Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Interview: Dave Wakeling (The English Beat, General Public)

by Anjelica LaFurno

While prepping for my interview with Dave Wakeling, I visited his website to read that, according to his biography, “Dave Wakeling is a hell of a nice guy!” I happily found this to be true. He really is a nice guy, simple as that. The King of Ska continues to woo crowds with the sounds of The English Beat and is very willing to explain the content and story behind this great band’s origins and work. We discussed that music today is no longer dissected and analyzed like it once was. Nowadays digital downloads remove the warmth experienced by vinyl and also the informative nature of a cover sleeve. The modern music listener rarely knows the history of their favorite musical act or the story behind that song they like so much. It was a certainly a pleasure to be nostalgic for a short time with a man whose guitar glows in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, yet admittedly has never once downloaded a song digitally.

Anjelica LaFurno: You’ve certainly used your music as a platform for both social commentary and activism. This was especially the case for your work/involvement with Greenpeace. What is it about music that you find to be an ideal outlet for a socially conscious individual like yourself? And do you feel it is your duty as a musician to not only entertain, but also shine a spotlight on relevant issues and causes?

Dave Wakeling: Well I think the key word is ideal. I think a lot of people who get to be songwriters are idealists, originally, you know. And long before I was ever in a group I was spouting off my political and social comments, as a lot of young people do. I remember at the age of twelve watching the black and white television news with my dad and thinking how happy I would be that all this rubbish would be over. That they’d have stopped killing each other’s children by the time that I was a grown up because it was disgusting. And of course they didn’t, did they? And so you feel outraged by things like that and then you start playing the guitar. And then you start singing songs. And I think it’s a natural thing if you feel that way, and you’ve got opinions. And that sort of stuff comes out in your songs.

I do think an artist has some responsibility to sing about the environment that they live in with their fans. And so, I thought, that it’d be wonderful to be in a dance band and to be able to sing about the social issues that were of concern to me. And that if I got people happy and dancing, their minds would be more open like mine was when I was dancing. And so they’d be more susceptible to suggestion…but I don’t want them to hold my opinion. I really don’t. My shoes don’t fit them. However, I ought to let them know what my views are.

AL: When I personally listen to The English Beat, two words immediately come to mind: working class. The approachable, casual aesthetic and everyman attitude to your music makes it clear your own working class roots. Do you feel there is a special connection between the working class people and music in general? And how did these roots influence your music career?

DW: Yes! The attitude of it came, for me, from the Buzzcocks and the Undertones. Because they’d show up at a gig looking like the fans, go on stage in the same clothes, and be back in the crowd with the fans. They weren’t there to be adored or admired; they were there to have a party with their mates. That was the attitude and they broke down the barrier between the crowd and the band in that way. And I liked that a great deal because at the end of the 70s, as we were starting, there’d been a lot of stadium rock and a lot of pomp. Loads of lights, dry ice, and stuff. And it didn’t touch people’s hearts in the way it should’ve done. 

And so, I thought the Buzzcocks and The Undertones were revolutionary in that they didn’t want to show off. We copied them really. We followed their lead. And The Specials also, I think, showed that people could come to the sound check and hang with the band, people could go for a drink with the band before the gig, and the dressing room would be packed with people after the show. It was a reaction to seventies pop rock. We were so grateful to them showing we could be in a group. We thought you’d have to wear your hair to your waist and name your band after some city in America. So we didn’t know we could be in a group. Groups like the Buzzcocks, Wire, and The Undertones it’s like, “Oh look! Ordinary people like us. But they’re geniuses! I’ll have some of that.” I still want to tour with the Buzzcocks. Their music meant a lot to me.

AL: What do you feel was the major difference between the ska revival of the '90s and the UK revival of the second wave, two-tone dominance?

DW: Well, I think the second wave revival was mixing punk with reggae. A lot. That’s what we were trying to do. We were trying to follow on from The Clash and The Slits with the punky reggae party. We were trying to mix punk and reggae, but for me also Toots and the Maytals rhythm section with the Velvet Underground on top. I wanted industrial angst with that hypnotic reggae beat. And then the Specials happened and all of a sudden we were in a ska group. As far as I could see, No Doubt carried more or less in trying to carry on with the punky reggae party but more pop-y. But with third wave ska they seemed to add just another thirty percent more of punk. So they took two-tone tempo and just speeded that up another five beats. And it just became speed ska or punk spa. The major difference I saw was that it got faster... so fast you couldn’t dance to it.

AL: Are there any contemporary, new bands that you’re particularly fond of?

DW: I like Sonic Boom Six out of Manchester. Quite political and social, a bit more overtly so I think then The Beat, really. Some nice working class in your face attitude, so I like them a lot.

AL: Do you have any opinion on the current preoccupation with lo-fi, not only as recording technique, but as a genre also?

DW: Well we’ve recorded all the drums for our new songs analog. We recorded them onto a sixteen-track machine with the two-inch head the same as the way they used to record in the 60s, so we’ve kinda gone retro. The trouble with hi-fi, at the moment, is that it doesn’t touch you; it only touches your ears.

AL: On your website you mention the excitement of seeing young crowds continue to enjoy the music of The English Beat, what is it about ska and your music, that you feel, is in a sense eternal?

DW: It’s upbeat! The origins of reggae and ska I don’t think it was designed as happy-happy music, I think it was designed as survival music. I think it was sometimes have a dance instead of dinner, not dance after dinner, you know? It has that sense of dignity and gentle pride too it. Enjoying life whatever it is ‘cause it’s as good as it’s goin’ get for the minute. And so I think that’s an important part of it. So a chance to be exuberant and lose yourself in a little trip down memory lane, but also to be able to enjoy in the moment ‘cause I don’t want it to be just a nostalgia act.

AL: Do you have any idea as to how much longer the Beat will go on? Is there a planned rest?

DW: Well I don’t have anything else that I can do, so I think I shall probably do this until somebody tells me to stop. I think I’ll still be playing Beat songs as the world goes down the tube by the looks of it. I would imagine that there’s another ten years in it. I’m going to Australia for the first time ever next month, so I’m just started! I think I’ll be at it awhile. I like it. I feel really honored that I was lucky enough to get this job. I dreamt about it as a kid, you know.

Thanks a ton for being my first interview Dave!


Be sure to check out Anjelica's review of the English Beat show that took place at Irving Plaza on Saturday!


  1. What an honor and thrill to be your first!

    Nice questions, you will do great as a journalist! Thanks!