Interview Date: 04/02/2009
Run Date: 04/20/2009
Here’s a stat that will make Gen Xers cry in their lattes: the English Beat, one of the premier bands of ska’s second wave, turn 30 this year. Even crazier, there are not one but two different versions of the Beat that will be celebrating this anniversary. Bullz-Eye spoke with Dave Wakeling, the band’s original lead singer and leader of the US version of the Beat (his partner in Beat spinoff band General Public, Ranking Roger, runs the UK version) to talk about the band hitting Stones-type milestones, getting robbed and then dissed by Bill Clinton, and the boredom associated with making a full-length album. Oh, and a word to the wise when talking to Wakeling: don’t ask too many questions about Saxa’s health. A touchy subject, that one.
Bullz-Eye: Hello, is this Mr. Wakeling?
Dave Wakeling: It is, indeed.
BE: This is David Medsker from Bullz-Eye.com, how are you?
DW: I’m fantastic, thank you, although whenever anybody calls me Mr. Wakeling, I always think they’re talking about my dad.
BE: Sorry about that.
DW: That’s all right, no problem. He’s been dead for years, so I’m like, “No, he’s not here at the moment…”
BE: It is my great pleasure to do this interview with you. I’ve been a fan of the band from the beginning, so thank you for taking the time to talk with us.
DW: Thank you very much, mate.
BE: So you’re doing a 30th anniversary tour. How the hell are the English Beat 30 years old?
DW: I don’t know how the hell we survived that, I have no idea. I suppose miracles are possible.
BE: Isn’t that sort of thing reserved for the Stones?
DW: You would think so. It doesn’t seem like it took that long, to be honest. A bad accident can take forever, and a good decade can go by in a flash. There’s something about time that’s always confused me, really. The perception of time becomes really distorted when you’re on stage as well. It’s that sort of slo-mo feeling you might get if you’re in an accident or a fight; you seem to have more frames per millisecond to deal with everything while you’re on stage, and then you’re back off stage and it seems like it’s only taken a moment. Yet while you’re doing it, it seemed infinite.
BE: I see that you represent the Beat in the States, while Ranking Roger and Everett Morton represent the band in the UK.
DW: They do, indeed, and we’re great friends, and so I’m proud to say that they’re the best cover band I’ve ever heard.
BE: I was going to say that kind of arrangement smacks of litigation. You guys still get along?
DW: We do, indeed. We’re all good buddies and everybody’s gotta pay their rent. We might even work together. It’s a bit difficult now, because there are two bands and two sets of musicians with mouths to feed at home, so if you did try to work together, you’d put one bass player and one of everything out of work for a minute. But at least in theory, we have no problem with working with each other. Let’s just say we wish each other the best of luck until that comes.
BE: Why is it that Andy Cox and Dave Steele have never participated in any Beat-related activities since the band’s original breakup? Are they allergic to money?
DW: No, they drowned in money during the Fine Young Cannibals period, so they’ve got no interest to do it. They can afford not to do it, which is perhaps most important. I know that they had their own story to tell about the rise and fall of the Fine Young Cannibals, and I think that’s had a bit to do with why they’ve not been involved with the Beat reunion stuff since then. They never were ones for live music, particularly. Andy liked it a bit more, but touring was not their favorite lifestyle. So there are a number of reasons, but they’ve both said to me on occasion that if the timing were right, and the money was right – from David’s point of view – they had no opposition to being in a Beat get-together of some sort. I don’t know if those were words to defer it to a later date, who knows. I think it’s a bit like…imagine the first six people you’ve had sex with, and invite them all to dinner…
BE: (Bursts out laughing)
DW: …and expect everyone to get on. Sometimes I think nostalgia can run a bit too rampant.
BE: True or false: when you audition musicians for English Beat tours, you are hardest on picking the saxophonists.
