ska’s the limit
The English Beat goes on
by Dave Kirby
We’re usually careful about getting well-tenured artists to open up about their glory years, since it’s often beating-a-dead-horse territory for them and can make for a dreary interview, but this time we couldn’t resist. Let us take you back to June 1983: a triple bill at Red Rocks featuring a little-known IRS Records band called R.E.M., the latest Malcolm McLaren toss-off from UK Bow Wow Wow and a headlining set from The English Beat.
R.E.M. nearly got booed off the stage by an acutely disinterested, late-afternoon crowd; Bow Wow Wow played their perfunctory hit (“I Want Candy”) bracketed by a handful of silly, costumed other numbers; and then The English Beat came on… and fairly blew the crowd out of their seats.
Dave Wakeling, guitarist and co-founder of the ska revivalist outfit from Birmingham, remembered the show.
“Oh yeah,” he laughed, “that was the one where our drummer fell off his chair. Lack of oxygen from the altitude or something. We had no concept of that prior to the show. We wondered what those oxygen canisters were doing backstage.”
Wakeling dives into his past with warm and grateful abandon. “I don’t mind talking about the past,” he assured us. “I’m lucky to have a past.”
As chief songwriter, guitarist and co-architect (with the inimitable Ranking Roger) of what was called in the UK The Beat, he talked to
us openly about the band’s now-legendary success spearheading the late-’70s ska movement in Britain, a crackling and energetic elixir of double-speed reggae, jumpy and danceable covers and rasta-rolled toasting, a distinctly bi-racial (“two tone”) artistic oeuvre at a time when racial animosities in Britain were becoming toxic.
Ska revivals come and go here in the States, but what The Beat and The Specials and The Selector did, via Two Tone Records, was imprint a time and place onto a musical genre that endures illogically over the decades, passed by countless other British
ephemera, vigorously robust and defiantly ageless.
“Yeah, it really was a product of the times, I think. There was a huge recession, lots of unemployment and there were a lot of forces in England that were setting people against each other. Blame the immigrants, that sort of thing. What Two Tone did, quite by accident, was bring people back together.
“I think it was Ronald Reagan who said that the key to being successful in politics and entertainment is luck, and we were very lucky. There were plenty of other Birmingham bands at the time who were as good or better than we were, but they didn’t make it onto the
Two Tone bandwagon.
“It all came out of our personal experience, and it went way, way beyond what any of us would have expected. I don’t think we really had any conception of it at the time. We were just happy to be in a pop group. We’d do interviews and the whole conversation would be about Thatcher, or Reagan, or Brixton. Hardly anything about the music itself.
“I think the whole punk thing just exploded a lot of walls, and there was a lot of dust in the air. Record companies were looking, cautiously, for the next big thing, and then it was ska. It was a kind of a golden era, in a weird sort of way.”
Wakeling has been quoted before as saying most bands only have three albums in them, and while we might take exception to that, it is true that The Beat were done after three big swings. Matured from a quirky, angular Birmingham club act into a broad, Big Statement pop group with sophisticated pop sensibilities and international hit singles, the band dissolved after the U.S. release Special Beat Service, which featured their biggest hits “Save It For Later” and “I Confess.”
“Yeah, just when we were really getting good. Same thing with The Specials. Just like that, it was over. The thing is, this was just before the video thing hit. During that time, you had to be a really good live band to make it; after videos took over, you just had to
But it wasn’t quite over. Roger and Wakeling reformed as General Public and put out a couple of albums, scoring hits with a Staple Singers nugget “I’ll Take You There” and a glistening bit of mid-’80s pop, “Tenderness.” We suggested there was something, though, that made The Beat records somewhat more enduring, even if the General Public offerings were a far sight better than most of the tweaky drek produced in the big-hair decade.
“We had a producer in The Beat, Bob Sargeant, who insisted that we use all these ‘classic’ instruments. When we had an organ, it had to be a Hammond. When we had a piano, it had to be a Steinway. It kind of pissed us off, because we were young and wanted all the new shit, but I think the result is that The Beat records have aged very, very well. They all sound like they could have been recorded anytime between the ’60s and the ’90s, sort of a classical rock sound, where the General Public records sound very much attached to the ’80s.
“In General Public, Roger started playing instruments. We had a keyboard player, Mickey from Dexys Midnight Runners, but Roger got himself a synthesizer and was doing all these one-note overdubs, tons of them all layered onto the songs, and it really started sounding like synth-pop.”
Roger and Wakeling eventually parted ways, with Wakeling moving to California, where he maintains The English Beat as a 150-date/year touring outfit. We recalled doing interviews with both alternately back in the late ’80s and early ’90s, each referring to the other through somewhat clenched teeth, a hint (rather than an overt bludgeon) of post-divorce bitterness, so we approached the subject about the two working together again with some trepidation.
“Yeah, I mean, we get on fine. He’s got The Beat over in England and I’ve got The English Beat over here. That’s the way we divided
it up, and generally it works.
“We did a few shows in England a few years back and they went well. I’ve approached him at least twice recently about doing something together, and the last time I think we were very, very close, until he cancelled at the last minute, somewhat embarrassingly. To be honest, I suspect it has to do with some of the people — agents, promoters and so forth — around him. They probably think they stand to lose if we work together again. I like to think we’ll get past that at some point, but I really don’t know. I have a feeling we’ll do something for The Specials’ reunion next year. I hope so.”
For his part, Wakeling is writing with his band and hopes to get a new record out next year.
“I’ve got a couple of new songs; really I think they’re about the best I’ve ever written. One called “We Said We Would Never Die” — about loss and hitting that mortality thing, which none of us ever really expects. It’s the great leveler, isn’t it? I think it came from all
the AIDS funerals I went to, and losing my mom.”
Not unexpected for a guy in his mid-50s, but still a far cry though from the party ’n politics hurly-burly from his early 20s.
“Oh, yeah. When you’re young, everything is black and white. When you get to this age, everything is grey, nuanced and ironic.
“And that’s on a good day.”
For More Info:
The English Beat performs with Outlaw Nation at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Dec. 11, at the Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver, 303-830-2525.