As part of the 2-Tone movement in late-70s Britain, Dave Wakeling first came to prominence as the vocalist and leader of The [English] Beat. With The Beat, Wakeling wrote and sang on classic hits such as “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Save It for Later”. After The Beat dissolved in 1983, Wakeling and Beat bandmate Ranking Roger went on to form General Public, “the Humble Pie of post-punk,” completing the lineup with members of Dexys Midnight Runners, The Specials, and The Clash. General Public’s “Tenderness” would go on to become the band’s biggest hit and appear in a number of films, a couple of which involved film director and producer John Hughes.
Recently, in light of Shout Factory’s five-disc box set compiling all three Beat albums as well as live material including all the band’s Peel Sessions, Consequence of Sound‘s Len Comaratta caught up with Wakeling. Over the course of two days, the two spoke of the new collection, a possible General Public compilation in the near future, the early days of The Beat, and why he was into ska and not punk. Other topics include Wakeling’s contributions to Hughes’ films, including Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and She’s Having a Baby, and recording an album using nothing but solar power.
The new box set looks amazing. How involved were you personally in curating the compilation? Or was it simply collecting everything ever captured on tape?
We were quite heavily involved in it, but I have to say that the people at Shout Factory did such a fantastic job. That being the main part, all we had to say was, “Wow, that’s great.” We were involved in every step of the way. We knew how we wanted it to be presented. We didn’t want a box set that was as long as your arm; we wanted something you could buy at a show and put in your pocket. More than anything else, I’m just thrilled to have a collection of all the songs I’ve ever done. I can just put it in my closet now, and I’ve got everything. I’ve never had copies of my own stuff; now, I’ve got a box set. I’m good.
Well, you’ll have to do a General Public box set and have a whole Dave Wakeling thing.
That’s right, yes. Well, there’s a General Public best of coming in the new year, and then I’m going to start bringing out some of my new songs. I’ve got about 20 new songs. I’m very anxious to get going with them. [We told] the original members we wouldn’t bring out any new material whilst the box set and all that was being brought out, so it wouldn’t muddy the waters. So, I’ve sort of taken the new songs out of the set for a minute, and as soon as the box set’s over, I’ll put ‘em back in, and hopefully I think I should start releasing new songs in the first half of next year. So, that’s the plan.
That’s exciting, really exciting. Years ago, when writing a paper on the history of ska, I found a quote from one of the British 2-Tone bands about how American audiences couldn’t dance. I want to attribute that to you. I believe it was you. Was it you who said that?
I don’t think it was me. I’m not much of a dancer myself, really. Luckily, ska’s the sort of beat you can dance to… it’s great music for people who can’t dance. [laughs] When we first came over, yes, we did see a lot of people trying to get the ska beat, and reggae was a new beat for America at that point, although it had been around in England for a while. We would see people kind of doing the bomb hop–left arm, left leg, right arm, right leg, ya know. Sometimes it seemed more like an Amish barn raising than a Jamaican blues, but I have to say now the reggae beat has become fully absorbed into American culture. You see it on kids’ TV programs and advertisements all the time, and we play to packed houses every night, and they dance beautifully. So, evolution is a wonderful thing.
You are from Birmingham, which is a working class town. The Beat was formed during a time when social, political, and musical upheaval was all over your country. Some of your songs, like “Two Swords”, “Monkey Murders”, and, of course, “Stand Down Margaret”, cover serious topics. Why do you think you pursued more danceable music, rather than a more aggressive sound?
Well, because the way I looked at it, everybody’s life was a mixture of happy and sad at the same time. When I went dancing as a youngster, I started to feel that I was more connected to the lyrics of songs than whenever I just sat and listened to them. You could read between the lines, or hear between the lines, and so it occurred to me that what was happening to me when I was dancing was my heart was opening, and when my heart opened up, my mind got a bit wider. And when my mind was a bit wider, I could start to understand nuance and inference. And so, we conscientiously went about that with The Beat. We wanted happy music to show that life is a joy; it’s a painful joy, of course, but it is a joy. But also, the stuff that goes on within our minds is often very, very painful, and I wanted that combination to happen in the same song, in the same three minutes. And I think that that’s how it connected to people, because people’s lives are complicated and often very painful. You know, life is a tragedy. It’ll all end in tears, as the Buddha said. And so, anything you can do to try and pick people’s spirits up, anything you can do to connect is a valuable aspiration, I think.
