Dave Wakeling: An Englishman in SoCal

The politically outspoken English Beat front man is playing 140 shows a year and getting more radio play than he did in the 80s.

| Mon Apr. 21, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

It's difficult for Dave Wakeling not to laugh at his own jokes, and he tells them frequently. The gregarious founding member, singer, and guitarist for the English Beat, Wakeling is, at 52, a story teller; one who relishes in discussing the old glory days, his kids' soccer teams, and his current, rigorous tour schedule.

The 80s were good to Wakeling. He fronted one of the more accessible, pop-friendly English ska bands that were all the rage at the beginning of the decade. Then he fronted General Public, an even more accessible 80s pop band featuring former members of Dexys Midnight Runners and The Specials that landed a song ("Tenderness") in 1985's Weird Science soundtrack.

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Wakeling shifted gears in the 90s. He relocated to Los Angeles, got married, had two kids, and performed bar gigs on the weekends, up and down the Southern California coast. He coached his kids' soccer teams. He got a gig with Greenpeace. Then one night an old friend – Elvis Costello – told him to get off his ass and start playing music for real again. And that's what he's been doing since.

Mother Jones spoke with Wakeling in Austin, Texas just before a sweaty, packed-house, South By Southwest performance in March.

Mother Jones: How's the road treating you and the English Beat?

Dave Wakeling: We had two days off in New Orleans [last week], and we walked around to see what was left. The French Quarter looked relatively untouched. We were at Tipitina's, and it was okay, but a few blocks away it was like a bomb had gone off. There's a bit of a sadness over the place. And a lot of people we know in New Orleans who always come to our shows weren't there. They never came back. You don't have to drive too far before you see the city's real backsides, you know. Big piles of bricks, lots of "For Sale" signs.You know, people show up, drink their cheap Hurricanes, and pee in the corner of the street, but won't help them when the city is dying.

MJ: Do you view America's disastrous events like Hurricane Katrina from a British perspective or an American one?

DW: Well I've lived in Los Angeles, California for 20 years, so I am a dude [laughs]. Not like totally, but like partially. I've got two young kids who are now teenagers, but when they were little, I wanted to be around a lot, so I'd only play up and down the California coast. And then I was "Coach Dave" on the soccer team. I tried to help out with math homework. Although by the age of 11 you can't even understand the questions they're asking anymore.

MJ: Why did you move to California?

DW: I moved there in the late 80s to make a record, and never went back. I'd always really loved California, because from an Englishman's point of view, where it rains all the time, just to wake up and open the curtains and there's nothing but sunshine, it makes you feel like you're on vacation, and you feel optimistic.

MJ: So what's happening with you and the English Beat? What are you guys up to?

DW: We are basically troubadours. We play about 140 shows a year and the venues are getting bigger and bigger. Although I realized that it's harder to get out of the bars than it was to get in them. I had a bit of a reputation in Los Angeles as, you know, "he plays every bar," so you know it took a while to transition. I had to win a lot of medals back. But the band was really great, and 80s music radio became such a huge staple. I actually get more radio play now than when [English Beat and General Public] records came out. The 80s has become a big deal. And then there's a fourth-wave ska movement, championed by the Aggrolites, or West Bound Train and guys like that.

MJ: Ska originated in Jamaica, then there was the British Two Tone movement, and then a massive third wave in America in the 90s. You think there is a fourth wave happening now?

DW: Yeah. On MySpace, I noticed when people request to be friends with the English Beat, I look on their site, and I'll see the Aggrolites, West Bound Train, and Reel Big Fish. And in England, there's the Dualers, and Sonic Boom Six seem to be the new fresh flavor. And heavens above, vinyl is becoming fashionable again. Teenagers are buying [English] Beat vinyl on the internet. How sweet is that? I should have kept my old promo copies from back in the day!

MJ: And you have teenagers, now. What's their take on having a dad whose records are cool now?

DW: They like it. They are very pleased with it. They are both very musical. My boy is a terrific drummer and a programmer. He's making "dope beats" for all the white rappers on the west side. My daughter Chloe is a very good singer, and has got a vocal trio going. Last week, they were called Blow Bubbles Not Bombs, which I think is really good. Max can play all the beats in the Beat catalog. And it also helps me. I had one recalcitrant player on the soccer team years ago, and I couldn't get him to do anything. And then he runs by me, and says "are you really in the English Beat?" and I said "yeah, why?" and he said, "cool." And after that he was no trouble at all.

MJ: You've experienced ska go through many incarnations. You were in England during the Two Tone invasion, and you played all through the 80s, the LA bars in the 90s, and now the Beat is doing well again. What's your take on it all?

DW: I can link them all together. It comes in a post-punk period, or a post-angst period, where people still might feel a sense of protest, but they're sick of feeling miserable about it. I suppose reggae has always been a hopeful way to protest, and just because the world's tragic doesn't mean it's not beautiful. And so it seems to follow like that. This fourth wave seems to be a little like that too. Like, we're still mad, but we want to party, and we want to be upbeat.