DW: Yes, that would be true, because the tone of Saxa’s saxophone was pretty unique. And you have to be able to play the saxophone very well to get to emulate that tone. It’s more like a clarinet than a kazoo. A lot of younger players tend to overblow, to try and show off their chops. So to get a sooth, silky, smoky tone, and to emulate Saxa’s syncopated timing…I mean, he had 50, 60 years of practice – fifty, at least – of a mixture of spiritualism and over-proof rum to work all of that out. So it’s a big challenge for a musician, and I must say it was worth packing around and looking for somebody, because the chap that I have at the moment, Nat Love, although he’s in his late 20’s, he’s mastered Saxa’s parts. I took a DVD over to London and showed Saxa just three weeks ago, and he was amazed, and immediately wanted to take the kid on as his protégé.
BE: You just answered half of my next question: when was the last time you spoke with Saxa, and how is he?
DW: He’s in great spirits, and in actual fact, his body seems to be recovering a bit. He wasn’t very well, and he seems to have recovered. A miracle. He stands, he walks. And he sounds very happy and very chipper. There was even some talk of him coming over to America during the summer. But he’s said that before, and I think he may be saying that to cheer himself up. I’m not sure he can actually do it, we’ll see. He’s got the heart of a lion, but the legs of a spring chicken at the moment.
BE: For those who may not know, could you elaborate a little? You said he’s okay, he’s getting better.
DW: He was ill, and he recovered. And it was a miraculous recovery.
BE: What did he have, exactly?
DW: Nobody’s fucking business is what he had. I’m sure he doesn’t want the whole world knowing what he had. (Laughs) You wouldn’t want to get it. I was trying to be modest on his behalf, that’s all. But the point being made is that quite a lot of us didn’t expect him to recover, and he did, which I think goes to show the degree of spirit that he has.
BE: Fair enough. I wasn’t trying to pry.
DW: No, of course, I understand.
BE: According to the Beat’s Wikipedia page, and I know that these are largely bogus, but it says that there is a new Beat album in the works. Is that true, and if it is, will it involve any of the other original members?
DW: It’s sort of no on both of those. I think the album is dead, unless it’s a greatest-hits collection. And I never liked [albums] anyway, I felt that they were a marketing ploy to force music fans to buy as many tracks as they could, from the record company’s point of view. I was always a singles man myself, and I could stretch to an EP that I find interesting. But 12 songs from the same person, bleating about the same thing from different angles, used to bore the pants off of me most of the time, and still does. I would prefer to bring out the songs in matching pairs, and maybe add a couple of remixes, or some live songs, or some acoustic versions, some remakes of golden oldies. I have a hankering for seven-track EPs, I don’t know why. So that’s what we intend to do. We have enough songs for an album, but I would be loath to go in and make one. I think the process of recording 12 songs in a row, at the same time, I used to find it interminably boring. I hated it. You know, you just listen to your own songs for three months, good God.
BE: And then you have to shoot the video.
DW: Yeah, you know. I completely hated it. And now I understand why Phil Spector only recorded one or two songs from a band at a time, so he could get that intense emotional [performance], and I think that’s correct. So that’s what we’d like to do, and we would like to have the first couple of songs out by this summer, in time for a summer tour that we’re doing with a couple of other ska bands. I may have a remix from Thievery Corporation for two new songs. I did some work with them last year.
BE: Very cool.
DW: Yeah, it turns out they were Beat fans growing up, and I was nominated as part of the family, which I thought was very sweet because I love what they do and they’re really nice people. They offered to remix two of my new songs, so I would put those on the first CD as well. I doubt very much that anyone from the original lineup will be on the record. I don’t rule it out, but I don’t see it in the cards at the moment, with the exception of…Saxa’s not playing at the moment, because his pinkie finger has got some kind of cyst on it, and it’s made [his finger] kind of rigid. He may have already had it done, but he had to have a surgery on it, and he couldn’t use it on his saxophone. Pinkie finger, terribly important, of course. And he said when I was over there that the one thing I could do was send him the new songs and he would scat, you know, hum and ‘la la la’ some ideas for melodies that he would have for the song, and translate them to Nat, and Nat could try combining some of Saxa’s melody suggestions with the things he’d worked up, and some of the ideas I had come up with for a saxophone line, and see if we could come up with a composite part.
