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Interview: Dave Wakeling (of The [English] Beat and General Public)

on July 10, 2012, 12:30pm
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 Interview: Dave Wakeling (of The [English] Beat and General Public)

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.

 Interview: Dave Wakeling (of The [English] Beat and General Public)

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.

 Interview: Dave Wakeling (of The [English] Beat and General Public)

You are no stranger to soundtracks, especially John Hughes films. Ferris Bueller has both a Beat song and a General Public song. “Tenderness” was in Sixteen Candles and Weird Science. And you contributed to and produced the soundtrack to Hughes’s film She’s Having a Baby. What do you think it was about your music that appealed to him?

John Hughes told me. I spent quite a bit of time with him, went down to his house and hung out. He came to shows and we chatted backstage. He told me that’s all he ever wanted to do actually, was be in a group. He was only making films because he never got to be in a group like he wanted. He had this amazing wall full of albums, and they were placed, not alphabetically, but in his own method of how he thought the music fitted together, and he made me quiz him. I’d have to tell him the name of a group, and he’d go straight to this whole length of a wall, four shelves high, with a little ladder with wheels. I’d say, “Tears for Fears,” and he’d say, “Easy.” I didn’t catch him once; he knew where every record was.

He was very nice. The first time I met him, he came into the dressing room in Orange County, California, and just walked straight up to me and shook hands and said, “Anybody who’s got the balls to put a bassoon in a pop record is my kind of guy.” That was his very first words to me. And we did have a bit of fun with the lyrics to “She’s Having a Baby”. We did it a bit like a postal chess game, before we had computers. So, we would send each other letters with ideas for lyrics, and we’d send the same lyrics sheet back and forth a couple of times as we tried to come up with the ideas and the words and the image that would best capture his sense of the story as that was also developing. So, that was a very interesting thing to do and to get to work with him in that way. A million ideas, the guy had. Really enthusiastic about them all. “What about this?” “YEAH!” “What about this!” I’m sure, like most other artists, he probably had his darker days, but when I was lucky enough to work with him and hang with him a bit… I got to be on the set of Ferris Bueller. I was actually given the baseball. What was the actor’s name?

Matthew Broderick.

Thank you. Matthew Broderick. I got to hang with him and his mates for two or three days, and at the end of it, he gave me the baseball, which I wish I had put in a glass case and had him autograph, because it’s probably a very famous baseball. Sadly, I took it home and let the kids and the dog play with it. There really wasn’t much use for a baseball in England; it’s the wrong size for anything. [laughs] I could have probably retired decades ago just on that ball.

Did “March of the Swivelheads” already exist as an instrumental, or did you alter “Rotating Head” specifically for the film?

The instrumental was first, and to be honest, had been derived from “Mirror in the Bathroom” backwards. There was a DJ in Amsterdam, that when you did his radio show, one of the things he thought was really cool was he gave you a cassette of your song backwards. And it sounded like “Don’t stop the marimba, Marmaduke” (sounds it out), and it had a really good beat to it. It had a menacing sound to it. At that time we had become very famous in England and actually had a couple of bodyguards on the bus at one point. Didn’t last long, thankfully. Really nice chaps, ex-policemen who had actually guarded Margaret Thatcher, so that was ironic. I had this piece of music, and I started asking them questions about their lives and their job, and they told me that they were called “swivelheads.” A lot of the phrases in the song are lifted from them, their jargon. “Friends in high places” is snipers; “swollen ankle” means an ankle holster with a pistol. And so I asked them about their life and tried to incorporate that into that sense of impending something or other. Even if it’s nothing, it just feels like it’s impending all the time; we wanted that sense of drama in the song, too.

So, where did you get the title “Rotating Head” from?

The instrumental was called “March of the Swivelheads” but “swivelheads” didn’t really translate over here, and so “rotating head” fit better. The word swivelhead is in the song a couple of times, “What a life for a swivelhead.” But rotating head fit better, sounded better, made a bit more sense in America, but still made sense in England, and it sounded a bit more like Talking Heads. A good extra bonus there.

