We had the chance to talk with Dave Wakeling of the English Beat – or the Beat, as they’re known outside of the United States. He told us about how their particular form of 2 tone ska came about in London during the late 70’s, creating what would become the second wave of ska music. We discussed the world music stylings that have played a part in influencing the sound of the Beat, and the evolution of music that comes with the knowledge and awareness of global musical forms.
Members of the original band went on to record with the Specials, Big Audio Dynamite, General Public and the Fine Young Cannibals. Countless musicians since then have been inspired by the advancements achieved by Wakeling and his bandmates, and their hits such as “Tenderness” and “Mirror in the Bathroom” have become fixed in popular culture as classics.
Chicago is the World: On our program we play music from around the world. We interview local artists and international artists on the show and play both traditional music and emergent styles of ethnic forms from different countries.
Dave Wakeling: Well that’s me – I am an inveterate hybrid. It’s like searching for the perfect black rose. I like to collect up all the beats that move me, and try and mix them up a little bit. So is it reggae, is it soul? Who knows – but it’s making you pumped and it’s making you move.
The happier the beat that you can get, the more gritty you can make some of the lyrics then. I think we find the same is true in a lot of reggae and a lot of African music. You think, “Well that’s a very pretty song, isn’t it?,” when in actuality you may be listening to a song about starving kids.
We started out mixing reggae and punk. We had house parties, with two dj’s in opposite corners- one playing punk singles, one playing reggae 12-inch dub sides. If you played all punk songs, the crowd would be crazy for about an hour and then disappear. If you played all reggae, they’d all be leaning against the wall nodding their head – dancing on the inside. But if you mixed them up, the dancefloor stayed packed all night. The guys from UB40 used to come, the guys from Dexy’s, Boy George used to come too.
Then the guitarist in the original line up of the Beat asked, “What if you could get the elements of both dj’s into the same 3 minute pop single? Then what would you have?” Ding!!! That’s how we started off.
When we were making the second record, we found a record shop – which became a huge record shop in the end – Sterns. At the time it was just a small room at the back of an electric vacuum cleaner repair place. So you’d go through this repair place, and in the back there was this big pile of African records. There were loads of Nigerian records. My first favorite was Ebenezer Obey… and who’s the guy that sings “Sweet Mother”? (Prince Nico Mbarga) So the second Beat album all of a sudden has got loads of highlife sounds – guitar, glissandos, African percussion on it.
My idea was to try and get the music to sound as hopeful as it can, and that gives you space to talk about some of the stuff that bothers all of in our real lives. I like the songs to be real, social commentary with a beat.
CITW: When your music started hitting the US market and the charts, had you ever expected that to happen? What was that success like?
DW: We didn’t expect that to happen at all. We didn’t think really that people over here would like anything with a reggae beat. It seemed a strange and foreign beat to people at the time. But now, reggae is part of everything – it’s in half the tv commercials. So people know how to dance to it now.
CITW: How do you feel about the 3rd wave of ska bands that have come about more recently?
DW: It’s all down to songs. If a band has got songs that resonate, that go from their heart to the audience, I don’t really care if it is ska or whatever it is. No Doubt had songs that did that – so did the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and quite a few of the other 3rd wave bands. With any wave of ska, you’ve got a few bands who are writing songs from their heart because they couldn’t do anything else- you were either going to go to a mental hospital or jail or write this down, now.
And then you’ve got other groups who are sort of singing about being in a group. They don’t seem to last as long, they don’t really touch anybody’s hearts at the time – it’s more about them enjoying being in a group and having their friends look up to them for being in a group. It’s been the same in any wave of ska and in all genres of music. The good ones are great, and the crap ones are still crap and it ain’t hard to tell the difference.
CITW: It must be good to know that you have been a positive influence on some of these bands who have come after.
DW: It’s stunning. No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones have both said wonderful things in interviews about the Beat being an inspiration. So did Men At Work – they started because of a Beat record. So that’s fantastic. One, you’d never dreamt you’d be in a group yourself… it’s such a dream. In the seventies, all the bands were playing in huge amphitheaters with fans blowing their hair back. It didn’t look like anything that real people did. Then all of a sudden, there was Elvis Costello, the Buzzcocks and the Clash. It was like “Hang on! I know three chords! I can be in a group, excuse me, move over, I’ve got something to say.”
So it was a dream come true. I never thought it could happen. Then you get to be in a group. You never expect your songs to be hits. Most people are very self-conscious about their songs: “Oh, don’t play that one, it’s crap”. And then they’re hits, and it takes you ages to get used to that. It’s taken me a long long time just to be able to listen to them. So then it ends up that you’re jetting around the world, doing interviews, beautiful women, money – all that sort of stuff. But there’s nothing quite as valuable as somebody saying, “That song that you wrote 30 years ago, that stayed with me and helped me in this time of my or that time… I loved that lyric…” It’s the most stunning thing, and you’re humbled because you really only wrote them to cheer yourself up, and to stop you from throwing yourself off of a bridge! “I can’t take this! Give me a pen!” And in cheering yourself up 30 years ago, you must have done a decent job because it’s cheered other people up and 30 years later it comes around in a big circle.
CITW: With your success in the past 30 years, have you been able to go to some markets and areas where the roots reggae originated, anywhere in the Caribbean?
DW: I played in Jamaica twice, but I’ve got to be honest, I haven’t played in many places where English isn’t the first language. Even when I was playing France or Holland, I figured that they’d have their own pop songs speaking in their own slang. I’d think they’d have no idea what I was on about here- even if you know what the words meant literally, there’s a lot of inferences, sarcasm, or different use of the words.
There are places that I feel I may have missed, and I would like to go now. We get so many messages from Indonesia! There’s a massive skinhead army in Indonesia! Cheers and Beers! There’s skinheads with jeans with a little turn upon them, checked shirts, braces… there’s loads and loads of ska bands now in Indonesia, and the Philippines too!
We played the first WOMAD festival, and we were the first band to sign up with Peter Gabriel. By finding out bits about people’s musical cultures, you find out about their human culture too. Airplanes have made the world smaller, the internet has made the world smaller. World music is a way that does that too, because it touches a common nerve in people and reminds them about their common humanity.
The English Beat will be performing in Chicago at Double Door on Friday, August 13.
-Brenda Lee Intengan