There’s one called “Said We Would Never Die,” a ballad. A real tear-jerker, with a great happy ending, in a way. A little cathartic, at least. And I think Saxa could compose his greatest ever solo over the top of that. I mean, he’s done some good ones, but [the song] has that sense of tragedy and irony that I think Saxa could totally nail. He’s hoping that his finger will be better, and that he can actually play on the tracks, and if so that would be great. And if not, at least he would be there by humming some of the composition for us. He’s also given me a cassette of ideas for songs he has. He sits up all night with a cassette player, talking about the melodies, and lyrics, and titles, and that’s what I’m listening to at the moment.
BE: Wow, well, we wish him a speedy recovery.
DW: I mean, he’s better now than he has been for a long time, for a couple of years. I thought that I might be going home for my last visit [with Saxa], my last formal state visit. And I was quite surprised to see him as chipper as he was, and free and clear of the ailments that had been bothering him. And now he’s getting on to secondary things like a sore finger and stuff like that. So he’s in great form and great spirits, and I may see him at the end of this month. The Specials have reunited, and they’re playing Birmingham April 25, and I may go over to represent, to bear witness. (Laughs) I might even get Saxa to watch the show.
BE: I have a General Public question for you. When your cover of “I’ll Take You There” landed in the American Top 40, be honest: you were totally shocked, weren’t you?
DW: Yes, I was. Totally shocked. I think the only thing that was more shocking was on Election Day [in 1996], and the TV was on in the other room. Somebody grabbed me and said, “Quickquickquickquickquick!” And they’ve got a film of President Clinton getting off of Air Force One to go and vote in Little Rock, Arkansas. And the door opens, and [humming opening notes to “I’ll Take You There”] dum dum dum dum dum, and I was singing as he walked down the stairs, and I thought, “Wow, that’s about as ironic as it gets, isn’t it?” And Clinton used that song a few times. He used it at the New Hampshire primaries, he used it as the final song at the Democratic National Convention, and then he used it on Election Day. And then I wrote and said “Really glad you like the song. We have a spare 16 bars if you know anyone who’d like to play a saxophone solo at one of the inaugural balls.” And we got a form letter back saying, “The only bands considered for inaugural balls needed to have played at least 15 fundraisers.”
DW: And I was like, well, you cheeky bastards. You used the song without our permission, paid us nothing… And I liked the guy, but I knew something’s going to go dreadfully wrong here. And not long afterwards, Monica Lewinsky surfaced with her little blue dress.
BE: How about that. Karma.
DW: You know, that’s what I thought at the time. I wasn’t going to say it, but that’s what I thought. But they used “I’ll Take You There” when Michelle Obama had that women’s meeting in Los Angeles at UCLA, where Maria Shriver came, and Caroline Kennedy, and Oprah, and my family went to that. I was watching on TV, and they played “I’ll Take You There,” and it brought the house down. Clinton introduced it as, “I’ll take you there, the bridge to the 21st century,” and it suited them because you got the ‘60s civil rights movement in the Staple Singers version, plus [our] more modern, up-to-date [version]. We also surreptitiously backed into “I’ll Take You There, because for my money, at least, “I’ll Take You There” was written over another instrumental. The lyrics were just written on top of “The Liquidator,” by the Harry J Allstars. And it went [mimics melody to “The Liquidator”], and “I’ll Take You There” came out one or two years later. And I always had a feeling that Alvertis Bell had sat on a beach in Jamaica and heard this instrumental, and consciously or not, had written a song that the melody fits exactly, with exactly the same bass line. So that song “The Liquidator” was a very special song in English football/soccer circles, and was used as the theme song for [a team] in Birmingham, and the teams took the field [again mimics melody to “The Liquidator”]. So we took elements of the original, and slipped them back into “I’ll Take You There.” The record company [people] were having conniption fits because we kept telling them about it. “For God’s sake, don’t say anything about it!” They didn’t want to get into a publishing battle royale, I suppose, with the film “Threesome” hanging by a thread.
