Some eighties bands music stands the test of time, while others cause us to look over our shoulder to see if anyone’s noticed the Heaven 17 album in our collection. The English Beat wrote songs with a reggae groove, but with enough pop sensibility to capture the hearts of millions. At a time when it was virtually impossible for alternative bands to get radio airplay in America, The Beat had a string of hits and sold-out tours. Dave Wakeling was the singer, guitarist and mastermind behind the whole thing and when he announced a 2010 U.S. tour for The Beat, we sought him out for an interview. On the phone, Wakeling engaged us for hours with discussions of politics, the music industry, VH1 and the process of making videos. Here are the best bits from our discussion.
TDOA: I Just Can’t Stop It remains one of my all-time favorite records. Can you talk about the process of writing and recording the record?
DW: They were the first songs that the group wrote together as a band in 1978. It took quite a while to develop the groove that we wanted. We used to have house parties with two dj’s in opposite corners; one doing reggae and one doing punk and just alternating. So that the dance floor became an all-night frenzy. But if you played too much of one thing, people would burn out. We knew what we were looking for: The Velvet Underground meets Toots and the Maytals at a Buzzcocks concert. We wanted 60′s pop catchiness, the Velvet Undergrounds’ angst and Bob Marley’s uplifting beat that reminded you that even though life can be tragic, it can also be beautiful.
TDOA: Did you write the songs in the studio?
DW: We wrote most of it before we got in the studio. But the songs changed once they got into the studio. There were really only a few that were “finished” before they were brought into the studio. There wasn’t much songwriting experimentation. We would record all the backing tracks and then put some vocals on top of them. We were really trying to capture the energy of a live show, which I always thought was a bit difficult. Things can become a bit sterile. There’s no flashing lights, the heat or the estrogen, so it’s a bit tricky. We got songs recorded that were energetic but still relaxed.
TDOA: How long did it take you to record that record?
DW: We took two weeks to do the back tracks. Then two months of over-dubbing and vocals in London.
TDOA: Were you on a label at that point?
DW: Arista were paying for everything and they gave us our own little label (Go Feet) so that we had some sense of artistic control. It went pretty well and we knew that we’d snuck quite a few political comments in to the record. We used Go Feet, so that if the label had a problem with those comments they’d have to deal with them instead us. It kept the lion from biting our head off, but after 4 or 5 years it started to slowly close and suffocate us.
TDOA: The guitar into on ‘Save it For Later’ still gives me goosebumps. How did it come to you and when you wrote it, did you have a feeling that you’d written a great song?
DW: I wrote it when I was a teenager purely by accident. I was trying to learn a tuning to John Martin song and I nearly got it but I had the G string tuned up to an A. I couldn’t quite get the Martin song right, so I started fooling around on my own with that tuning and ended up playing that tune over and over. I never thought of it as a “record” because I was only 18! The song is about not knowing what’s going on. At that point nothing quite makes sense and people are looking at you like you’re a man but you feel like you’re a boy. I presented it to the group when we first started, but they thought it was a bit too rock and roll, so it didn’t make the first two records. The band didn’t operate as a democracy then, everyone had to agree on things. It had to be unanimous. By the time the third record rolled around, the label had heard it and insisted that it be on the record. Around that time the ‘New Romantics’ bands were starting to come out and we started to look a little drab because we didn’t make videos with models on our yachts. So the label thought this song would be a hit.
TDOA: This was around the time when MTV was starting to get big and videos were…
DW: They were crap!
TDOA: You made a few videos for The Beat and also for General Public. Did you like making those?
DW: They were crap! (laughs). They were vapid TV commercials. MTV gave us a list of 30 things you couldn’t do in a video or it would get banned, so you just couldn’t do much of anything. We did one for Tenderness with Nicolas Roegs’ son. He’d just done one for Bronski Beat. It started at a swimming pool with a woman eyeing me and we end up in a dressing room. She rips off her wig and it turns out she’s a big muscular man. MTV saw it freaked out. They wouldn’t even edit it. Instead we did a video of me and Roger standing on a rooftop with a sunset in the background. They put eyedrops in my eyes that would make them look bluer. And of course it was huge, so the label thought they were right.
Now there aren’t any videos on MTV, so there isn’t that forum for pushing records which also seems odd. It rendered itself inconsequential because it was 40-year olds trying to decide what would offend 14 year-olds, which created an irrelevant art forum.
The thing is, that when I think of songs from the sixties and seventies, I have my own mental images and videos can never surpass that.
TDOA: There was a time when UB40, The Specials, Madness and The Beat ruled the charts and finding good ska music was relatively easy. Are there new bands that have carried the torch for good ska music?
DW: There is some good ska out there, but because it’s not chart driven, it not marketing driven. But, we’ve started seeing a lot of young people out our shows in the past year, so there’s clearly a renewed interest in ska.
TDOA: Can you talk about your post-Beat time with General Public? Did the record label give you the support that you needed after the first album?
DW: Frankly, they gave us more support than we wanted. Up until that point IRS had been involved primarily with college radio, because Billboard and those charts were too expensive to deal with. It costs about $40,000 to buy a ticket to that game. But, by the time General Public started, we were told that our single “Tenderness” was going to be a hit. We went to a few dinners and suddenly it was a hit. Once your single was a hit, then suddenly department stores would carry the whole album. Then it just exploded for us. So I got to spend a bit of time strutting around with my head held high, as if I’d known all along that we’d be huge. But deep down inside, I knew the dirty truth. I didn’t really care about the whole “pay for play” concept, because honestly the whole record industry seemed so crooked anyway. Why would you expect radio to be “clean” in the middle of all this filth. As long as the rates were the same for everyone.
