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THE BEAT / THE ENGLISH BEAT (DAVE WAKELING) INTERVIEW [2008]

YOU'RE BASED IN THE US NOW AREN'T YOU?

Yes, I've been here for twenty years now, I like to come back to the UK to visit but I've got two teenage kids here now, this is home...

HOW MUCH DO YOU CONNECT WITH THE UK WHEN YOU COME BACK?

It's funny you should ask that... certain parts of Birmingham look exactly the same, the city centre is a little bit different but a lot of it still looks the same so I make the mistake of acting as though it is the same - in fact it's changed quite a lot, I'm probably more able to read the hidden social messages on the street in San Jose than I am in Birmingham. I like to go walking and when I go back - particularly back to Birmingham where I stay at my sister's house - I like to walk around a lot and when I get home and she asks me where I've been she goes 'you can't walk down that road Dave, that's crack-alley, three people have been knifed down there in the last year' and I just walked down it because I thought it was the same street as it was twenty years ago... they probably thought I was some sort of gangland guy with balls of steel!

So it's the same and yet it's totally different and I have to be careful of that, but to be honest I wasn't that much of a patriot back then, I mean I enjoyed the pub and the football and the humour in England but I was never much of a fan of the weather, and I was always very, very frustrated by the class system as perpetuated by the monarchy and downwards, like a kind of pyramid, and when I come back that still irritates me, in fact it irritates me more now!

WOULD IT HAVE BEEN POSSIBLE FOR THE BEAT TO HAVE COME FROM ANYWHERE BUT BIRMINGHAM?

I don't think so. We talked about this quite a bit with The Specials and we probably could have come out of Coventry to be honest... Coventry, Birmingham, Leicester... something about it being an industrial city meant that white blokes, Irish blokes, black blokes, Indian blokes had all worked on factory lines together and so a little bit of prejudice, or social shyness call it what you want, had been worked out already, before us. The unemployment hit in the seventies and people were in the dole queues together so - without painting too glowing a picture - there was a real sense of camaraderie that we were all in this together. Because of that pubs weren't racially segregated which was the case in other parts of the country and you could have bands where black blokes and white blokes played the instruments, nobody really noticed.

It wasn't really until the band started playing gigs in London, and people started commenting on it that we really became aware of it, and then we started acting like we had done it on purpose! Then when we first came to America people thought it was some sort of social experiment, but it really hadn't occurred to us at the time. So out of that kind of post-industrial naiveté came The Specials and The Beat and I thought it was telling that Madness and Bad Manners - who were the sort of London contingent of 2-Tone - were all white... who'd have known that trying to put a group together in Birmingham in the middle of a recession would be a terrific idea!

Looking back on it now I think it's very similar to Detroit's musical legacy, all this happy music coming out of Detroit but the city is still bleak, it could give Birmingham a run for its money! But I think that's what happens and I think that might also have been true of Sheffield at that time...

WHAT WAS IT THAT MADE THE ORIGINAL BEAT SPLIT UP?

The Beat came together magically... it started with Andy and me as schoolmates and then after that the first person we met who played that instrument, that was the person who ended up being in the group! The first bass player, the first drummer, the first saxophone player, the first keyboard player - we thought at the time, what with Roger being sixteen and Saxa being in his sixties, that the magic might not be too long-lived... we could never get a peer group argument going like a band who all went to school together! We all liked different sorts of music, we all liked different kinds of food... and that all added to the magic at the time and while that magic was working well everything we touched just went right, even if we didn't know what we were doing everything just fell into place. But then, once two or three years had passed, it became impossible to even get us all together in the same room even for a rehearsal, someone always had to wait in for the gas man or something!

It was all a bit too much of a good thing really, too much live touring - some of the band in retrospect didn't even like playing live - and then a combination of things that broke a few hearts in the band. As our star started to decline in England we were becoming a kind of small stadium band in America, which for some of us was great because we were playing to crowds of fifteen thousand people, but for some people in the group that was complete anathema because we weren't the NME's darlings any more we were becoming a kind of stadium rock act. Some of the band wanted to take two years off and redefine The Beat, more with the English market in mind and we were at a stage when there was more aeroplanes than buses and there was a fear that if we carried on and were writing songs on tour then we'd be writing songs about being on tour, about being on a bus rolling down the freeway... we still had our Midlands Socialistic roots, and we'd never travel in a limo if someone got us one, we'd sent it back and get a van. I don't bother with that anymore!

As it turned out David and Andy did have a couple of years off before coming out with Fine Young Cannibals but me and Roger always enjoyed the live side of things and we had a kind of special relationship, we enjoyed playing off each other, we had a special relationship with our audience and we liked playing to big crowds so we carried on as General Public...

