Dave Wakeling Live
Much has been written over the past several years of the ongoing influences the various waves of ska music has had on its generations of fans and musicians alike.
From the pioneering days of dub, rock-steady and virgin reggae of Desmond Dekker, Toots and the Maytals, and a young Bob Marley of the 60s, the seed had been planted. Through the more raucous punk urban decay and rebellion of The Clash and Two Tone bands – The English Beat, The Specials and Madness of the late 70s, the demonstrations and dancing began. And, through the third wave of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Save Ferris, Sublime, and others, it remained afloat as those bands paid homage to the founding ska fathers with their own brand of modern ska.
Dave Wakeling, founder and lead singer of The English Beat grew up on the sounds of Trojan Record bands of early ska –reggae in an industrial and racially-mixed town of Birmingham, UK. And now he quite possibly, more than any member of the second wave of ska musicians, is truly enjoying life as a renaissance man.
“It’s very gratifying,” Wakeling says of his ongoing status as a legendary ska icon. “Fans come up to me and tell me what a certain song of ours did for them at a certain point of their lives. It’s fantastic.”
Wakeling and The English Beat made a big splash in just five years (1978-1983) with the three acclaimed lps, Just Can’t Stop It
and Special Beat Service
. With songs like, “Mirror in a Bathroom”, “Stand Down Margaret” “Hands Off, She’s Mine” and “Save It For Later”. Wakeling and band combined reggae, rock-steady, dance hall and punk rock, into one unique multi-cultural sound, mixing in personal politics to an infectious dance beat.
The band’s songs were such a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic (college radio in the US and pop radio in the UK) five different best of hits albums were spawned, two more than the number of studio efforts.
“I wrote songs and try to write songs that are personal and express those feelings as universally as I can,” said of what he figures has been key to the staying power of his band. “They were written during the recession of the late 70s and early 80s, a lot of the lyrics seem to resonate now-a-days. A lot of people come up to us after shows and say, ‘Wow, you could have written that song about today.’”
The English Beat’s depiction in verse of a recessionary 1970s England torn apart by race riots gave adolescent angst-ridden blacks and whites a common bond – music to dance to – together in the UK and then in the US. In fact, when the band first hit American shores, Wakeling and toaster Ranking Roger were the first cross-cultural singing duo Americans had seen since Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.
Wakeling had grown up listening to Bob Marley and Toots and the Maytals, and he was influenced by The Buzzcocks and The Undertones.
Now, three decades later, he is still carrying on in what may now be his happiest days as a member of the band, for which he co-started back in 1978. He recently celebrated his 56-year-old birthday and reflected.
“It’s been revolutionary for me,” he paused. “ When you start getting to numbers like 56 you definitely start thinking about growing older or growing up, or somewhere between the two, “ said the singer-songwriter and lead singer who shares his birthday with the likes of Smokey Robinson, Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath and Prince Andrews.
After drummer Everett Morton and bassist Andy Cox began fighting, the end was in sight. By 1983, the band disbanded and Wakeling and Beat toaster/singer Ranking Roger formed General Public. The band charted two US singles “Tenderness and The Staples Cover “I’ll Take You There” and broke through to American audiences. But like the initial Beat lineup, the success was short-lived and GP broke up by 1988.
Following General Public’s breakup, the young star was suddenly bandless and he hit rock-bottom, drinking and not sure where to turn.
The ska gods were on Wakeling’s side however, as during a brief stay in Los Angeles, he found the love of his life, Damessa whom he would soon marry. The two would settle in Pacific Palisades and raise their two children, 19-year-old Max, a rapper, and now a soccer standout, and 18-year-old daughter Chloe, a guitar player who is taking lessons from the old man.
Wakeling’s two grown children from his first marriage Ingrid and Adam were also both musicians, and at one point Wakeling was going to start a family band called The Ska-tridge Family, obviously paying homage and satirizing the Patridge Family of the 70s US pop culture.
Wakeling is now a grandfather of two as well, and he sees this second wave of offspring as a proud grand-dad but pauses to think of his own humanity.
“It is absolutely glorious and yet at the same time bittersweet being a grandfather because I am close to dropping off the edge,” he says, adding, “It can be horrifying though, but it’s the best thing in the world really, and I get glimpses of a little me.”
And what of this Renaissance man’s enduring Beat band?