The General Public song “Taking the Day Off”, was that ever officially released, or was that only in the film?

I think it was released as a B-side on something else, but I can’t quite remember to be honest.

But it was never on an album proper, right?

No. I don’t know what happened. Something happened around the time of Ferris Bueller, that no soundtrack ever was made. It seemed the oddest of things really.

It’s an awesome soundtrack.

Yes, and an important part of the film. I would have thought you could listen to the soundtrack and probably enjoy the storyline of the film in your head; the music was that prominent. I’m not quite sure what happened. I think companies started to proliferate, and there was a huge music publishing company. I think there were so many people that were taking a slice that they couldn’t actually get a deal done in the end. I think that’s kind of what happened. It was a shame. They should do one now; everybody would agree to a deal now.

No doubt. It would be awesome. Some of those songs are really hard to find, like your song, “Taking the Day Off”. And the Dream Academy song is really hard to find.

That’s right, yes. Originally, the idea had been, and sadly it never came to fruition, that “Taking the Day Off”… I’d played it in a number of different styles: the way that you hear it now, but I also had done a sort of dub-reggae version of it and a slightly angry, jangly, fast version of it. To start with, I’d been brought over with the idea of working on the soundtrack with people, and this would be Ferris Bueller‘s theme. It would appear in different forms during different scenes in the movie, but that never came to fruition, sadly.

That would have been pretty interesting to hear.

I thought it would have been nice, and I still hear the two different versions when I see the film. “Oh, yeah that’s where I would put that one.” [laughs] I’ve got my own soundtrack one step below.

The Beat officially disbanded in ’83, and you’re often quoted saying, “Every great band has only three really good albums.” But did something else go into the breakup? Because aside from Saxa being retired, Andy Cox or David Steele always seem to fail to return to the group. Is there any chance of getting those three back into the group?

No, I don’t think so. Neither Andy or David tread the boards at all nowadays. Andy’s gone more off into a theatrical world. He does perform, but not musically. And I don’t know about David. We’ve tried a lot of times, and we’ve always got everybody else, but we never got David and Andy to do it. There were different times that they would consider it, but I don’t think it’s feasible. And Saxa, no. He’s 85. He could come and watch, perhaps. He’s still a very jolly chap. I saw him a few months ago, and he was wonderful.

So, do you have Blockhead [Dave Blockhead] in the band now?

Yes, that’s right. Blockhead. David Wright, his name is. I don’t know what he’s up to now, but he had been our lighting guy, and Saxa was unwell one night, said he couldn’t perform. We didn’t know what to do, and Blockhead says, “Well, I know all of Saxa’s lines on the piano. If you could find an organ with a decent sound, I could probably knock it off.” He said he knew all the cues from doing the lights all this time. We were absolutely stunned. He never mentioned that he played the piano before.

So, all the sax lines are now done by organ?

No, not at all. This was just on the one night when Saxa was sick, and he sat in and played the solos. It sounded okay; we got away with it. And then he kind of stayed on, because we had Bob Sargent’s Hammond organ parts on the record, and we never had any way of duplicating them, so he stayed on as the piano player and wrote the musical beginning to “I Confess”. That was his idea. It turned out that he’d been a classically trained pianist and then a geography teacher in Barbados and had learned calypso on the piano as his hobby while he was living in the West Indies. And then [he was] that modest about it, he hadn’t mentioned it until that point. It was a stunning bit of good luck there.

 Interview: Dave Wakeling (of The [English] Beat and General Public)

Considering that General Public was somewhat of an extension of The Beat, how was General Public initially accepted when you first formed?

