By TOM CHESEK
Well, they say you never forget your first time, and for this “celebrity web journalist” the interview subject that popped our celebri-cherry, way back in the skinny ties ‘n buttons 1980s, was probably The English Beat, one of a handful of great and hyperkinetic 2 Tone second-wave ska bands who came roaring fullstop out of the seedy cityscapes of post-Pistols England at the end of the 1970s.
We’re dating ourselves something awful here, but to a young clubgoer haunting the old Fast Lane in the wake of the Punk era (and on the cusp of the MTV era), the partystarting sonic bounce put forth by multiracial bands like The Specials, The Beat and the funloving yobs in Madness was something exotic and alien — rooted in sounds that had little point of reference to American ears — but at the same time relevant to the age in some vaguely ominous way. As if these guys knew something we Yanks couldn’t quite grasp just yet.
Fronted by blond, white Dave Wakeling and plugged-in toaster Ranking Roger(with 1960s veteran reedsman Saxa and a couple of guys who would go on to co-found Fine Young Cannibals), The Beat would find themselves re-branded The English Beat when some confusion arose with the powerpop combo The Paul Collins Beat. All confusion dissipated when the stylus dropped on the spiral scratch, however, as the boys from Birmingham exploded off the line with their first album and singles — a set of tracks that included the sinister groove of “Mirror in the Bathroom,” the caffeinated drive of “Ranking Full Stop,” and some surprising reinterpretations of chestnuts by Smokey Robinson and even Andy Williams.
The band’s charter lineup was on its third and final album by the time we were publishing a (long defunct) local music rag called Pipeline out of downtown Long Branch; in the middle of a tour that took them to the (equally long defunct) Fountain Casino nightclub in Aberdeen. We’d already been honing those interviewer skills with a variety of suburban hopefuls — including some guy from Parlin named John Bongiovi — but when these cross-the-pond blokes from The English Beat consented to talk to us, they instantly conferred a sense of legitimacy upon our pathetic little project that was as satisfying as their string of alternative-rock classics, from “Save It For Later” to “Too Nice To Talk To.”
Both Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger would go on to continued glories with post-ska supergroup General Public; split up, reform and eventually recombine into two equally ranking (but not necessarily rancorous) Beats covering opposite waterfronts of the Atlantic. It’s the Wakeling-led American edition of The English Beat that returns to the Stone Pony on Thursday night, headlining a Spring Skaward Tour that further features Angelo Moore’s 2010 lineup of his great 80s ska-lark Fishbone (of “Party At Ground Zero” fame) and Louisiana toastmasters Outlaw Nation.
Wakeling, who’s lived in California for more than 20 years (and whose extra-musical endeavors have included a family, a gig as a kids’ soccer coach and a serious stint working for Greenpeace) called in from Philly, where the Beat bus was just a couple of dates away from the herringboned hardwoods of the Asbury boards. Red Bank oRBit has the transcript on this legendarily affable interviewee — and rather than save it for later, simply Continue Reading.
RED BANK oRBit: Seems it was just about exactly one year ago that you passed this way previously; in fact it seems like every time we see it’s winter. Doesn’t that make for a rough time on the road for a guy who moved to the States for the sunshine?
DAVE WAKELING: So far things have held out well on the Spring Skaward Tour. We haven’t had as many problems as you might think touring in the winter — I think we only missed one show ever due to the weather. And this is actually a favorite time of year for agents and venues who are looking for shows to book into the clubs.
Another thing that I must give you credit for is maintaining the ska band lineup of five, six, seven people. It surely can’t be economical to travel that way, but it makes for a fun show.
We always seem to end up with a seven piece, even if I’ve resisted the “ska band’s graveyard,” which is the big horn section! It’s tempting, but it does get expensive; we do very well with the saxophone. We have to be budget minded; there’s a recession on, and you’ve got to keep your prices low. I enjoy it more really, with the lineup we’ve got.
I gotta touch upon this topic diplomatically, but as far as what you’re doing here in the colonies, with the American English Beat, versus what Roger’s got going on in the UK, do you guys have at least a formal handshake agreement not to step on each other’s turf?
There are actually two other English guys in the band besides me — Wayne the bass player, who’s from Coventry, has been with me since back in General Public. And our toaster is from London, so that’s three out of seven; not bad!
As far as Roger’s band, things started off well between us — although we hit a few snags at one point when the guys representing Roger tried to book an American tour. But it would be fun to get together, it’s just that Roger at the moment is reluctant to tamper with what he’s got going there. Always never say never, though — unless you’re saying never say never!
It seems that you’ve been able to build up a nice thing here; a popular live act that seems to pick up new fans every year. And by focusing on your strengths with the live shows you’ve been able to circumvent a lot of the weirdness with the corporate music industry. So do you see a lot of the Do It Yourself attitude of the late 70s reflected now in the current climate, of bands taking the reins of their own careers?
Ah, the music industry! You know, for a while there I felt like all I had going was live work, while other bands were getting the record contracts — and then the collapse happened, and the thinking became that the only secure artists were the ones with a good live following. So I guess we dodged that cleverly.
I’ve been offered record deals, and I’ve done some demos, where people have told me they ‘hear hits’ there, although what exactly that means anymore I’m not sure. It’s still amazing how the industry has been turned on its head in the past 30 years — sometimes I think of the days when the labels used to give you a quarter million dollars, but for the most part there aren’t many people who miss the old system.
I used to feel sad about the days when a hit single equalled a lot of album sales in the month right after that. I’d be autographing album covers for kids who probably just bought our album because all the other kids that week were buying it. You wondered if you’d ever see that person again. So, this way could work for the better, with bands able to identify who their real fanbase is.
