The Beat goes on for ska icon Dave Wakeling
Robert M. Sutton
He is frozen in time, locked in an endless loop wherein the same images are on memory replay. He could have been another Sting, a handsome blond Englishman whose soulful melodicism was also given sharpness by the bitter ache of punk rock. In fact, most Americans received their introduction to him when Sting wore a shirt of his first band in the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” video. It was a ringing endorsement, a thumbs up originating from Mount Olympus. But Dave Wakeling wouldn’t find his greatest U.S. success with the Beat, known to Yanks as The English Beat. Instead, it would take a little “Tenderness” to awaken the General Public stateside. However, it is The English Beat that would solidify Wakeling’s longevity; to rock critics and music historians, it is his legacy. Remarkably, it is also his present and his future.
The ska explosion of the late ’90s, mostly due to the surprise multi-platinum blast of No Doubt, did more than just offer a sprightly respite from grunge’s depression. It opened youthful ears to the 2-Tone madness of the late ’70s ska revival in England, that jumpy, invigorating marriage of Jamaican folk music, calypso, jazz, and R&B. The English Beat was among the initial wave of post-punk acts to introduce the sound to Britain’s spikey-haired teens. Three decades later, Wakeling is touring North America with The English Beat, albeit with a different line-up.
To Wakeling, that The Beat would still be on anybody’s radar after all this time is a pleasant shock. Wakeling said that he “absolutely had no idea” that The Beat would stretch across the generational landscape. “We were very passionate about our songs but did not have a great deal of self-confidence,” Wakeling admitted about The Beat’s early years. Wakeling’s humble, bewildered acceptance of The Beat’s godlike status to its millions of worldwide fans is a tad startling, but endearing. He recalls listening to the late, legendary BBC DJ John Peel, the numero uno tastemaker of the punk and New Wave scenes, worried that The Beat would get “laughed at” compared to the other underground, cutting-edge acts that Peel would expose. “Deep down I’m immensely insecure,” Wakeling revealed.
But The Beat, despite Wakeling’s concerns, did find a massive following in his native land. The group’s 1980 debut LP, I Just Can’t Stop It, peaked at No. 3 on the U.K. album charts, and songs like the jittery, uncharacteristically dark “Mirror in the Bathroom” and the jangly “Best Friend” were Top-40 hits in England although they only impacted college stations and KROQ in America. On the surface, The Beat’s tunes often emphasized a sunny, almost Beatlesque vibe which made them ideal club soundtracks. Lyrically, though, Wakeling peered inside himself, writing with “a personal vision.” And it was this emotional depth that separated The Beat from much of its 2-Tone peers. “I made people happy by accessing my own pain,” Wakeling explained. In doing so, Wakeling discovered “the common threads that we all have.” Wakeling added that he is moved by fans who walk up to him and shake his hand, thanking him for the positive effect his songs had on them more than a quarter-century ago.
When The Beat formed in Birmingham, England in 1978 with Wakeling, toaster/rapper Ranking Roger, guitarist Andy Cox, bassist David Steele, drummer Everett Moreton, and saxophonist Saxa, their simple goal was to “blend punk, reggae, and soul,” Wakeling said. “It was hard not to be pigeonholed. We wanted a hybrid of our favorite music, especially the glorious period of ’60s pop.” Wakeling was especially inspired by the infectious power-pop energy and adolescent angst of The Buzzcocks and The Undertones, bands that would shorten the distance between the dissonance of punk and the angular, danceable hooks of the rising New Wave.
However, by 1983, a year after their American breakthrough Special Beat Service (featuring the MTV hits “Save It for Later” and “I Confess”), The Beat beat its last beat. Wakeling reunited with Roger in 1984 in General Public, taking the deceptively joyous, handclap-happy tale of unrequited love, “Tenderness,” into Casey Kasem’s warm embrace. “Tenderness,” an immortal ’80s classic, is actually included in The Beat’s live sets these days. While General Public did not have the pioneering reputation of the Beat, there’s no denying the timeless appeal and immaculate song craft of their first LP, All the Rage.
Wakeling is aware — and quite pleased — that his discography is filled with “golden oldies” now, but he admitted that the market for middle-aged rockers can be tough. “These are treacherous times for legacy artists,” Wakeling observed, adding that he has seen some of his peers with new albums collecting dust in boxes. Whether or not Wakeling will record another CD with The Beat depends on how enthusiastic audiences greet his latest material. “We might bring them out a few at a time, get some feedback from the fans about what they like,” Wakeling revealed. In the meantime, Wakeling will continue to tour with The Beat, jamming at about 130 shows annually.
Because of the memories The Beat’s LPs conjure up, the so-called “days of innocence,” in the hearts and minds of Generation X, Wakeling will never grow old in our eyes. We will always see him dancing around the pub with his guitar in the “Save It For Later” video, amidst voodoo skulls and film-noir thugs. Wakeling looks back at his twenty-something stardom with newly found wisdom. “I drove through the Rockies yesterday; it was stunning,” Wakeling said. “I didn’t see much of it back then as I was generally sleeping from hangovers. This was a more sober trip. But I’m grateful for that age, really; it gave me a good whack in the head.”
The English Beat: www.myspace.com/officialbeatspace