Was that one of the reasons why you chose “Tears of a Clown” as your initial single? And how influential was Northern Soul to you–Motown and Tamla?
Motown was more influential to me than Northern Soul, but it’s kind of the same thing; it comes from the same part of the heart. It’s terribly important. But the reason we did “Tears of a Clown” as the first single was actually a bit of an odd-bod. As we started the band, the drummer, Everett [Morton], couldn’t really get his head around some of the bass player’s basslines, and so he said, “Why don’t we all learn a song that everybody knows and try that next Tuesday, and then we’ll do one of your weird ones, like that ‘Mirror’ song.”
So, it took us about 10 minutes to find a song that we all knew, and “Tears of a Clown” was the first one that we all knew. And so we would practice “Tears of a Clown”, and we ‘d practice one of our songs, and we’d do “Tears of a Clown” again, and then we’d do another one of our songs. And slowly but surely, over the weeks, the set started to come together. Once we got eight songs, David Steele said we should start doing concerts, because he said, “One show is worth a thousand rehearsals.” So we put ourselves out there with only eight songs, and “Tears of a Clown” was one of them. That made the set go up to the full 45 minutes, which was the punk regulation at the time. If it took more than 45 minutes, you were lying.
I never realized how many covers were actually on the first Beat album. You had Saxa back then, with the band, who was from the first wave of ska. He played with Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker, Laurel Aitken; how influential was Saxa when it came to choosing some of the older material?
He didn’t have much in the way of the choice of the songs, but he had everything to do with the way they were interpreted. He was our musical mentor and guru in many ways. He was like the wild, old, crazy sage who would say stuff you wouldn’t immediately understand until about 10 minutes later, and suddenly it hits you like a brick. He had a direct way of speaking and a direct way of playing that was like what E.M. Forster, the writer, might have said. “Only connect, forget the rest.” Every note that he did was to make people’s hearts feel bigger, not to make himself look bigger. He taught us all of those lessons, and we learned them as best we could.
What was your first thought when you heard artists like Pete Townsend, The Who, and Pearl Jam covering you, specifically “Save It for Later”?
I was absolutely stunned. At the time when I first wrote it, it was written before the first album came out, and David Steele absolutely hated the song. He thought it was some old rock anthem. He was really punk at the time. We had to wait until the third album, until the record company absolutely insisted it be on the album, and so I was kind of relieved by that. When Pete Townsend… he phoned me one morning on a Saturday. It was bizarre. Somebody gave me the phone and said, “It’s Pete Townsend on the phone.” And I thought they were making a joke, ya know. Like, yeah sure, Pete Townsend phones every Saturday morning. And I was like, “Hello, Pete, heh heh,” and it turned out it was him. He said, “I’m sitting here with David Gilmour, and we’re trying to work out your song ‘Save It for Later’. We can’t quite work out the tune. Will you help us?” And that was, I think, probably the most amazing moment of my life, ever as a musician. Two of my guitar heroes were asking “one-finger wonder” Wakeling about a tune. I was absolutely stunned and still am to this day. I’m terribly grateful.
That would be amazing. I don’t think I’d believe them, even after I got on the phone, that it was Townsend and Gilmour.
No, I didn’t either. It took me a couple of minutes, and it turned out that it clearly was, and I suddenly changed, “Oh, Hello!” The early Who songs had meant the world to me growing up. I didn’t like it so much when it went to rock operas. I’ve never been much for operas, whether they’re rock operas or any other operas. But to have those two… the guy who played “I’m a Boy” and “Pinball Wizard” and the guy who played “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” to ask me anything at all about the guitar was stunning and an absolute privilege.
Your guitar also got a placement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, right?
Yes, my guitar’s in there now. I go and visit it every time I’m in Cleveland. I’m actually happier that my guitar is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I don’t ever want to be inducted myself, because it seems like the kiss of death, doesn’t it? People get nominated, and they’re dead within two years. [laughs] That’s what people in the music world think anyway. [laughs] You gotta be very, very careful with that. I’m really glad my guitar’s in there, and I pray to God they never nominate me.
Or at least not anytime soon.
I’d like to die on my own terms, thank you.