ARE YOU IN TOUCH WITH ANY OF THE OTHER MEMBERS OF THE ORIGINAL BAND?

I have spoken to Andy and David a few times. Although people aren't working together this is actually a bit of a golden period with everyone being quite friendly and happy with each other. I think the reason for that is, like any group splitting up, that we split with a certain sense of acrimony and resentment, but after a few years Warner Brothers bought the catalogue and were going to bring out a best of record and the producer, Bob Sargeant, made us all sit and listen to everything again... to be honest I think most of us put it off for a few weeks thinking that it was going to be vile, but suddenly we were all on this conference call and we had something in common; that we were all really surprised that the old albums sounded so great and we could all be proud of the legacy of the band! It was a pleasant surprise, and even where that had been some continuing rancour between some of the members of the band it all kind of got lost in this kind of common pride in the legacy, in what we had created...

I think we were lucky actually, at the time some people in the band wanted to use the latest technology, the new thing that week, but Bob Sargeant always insisted on classic instruments - a Steinway piano, a Hammond organ, a classic guitar amp - and we did think that we sounded slightly old-fashioned at the time compared to our contemporaries, but listen back twenty, twenty-five years later and some of the music that used the technology of that moment sounds quite dated while using classic instruments gave the albums a kind of timeless feel. That's really helped over here I think, on American radio, because we get played in all sorts of different formats because our sound hasn't put us into such a tiny pigeon-hole...

THE REASON WE'RE TALKING NOW IS BECAUSE THERE'S A NEW COMPILATION COMING OUT, 'YOU JUST CAN'T BEAT IT', AND YOU'VE BEEN QUITE INVOLVED HAVEN'T YOU?

Yeah I was a little bit because Rhoda (Dakar from The Bodysnatchers and The Special AKA who provided sleeve notes for the release) is a very good friend, she told me that a compilation was being put together and I was really pleased that she got in touch with me to try and help make it all it could be you know? Because 'Tears Of A Clown' and 'Ranking Full Stop' are on a different label to everything else, they are on 2 Tone, and it was possible to help out there, to apply a bit of pressure to get them all on the same record and we were able to help the label get those songs onto the record. In fact of the three albums from The Beat there's only two songs missing on this compilation, 'Hit It' and 'Which Side of the Bed'!

The album was also originally going to be called 'Mirror In The Bathroom' which I wasn't very comfortable because I thought people would expect it to be mixes of 'Mirror In The Bathroom' or something so I suggested 'You Just Can't Beat It' which is about all I did on the sleeve-notes so I was thrilled that I got a credit for them!

YOU MENTIONED HOW PROUD YOU STILL ARE OF THE MUSIC, BUT HOW ABOUT THE EXPERIENCE OF LOOKING AT THE OLD PICTURES AND THINGS LIKE THAT?

It's very interesting... the photographs are good because we always picked the ones where we looked the best from each particular shoot even though at the time we were probably very self-conscious and thought we looked horrible... but compared to how we look now when we get up in the morning and looked in the mirror we looked smashing! So I like the photographs for that reason, but more than anything else that when I play concert now I get to meet people who tell me how much the songs have meant to them, from being a teenager all the way through to today.

I've had a lot of people over the years who like a lot of teenagers or young people have pondered the thought of suicide and have found that the song 'Click Click', the humour of it, has turned them away from that - a lot of people thank me that they are still here because of that song! But that sort of thing, I think for me, is more valuable than anything. I mean it's great to make records and to make money from doing it, but to have somebody say that your music has been an important part of their lives for twenty or thirty years and that they still go back to it to cheer themselves up or deal with situations in their lives... you can't buy that, you just can't.

I have to say though that to start with I used to be embarrassed by people telling me all that stuff, I didn't really understand, but then when I thought about how I feel when I hear 'Don't Walk Away' by The Four Tops, or when I hear 'Ruby Tuesday' by The Rolling Stones, it's not just like I get a memory of the sound of it, I get a memory of a certain smell, a certain time and place - it's almost as if it transports me back to that time and it's all my senses, not just my hearing! Once I realised that this was what people were getting with 'Mirror In The Bathroom' or whatever I could start to understand it and then appreciate it a bit more, I wasn't so embarrassed... of course it doesn't help when half the time they're totally drunk when they're telling you about it!

WHEN YOU'RE FORCED TO GO THROUGH THIS COMPILATION PROCESS OF LISTENING TO THE OLD RECORDINGS, LOOKING AT THE OLD PICTURES AND EVERYTHING, DO YOU EVER START TO WONDER WHAT MIGHT HAVE HAPPENED IF THE BAND HAD STAYED TOGETHER?

