By Spencer K. Rouse
It started 30 years ago in Margret Thatcher’s England. The Cold War, threats of nuclear destruction and skyrocketing unemployment were stagnating youths. Times were ripe for unrest.
With the global influences, particularly Jamaican, filling the British musical landscape, ska was born, The English Beat, were and remain pioneers. Synthesis got a chance to speak with Dave Wakeling (lead vocals and guitar) from his home in Malibu about the power of music, and his long journey bringing the beat to the people.
When The Beat hit March 31st, 1979, few realized the massiveness that would be unleashed. Ska music with 2 Tone label artists such as The Specials, Selector and Bad Manners were at the forefront of the sound. There had not been a musical style that was so dichotomous, incorporating so many styles and influences while creating something new.
With Dave Wakeling on guitar and vocals, Ranking Roger the toaster and dripping reggae and longtime session saxophonist Saxa, the stage was set. With songs like “Tears of a Clown,” “Stand Down Margret,” and of course “Mirror in the Bathroom,” the Beat would bring ska to a broader audience than their label mates.
So the question remains: How do you possibly take politically fueled lyrics and serve them up with a beat?
“There’s something about the ska beat, the upbeat of it that’s essentially positive and optimistic and after listening to reggae. [I realized] it wasn’t just because it was happy happy music; it was survival music quite often [and] the lyrics were singing about deprivation, or suffering,” Wakeling said.
“It was a revaluation an epiphany… ‘Ooooh I get it,’ they’re telling us that although life’s tragic it’s still beautiful and it’s still worthwhile and it’s only totally rubbish if you give up.
“When I wanted to be in a group, that was one of the foremost things I wanted…to be able to combine an optimistic, upbeat sound that gave you the opportunity to put in lyrics like Max Romeo, Bob Marley, Toots…a chance to talk about social issues, talk about uncomfortable circumstances things,” Wakeling continued.
When The Beat crossed the pond, a little tweaking of the name was in order, thus The English Beat. Though the band would soon fizzle, they laid their mark on the musical landscape with three albums before departing. The scene had changed with the new romantic sound of Duran Duran, providing escapism versus the hard realities of ska.
Wakeling and Roger went on to form General Public in 1984 and had the hit “Tenderness,” bringing them greater pop appeal and higher chart ratings. After a second album with GP and less commercial success, it was time to leave music altogether. Wakeling, leaving with a bad taste in his mouth, felt some rejuvenation was in order. Greenpeace offered him the opportunity.
Out of the music scene directly but continuing to push a positive agenda, Wakeling took to the road with a completely solar truck—the Cyrus—powering an entire stage while traveling round the U.S. with artists including Elvis Costello to promote Greenpeace.
It was at one such event that Wakeling was showing off to some of the younger Greenpeace crew and offered to introduce them to Costello. He recounts Elvis’ response: “Wakeling, I could bang yours and Jerry Dammers’ heads together.”
“Everything went really dark around the edges,” said Wakeling. “I could hear my heart beating in my ears, and my friends were
Costello continued: “All this Greenpeace stuff…that’s all well and good but your place is on stage Wakeling and you know it.”
“I was like, ‘Ooh, ooh thank you…’” told Wakeling. “He was right. I did a couple of little shows when Greenpeace people asked me; after that I started doing it more… I changed my name to Dave Whale King and changed the band name to The English Beast. I got a taste back for it, after having a break.”
With anti-nuclear activism a firm part of Wakeling’s intent with The Beat, Greenpeace was a natural extension of the man if not the music, and slowly after being rejuvenated and reconnecting to the music he began
“Five years at Greenpeace was a bit of spiritual healing and it gave me a chance to get back into music on my terms.”
With a couple of soundtrack hits, another General Public album and more benefits though the late-‘80s and early-‘90s, Wakeling was enjoying performing again and, after a 2003 London reunion, he brought back the beat, The English Beat, and has been touring continuously since.
Wakeling’s been living in California for over 20 years now and considers himself a “dude” with a northern British working-class accent. He seems quite at home here with the trees, positive vibes, and a touch of Buddhism—there is a spiritual side to Wakeling and
But one of the key components of The English Beat was Saxa. Now 80, he lives in England is still very close with Wakeling and a source of divination, almost like a spiritual adviser. I asked Wakeling about Saxa he became very emotional as he discussed the man’s influence on him.
“He’s like the Dali with a saxophone in his hand. When he’s talking to you, you feel like the only person in the world because he can focus all his energy on you, and he just touches you by the way he moves a hand or speaks; it’s almost as though you’re receiving transmitted knowledge. Being in his presence allows you to understand what he’s talking about more than just reading it in a book, you just get it.”
Wakeling went on: “I would throw up before shows; [one time] I’d just thrown up and he grabbed me. He said, ‘You see all them people out there? They’ve all come on the bus in the rain…soaking wet, waiting to have a good time with you. You don’t understand—you’re the lucky one.’ I never threw up after that. He put it into perspective…the only thing you can really do that’s gonna work consistently is sing the song from your heart to theirs.”