A Beat of One's Own
"It's odd," muses Dave Wakeling of the English Beat, "but I find myself walking this kind of tightrope between being a Legacy Artiste and just some old drunk who plays down at the bar. It's a very fine line."
For a tiny window between 1980 and 1983, the English Beat was an international force to be reckoned with. The tight-as-a-drum six-piece (known simply as the Beat everywhere in the world but the United States) did create a bona fide legacy in the form of three back-to-back classic LPs: I Just Can't Stop It, Wh'appen? and Special Beat Service. During those years, they toured the world like a crazed revival show-cum-dance band, leaving a wide swath of converts to their unique blend of hard-edged lyrical observation, sunny pop hooks, hypnotic grooves and one-world politics. Wakeling and his porkpie-hat-sporting foil Ranking Roger left the band in '83 to form the somewhat-less-beloved General Public before going their separate ways in '86.
Aside from such perennial favorite pop tracks as "Mirror in the Bathroom" and "Save It for Later," along with a slew of hard-skanking favorites that helped birth the seemingly endless waves of ska-revival bands that are still rolling today, the English Beat had a hand in another, quieter legacy that Wakeling remains proud of.
"Our very first tour had been opening for the Pretenders. They were going through a hard time and, in fact, not very many months after the tour, half the band was dead. It was very rock and rollish on that tour and kind of cruel. And as the support band, we suffered from it. So our next tour was opening for the Talking Heads and we were kinda nervous because we thought, 'Oh, God, these big American bands, they kinda push you around a bit, don't they?' So we get there for the first show and [Talking Heads leader] David Byrne turns up at the dressing room, all quiet and polite and lovely and he says, 'Make sure you get a sound check, that's important. And if there's anything you need during the tour or if anyone's not treating you right, please come and tell me.' We were utterly shocked. And he did it every show! He came to the dressing room every show, asking if everything was all right on the tour, could he help with anything. It was bizarre. We liked him so much we ended up ironing his clothes for him. It had such a big effect on us.
"So on our next tour we were the headliners and R.E.M. were opening for us, so we passed that on to R.E.M. And quite a few years later I found out that R.E.M. has a reputation for always treating their opening bands nicely, after we treated them well. So it went down the line from David Byrne through us to R.E.M. It's quite nice to find someone civilized in what can easily be an abusive rock and roll situation."
Although his current band is calling itself the English Beat, Wakeling is quick to admit that he's the sole original member. "It's the Beat, though," he insists, affably. "I just didn't manage to bring along everyone I wanted to." In fact, Wakeling's been trying for years to set the stage for a full-scale Beat reunion, and it was an appearance on VH1's Bands Reunited reality series that ironically did the most damage to that dream.
"They played some fairly shallow games on that show," says Wakeling, obviously still smarting from the experience. "It's a shame. I let the producers know more or less what the real issues in the band were, but they didn't want it too realistic. So instead they kind of constructed these rather empty dramas for us to all go through, like an obstacle course. In the end I had to tell 'em that, after so much time and effort trying to get the original Beat back together, VH1 had finally put the last nail in the coffin and now it'll never happen because of them. Thanks a million," he snorts.
"I did do some shows with Ranking Roger a few years ago," Wakeling continues. "I'd thought we were going to be working together again, but I'm not quite sure what happened. I think that some manager of his told him he didn't need any help or something. For a long while, maybe a couple of years, I would get no answers from Roger; all I heard was that he wouldn't work with me and that was the end of that." Wakeling brightens momentarily. "Now, just in the last few weeks, though, I've started to get a few messages from him. He's just had a new baby, and he sent me some baby photographs, very telling. So I think that there's a chance that we'll work together, maybe next year. But for the moment, it's still not happening."
Despite these frustrations, Wakeling seems far from bitter. In fact, he demonstrates a wry and savvy appreciation of his former band's place in both the pop marketplace and the collective unconscious.
"It's ridiculous," he chuckles. "There seem to be more English Beat songs being played on the radio in America now than back when there were people actually bribing people to get stuff on the air. Remarkable!" He also allows himself to believe that there's something deeper than nostalgia going on with his band's audience. "I think sometimes these songs were the soundtrack to people's teenage explorations, shall we say. And for them to go out and have a dance and sing the songs to themselves, they get to be in the moment and in the past at the same time, and it seems to be very comforting to 'em.
"Of course, this might be a general '80s thing rather than just my music, but that period may have been the last time that people felt optimistic about their future. Not that the late '70s and '80s were such safe times: In England during the Thatcher regime, we all thought we were living under a nuclear shadow. But for some reason we seemed to believe that our personal lives, at least, had a chance, that your voice still counted in some way."
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