It’s been 30 years since the “punky reggae” strains purveyed by The Beat — or, as they are known in North America, The English Beat — first reverberated through house parties and underground clubs in Birmingham, England, and into the popular consciousness in 1979. Along with groups such as The Specials and Madness, The Beat were the architects of Two Tone ska, and were among the most important bands to emerge in that era. Much like ska itself, their popularity has ebbed and flowed over the years, leading to a number of reunion and revivalist tours along the way, on both sides of the pond. Now, original front man Dave Wakeling has hit the road with a new group bearing The Beat’s name — and spirit, if no other original members — to celebrate the band’s thirtieth anniversary.
In advance of The English Beat’s upcoming Higher Ground performance, Seven Days recently chatted with Wakeling by phone, from his home in Southern California. Highly recommended: Read this interview in your best British accent.
SEVEN DAYS: OK. So there are essentially two versions of The Beat, right? There’s Ranking Roger’s The Beat in England. And there’s The English Beat here in the U.S.
DAVE WAKELING: That’s true, indeed. Less charitably of me, I could say there’s The English Beat and that Ranking Roger is running a particularly good cover band. (Laughs) I’m in a very happy mood today, so I won’t say that … Oops! I just did.
Actually, I’m quite happy for them [The Beat], because there’s 6000 miles between us. And an ocean. So it would be very difficult for us to work together at weekends. We had discussed it. And we had said that we might do something together again in the future. But for now, at least, we’re just carrying on. But I think it’s kind of cute, because you can now enjoy The Beat’s music on a variety of continents on the same night.
And, of course, we try and keep the cooperative side greater than the competitive side. Quite naturally, both of us think that we have the finest version. And in some ways, the bands are slightly different because of the audience that they play to, you know? Half of my band is English and half of the band is American, and we all live in America. And I’ve always thought it’s very important to be true to your medium. Be true to your influences. So, in the same way that when the band first started in England and we were drawing on ska as one of our inspirations, we didn’t want to make the band sound as though it came from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1963. We wanted the band to sound as though they came from Birmingham in 1979. We were quite strict about that.
So, in the same way now, I really want the band to sound like we come from America in 2009. Because we do … And we don’t try and pretend that we’re 20-year-old punks with a head full of speed. Because we’re not.
In some ways, you can get a trip down memory lane out of the show. But in many ways it sounds like how the songs should be meant today. And I think that’s better. I don’t want to be a museum piece. And I like that the songs are attacked a bit slower than they used to be. Basically, because I’m twice the age and I’m not loaded. Nor is the audience.
But it’s not like the songs are staid or anything like that. At the end of two hours, the whole crowd is soaking wet, and we manage to get the whole crowd dancing as one, even before they know they’re moving as one. Which, for me, is like Carl Jung’s notion of mass consciousness in action.
SD: What was your approach towards fusing that 1960s Kingston sound into what became Two Tone ska?
DW: Well, we were very much part of the punky-reggae party. Punks and rastas had one thing in common, and that was that they were all banned from the same clubs. And so, because of that, house parties and festivals became the way to go.
We used to run these house parties where we’d have two DJs. One playing, like, neon punk singles. And the other one playing 12-inch reggae-dub slates. And we found that, if the one DJ played a load of punk, you’d get the fuller tract of people. But only for about an hour, before they’d all burn out and disappear. And if you played too much dub reggae, you’d end up with everybody leaning against the wall nodding, which we used to call “dancing on the inside.”
But if you mixed it up ... the dance floor would stay absolutely packed all night. And the adrenaline of the punk fitted nicely with the sensuous backbeat of the reggae. And the crowd would just be totally enthralled.
So it was at one of those house parties that we had in Birmingham … Andy [Cox], the original lead guitarist, said, “Yeah, but what if you could get the elements of both DJs in the same 3-minute pop single? What would you have then?” And it was like a black-and-white light bulb went on above our heads. You’d have the punky-reggae party in a pop single.
So that was the brief, if you could call it that. We always tried to combine The Velvet Underground with Toots & the Maytals, all within the same Monkees 3-minute pop single. Your mission, should you accept it ... (Laughs)
And also, from both punk and reggae, there was a lot of political and social commentary. We thought that it would be very subversive if you could make something as catchy as The Monkees, but include some social commentary about what was actually going on in our lives. It wasn’t as though we were talking about anything strange. We were only talking about what was being talked about in every bus stop and every bar in Birmingham.
Especially in Birmingham in 1979, if you could come up with an LP of 12 songs and not mention what was going on outside the window, that was a far more overtly political statement than just gently mentioning what everyone was talking about. I would tell those people, “I think your album is far more political.” The fact that you choose to ignore what’s going on around you, I think, is more politically charged than anything [we were] saying.
