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The Beat goes on for Ranking Roger, Dave Wakeling and company

Known as The Beat in the U.K. and The English Beat in the U.S., the 1980s' ska band's legacy thrives on both continents, under both names and in a new box set.

By Gillian G. Gaar

The Beat (known in the U.S. as The English Beat) is back with a career-summing box set, “The Complete Beat” on Shout! Factory. But in a sense, the group had never really been away. Although the original lineup hasn’t done a show since the ’80s, the band’s two lead singers, Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, lead different lineups of the band in the U.S. (where Wakeling heads up The English Beat) and U.K. (where Roger’s band is simply known as The Beat). Wakeling, who now lives in L.A., caught up with Goldmine to share a little Beat history, ponder why the group’s songs have held up and whether there will be a full-on reunion anytime soon.

English Beat US Festival Jeffrey Mayer

The English Beat perform at the 1983 US Festival, which was the brainchild of Steve Wozniak. Jeffrey Mayer photo.

Goldmine: Why did The Beat break up? There don’t seem to be any clear reasons.
Dave Wakeling: Well, there aren’t any; there’s more ennui than anything else. Some of the band were dreadfully bored with touring. We had become less of a success in England on the third album at exactly the same time as we finally broke in America and started to become a huge success there. And if the first thing wasn’t bad enough to some of them, the second thing was a killer! You could quite easily come offstage, you’d just played to 10,000 people or something, and as they were screaming for a third encore, somebody in the band, looking all upset, would go, “That’s it! We’ve just become another American stadium rock act!” And you’d go, “Yes? And your point would be …? As long as you’re singing what you want to sing, and the crowd liked the songs, let’s go and do a third encore!’” And so the break between the third and the fourth albums just became longer and longer and longer. Some people were itching to go back to work; me and Ranking Roger were, particularly. We’d both just started a family and realized that sharing all the royalties all the way around hadn’t resulted in all that much for anybody! Ouch! So we wanted to get back to work, and we had songs, and we were excited and wanted to build on what we’d just experienced around the third album in America. And other people wanted two years off and didn’t really ever want to tour America again. And that’s what happened. A couple of the lads had two years off and started Fine Young Cannibals, and we [Ranking Roger and I] had a few months off and started General Public. And within about three years, both bands were playing to the same 10,000-sized crowds! But nobody seemed to mind so much the second time around. Perhaps they got used to it. “Oh, it looks like there’s no alternative. Whatever we try and do, we keep ending up in front of 10,000 people screaming.” So, in a way, it was sad. It would’ve been nice if we could’ve all just had three months off. There were songs ready to go that ended up as some of the first General Public songs, and the first releases from Fine Young Cannibals, so those could’ve possibly been Beat songs.

But everything in The Beat had come about so magically. We had our first chart hit nine months after our first gig. So there was a magical sense about it, and with that came a sense of it might not last forever. It was burning a bit bright. And we promised ourselves at the time that because so many of our favorite groups had gone on making records after they’d lost their spirit and cohesion together, if we ever felt that was going to happen to us, that we’d have the balls to pull the plug. And I did. I wasn’t really the executioner of The Beat; I was more the person who had to turn up at the office and get the death certificate and fill in the details. I felt I had to, because I’d started the group, and we’d promised we would end it if it wasn’t going with as much conviction inside as people expected it from the outside. And that’s where we’d got to. But in certain circles, I went down as the bad guy for having split up The Beat. But the truth of the matter was The Beat had split up some few months before. If we had continued making records, they probably wouldn’t have had the passion and the conviction and that 110 percent feeling that we did at least manage to put into the three albums. So I think probably, in retrospect, the right thing happened at the right time. Although it wasn’t what quite a lot of people would’ve preferred, all things being equal. But, of course, all things aren’t equal.