BE: Yeah, they’re not too fond of doling out money if they don’t have to.
DW: I suppose not. And even better, I got to award Alvertis Bell at some fancy dinner. I got to go on stage and give him a plaque for the most covered song of the year, because [“I’ll Take You There”] had been used for a TV commercial as well. So it won this Cover Version Song of the Year award, A BMI award or something like that. And I didn’t think to ask him, did he think he was going to pay Harry J and the Allstars for their song? (Laughs) But of course you don’t do any of that on stage, so we just smiled at each other and looked ridiculous in our rented suits.
BE: When John Hughes contacted you in 1987 and asked you to write the title track for his latest movie, did you think that you had just been touched by the hand of God?
DW: Well, that god had touched my hand a few months before. He came backstage in Anaheim after we played a concert. And as he shook my hand, he said, “Anybody who’s got the balls to put a bassoon in a pop record, and get it in the charts, is my man.” He was referring to the bassoon part in “Tenderness” [mimics bassoon line]. We became good friends and I went to his house a few times, and he’s got a wall of records, 50 feet long, 12 feet high. You could point to anywhere on it, and he knew exactly which record it was. Far more serious about music than I ever was, that’s for sure. It was before I had become computerized – and probably before a lot of people had – so we’d talk about this idea of “She’s Having a Baby.” We both had young children and we discussed the ways it makes things better and some ways it makes things worse, and the changes it brings to couples once they start having kids. And then we started writing each other, so I wrote the first draft of “She’s Having a Baby,” and I would send it to him, and he wrote back with suggestions, or angles, where he thought the movie was going. We wrote back and forth three or four times, which I thought was one of the most exciting co-writes I’ve ever done, really. Brilliant man. I don’t even know what he does now. Did he just retire, or what?
BE: He pops out a script about once every seven years. It’s weird. He pulled a Terrence Malick; he just disappeared.
DW: I wonder what he does. I’d like to see him. Is he a happy chap, or is he a reclusive type?
BE: I honestly have no idea. I know that I miss him.
DW: He’s done a good job, then, hasn’t he? Hiding beneath the radar.
BE: I’d like to know your thoughts about the big ska revival in the late ‘90s. Did you like a lot of those bands, or were you disappointed?
DW: Well, the best ones, I was very thrilled with. I thought No Doubt were very good. They wrote catchy pop songs that connected from the heart to the heart. I like the Mighty Mighty Bosstones a lot, thought they were very good. Like Dicky [Barrett, Bosstones singer] a lot. The difference between the good and the bad is the same as the second wave of ska, or the first wave of ska, or the fourth wave of ska. The ones with souls are great, and the ones that are just pretending so they can be in a ska group are crap. And it doesn’t take long to sort out which one’s which.
BE: All right, let’s have some fun here. You have the ability to have any song you had a hand in writing, and any video you ever appeared in, erased from the history books. Which ones do you choose?
DW: Oh, none of them. The most embarrassing ones are the ones you learn the most from. You actually learn nothing at all from your success. Nothing at all. You just pat yourself on the back and go, “Well, I always knew I was great. I’m glad it’s just been ratified now.” But when you make an idiot of yourself in public, and everyone is expecting you to do well, so it has that element of a complete pratfall, with the world watching, you have to go through a couple of weeks of horror and crying about it. But you actually learn some lessons about your own life, about who you are, and where you are, and how you move on from here. So I would cherish the humiliations more than I would cherish the successes. But it’s taken a lot of years of learning and reflection to get to that point.
