A Candid Interview with The English Beat’s Dave Wakeling – Full Interview

Seminal British 2 Tone Ska revival band The English Beat had a string of hit singles in the early 80s including classics such as “Mirror In The Bathroom” and “Save It For Later”. Singer/ songwriter/ guitarist and generally very nice guy Dave Wakeling is keeping the spirit alive and well. He currently tours as The English Beat performing in front of capacity crowds while keeping the dance floor moving and the connection with his audience stronger than ever. I was lucky enough to chat with the legendary “Skadfather” before a recent sold out show at Bimbos in San Francisco.

Do you listen to the radio at all?

I listen to talk radio mainly. I listen to NPR a lot. The music I tend to hear is the music on NPR as it’s a bit more eclectic. I also listen to the World Service on the BBC.

Have you ever hosted a show?

I hosted a couple of shows back in the day on Radio 1 when DJs took their summer vacations. I’ve never even been on the World Service I don’t think, but I would like to.

Any bands you are currently listening to?

Sonic Boom Six

Where did you discover them at?

I don’t remember. But they seem to be carrying on the story of where The Beat and other groups left off. It’s got really good dance rhythms, a reggae and ska vibe to it as well. It’s also got a punk vibe and they’ve added some hip-hop to it along with a trombone. They have a girl singer with a great voice and balls like Gwen Stefani with a Manchester accent. I also like West Bound Train, from Boston.

Has there ever been an English Beat tribute record?

No there hasn’t, but what a good idea.

If you were to play a part in this who would you like to see contribute?

Oh I don’t care, anyone. Michael Stipe said that he always loved the song “Drowning” and asked me at one point if he could cover it. I said yes, and I think I told him we had a special that week, three for the price of two. If there were a tribute record I think him singing “Drowning” would be terrific.

Have you ever been a part of any tribute records?

Yes I did a Peter Gabriel; I got to sing Sledgehammer so I was quite pleased with that.

In the late 90s there was a huge ska revival, did you see that coming?

I think you can kind of guess when these things revert, a bit like surfers get a feel for the ocean. An old skadfather like me gets a feel for the social climate. Whenever you have music that gets really fast and really angry ska tends to follow. If you get music that’s really rocky but kind of sad and depressed; ska follows that as well. Ska follows things like Grunge, ska also shows up like the four horsemen, whenever there’s a recession, because people want to be cheered up. They want to have some vibrancy of life. There are serious social issues going on and ska and reggae have always been a form of music where you can sing about those things. You can put in into a musical form that’s up beat and happy. It gives everyone a sense of release and irony about social climate while not being so desperately alone. If you are dancing in step with a room full of 600 people, you feel some sense of teamwork.

If someone was just discovering Ska Music, can you give me your Ska 101 lesson?

Listen to any piece of music you like and just go “ju ju ju on the offbeat. Wherever the beats of the song are, clap your hands in between. Anyone who ever heard Polka, it’s not that far off, in fact some ska bands get disastrously close to polka. So it’s anything on an offbeat. It’s got the flavors of calypso and reggae. It’s very basic straight to the point; direct and sexy. It’s good to make love to. Once of course you are at the age and have found a life partner. 

What’s the most unusual place you have heard your music in.

Elevators always strike me as odd. Especially if it’s one of those instrumental elevator music versions that you’ve never heard before. They always have that kind of James Last German pop orchestra sound where they’re very happy and swinging. (as he goes into a mockery of happy pop orchestra elevator version of ” Tenderness”). You have no idea how many nights I went to sleep crying with my acoustic guitar writing this thing; I didn’t do it for this. But then privately you’re like, it must be really famous that they’d make such a crap version. I’ve head “Save It For Later” on a NASCAR roundup. I thought, that’s like a big star spangled banner welcome mat, I feel part of this great nation right now I tell you what. This guy comes right from the back and they’ve been building it up all the way.

What is the oddest movie you have ever heard your music in?

Kingpin, they used “Save It For Later” as the theme track to an Amish barn rising. It was really weird; I’ve seen it a few times. I remember the woman from the record company phoning me and saying we have a request for a license for Kingpin with Woody Harrelson, well I like Woody so I said OK, that sounds good, what is it? Normally you have them write it down, what’s in the scene, because you don’t want it to be a murdering four children and your song is very proper. I asked her what part of the film is it and she said,” it’s an Amish barn raising”. I said that’s incredible, that’s what the song was written about! She said, “Really”? I’m like no.

Can you give me a quick comparison of how your life is today compared to earlier on in your career?

No hangovers. That saves about 8 hours of headache a day. It really is tremendous the first 8 hours of your day feeling like you are fighting for your life, desperately wanting a drink and desperately knowing it was far too early (chuckling) especially if anyone was to see. So that’s really much better. That was a combination of free drinks every night; do you want another one, probably, and the general nervousness that you have about being a performer in your earlier years because it is a scary thing to do. If you are going to try and do it right, it’s terrifying really. You’ve got to be able to put yourself up there by the mic and open up everything that you’ve got. Give it all the voice you got, all the emotion and try to connect with your heart to the people dancing in the audience. I think in the early part of your career you try and pretend that it’s not terrifying because it’s that scary. You would just use Dutch Courage you know. And of course a lot of people end up getting really Dutch with the courage and don’t come out the other side. I was glad that I did and luckily enough now that I get to enjoy it. Now I’m not so scared that I need to get hammered before I go on stage. I enjoy connecting with the crowd. It’s harder to open up to the crowd; when you’ve had a few drinks you couldn’t keep yourself closed if you wanted to. It’s harder now but it’s more satisfying. I get a lot deeper and it can actually feel like Carl Jung’s Mass Consciousness in action. I used to think I was terribly witty in between songs and I didn’t know that people were being ever so nice. For like the first 10 years I did shows in America but nobody actually ever understood a thing I said (as he laughs) combination of the English accent and the drink.