GM: How did you come to live in America? I read you said you’d come to make an album [1991’s “No Warning”], and just stayed.
DW: I think that was a simple answer, really. I’d liked America from the moment I’d got here. I was never particularly fond of the weather in Birmingham, England, and I always adored the weather in California. Here’s your passport to sunshine! And so I took it. And in many ways, I feel more like a Californian than I do an Englishman now. I’ve been here 26 years, nearly half of my life — most of my adult life, I suppose.

GM: After the release of “No Warning,” you took a break from the music business to work for Greenpeace. Did you think you’d get back into music full time again?
DW: Well, my feet were itching for the stage after a while. And I tried to get rid of that feeling by playing Greenpeace benefits; I even changed my name to Dolph Whaleking and the English Beasts! And that sort of satisfied, but by Wednesday, my feet would be itching again, and these shows were only every few weeks, or every month or so. And even the family had noticed. My kids — that I was ostensibly hanging around the house for — were like, “Dad, you need to go and do a gig or something!” But I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to have to do to build myself back up to where I’d been. And so I thought, “Well, I’ll just play clubs up and down California and be happy with that.” And I was pretty well.

But then, Elvis [Costello] teased me about it in front of my Greenpeace cohorts at a show: “This Greenpeace stuff’s all well and good, but your place is on the stage, Wakeling, and you know it!” And I got really teased about it in the office for about a week: “Elvis told Dave off!” I was like, “Oh, shut up! I’ve saved more dolphins than you, anyway!” And then the second week after that, the phone rang, and it was a guy, Ralph Sall, who’d just been given a budget for a soundtrack album for the movie “Threesome” — which was proving to be somewhat of a difficult sell! Steve Baldwin [one of the film’s stars] — it drove him Christian didn’t it? It was quite good actually, but the subject matter was just too queasy for most, I think. The idea came up of reuniting me and Roger as General Public, to sing a cover version. There was a list of songs, and it was suggested that we consider “Stuck In the Middle With You.” I thought that was a bit corny. But I saw “I’ll Take You There” on the list, which always reminded me of a reggae instrumental called “The Liquidator” by Harry J and the All Stars. So I thought it would be amusing to do a mashup of the two, and it worked well enough, it got No. 1 in the Billboard dance charts, 28 plays a week on MTV on the video. And suddenly, we were launched right back into it: a record deal and a tour bus. It was quite bizarre, really. I mean, it was as magical as the way The Beat started, and it was just as though St. Elvis, St. Declan McManus, needed to invoke something backstage, and waved his magic wand, bit of fairy dust and there I was; I was the king of ska again, showing off on stage! Which I think he was right; that is the place for me.
I had had great fun at Greenpeace. I’d never done an office job before, and I managed to hold it down for five years. And I really enjoyed it. I learned some stuff, and I got out of the music industry for a while, which was the important thing, I think, because I wasn’t going to go back into it unless I could redefine why I did it. And the reason couldn’t be, because that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 10 years. So I suppose that was my equivalent of the two years off. I had five years off doing something else that sort of cleansed my soul a little bit. It got me out of the music industry, and then I was able, through the good graces of “I’ll Take You There” and Elvis Costello, to pick and choose how I got back into it. And now that’s exactly what I do, and it’s working really well for me.

English Beat Adrian Boot photo

Just why did The English Beat break up? Surprisingly, it was more boredom than anything else, says Dave Wakeling. Photo courtesy Adrian Boot/Urban Image TV.

GM: Had the box set been in the works for a while?
DW: There’d been talk of it over the years. But it wasn’t until we hooked up with Shout! Factory that we got really excited. And we were terribly lucky, inasmuch as a couple of the chaps there at Shout! Factory had been original Beat fans, so they had a really clear idea of what were the tracks that people had hunted around for over the years, which were the missing jewels — mainly the 12-inches from the U.K. and the radio sessions and a couple of B-sides of singles from the U.K. that had never seen a U.S. release. Then we spent months arguing about which photographs and who would have the last say in the liner note; that took a lot longer! The music part was dead easy.