BE: Someone once told me about how they saw the Beat on the Special Beat Service tour, and your opening act at the time was R.E.M. Do you have any anecdotes from your time on the road with the boys from Athens?
DW: They were very nervous. It was their first time out of Athens on tour. They sounded fantastic, and we tried to look after them, almost mothered them. Make sure they got sound checks, were they okay. Talking Heads had done the same for us. David Byrne would come backstage every day, did we get enough sound checks, is everybody treating us okay, is there anything they can do for us, do we need anything. Just really, really kind and gracious. And it made all the difference to us, as a nervous opening band, so we tried to pass that tradition on and do the same for R.E.M. And now, I believe R.E.M. have done it ever since, so we tried to pass David Byrne’s good karma down the rock [chain], and it seems to have worked.
Michael [Stipe] was always very nervous about what I thought about the songs, and my only criticism was, “I can tell that the songs are great, and that you’re saying something really important, but I can’t understand all the words, it’s a bit mumble-y. You may want to project the lyrics out a bit,” you know. And about a month later, their first EP or album came out, and sold millions of copies, and made a complete fool of me, because the mumbling sound was ‘in’. So I went back to IRS Records and told them, with the straightest face that I could muster, that I wanted to remix the [most recent English Beat] album. They’re like, “It’s doing well in the charts, it’s #1 on the college charts, and it’s been out for four months.” I was like, “No, it’s wrong. I want to remix the whole thing. I want to turn all the vocals down. You can hear all the words on our record. It sucks, totally old-fashioned. I’m looking for the mumbling sound. I want the audience to guess what I’m talking about. It’s better, it’s more enigmatic. ‘You don’t get it, you guys.’”
BE: Speaking of IRS, do you think we’ll ever see another label like them?
DW: Well, you’d say from the good points of view, ‘Oh, I doubt it.’ Then you’d say from the bad points of view, ‘I fucking well hope not,’ because they’ve never paid anybody since 1992. We only just got our catalog back. We found that they had changed the names of their companies, probably when they moved from America to England in the ‘90s, probably to avoid paying people. They subtly changed their names so that the companies that hold all of the contracts for their bands, they’re no longer in existence. And all these English companies that sound like the same thing but definitely aren’t, are pretending that they own the copyrights. So we just got ours back by agreeing that they don’t have to pay us any of the money that they’ve ever owed us since 1992. They were never going to pay us anyway; I take that as tacit admittance by them they don’t have the rights to any of the damn catalog, and all the artists should get their songs back now, because very few of them have been paid. It’s sad.
The people that worked at IRS, I’m still in touch with a great deal of them. The publicist, who was the publicist for General Public, is my publicist now. The guy that was the radio promotions person, he’s one of my closest friends and worked as our marketing manager last year while he was between jobs. So I have a lot of great friends who were there at IRS, but I’m afraid that Miles Copeland did turn out to be a crook, as everybody had said.
BE: Wow. I have to thank you for your candid answers to these questions. Best of luck on the tour. I look forward to seeing a seven-track EP from you in the future.
DW: Yep. I think it should be fantastic. Let’s just hope I get it together now. (Laughs)
BE: I wish you were coming somewhere near us. I’m locked in the Midwest, unfortunately.
DW: Where are you?
BE: I’m in Columbus, Ohio.
DW: We are coming there, this summer tour with Hepcat and Reel Big Fish, I think that comes to Columbus, Ohio. It might even be an outdoors-y event of some sort.
BE: I think I know which venue you’re playing, in which case I’ll see you there.
DW: Fantastic. Well, you’ve got my number, so by all means, just text me or phone me whatever you need, and it would be lovely to meet you.
BE: That would be great, Dave. It’s been my pleasure.DW: Thank you very much. Nice questions, you kept me on my toes. (Laughs)