It was accepted uproariously in America and not so much in England, because The Beat were on the rise in America when they split up, although we had kind of slightly peaked. And also, they [Brits] were taken by the New Romantic. All of a sudden, that kind of multicultural, social conscience, unemployment marches sort of band were immediately deemed boring [laughs], and you really needed to be on a yacht with 12 models. All of a sudden, we looked like a bunch of plumbers in a bad mood. However, because of the rising star of The Beat, the third album being the most successful of the three, at least initially, the General Public record was accepted very willingly. We sort of carried on from the level The Beat had been at and took it a bit further. We were actually quite happy with ourselves until Fine Young Cannibals [ex-Beat members Andy Cox and David Steele’s post-Beat project] came in and conquered the world [laughs]. It takes a bit of getting used to. I was a bit upset at the time, of course. You know, you leave a group, they get somebody else in, and it becomes the biggest fucking thing anybody’s ever heard of [laughs]. So, there’s a lesson learned.

The Beat had done its course, you see. The chaps in the Cannibals wanted a couple of years off; me and Roger didn’t. They were sick of touring in America. They wanted a break from the rock and roll world and wanted to write songs from home. Me and Roger had started families, and we liked playing live, and we didn’t want to stop. That transition came about, and they were good to their word. I mean, they did take a couple of years off, and then came out with songs that did very well, so…

When you hear the word “supergroup,” General Public doesn’t often come to mind, but looking at the lineup, you certainly were. You had members of The Beat, Dexy’s Midnight Runners, The Specials, and you even had Mick Jones of The Clash for a while.

I know. We’d think of ourselves as the Humble Pie of post-punk.

I’m gonna quote you on that! Why did Mick only stay a short time?

Well, he was still very keen to start his own project, the Big Audio Dynamite, and so he helped us with the guitar on General Public, and we helped him come up with ideas for melodies for Big Audio Dynamite. Sang a lot of “la la la’s” on cassettes in the studio for him, just to give him some ideas. He said he had a ton of lyrics, but that he didn’t have enough melodies that he was happy with. We kind of swapped out a bit of that. We bought him a stage carpet for his new band, which happened to be made out of this, brand-new at the time, plastic grass. You know, indoor soccer grass? They use it everywhere now. It had to be one of those, and it had to be painted up with white stripes so that it looked exactly like a football field. I thought that was a pretty good deal, so we did that.

The relationship between The Beat and members of The Specials goes way back. You guys have all done various projects together, such as Special Beat and Special AKA. I know you got your big break opening for The Selecter. Were all the 2-Tone bands tight with each other?

They were, surprisingly. A little bit of a difference with the London set, Madness and Bad Manners; they were a bit more London-ish about things. London was not as multiculturally integrated as the more northern industrial cities, where people had frankly been forced to get along with each other on factory lines. Not to say that it was any kind of heaven, but there was a little bit more exchange between people of different colors. It wasn’t really the biggest surprise in the world to see a group with black people and white people coming out of Birmingham, like UB40 and The Beat. Or Coventry, just down the road, also a very big car factory town; The Specials and The Selecter came from there. But London was quite different. They liked it. They said stuff like, “Ooh, that’s good, it’n it?” or “Black geezers and white geezers onstage together, I like that. Good idea.” “I like that. I’ll have some of ‘at,” And we’re, “Ok, good, as long as you like it.”

It hadn’t actually been conscious, but if it was seen as an asset, that’s fine. So, we did end up sometimes making quite a cultural statement just by showing up and being who we were. We didn’t really have to sing a song to have made some sort of comment. It was taken very nicely when we came to America; people were very happy. I still to this day speak with quite a lot of black people who told me that was their integration point for them. That was the first time they had started feeling comfortable going to concerts like that and that we were sort of an unspoken example for that.

That’s an amazing compliment.

Yeah, it’s a nice bonus.

Speaking of concerts, for years you toured America as a reformed English Beat, and Ranking Roger and Everett toured the UK as The Beat. Did you all reconnect into one unit when you went back to the UK for the London International Ska Festival?

No, I tried, but he wouldn’t show up. I thought he was, to start with… We were kind of stop-go a couple of times now. We were going to do some shows together opening for INXS, and then he backed out. Not quite sure why. It’s proven a bit tricky. However, there’s an opportunity next year when they bring out this General Public greatest hits set. I think there’s a chance that we might do some shows here in America as General Public. And that might be a nice little neutral territory, in an odd way to put it. But it might be. You know, it takes it out of the “To Beat or Not To Beat,” or any of that side of things, and this could be something that we could do occasionally for a bit of fun. We might even bring out a couple of new songs with the greatest hits collection. We will see.

