The Beat Goes On: Dave Wakeling on His Band's Two Tone Legacy

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In the late '70s and early '80s, England was something of a musical petri dish as scores of bands blended genres of music and, in the process, sometimes created whole new ones. It was also the heyday of bands like Madness, The Specials and The Selecter who blended a punk energy with ska and reggae sounds. It became known as the "Two Tone" style, named for the record label that recorded many of the acts.

At the forefront of the movement was The Beat, known in the U.S. as the English Beat. The multiracial group consisted of Dave Wakeling (vocals/guitar), Ranking Roger (vocals), Andy Cox (guitar), David Steele (bass), Everett Morton (drums), and Saxa (saxophone).

They released just three records, I Just Can't Stop It ('80), Wha'ppen? ('81) and Special Beat Service ('82) before dissolving, with Wakeling and Roger starting General Public and Cox and Steele creating Fine Young Cannibals.

Sporadic semi-reunions happened over the years -- one was documented on the VH1 series Bands Reunited -- and two amicable versions of the group are now touring: Roger and Morton in the UK, and Wakeling in the U.S.

Now Shout! Factory has brought the Beat back with The Complete Beat, a 5-CD box set of all three records with plenty of rarities, alternate versions, and live cuts, as well as the single-disc anthology Keep the Beat: The Very Best of the English Beat.

Just before his current tour hits Texas (Fitzgerald's, Friday), Wakeling spoke with Rocks Off about the releases, money battles with former bandmates, and sweaty Houston (which Wakeling pronounces Hoo-ston) women.

Rocks Off: Hi, Dave?

Dave Wakeling: It must be really hard to live in Hoo-ston. For 35 years I have never hit Hoo-ston on a decent weather day. Either the humidity will kill you, or the cold does.

I believe you have the greatest strength just to live there! [laughs croakily]. The answer is California, bro! That's why I left England! The weather there is appalling. Nearly as bad as Hoo-ston's!

I begged my agent to let me play in March or September, but these agents sit in air-conditioned offices and have no clue! You can't wear silk or kashmere in Hoo-ston in the summer! If I lived in Hoo-ston, I would stay naked and have sex most of the day! [laughs]

RO: So, this is a great time to be you with the new releases.

DW: I was really grateful. The chaps at Shout! Factory have done an incredible job sorting through all those tapes, something we probably couldn't have done ourselves. But they put it to us in a way to see what was great and what was rubbish! [laughs]

RO: The disc with the live John Peel BBC Sessions must have been a find.

DW: That was amazing. We didn't know what we were doing at those [sessions] but we meant it and we had conviction. We meant it like Benjamin Franklin meant it! [Rocks Off is not quite sure what Wakeling means...] And sod the consequences!

RO: And...

DW: And Americans are so... what's the word? Pragmatic. So much so that they are happy to watch the Chinese eat them with chopsticks and not say anything rude about it! Which means to me that the English actually won the war of independence! [laughs even more croakily]

But I've loved [America] since I was a kid, or at least the notion of it. But I'm so disappointed today... this is not the America I dreamt of as a child... Benjamin Franklin should be revolving in his grave right now!

RO: When you listen to the three records back to back, you really do see an artistic development with the music.

DW: You know what? When you've got a success going on, you're so blinded you don't know what's going on. So you act out of instinct. There's no conscious decisions made which way you need to go [musically]. I wish there was. I've had 30 years to think of it! We saw punk and post-punk dying. Then the... what do you call it?.... New Romantics coming.

I mean, that was everyone dressing up in their mother's clothes and makeup while she was way at work! And you got the clothes back in the wardrobe and washed your face before she got back home. But that's what you needed to get on television!

Once you've done six concerts about unemployment benefits and nobody has a job...people stop coming. What can you do? What can you do? People would rather pretend they're on a yacht!

RO: Speaking of television, the English Beat episode of Bands Reunited was great. [Wakeling laughs lustily] It's a shame that David and Andy decided not to take part in a full reunion. What's the relationship like now?

DW: Well, it's OK... we seem to have settled it down now. The Fine Young Cannibals guys acted all the way through like they were the principals the whole time. It's strange, but when we finished our deal with Warner Bros. and our publishing company gave us a resume of the last ten years of business, and it turned out -- quite to my surprise and stunningly to theirs -- that it actually made more money for them than for me! And once I pointed that out to them, they shut the fuck up!

They were terrible bullies, and it was a shame. They hate each other, and because of that, they hate the rest of the band. They went to court and sued each other over the Fine Young Cannibals, so they bring that to the mix. But it's like, shut up!

And stop bullying me in public! And if you do it again, I'm going to take [something unintelligible] on you. I promise. That's the America in me. I've been in America for 30 years. People can take the piss, that's fine, but if you push the point too hard, the America comes out in me. And they understood what I said, and they stopped. I haven't received anymore disrespectful messages from them.

RO: Finally, what can we expect from the current tour?

DW: We'll concentrate mainly on the songs from the best-of. I have 20 new songs but have kept them out of the mix so as not to mix apples and oranges. I'm going to do what I can to promote the Beat, because we mean it.

We struck some chords in people's hearts, and I'm very proud of it. And I want to see those sweaty Houston women!

With the Romantics, 8 p.m. Friday, June 15 at Fitzgerald's, 2706 White Oak.

Follow Rocks Off on Facebook and on Twitter at @HPRocksOff.

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