“Everybody seems to be in great form,” Wakeling says with satisfaction. “We have a new sound guy (Brad Engstrom) that travels with us, and that has really made all the difference. We have had fabulous consonance of sound the past few months, the vocals are clearer, and 80 percent of the shows are sold out so far.”
Current lineup includes veteran bassist Wayne Lothian, who played with Wakeling in General Public. Drummer Rhythmm Epkins, toaster Antonee First Class, Rick Torres on lead guitar, Matt Morrrish on Sax and recent addition Kevin Lum on keyboards.
“Its’ now been over ten years with Rhythmm and Wayne,” Wakeling adds. “That definitely helps. We started off in a van for a few years before we got a bus. We polished off each others’ rough edges. But honestly, I have been playing with some of these guys longer than the original band, so it’s like Ron Wood being the newest Rolling Stone.”
“You learn how to co-exist in a van because there is not much room for intrigue in a band. If something is wrong it is wrong right then for everyone to see. You tend to deal with issue s and clean them up.”
The new-generation English Beat has been averaging nearly 150 shows a year, with some at typical clubs and venues and a few corporate parties thrown in for good measure. It was not until a few years back that Wakeling realized his fan base was not just on the respective coasts.
“We work both coasts a lot, and we’ve worked the middle of the country less. And now, we have started doing it (the heartland of the US) more the past two or three years.”
So over the course of five years, Wakeling and his mates have a string of cities across the entire US from which to set course on mini tours. April 14, Wakeling brings his Americanized Beat band back to Akron’s Musica, where it played in 2009.
During the current spring tour, the band has even mixed in some opening act gigs with Squeeze, who is also on the comeback trail. Previous to that, the band remained on the West coast throughout the winter months opting for nice climates and even playing for the first time to a sold-out crowd at California’s northern-most state college at Humboldt University in Arcata California.
“We’re on a bit of a roll now,” Wakeling says unabashedly. “The word of mouth on the band has spread. I think we just got past paying our dues. Thirty-Three years and I just got done paying my dues,” he adds with a humbling sense of irony.
Wakeling says in the old days you played to sell records and now you play and give them away. But one record he won’t have to give away is the newly announced box set which will have the entire English Beat discography in it. The deal was signed just a few weeks back with Los Angeles label Shout Factory. The box set is expected to be available by summer.
Wakeling, also says that the label is working with him to put together a box set or retrospective on General public as well, says the Beat box set is most likely to be out by early summer.
As for new material, Wakeling is conservative, and taking his time in deciding what course of action to take with his new songs.
I didn’t want t trample on me own apples and oranges,” Wakeling said in reference to recording his new Beat material that is already in the can. “We’ll start doing the rounds with the record labels, and we’ll see what I should do.”
The era of the big theme rock albums essentially has gone the way of the eight-track. Wakeling feels, as do many on the performing side of the business, that fans are no longer buying whole records for a few decent songs. He believes it is more frugal and realistic to sell his new efforts in smaller packages with better song quality than forcing mega-albums down fans’ throats with fillers.
“I want to be honest that I am not sure an album is the way to do it. I am thinking going the way of a series of tasteful EPs is the way to go,” Wakeling offers up. “I have always loved the EPs I have done with three or four songs. I am very proud of them.”
Something else Wakeling has been proud of receiving his due as a influence to the world of rock music, not once, but twice from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
During the spring of 2006 while playing a gig with Devo in Cleveland, Wakeling who had been contacted and asked by the Rock HOF, donated his trademark teardrop guitar to its hallowed halls.
As bittersweet as it was to hand over his instrument of 27 years of playing, Wakeling was honored and parted with his teardrop guitar while shedding a few drops himself. He vowed then that if he was ever back in Cleveland he might want to break his guitar out of the museum and give it a strum once more.
“I visit it and talk to it,” Wakeling says. “It just happens to be the longest break between sound check and gigs, I tell it.”
Six years later, Wakeling, who says he would be delighted to get the English Beat inducted into the Rock HOF, has been asked by the Rock Hall staff to play at the introduction of this year’s enshrinement ceremonies taking place April 13.
“For me the idea of the Rock Hall is more about what bands have you influenced than simply being in it. It is actually more of an honor to have my guitar in the Hall; it is my instrument I played for 26 years.”
In the end, Wakeling would be honored to see the English Beat be enshrined and inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, but for now he is content to keep this Beat going on.