A version of my story originally appeared at soundcheck.ocregister.com. The band returns to Riverside on Friday; see info below...
When the Third Wave ska revival hit big in Southern California during the mid-1990s, various bands (including Orange County’s No Doubt, Reel Big Fish and Save Ferris) often gave a stylistic tip of the checked hat to U.K. progenitor The English Beat.
Formed in Birmingham as The Beat (“English” was added in America for legal reasons) by lead singer/guitarist Dave Wakeling and guitarist Andy Cox in 1978, the pair sought to create a vibrant sound that would meld such disparate influences as Toots & the Maytals, Velvet Underground and The Clash. Bassist David Steele, toaster/co-vocalist “Ranking” Roger Charlery, drummer Everett Morton and veteran saxophonist Lionel “Saxa” Martin rounded out the lineup.
It wasn’t long before the trailblazing interracial sextet joined The Specials’ 2 Tone label/music movement and racked up several hit singles at home. Here in SoCal, alt-rock stations KROQ/106.7 FM put “Mirror in the Bathroom,” “Save it for Later,” “I Confess” and a jittery take on Smokey Robinson & the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown” into regular rotation.
After recording three albums which deftly incorporated reggae, ska, punk, Motown sounds and more during a five-year period, the band broke up.
Wakeling and Roger started the short-lived General Public and scored a U.S. top 40 pop single with “Tenderness” (a ‘90s reunion spawned another one in Staples Singers cover, “I’ll Take You There”). Meanwhile, Cox and Steele hooked up with singer Roland Gift for Fine Young Cannibals and landed back-to-back chart toppers in ’89 with “She Drives Me Crazy” and “Good Thing.”
Flash forward to the present. Last spring, The English Beat performed at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in Cleveland, where Wakeling's trademark teardrop-shaped guitar is on display. The past few months have been plentiful with archival English Beat releases from Shout! Factory Records.
First came The Complete Beat, an exceptional five CD box set containing remastered versions of studio albums I Just Can’t Stop It (1980), Wha’ppen (1981) and Special Beat Service (1982) - all expanded with bonus tracks. Two discs contain 12” and dub versions, John Peel’s BBC Radio One sessions and live selections from a 1982 Boston show. The accompanying booklet is filled with rare photos.
Single disc compilation Keep the Beat: The Very Best of the English Beat contains 16 tracks and an introduction by Rhoda Dakar of fellow 2 Tone labelmate The Bodysnatchers. Live at the US Festival ’82 & ’83, a CD+DVD marking the 30th anniversary of the band’s appearance at the inaugural event (they were among two acts to play both), arrived a few weeks ago.
Last week, we caught onetime Dana Point resident Wakeling, 56, in a jovial mood during a phone interview from his present home in Pacific Palisades.
Soundcheck: You’ve played several OC venues over the years. Do you have a favorite?
Dave Wakeling: I really like the House of Blues [Anaheim], because it has a really nice ambience, a nice dance floor and a great sound. I like the Coach House too. We’ve had a lot of great reactions there, despite the tables and chairs.
You recently toured Australia for the first time. How was that experience?
A bit of a shock, really. They have this incredibly high standard of living and an enormous amount of rules and regulations.
In most [places], you can’t buy a shot of liquor straight up. It has to be on the rocks. That includes fine whiskeys and rums, which would never be served on the rocks elsewhere. But that’s the only way you’re allowed to drink it. So that was an odd one.
I’ll bet your Aussie fans were ecstatic, having waited so long to see you live.
They were, indeed. The tour was nearly sold out. It was amazing. They’d been waiting for 33 years. Some songs were too fast for them to dance to anymore. I must say, I enjoy California because everybody’s quite happy to be the age they are and let time roll by; let things evolve and have fun in the moment. Not pretending to be any other decade.
What do you remember about performing on Day 1 of the first US Festival, alongside The Police, Talking Heads, Ramones and others?
When we were putting the footage and package together, I looked at the old posters and saw who else was on the bill with us and I was amazed. To be honest, at the time, it was so huge, that it was a hard to take on board. You just acted blasé about it - as if you always rode helicopters to every gig, had three-quarter of a million people and three PA systems flaking up into the distance.