Of course. I used to think of The Beat as these various spheres and when they overlapped each other we got this perfectly formed bit in the middle, but as we went on it was getting a bit strained and it was becoming more apparent that people were into really different things and it was getting harder to get it to overlap. That even carried on into General Public where me and Roger ended up not really writing songs together - it sort of got to the point with General Public that there was going to be the Lennon side of the album and the McCartney side... but I suppose you could see where we might have gone from the way that General Public and Fine Young Cannibals went, in slightly similar but mostly quite diverse directions...

IT'S AMAZING I THINK THAT THE BEAT COULD THEN PRODUCE TWO SUCH SUCCESSFUL ACTS...

Yeah it was good. I think it probably meant that there was still music to be done, but another thing was that we had set ourselves up as this kind of socialist collective, and that was starting to show signs of strain because certain people were doing all the work but everybody was getting paid the same and we fell foul of what they call over here freeloading socialism; if the wages are the same then why would you bother going in early or doing anything extra. In some ways in the early days it helped us avoid some of the arguments we saw in other bands - even in the 2-Tone bands where in the first year someone was a millionaire and somebody else was still on wages - we were proud of what we had done to start with but it didn't give people an incentive to go in and have a go...

THE FIRST EVER SINGLE FROM THE BEAT WAS 'TEARS OF A CLOWN' WASN'T IT? WHY DID YOU RELEASE A COVER VERSION AS YOUR DEBUT INSTEAD OF AN ORIGINAL SONG?

When we very first started we had about eight songs that we were rehearsing and David Steele decided that we should do a gig - 'because one gig is worth a thousand rehearsals' - but as we only had eight songs we added 'Tears Of A Clown' because we had been playing that a lot in rehearsals. The first set of gigs we got were in punk clubs and reggae clubs and working men’s clubs, playing to grannies with three year-olds running around at the front... whatever we could get really. Sometimes the punkier songs went down great, sometimes the reggae songs went down great, but every night regardless of the type of place 'Tears Of A Clown' went down a storm and the whole dance floor would fill straight away and everyone would be dancing. So 'Tears of a Clown' became a great way to start the set, to get the party going...

Anyway, when Jerry Dammers asked us to do a single on 2-Tone we said yes and he told us that he really liked 'Mirror In The Bathroom' and we initially agreed, but when we got paperwork from Chrysalis it turned out that they would own the song for at least five years and we wouldn't be allowed to have it on any of our other records. Of course we thought that was a load of bollocks, it was our best song and we wanted it on our album which was coming out on Arista who we had signed to by then. We said that if we could have it as a 2-Tone single and on our LP then that was fine by us. Jerry thought that was OK but Chrysalis were immovable on it, they had to own it for five years and it had to be all theirs. So we talked about it and we eventually just said that they could have 'Tears Of A Clown', and go and argue with Smokey Robinson over who owned it, and we'd have 'Mirror In The Bathroom' on our album, so it all happened kind of by default.

By the time we recorded it, in September or October 1979, the whole 2-Tone label had become a really big deal, even the newspapers - 'The Sun' and 'The Mirror' - had black and white checker-boards around their front page and everything was '2-Tonerific'! By then Madness and The Specials were up at the top of the charts and there we were on the front page of 'The Sun'... 'The next release from this tearaway success label is five plucky young lads from Birmingham called The Beat with their version of 'Tears of a Clown'! It finally came out just before Christmas and it ended up being the most perfect Christmas party song - it just fitted into every Christmas party regardless of how they were dressed or what age they were or whatever, and it shot straight up the charts. It was at number six by Christmas week and all our friends were looking at us sideways!

HOW DIFFERENT DO YOU THINK THINGS MIGHT HAVE BEEN IF THAT FIRST RELEASE HAD COME OUT ON A LABEL OTHER THAN 2-TONE?

Well... I would like to think that it would still have done well, but I don't think that it would have done quite as well. Like I say, when The Beat first started even the things we did by accident all went perfectly... Chrysalis saying they had to own the song steered us towards 'Tears of a Clown' and probably 'Tears of a Clown' coming out as a single at Christmas was better than 'Mirror in the Bathroom'. It all worked out perfectly.

With the 2-Tone thing, and I do understand your question, it was a kind of blessing and a curse because it launched us right up the charts straight from the kick-off and of course it's often the case that the faster that something goes up the quicker it comes down... in retrospect I remember UB40 telling me that they had been approached by 2-Tone but turned it down because they wanted to build it more slowly, and all credit to them because up until a couple of weeks ago they managed to keep the whole band together all this time, through thick and thin. Dexy's too, I'm told, passed on 2-Tone because they felt there might be too much fashion involved, well there was a hell of a lot of that but we were more social commentators who liked to dance so we didn't care that we were on Top Of The Pops too early... we just wanted to get 'Stand Down Margaret' on Top Of The Pops!