Do you have a favorite memory of touring past or present?

We did this show opening for David Bowie and Saxa who was in his 60s then, our old saxophone player, was a bit mad because they hadn’t got his favorite beer in the refrigerator. David Bowie came and said hello to us, which was remarkable, while he was in his stage clothes wearing black pants and a black vest with a white shirt on. He comes in our trailer and says, “really great to do be doing some shows with you, I’m very pleased. I just wanted to check to see if everything is ok. Do you have everything you need?” Saxa sitting in the back of the bus says (in a Jamaican accent) “Hay sonny boy come with me” and puts his arm around Bowie dragging him to the fridge Saxa opens it up and says “You see any Red Stripe in there?” Bowie’s replies, “No I don’t “. To which Saxa says “Ah Sonny Boy, that’s what we need!” Bowie responds, “Right away” and dashed out the caravan. About 10 minutes later another guy shows up with a case of Red Stripe. Saxa, being all happy, says “Nice man there, who is him anyway coming in the caravan like that?” and I said, well that’s David Bowie! Saxa replies “Me thought he was a waiter!” It got into the papers in England, and they made a huge fuss about it. “David Bowie pays the price for looking like a New York waiter on stage.”

Ever had a Spinal Tap moment on tour

Only on a day with a Y in it. It’s horribly accurate. Not finding your way from the dressing room to the stage. Road crews putting arrows all the different way making you run through the boiler room. There are lots of Hello Cleveland moments on the road. Probably a few more when it’s fueled by alcohol.

Between the Sex Pistols and The Clash, who are you a bigger fan of?

The Clash for musicality and for depth of conviction, and The Sex Pistols, I suppose for the immediate shock value and managing to get to the number one in England with God Save The Queen.

Any reason why Shuffle and Roger still won’t reunite?

Different reasons really, Roger is working with his son and they have a group called The Beat, which I jokingly refer to as my favorite cover band. Andy and Dave, I don’t really know what they are doing. They made quite a lot of money with The Fine Young Cannibals so I don’t really think they need to do anything. I think after The Beat had finished that some stuff probably went on in The Fine Young Cannibals that might have left a bad taste in their mouth. So I don’t know if it’s all to do with The Beat. They both said to me; if the time is right I have no problem with doing it. They both said that they have pride in the songs and in the legacy of the songs. So I suppose in theory there’s nothing against it, but in practicality I always used to joke for years and years that oh sure we will reform as soon as we can open for The Clash on tour. We did in 1992. Now, sadly I think there’s about as much of a chance of The Beat, the original members reuniting as there is of The Clash reuniting. 
I’m up for anything really, I like singing the songs. As it turns out, the legacy of the music has stood the test of time and it’s meant a lot to people over 25 or 30 years. So I wouldn’t mind doing it as a trip down memory lane. I’m actually more excited about doing this to be honest because it’s a group of people that I spend a lot of time with that they have a similar view of the world. It’s organic, it’s kind of where I would be even if I were with the original band. It wouldn’t be the same as it was 30 years ago, as everything would sort of evolve, but this is what I would be doing regardless of the other characters involved. So I’m thoroughly happy about it.

Are you on Twitter?

No, and we were just talking about that. I’m pretty happy with the Facebook. Especially during the health care debate, woo, be careful there. I like it though, I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t quite get the idea yet of Twitter. I might try it as an experiment, It’s funny because I’m a singer, and I actually like being quite a private person. I don’t want anyone to know what I am fucking doing during the day, I mean I don’t know what they’re doing. There’s something about it that’s a little bit odd. With Facebook you get some good threads of conversation and some rather interesting social commentary going. With Twitter they have that status update. What are you doing right now. Well I’m wasting my time writing this aren’t I? (jokingly) I’m interrupting what I’m doing to write what I’m doing. So it bothers me a bit, but I’ll probably try it. I have a bit of an addictive personality so I don’t want to become a Twitterholic.

Is there a release date for any new music?

There isn’t a release date right now as we are still talking to a few labels and to a few people about doing it ourself. We fancy the do it yourself because we get to keep the rights to our material. All rights will be reverted back or come back to me soon (for The Beat/ General Public). We do have 17 songs done and will start recording something I think in May. It will probably be an EP and we may do some live tracks as well. So we might have something out by July



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Jason Miller
Jason Miller

Jason Miller is a leading digital B2B marketer, who’s held senior roles at LinkedIn, Marketo, and ActiveCampaign. Before entering the B2B space, he spent ten years at Sony, developing and executing marketing campaigns around the biggest names in music. He is a prolific keynote speaker, digital marketing instructor at UC Berkeley, and best-selling author. Also an accomplished rock concert photographer, his work appears in books, magazines, and album covers.

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