GM: What was it like trawling through your archives?
DW: There’s some stuff that I’ve hardly ever listened to, like the John Peel radio sessions. I’d only ever had a pretty poor cassette version of them, and that went the way of all cassettes; it didn’t get put back in its box, and then 200 cassettes with no label and 200 hundred cassette boxes with no label were all thrown in a big box. So I’m sure it’s there somewhere, but I haven’t heard it for years. And that was the most exciting part for me, because the first time some of those songs were ever recorded was at John Peel sessions.

And that was before we had a record deal, before we ever knew we’d have a record deal. And so they’re full of hope, and we don’t exactly know what we’re doing, but we make up for it by pretending we did. We didn’t even know, actually, all the chords to the songs, but we managed to bluff through. But there’s something — an innocence, an equal combination of passion and naivety, really. I listen to those songs, and I can smell where we were, what the vibes were, the sense of promise and a little bit of fear in the background that we’re pretending that we didn’t notice.

GM: Why do you think The Beat songs have lasted?
DW: And people all remember the words! That’s what stuns me. They remember a lot of words to The Beat and also the General Public hits that are in the set. It’s remarkable. You just watch, and they’re all singing along with every word. So, wow. There’ll come a time where I won’t actually remember as many words as they do. I’ll be like, “Oh, God, which verse am I on? Help! Oh, there it is.”

English Beat box set

Shout! Factory has brought together the best of The English Beat in a four-disc box set. A single-CD best-of disc also is available.

GM: You can’t have thought you’d be talking about The Beat all these years later.
DW: No, that’s right, of course not. I think there’s two main reasons the music has lasted. One’s just audio. That Bob Sargeant, our producer, wouldn’t allow us to use any of whatever had just been invented in terms of synthesizers. And we had some people in the band who would’ve liked to have done. But for the main part, the songs are drums, bass, two guitars, maybe some keyboards, some saxophone, some tambourine. If you wanted string sounds, it’d have to be a string quartet from the Royal Philharmonic. If you wanted a piano, it’d have to be a Steinway grand, miked with a rhythm mic at just the correct angle as per the BBC handbook.

And because Bob Sargeant had been the resident producer of the John Peel [radio] show, he’d spent the last few years with his engineers doing everything by the BBC book. Little maps of the optimum angle for microphones to be set up, and amplifiers to be valve amplifiers, and everything to be immaculate, classic instruments, serviced to their zenith. And we wanted to use whatever the new cheap synthesizer was, or we wanted Japanese nose flutes; all the kids are getting them! No, no Japanese nose flute for The Beat. So everything was fairly organic. That means when you listen back to it now, it doesn’t sound terribly out of date. A lot of the stuff that sounded thoroughly modern at the time now dates something to the point where it can often become unlistenable; it’s so specific to its genre. And we avoided that.

And the other thing, I think, coming off the tail end of punk, you were allowed to sing about social circumstances. It had been sort of de rigueur in punk, hadn’t it? It wasn’t till much later that people would start asking, “Do you think it’s right to mix pop and politics, then?” And you’d say, “Well, I suppose only if you’re singing songs to other human beings on planet Earth. But if not, you may have a point!” But that came later. And so we could sing about what everybody was talking about in every bar and every bus stop: a mixture of broken hearts and broken political promises, normally! We were free to sing about what was really going on around us.

Dave Wakeling photo courtesy Randex Communications

Dave Wakeling keeps the legacy of The English Beat alive in the U.S. For a few years, though, when he was working for Greenpace and doing benefits, he went by Dolph Whaleking and The English Beasts. Publicity photo courtesy of Randex Communications.

GM: Do you think there ever will be a full Beat reunion?
DW: I very much doubt it. Saxa [the saxophone player] is in his mid-80s now, and although he’s very sprightly, I don’t think he’s up for doing 90-minute concerts. And David [Steele] and Andy [Cox], who went on to form the Cannibals, they didn’t finish off with each other too happily and have not spoken to each other that often, as far as I understand. I think that’s the largest impediment. Everybody else has said yes a few times, but I think Andy and David can’t do it if the other one does do it. So I would very much doubt it. But if they ever came to me, I would say, “Yes, let’s do it.” It would probably be for a limited time, to let everybody have one last look at us. I think it’s more about the fans’ wishes than ours. I think that it would be great to do it for the fans, if that’s what they wanted to see.