BRINGING THE STORY UP TO DATE, THERE ARE STILL SEVERAL VERSIONS OF THE BEAT KNOCKING AROUND AREN'T THERE? THERE'S THE BEAT, THE ENGLISH BEAT, THE NEW BEAT, THE SPECIAL BEAT AND TWIST AND CRAWL...

Yes that's right but some of them are the same thing. Twist & Crawl, The Beat and what I keep hearing referred to as The New English Beat are all Ranking Roger and his son... we started off being very friendly and we did that VH-1 'Bands Reunited' thing and I did a few shows with Roger when they were called Twist & Crawl - actually Roger was a bit embarrassed because they would always be billed as The Beat, he said 'Dave this happens all the time, we insist that we get called Twist & Crawl but when we get to the venue it's been advertised as The Beat', and to be honest the same thing happened to me in America, in the contract it said that you can't call me The Beat, you can't call me The English Beat and if you do then you still have to pay me in full but I don't have to play... and I'd still get to the venue and the posters would say 'Tonight - The English Beat, General Public and Dave Wakeling', my own one-man festival! Of course the show would be sold out and all the people are there to see you and they're really happy you're there so of course you have to play. Anyway, I said to Roger 'Look, I'm living in California... if you want to do shows here why don't you call yourself The Beat and I'll call myself The English Beat and if I ever fancy doing shows on the other side of the pond then we'll do the shows together', that was the deal and he was very happy with that but then some people tried to book him over here in the US as The English Beat, it wasn't really down to Roger but it was done in his name which made it difficult...

This past year though - and I don't know if this is just the nostalgia of Christmas coming or something - we had a nice chat, called a truce. He promised not to slag me off in the papers and I promised him the same and it's all worked out quite well, but I was kind of mad for a while, I thought he'd run off with my songs or whatever but it's alright now! I've seen the band a few times and they've really improved and it's a pretty decent rendition of the tunes, it's a really good night out and the fans appreciate it. The funny thing right now is that I start a tour tomorrow and Roger starts around the same time, both of us doing pretty big tours, one in the UK and one in America at the same time so something pretty decent has come from the schizophrenia - you can now have two decent Beat concerts on two different continents at the same time!

SO WHAT'S NEXT FOR YOU? I KNOW YOU'RE ABOUT TO GO ON TOUR IN THE US, BUT IS THERE ANY NEW MATERIAL ON THE HORIZON OR ANYTHING LIKE THAT?

We've got a ton of new songs, I'm sort of ready to do it now... for a while I was stuck in the old way of doing things, I was banging on doors and trying to get major record deals and I wasted a bit of time on that I suppose, but now I actually do have quite a few offers from kind of 'middle' labels, niche market record companies so I might do that.

The other thing is that technology and the internet and everything has caught up so much that it begs the question as to why you would want to give away all the rights to your material for a 10% royalty and a small advance when you could just make records yourself, sell them for ten bucks at your gig and keep all the money for yourself! I think it's very creative, in some ways it like going back to the late seventies and the independent labels... who knows! In some ways I think it gives you more integrity, rather than mass marketing your work, throwing it out there and competing with advertising and marketing to try and sell as many as you can and then making next to nothing on each copy I could probably sell thirty, forty, fifty thousand copies direct to my fans, to the people who really want to hear them, and probably make more money that way... I think we'll probably have a bash at that. I'm sure that labels will find a way to get back into the game but at the moment I think they're kind of lost. But I do think it's easier to create music without an endless succession of middle-men who want it to sound 'more edgy' but still sound 'top forty'! I think I'd probably sell more records at my own gigs than I would in record shops, so I might just do it in that more homemade way. I think that might be more fun!

We're thinking about putting out a series of EPs - I love EPs and I always have done - with a couple of new songs and maybe a couple of remixes. The Thievery Corporation have offered to do something because they were Beat fans, and the chaps from The Supreme Beings Of Leisure have done some versions of 'Mirror In The Bathroom' and a version of 'I Confess' in a sort of salsa style - the song still fits in perfectly but it's got an updated rhythmic vibe to it, which is probably what we tried to achieve at the time. I quite fancy the idea of seven-track EPs so maybe a couple of songs acoustically; I like playing acoustically, and a live song or two. We do a lot of shows and we're going to start recording them... I think we did 128 shows last year and it looks like we'll maybe do more this year... quite a lot coming up!

FEBRUARY 2008

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