We’ll probably start recording in the springtime; get a few tracks completed, then a full album maybe by the end of the year. As far as the do-it-yourself thing, all I really want to be doing is writing songs; I never fancied getting up in the middle of the night to phone some German distributor. I don’t want to spend my life selling records!
Here’s a question I’ve been wanting to ask you — particularly since you’ve worked a lot with kids and teenagers, in Greenpeace and as a soccer coach. What’s your take on the whole Paul Green School of Rock thing, this process of instructing young kids to play note-perfect renditions of what I guess you’d call the classic rock canon?
I’m opposed to it — because I’m opposed to musical education in general! They talk about putting music back into the schools; that’s the last thing you wanna teach. It takes away all sense of individuality, you know? I have no problem introducing kids to Led Zeppelin, and the best of Black Sabbath, but you don’t want to get in the way of their own ideas.
I’m self-taught — one time I was talking to this guy about the song ‘End of the Party;’ he was talking about how I throw in this surprising chord; how the chords keep moving — but if I’d had music training, I would’ve corrected that. I would never have done a lot of the things I wound up doing.
I’ve got a couple of teenagers at home; I walk past their rooms and hear the music they like coming out of their computers and I say thank God these kids are using their imaginations; exploring things on their own instead of having it force fed to them.
We have Guitar Hero at our house, and the guitar never even made it out of the box. The kids just got into the singing and the drum parts — its actually a great way to learn those things — so that’s a musical education right there.
Well, I’m sure you’re aware that you’ve helped inspire a third and even a fourth wave of ska bands out there; every couple of years you’ve got a bunch of new ska fans — not just following the newest bands, but the Two Tone scene as well. And you guys, the Specials, The Selecter put forth some of the most infectious party music ever, with some of the darkest subject matter at the same time.
There’s something inherently upbeat about it, this happy Caribbean lilt, although I can safely say that the Beat started with the music of oppression. The people who developed this music had to put up with lives of deprivation, and given the reality of what things were like in England in the 70s, it’s what my life felt like at the time. It combined an upbeat spirit with a downbeat lyric, and I rather liked the happy/sad message.
I have to confess that one of the first of your tunes to hook me was your cover of the Andy Williams song “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” — I grew up hearing old easy-listening around the house, and that song always stood out from the elevator music pack. I was just blown away when I heard you guys tackle it.
Yeah, that’s such a classic — I just love the way he did that song. I’m thinking for a followup I should do “Elusive Butterfly of Love.” Wouldn’t that be great? Elusive butterfly of ska or something… (laughs)
Changing gears for a moment, I wanted to ask you for some thoughts on someone with whom you worked closely on a couple of projects, who passed away last year — John Hughes.
We were good mates for a while, but I never saw much of him after the times we worked together. He was a huge music fan, with this enormous room of music, all organized to his own system. You’d call out Tears for Fears and he’d go right to it and find it. When we worked together on She’s Having a Baby, we’d be writing the lyrics like we were playing chess by mail, passing this paper back and forth. We were both fathers of young kids by that point, and we brought in our own experiences, that manly sentiment. We both liked kids, and I really liked him.
Without having gone that route of becoming a cheesy children’s singer, you’ve managed to maintain this honest, no-bullshit ability to speak to kids, both through your music and just life in general…
I guess when you’re a musician, you learn a sense of immediacy on stage, and that sort of puts you on the same page as kids — you can stay in a conversation with kids when you think like that. Now I like living with kids, but after a while you don’t do certain things together anymore. My son, for instance, is 17 years old and six-foot-four, so I wouldn’t dare play soccer with him! (laughs)
Another thing you don’t seem to do anymore is the “Smile Train” feature of your live gigs, where you would take paid requests from the audience and donate the money to sick children and such.
The Smile Train thing became more difficult as the gigs got bigger — it was easier to get that connection established with a crowd of 200, 300 people; you made more money that way than you did with 1500. But it was hard for anyone to find anything wrong with Smile Train, even in the politically polarized atmosphere. You fix a kid’s face for $250, who could have a problem with that?
Well, you’re still very much involved with global warming, environmental issues; something that hits home for all of us here on the Shore — even cutting across the political static like few things do.
I did a huge Haiti benefit; there are few things that have touched me as much as that in recent years. But I was always keen on environmental issues, and it seems to me that so long as the other side can stretch the game out, they can make a bit more money for themselves. But what’s really interesting is that the concepts of ecology and economy are intrinsically connected — the words come from the same Greek root, from The Home. And in some ways the interests of the industrialists and the interests of the environmentalists are starting to converge.
I just wonder now whether the past sixteen years was really our one opportunity to make some kind of a difference, and whether now it’s too late. By the time we figure things out, there’s really no time to retool. I think the planet will find a way to bounce back; it just might not involve us! The earth’ll shake us off like fleas.
You’ve never been shy about your opinions, and I’m wondering how you, in your resident-alien mode, see how it’s headed here in the States over the next few years of this interesting interlude.
You know, I’ve been here in America for 20 years, and I believe that America is more adept at dealing with changes than most of the old entrenched societies. I’m fascinated by what’s going to happen in the next few years, since it reminds me so much of England when I was growing up. I just remember my father and how he struggled with the death of the British Empire; this place where the sun never set, and how he wound up being the last white guy on his street, in a neighborhood of people from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The challenge for this generation of kids is to be twice as happy, on half as much as their parents had. You’d do better teaching that to them than School of Rock! (laughs)
Well, it’s been great catching up after all these years — I’m just a bit peeved that you seem to have aged maybe two weeks at the most, whereas I now look like my dad…
No, every morning when I get up I see my father lookin’ back at me in the mirror! I even wrote a little rhyme about it:
Sad as it’s sick, sick as it’s sad,
When you look in your mirror, and see your dad.
Everything’s sad, everything’s sick,
When everything’s hard, except…your will to live! (laughs)