MJ: Who from the original lineup is still in the band?

DW: It's just me from the original Beat lineup. Wayne, the bass player, was in General Public in the 90s. The drummer I've worked with the past 10 years. So me and the rhythm section have been together longer that I had been with the original lineup.

MJ: How did the English Beat get started, and why did you get involved?

DW: There was one famous club in Birmingham, Barbarella's, but aside from that, you weren't allowed in if you were a punk, you weren't allowed in if you were a Rasta. It was a strict Quaker town. There were strict licensing laws, so house parties became the way to go. We ran these parties with a DJ in opposite corners of the room. One would spin punk singles, and the other played 12-inch dub reggae tracks. We found that if you played a bunch of punk singles in a row, people would dance like crazy and then get worn out and go somewhere else in the house. And if you played reggae all the time, people ended up leaning against the walls and nodding their head. But if you mixed it up, the floor got more and more packed, and the energy from the two types of music seemed to feed into each other, and the adrenaline from the punk, and the seductive sway of the reggae seemed to fit together. Guys from UB40 would be there, Boy George used to come to the parties. And it was just a fabulous scene. So Andy, the guitarist, comes to me and says, well what if you could get the elements of both musics into a three-minute single, what would you have then? And it was like "ding!" And that for me, him saying that to me, was the birth of our punky reggae party.

MJ: So how did it all come together?

DW: They'd been blending punk and reggae in London, and the Clash had done some of that. Our take at the time was to try to get the catchiness of the Buzzcocks and blend it with things like the Dave Clark 5, Dusty Springfield, into short singles, like two minutes and 55 seconds, so you could sing it all day, no messing around, straight up. But we wanted the insistence of the Velvet Underground and the hopeful spirit of the bass and drums of Toots and the Maytals. We still thought, in the late 70s, that we were living under the fear of the mushroom cloud; like something could go off at any minute. Britain was becoming post-industrial, and there was massive unemployment. We did, in some ways, think that if we were going to die, we'd do it having a good ol' dance, and if we were going to do it, we were going to sing about some of the stuff that bothered us. But be able to do it in a way so that your heart is warmed over. That was the idea; to get peoples hearts open, get their feet going, and talk about some deadly serious shit.

MJ: You wound up working for Greenpeace. What did you do?

DW: When I was a teenager, I wanted to be in a group, or I wanted to work for Greenpeace, or I wanted to be a Buddhist monk. Those were the only three things I really wanted to do. I was doing some sort of soul searching in life. I had done a few Greenpeace benefit shows over the years, and a fellow in DC said if I ever fancied doing something for them, to give him a ring. So I phoned him. I ended up there five years. We got that Greenpeace table at concerts. We found a decent way to use celebrities, so instead of wheeling them in as star power, and they'd say the completely wrong thing in front of a bunch of cameras. So we talked to them about what they were really interested in and introduced them to campaigners, so they became more educated on the issues. In the early 90s, Greenpeace was having a really hard time getting any sort of hard news coverage on global warming. It was like, well, "the science isn't really in yet," or "it's too early to tell," things like that. So we decided to record live concerts using a solar generator-powered recording truck. We had solar panels on the roof, and all these big, deep cell batteries that they'd used in an Anarctic base that Greenpeace was dismantling. We made it like a mobile exhibition room about global warming and we used solar power to mix it, and when it was all done, we took the generator to the cutting plant and we mastered a CD.

MJ: What made you quit?

DW: My feet started itching for the stage again. I made a group up called the Free Radicals, and I called myself Dolph Waleking, and made up posters, and played at Greenpeace benefit shows, where they were signing inflatable whales to send to Japan or something [laughs] and I got a taste for it again. I went to an Elvis Costello concert in Orange County, and had been showing off at the office about how me and Elvis were such good mates, so I went backstage with about 19 Greenpeacers all hacky-sacking, and said "these are my friends from Greenpeace!" And he said, "I could bang yours and [Specials front man] Jerry Dammers' heads together. All this Greenpeace and anti-Apartheid work is all well and great, but your place is on stage, Wakeling." Seeing as it was his records I was playing going to work all the time every morning, hearing it from him, I said well I better do it.

MJ: What happened next?

DW: We tried a General Public reunion, but me living in California, and [Beat and General Public vocalist] Ranking Roger living in Birmingham, made it $10,000 just to get a rehearsal together. So that didn't work. I started off with a four-piece band called Bang, and the more shows I did, and the better it got, trying to play shows with bills that said "General Public, English Beat, Bang, Dave Wakeling," I just said fuck it: English Beat. And we'd get to the gig, there's a line around the block, and we did it, and it went great. So eventually Roger and I agreed that he would do shows in England as The Beat, and I would do shows over here as The English Beat, and if we ever wanted to tour either side of the pond, we would do that together. We've tried a few times, but it hasn't happened yet.

MJ: When you perform now, you do songs from your whole library?