But then I realized a few years later — after the New Romantics came and knocked us off our pedestal — all of a sudden you had to be stealing clothes out of your mom’s wardrobe and putting a load of makeup on to get on the television. So, we were very jealous.
Anyway, then I realized that music has a number of functions. And one of them is sheer escapism. And that’s what our detractors were trying to say to us, inelegantly. And all the roles of music do have their time and place, I suppose. And it does seem to go in waves, you know? Now it would appear that our music has come back around to be popular again … I think partly it’s that social conscience and social commentary are back on again. The circumstances of England in the late ’70s and here in America 30 years later are remarkably, almost worryingly, similar.
You have recession flirting with depression. You’ve got unemployment flirting with double figures. And you’ve got this vague specter of international unease about nuclear issues. It’s a very similar circumstance. And at the time, to be honest, we all thought we were doomed. If somebody had said we would be talking about this in 2009, we would have quickly corrected them and said, “No. We’ll all be dead by then.” We thought we were doing the apocalypso. Or the skapocalypso. (Laughs)
Our notion of it was, well, things look like they’re in terrible circumstances. Either you can have a good dance and see if you can cheer people up and make things better. Or, if we are actually doomed, then we may as well have a good dance and a good laugh before we’re all blown up.
SD: Do you see similarities between race relations during the Two Tone era and now?
DW: Ooh. Well, I think that race relations are farther advanced in America than they were in England in the late ’70s. The myth of “race,” for one, has, I think, been more or less put to bed. There is only one race: the human race. And it’s very interesting the words people sometimes try and use to sow discord. They would say stuff about “racial prejudice.” Or about “black” and “white.” But black people aren’t black and white people aren’t white. If you were to try and set up a war based on brown and dark pink subspecies, it doesn’t exactly have the same sort of banner attraction as a “race war” between black and white. But those are the words people use. And those words are inaccurate, which tells you a lot about where they’re coming from.
There was something about the Two Tone thing that I think people got automatically in England, because it was right in front of their faces. But it didn’t translate in America and I think it’s worth relaying.
The police in England have a black-and-white checkerboard around their hats. And the women police officers, or the “Judy Screws” as they were known at the time, they wore a black-and-white cravat over their jackets. So, in some ways, the black-and-white checkerboard, although it signified black and white — pink and brown — people living together, it also was a way of taking back the image, or the icon of the police, who were as equally cruel to minorities as they were to white people who wanted to see a bit of a change. So, in some ways, it was a bit like African Americans taking back the word “nigger” and using as their own. It kind of diffused things. It was like putting on a concert that meant the exact opposite of what the police were being forced to enforce, and using their flag to wave back at them. And making their flag mean something else.
SD: Do you listen to much third- or fourth-wave ska? And what are your thoughts on it?
DW: I adore Westbound Train. They’re smooth and they’ve got good songs. Out of England, I also like Sonic Boom Six, because I’ve been waiting for ages for someone to successfully mix up the power of ska and hip-hop. And I think they’re doing a pretty good job with that. Out of traditional ska, I like The Dualers, out of England. It’s two singing brothers who sound like they’re from Kingston in 1963. But I think their dad was, so that’s why.
Regardless of what wave of ska it might be, there’s always a pronounced difference between bands that have got memorable songs and the bands that have just got the form without the substance. So for every wave of ska, you’ve got a few groups that stand the test of time. And it’s basically because they’ve got songs that you can sing and remember the words to and feel moved by some years later. It’s not just singing songs about ska. You know, “Everybody’s skanking! Pick it up! Pick it up!” It’s like, shut up.
I hate it when toasters or rappers start rapping and toasting about rapping and toasting. “We pick up de mic and we light up de crowd.” Shut up! We know that’s what you’re doing. That’s why we’re here! Stop talking about it. We can see you’ve got the microphone in your hand. You don’t need to say something.
So I’m always nervous about that. And I remember when No Doubt and Mighty Mighty Bosstones hit. We were in Orange County at the time. And it seemed like, over a three-month period, a load of heavy-metal bands who were getting nowhere were suddenly skanking it up, singing songs about ska. Desperate to the point of craven. It’s like, you had nothing to sing about as a heavy-metal band and you are continuing that fine tradition as a ska band. But because of that, nobody’s going to know who you are in 10 years’ time.
So that’s always been the difference for me. Do you have a song that makes the hair stand up on your neck? Does it make you cry when you sing it at home? And if it does, it stands half a chance that you might move other people’s hearts as well. And if you do, they will remember you for it. How brave are you willing to be to reveal your common human weaknesses in front of others? Because that’s what binds us in common — our mutual weaknesses, not our pretended strengths.
The English Beat plays the Higher Ground Ballroom this Tuesday, May 26, at 8 p.m. $20/22.