TDOA: It’s such a terrible concept. You hope that your music is good enough in its’ own right to get people to buy it, but to get the music out there for people to hear it, the labels were paying the radio stations.
DW: At the time, I don’t think they knew how to operate any other way.
TDOA: VH1′s Bands Reunited attempted to bring the original members of The Beat together. It looked as if the producers created a lot of unnecessary drama and ended up with something that looked painful to live through. Is that a fair perception?
DW: It was a beast. It was funny as well, knowing what was going on behind the scenes. I don’t want to say much about it. I knew that it wouldn’t work to get the group back together. I was being interviewed and agreed to be a part of it, knowing that it wouldn’t happen. There were two people in the group that refused to even be in the same room together. I phoned VH1 and said I can’t do this, it’s going to take me away from my family and it’ll take too much time. They came back and said we’ll take you and your family and pay all your expenses to fly back to England. At that point, I felt I didn’t have a choice because it was such a great offer.
Then the whole thing became comedic because they were staking out Andy Cox. What they didn’t realize, is that he takes that sort of thing very seriously and he started monitoring them! He could look out his window and see their reflection in the windows across the street. He showed me a log he started keeping, tracking when they were in front of his house.
Roger got a gig while we were there and they got all the instruments together and set up chairs for everyone. Not everyone showed up, but they asked those of us that were there, to play a song. We agreed and started to set up when suddenly Roger went mad and made them turn the cameras off and take away all the instruments. But I had a great two weeks in London for free and my family enjoyed it.
I think the premise of the show was good, but they started to get desperate and I think that The Beat got a whiff of it and that caused it to fail.
Here’s the first 10 minutes of that show…
TDOA: Tell us about the 2010 U.S. tour and what people can expect to see from you, live.
DW: It’s a sign of a bands confidence that we would agree to play a tour where we follow Fishbone.
TDOA: That’s right, I’d forgotten that Fishbone has a reputation as an amazing live band.
DW: They always blow the roof off anywhere they play. They leave the stage covered in beer and sweat and you have to just pick up the pieces. But we played together in Denver and the combination of the two bands was so much fun. We’ll play around 90 minutes and we’ll play things from all of our albums, plus we’ve got some new songs. We’ve recorded demos and are looking at a few deals with labels. We’ve got enough recorded for an entire album. They’ve told us that there were four hits among the nine songs we’ve done. Of course this led me to ask, “What’s a hit these days?”
TDOA: Thank you for your time today!
DW: That’s a very interesting name, “The Dumbing of America” where does it come from.
TDOA: Well, it came after watching the popularity of American Idol and the awful genre of music it’s made popular with Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, etc. Couple that with having just come out of eight years of George W. Bush. When he was re-elected for a second term, I said to friends, “This is really a sign of the dumbing of America”. When we started the site, we wanted to promote music that challenged people intellectually and attempted to fight the dumbing of America…. so the name seemed obvious.
DW: He did oversee the collapse of the Western capitalist society, didn’t he? I couldn’t help feeling sorry for George Bush. He seemed to have his own opinions, but he was fairly well puppeted. He wasn’t an evil person, I don’t think and I think he’d be great to share a drink with. People used to ask us to change the lyric “Stand Down Margaret” to “Stand Down George”, but I would only consider “Stand Down Tony”. The problems of our world were far to complex for either of them. Sadly, American troops are paying the price for all of this.
Catch The Beat on tour!
Jan 29, 2010 Throckmorton Theatre Mill Valley, CA
Jan 30, 2010 Tahoe Biltmore Crystal Bay, NV
Feb 5, 2010 Belly Up Tavern Solana Beach, CA
Feb 6, 2010 Belly Up Tavern Solana Beach, CA
Feb 12, 2010 Emos Austin Austin, TX
Feb 13, 2010 Granada Theater- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Dallas, TX (purchase tickets)
Feb 14, 2010 Warehouse Live- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Houston, TX
Feb 16, 2010 Firestone Live- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Orlando, FL
Feb 17, 2010 Culture Room- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Fort Lauderdale, FL
Feb 18, 2010 State Theatre- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation St. Petersburg, FL
Feb 19, 2010 The Loft- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Atlanta, GA
Feb 20, 2010 Tremont Music Hall- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Charlotte, NC
Feb 22, 2010 9:30 Club- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Washington
Feb 23, 2010 World Cafe Live- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Philadelphia, PA
Feb 24, 2010 Rams Head Live!- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Baltimore, MD
Feb 25, 2010 The Stone Pony- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Asbury Park, NJ
Feb 26, 2010 Showcase Live- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Foxboro, MA
Feb 27, 2010 The Fillmore @ Irving Plaza- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation New York, NY
Mar 1, 2010 The Madhatter-With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Covington, KY
Mar 2, 2010 House of Blues- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Chicago, IL
Mar 3, 2010 Turner Hall- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Milwaukee, WI
Mar 4, 2010 The Cabooze- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Minneapolis, MN
Mar 5, 2010 The Slowdown- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Omaha, NE
Mar 6, 2010 Gothic Theatre- With Fishbone and Outlaw Nation Englewood, CO
Mar 7, 2010 The Belly Up Aspen Aspen, CO
Mar 12, 2010 Fishlips Bakersfield, CA
Mar 13, 2010 Roxy Theatre West Hollywood, CA