In retrospect, I didn’t realize until we started compiling it that I was actually on the side of the stage for The Clash’s last gig [with its original lineup]. My favorite band of all time and I was right there!
That was the largest gig you’d played until that point…
Anything else stand out in your mind about those two appearances?
It was the first time we’d ever been on a helicopter and I didn’t know they go sideways with the wind when they’re taking off. I thought they just went straight in the air…I remember feeling a bit of Dutch courage, thinking, ‘I can do this.’ You looked at the crowd and you couldn’t see the end of it. We played in the afternoon. People looked like the size of ants coming up over the top of the hill.
Were you nervous at all?
When we got onstage, I started singing the first song and a camera with a telescopic arm, immediately shot right in front of my face. I was singing to a quarter of a million people, but guess what? I couldn’t see one of them! The only way I managed to get through it was to straighten my legs, keep them really firm and solid until the first song was over and I was ok.
The Sept. 1982 festival set is far more rousing. Would you agree?
Yes. In ’82, we’d been touring with The Clash, so I think we were in a punky/reggae mood. We’d been touring with The Police in ’83, so that probably chilled us out for that one…The Beat weren’t going to do many gigs after that. So there was a sense of [finality]. The ’82 one is more energetic, but I would say the ’83 one is tighter and more choreographed.
The new CD+DVD is the first-ever live release from the band.
There had been scratchy versions of one song or another over the years. We had endless requests. I even started searching around myself, three or four years ago, to try and find out where things were. Then the last couple years, there has been a flurry of activity. I think some tapes that were held by somebody were sold or released or licensed. All the sudden, the dam gates were opened. We were glad to be able to eventually find them. All I’d ever had was a VHS copy of a copy that looked and sounded so badly, you only wanted to watch it once and then not bother again.
Shout! Factory just does incredible work on mastering. I think they absolutely maximize whatever’s there. Not only is it nice to have everything in a beautiful box, but it’s the best they’ve ever sounded, which is terrific. We’re doing the same thing with the General Public [catalog] in the spring. I’m really looking forward to getting a great version of those songs too.
Was unearthing all the rarities a matter of everyone digging through their closets?
Yes. There was an incredible amount of searching. We managed everything except two tracks of which we could only find a cassette version. They were from radio sessions: “It Makes Me Rock” and really terrific version of [Cole Porter’s] “Night and Day” from the early 80s. I thought I’d sung it particularly well at the time, like Tim Buckley might have…We left those two out with the promise we’d continue looking for the reel to reels. Although it may have disappeared at the BBC. That would be a tricky thing to find there. If we do ever find cleaner versions, we’ll stick ‘em up online for the collectors.
After listening to the remastered albums, I didn’t think they sounded dated like so many others from the same era do. Is that because the band didn’t succumb to all the latest trends, like using synths, sequencers, etc.?
Exactly that. It wasn’t really our doing, although I’d love to take the credit. Many of us did want to have a go. Everybody was starting to get into synthesizers. At the time, we though they sounded a bit like an orchestra. Producer Bob Sargeant was absolutely opposed and wouldn’t be involved if we wanted to do that. He was BBC trained.
So the band used actual strings on “Save It for Later” and the smooth cover of the late Andy Williams’ Pomus/Shuman-penned “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”
We got a string quartet from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. They performed “Save It for Later” in their black and whites as if they were doing a concert at the Royal Festival Hall! They were serious professional classical musicians. Now the proof is in the pudding. The songs don’t sound particularly dated and they don’t sound as old as the songs that were trying to be terribly modern at the time. So we thank Bob for that. We didn’t at the time [laughs].
Did having videos shown on MTV during the channel’s early days help The English Beat get a leg up here in America?
It did, undoubtedly. When we first started, the videos were a bit of a novelty. The first video we did was for “Mirror in the Bathroom,” the third single. We never made a video for “Tears of a Clown” or “Hands Off, She’s Mine.” There was no demand for them. By the time of “Mirror,” we started to hear that people were doing these videos for the songs in America.