But at the same time, you can’t help but think it would be like inviting to dinner the first three people you had sex with and hoping that everybody got on great. “Hey isn’t it great to be all back together?” “No!” And I have seen, some of the groups that have reformed, it hasn’t taken much time for them to remember very clearly why they hated each other’s guts.

And some of them get stuck in that, so that now they’re back with people that they left 25 years ago, but they can’t afford to do nothing else that can make them as much money. It’s a special kind of hell that would be, I think. There’s an old saying that you have to have two out of the following three things for a group to work: You have to have good music, good friends and good money. And you can do it on any two of those three things, but if you try to do it on just one, it’s a nightmare. It seems to work in most circumstances.

GM: Why are there now two Beat groups, yours in America and Roger’s in England?
DW: Oh, that was quite simple. Whilst we were trying to get five out of the seven members for a reunion show in England, Roger was coming up against the same thing as me; he was being called The Beat over there regardless of what he tried to call himself. The same thing had happened with me. I’d just given up in the end; fine, English Beat, I liked the name anyway, I thought of it, so fine, I’ll be the English Beat.

And so I said, “If you want to use the name in England, that’s fine by me; just don’t screw the legacy, make sure that the shows are always great quality and the fans go home happy and it makes them like the records more rather than less.” And so that was quite an easy thing to sort out. It’s kind of cute, I think, that you can hear “Mirror in the Bathroom” sung live by one of the lead singers on two continents!

GM: How much of the year do you spend on the road?
DW: We do about 140 shows a year. Roughly, we’re every other month on the road. And then the alternating months, we’re in California, doing what we used to do, being weekend warriors. Fridays and Saturdays, and they’re nearly always sold out in advance. And you get to drive up and down the coast, which is lovely, and play concerts to really relaxed, happy people who know all the words to your songs. So that’s a splendid way to spend the weekend.

GM: Are you going to release an album of your own?
DW: I am, indeed. Promises, promises. I was going to do it sooner rather than later, but with this box set coming out, some of the fellows in England were very concerned that nobody try to release anything too quickly off the back of it and try and slipstream. And, you know, it’d be a wonderful thing if any record sold enough that anybody could be bothered to try and slipstream off something else’s sales!

But I like the sense of optimism, if nothing else, if not the sense of reality. So I’ve taken the few new songs that we were rotating out of the set and replaced them with deeper album cuts, one that seem more socially relevant now; the lyrics are a bit more appropriate. “I Am Your Flag” is just making its way back in:

I ran into Northern Ireland
Ran into Afghanistan
Dying to become a man?
Well, I am your flag.

I do what I can. And people leave the shows plastered in sweat, their T-shirt soaking wet, their hair stuck to their head, but they don’t care, and they say, “I haven’t danced like that in years. I didn’t even know you guys were still going; I didn’t even know you were still alive. It’s amazing! Better than ever! I saw you in 1982 with R.E.M. opening, and I tell you what, you sound even better than you did then. I can’t believe it. You’ve made me feel young.”

And then he shakes your hand, and you know he’s going to rush home with the wife, and there might even be orgasms at the end of this; it’s that good a night! And I almost get a knowing wink on the way out — “Gotta go, Dave!” And it’s nice. It’s nice to see people enjoying themselves. It’s not overly political. There’s a wry comment here or there, more to make people think about what their position is rather than make any fuss about what mine is. I’m well past the point of thinking my views fit everybody. My shoes don’t fit everybody, and I don’t expect my views to. But I do find common ground with most people on the notion that we’re all in the same boat here. And it’s quite a nice boat. But we’ll all be equally wet if we tip it over and we’re all equally capable of doing that!