We’ll have to take it gingerly, because I’ve invited Roger to stuff in the past, and he’s been initially interested, but it hasn’t turned into anything. So, I’m going to have to be kind of gentle the way we go about it, I think. However, we’ve both grown up a bit, and we do know that fans would like to see us perform together, so this General Public opportunity might be the perfect way to go about that. If that works, you never know what else might happen, you know.

 Interview: Dave Wakeling (of The [English] Beat and General Public)

After your solo album in ’91, No Warning, you stepped away from the mic and went behind the boards to produce the Greenpeace compilation Alternative NRG. I read that there was a unique way that you recorded the album. Can you tell me about it?

We built, in a truck trailer, we built a massive solar generator, solar panels on the roof and deep-cell batteries all around covered in sofas, so it looks something between a lounge and a lecture room. We would record all the songs with solar power. And it turned out that the power from our generator was actually more stable than people were used to using from the mains, which was a nice surprise. Took a bit of convincing some of them. Turned out to be true. We recorded everything, and then used the solar-powered truck again to power the mixdown on the mobile, or at the home-based studio. And then we even took the generator to the mastering plant. They very kindly knocked a hole in the wall for us that they had to brick back in, so as we could run our cables into the inside of the factory. And so, they mastered the disc with solar power as well. Solar power from start to finish, as far as the music was concerned.

As it was a growing science, I suppose, with more people getting interested, we found 100% post-recycled, art-quality, shiny paper from Japan, and we found a full set of high-art-quality organic dyes and inks. So, we made the first, well, one of the first stabs at an organic sleeve. We had to do the best we could. We had to wrap a bit of paper, a bit too much cardboard, around it to make it the same size as the jewel boxes, for security. So, the sleeve ended up a little bigger than would have been environmentally sound, I thought. But it was the best we could do with what we had at the time.

Your bio says to ask you about what Elvis Costello said to you to get you back into music. So, I guess I’m asking.

[laughs] I was showing off to my Greenpeace mates, and I told them, “Oh, yes, I was good mates [with] Elvis.” We did like each other, and he complimented me on some lyrics. He picked as his lyric of the year a line in the song “Cheated”. We had seen each other a few times, and we were pretty good pals. So, I told them I knew him, and they were all dying to meet him. So, we all went backstage after the show, and he said, “I could bang yours and Jerry Dammers’ heads together, Wakeling.” I was like, “Beg your pardon?” Please Earth, swallow me. My friends are snickering. Oh God, I’m being told off by Elvis Costello, and I’m looking at the floor like a schoolboy. And he said, “Yeah, this Greenpeace stuff is all well and good. And Dammers with his anti-Apartheid stuff, it’s all well and good,” he said, “but, Dave, your place is on the stage, Wakeling, and you know it.” So, I was suitably chided and embarrassed.

What was remarkable was that for about two weeks, people at the office teased me a lot, and then in the second week, somebody phoned up and said, “Would you like to do a song for a movie called Threesome that’s coming out? Would you and Roger like to do it? We got a list of the songs for you to pick from.” So, I was like, “Sure.” They were actually interested in “Stuck in the Middle With You”, which was a bit obvious, but “I’ll Take You There” was the one we picked, and we mixed it back to what we thought had been the original song that sounded like that, “The Liquidator” by Harry J and the All-Stars. We combined the two, and it worked very well. It was very successful; it went to number one on the dance charts. All of a sudden, I was back, and I still haven’t got a gig opening for Elvis Costello. We did one show in Las Vegas, where he was playing on just the other side of the swimming pool. One of those Oracle parties. Our set was about a half-hour overlapping, so in between the songs, I could hear Elvis Costello and vice versa. That was some funny shit.

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