DW: Yeah. And some new songs, too. We've got a dozen new songs. The idea is to release a series of EPs. I used to love EPs and would really fancy doing that. I can't really sit through 12 songs of any one band. Four is really all you need. Four good ones.

MJ: Well with iPods we click around like crazy, jumping from one artist to the next, it's like we all have ADD now.

DW: I never hear my kids listen to two songs from the same artist in a row.

MJ: Do you have an iPod?

DW: No. My kids have them, and I've listened to them. I think it sounds like crap. It sounds tinny and brittle. And it seems to be missing something. I think that's why so many teenagers are going out and buying vinyl. There's something missing in the sound. I don't find it as emotionally moving as vinyl. But I don't find CDs as moving as cassettes or vinyl either. Something about tape saturation. Something about analog warmth that doesn't recreate properly. We recorded the first Beat album digitally; it was the first digital album made in England, and we were so stunned at how clean it sounded that we actually ran a channel of white noise just to give it that sheen and ambience.

MJ: What are your long term goals musically? Where do you see things going?

DW: It's been very rewarding. Whether it's the 80s resurgence, or the 4th wave, whether it's that my guitar got stuck in the hall of fame two years ago; but I passed that line now, where, for better or for worse, I'm at least a legacy artist, as opposed to an old drunk guy that tells stories. And it's a thin line, let me tell you [laughs]. And I meet lots of people at shows who tell me, you're music has meant so much to me for 25 years. It helped me get through college, our first kid, our first wedding, our first divorce, the death of our mother; all sorts of stories that people tell me. And it turns out that although the glamour and the money, and fast cars, and the women, are all terrific parts of the pop business, but to have someone say your music has been a part of their life for over a quarter of a century, is just wonderful. It's stunning. We're going on a tour this summer with The Fixx. And lately we are regularly playing to over a thousand people. And this tour we'll be headlining in front of 2-5,000 people. We play for about two hours and 20 minutes. We'll play for 90 minutes, and then someone will come backstage with a list of songs they wanted to hear that we didn't play, and so we have to go back out and do it.

MJ: And what's your lineup now?

DW: We've got Sax, keys, drums, bass, two guitars, and everybody sings. It's like the Beach Boys of ska [laughs].

MJ: Do you have a rigid rehearsal schedule?

DW: We haven't ever had a rehearsal. One gig is worth a thousand rehearsals. If someone's joining up for a show, I ask them to learn all the parts of the record. And the moment they've learned them, I tell them to forget them, and they're allowed to play whatever fits with the rest of the band at the moment we're in. You know, we weren't in Jamaica in 1963, we were in Birmingham in 1979. So you've got to be true to your medium. And whatever it takes to connect with an audience and move the song, then that's the best thing to play. It's not a memory test, or a "how much can we make this sound like somebody else" thing.

MJ: So I know you're following the 2008 political campaigns, and that you're a big Obama fan. Why?

DW: I saw a speech he gave in Chicago. [looks at TV, and waves his arms, Obama is on the TV giving a speech], it was about politics and spirituality. It was a 30 or 40-minute speech, and I'm crying at 25 minutes, waving my fists in the air saying "yes, yes, that's my hero! That's what I've always felt!"

MJ: Why exactly does he speak to you?

DW: I think it's a higher moral cause, and also I think there's a pride of what a real American can be. I mean, I'm a transplant, but I've got American kids and an American wife, and when I go back to England I feel more like an American, the way I look at the world, is more from an American perspective at this point. I've traveled every state 30 or 40 times, and have met an amazing array of people, and I have found Americans to be among the most kind and tolerant people I have ever met. Considering, the amazing array of different languages, and cultures, it's really nothing short of miraculous. And I'm embarrassed that when I go back to England, people think we're animals. Dirty, bullies. And I'm like no, we're not like that. So I feel there's this real difference between the America that I'm visiting and the America as it gets projected internationally.

MJ: So where does Obama fit into that?

DW: What Obama says to me is the difference between those two visions. And I think he could make the America that is the inspiration for the world, rather than the threat of the world. An America we can be proud of, rather than an America to be embarrassed of. You know it's a sign, when you see American backpackers traveling abroad with Canadian flags on their packs!

MJ: What's the biggest issue in 2008 for you?

DW: Well I've noticed that the poll is pretty evenly split on whether we should leave the troops in Iraq or pull them out. We went in there, we totally fucking broke the place, I think we have some sort of responsibility to try and fix it and see if there's anything we can do about the 2 million or so people that got thrown out because of what we did. So I don't know that just leaving is good enough. You broke it, you pay for it. They shouldn't have gone in. I think it's too easy to say, good for you, now go and make your own country work.

MJ: Are you a US citizen? Can you vote?

DW: Nope. But I never voted in England either. I tried it once, but at the time, I was like, whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. And even with Obama, I'm sure there would be things I thought unfair or whatever. The rest of the rest of the world looks up to America. It's a shame we keep spitting in their eye.