Suddenly, everybody was making them.
I was always about ambivalent about music videos because I loved radio - what’s known as a ‘hot’ medium. It leaves you space for your own imagination. For your favorite songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s, before they made videos, you made up your own film. Your own collection of images that would pore through your head while enjoying the music soundtrack. But you weren’t allowed to be nearly as creative in video as you were in audio. MTV got to the point where it was a bunch of 40-year-old people deciding what was appropriate for 14-year-olds. We all knew and they’d forgotten that 14-year-olds are offended by very little [laughs].
After The English Beat and General Public ran their course, you joined Greenpeace in the ‘90s. Were you burnt out on the music industry?
It was a soul-cleansing operation, really. I’d had enough of record industry double dealing. I wasn’t coping with it very well. I’d always wanted to work with Greenpeace, so when the opportunity came up, I grabbed it with both flippers. I did it for five years. We made the solar-powered album ‘Alternative NRG.’ It helped spread the word about global warming. [pauses] Not fast enough, by the looks of it. At the same time, it raised substantial funds for Greenpeace.
You were lured back into performing after taking some co-workers backstage to meet Elvis Costello when he played Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre.
He said, ‘This Greenpeace and anti-Apartheid stuff is all well and good, but your place is on the stage Wakeling and you know it’…about 10 days after that, somebody phoned up and said, ‘would you like to do a song for a movie called ‘Threesome’ and be interested in talking to Ranking Roger about doing it as General Public?’ I said, ‘yes.’ Lo and behold the song ‘I’ll Take You There’ went to No. 1 on the dance charts and we were back onstage.
It was the early 2000s when you started performing again as The English Beat, right?
Yeah, sort of by default. I had a band called Bang and The Free Radicals. It didn’t matter what you put in the contract [club ads would list them all plus] English Beat, General Public, Dave Wakeling. In the end, I felt if the audiences accept it as The English Beat and we do good enough quality songs that we only add to the mystique and not detract from it, then it’s acceptable. We did a trial period and everybody in the audience said they were happy with that. It’s been The English Beat ever since. (The current version includes ex-General Public bassist Wayne Lothian).
And you have a gentleman’s agreement with Roger who only appears as The Beat in England.
I’ve tried endlessly to make occasions where we could work together in England or America. He always finds a reason why he can’t do it that time, but will next time. We never have managed it and I don’t know if we ever will.
What did you think about seeing your British ska contemporary Madness on the Summer Olympics closing ceremony last month?
The Specials played a show in conjunction with it too. Once I got over the jealousy of not being on that stage myself, I enjoyed it [laughs]. It was an odd spectacle. Obviously, the Olympics were an expensive thing to put on and people there seemed put out by it. But now that it’s all over, everything went well – despite Mitt Romney’s concerns [laughs]. He sure has a way of putting people’s noses out. Better not run for president in England!
I read that you’ve been working on new material and plan to put out a series of EPs. Is that still in the works?
I’ve got them half recorded with basic drum tracks. As we got the [reissues] together, some lads in the original lineup felt that nobody should put out their own records at the same time. Out of deference to that, I’ll follow this in the spring with the General Public re-releases and then put out my new stuff in summer/fall 2013. I still have to figure out the best way to go about it. I’ve always loved EPs. The fans are keen on it. I’ve been talking to record labels about licensing.
Who will be on the recordings?
It will be me on guitar. I’ve never played a guitar solo, so I might get some guests in. I’ve had loose talk over the years with Mick Jones [The Clash/Big Audio Dynamite guitarist contributed to General Public’s debut All the Rage]. I was shocked to hear from Johnny Marr that ‘Save it for Later’ was his favorite song from the 1980s. We had a chat once about maybe playing together some time. So I might approach those guys.
What will you call the project?
Dave Wakeling’s English Beat. The rest of the [original] band still holds the legacy of The English Beat in high regard and feel if I put that name on a record, it might confuse people. My name would make that distinction.
The English Beat performs 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5 at Romano's, 5225 Canyon Crest Dr., Riverside, $22.50, (951) 781-7662, www.theconcertlounge.com.