The Beat emerged from Birmingham, England, in 1979. Buoyed by Dave Wakeling's impassioned, socially aware lyrics, the sextet fused reggae and ska rhythms with a soul-based backbeat. Wakeling's songs mixed the heart-on-sleeve tenderness and emotional complexity favored by the best singer-songwriters, but his love of Motown and reggae dictated that the beat should come first. The song "Doors of Your Heart" is a prime example of his talent for conflating the head and the heart: It mixes romantic declarations with a call for racial unity, all under the sway of a rock-steady groove.
The Beat — which was known as the English Beat here owing to a U.S. act's claim to that name — made three excellent, diverse records in a three-year span. 1980's I Just Can't Stop It featured switchblade ska, 1981's Wha'ppen? was more dub-heavy and 1982's Special Beat Service contained plenty of elegant nouveau pop (including the immortal "Save It for Later"). The group split in 1983, at which point Wakeling formed the more pop-savvy General Public with Beat vocalist Ranking Roger.
During the Beat's heyday, the band worked alongside like-minded British groups such as the Specials and the Selecter, giving rise to what would later be termed ska's second wave. While the foundation for the music was old — based primarily on Jamaican reggae, dub and ska from the '60s — these groups of blacks and whites merged their respective musical heritage into something at once of-the-moment vital and instantly classic. The name of the 2 Tone record label (helmed by Specials organist Jerry Dammers) was not just a reference to the scene's predilection for black-and-white checkerboard patterns and slick suits; it was a declaration of racial integration through music.
These days, Wakeling is the sole original member of the touring version of the English Beat, and he keeps the spirit of 2 Tone ska alive with regular tours across the United States. (In the UK, Ranking Roger and original drummer Everett Morton occasionally tour as the Beat.) This summer, the English Beat is co-headlining a tour with Reel Big Fish, the pop-ska outfit that broke out in the mid-'90s. Wakeling spoke with Riverfront Times about pop, politics and the future of the English Beat.
RFT: The English Beat is primarily thought of as a ska band, but there were more influences at play. Do you find that ska is your preferred vehicle to write songs in, that it's your home base?
Dave Wakeling: I like anything that has a pop drive to it but also has a syncopated backbeat — it is my favorite groove to write in. But for me, that's as much a mixture of pop, punk and reggae as it is ska. For the Beat, ska was just one in a number of influences. Primarily we were a punk-reggae party band — that was the idea. Once we got our blend of punk and reggae together — really, we wanted to get a blend of Toots & the Maytals and the Velvet Underground. Once we got that down, we realized it was quite close to ska beats, and we incorporated some songs like that, too. But we were more influenced by Motown than ska.
The three Beat records were markedly different, moving from ska to reggae to refined pop. By the end, with Special Beat Service, the line between ska and pop started to blur. Was that the progression your songwriting was taking?
I think so, yeah. Also, the fact that our producer Bob Sargeant had, at the same time, been very successful producing Haircut 100 over that same period, and we all got a taste of each other's music.
You played in St. Louis last summer on the Rockin' the Colonies tour with the Fixx and the Alarm. How is that different, doing a ska-revival tour more than an '80s British-rock tour? Are those hard streams for you to step in and out of?
No, not really. We're terribly lucky — we have about 40 songs currently on our menu; we can provide an hour and a half of nothing but reggae or an hour and a half of nothing but '80s pop, or fast, punky reggae types. It's interesting, and we were challenged with this Reel Big Fish crowd which songs to put in. We haven't been playing many slow ones because we'll lose their attention.
So are you sticking more toward the first two records?
We have, but it's funny since Reel Big Fish fans don't really know what's an old song and what's a new song, we're taking the opportunity to test out a load of new songs. We've been playing seven new songs in batches of three or four a night. We're thrilled: They're going down amazingly well with our own fans. It's kept it very exciting for us as well, because you can relax a bit if most of the songs in the set are over twenty years old; you've been playing them for twenty years. But if you have songs that's only the second or third time they've been played in front of people, it keeps everybody up on their toes. It's quite good, actually; it gives a bit of adrenaline and tension.
You've always been politically active, but you keep it from the forefront of your lyrics.
It's meant to be mixed in like a cake mix: It's one of the ingredients of the songs, but you have to remember that you're on a stage and not a soapbox. So I like to hint and insinuate and pique the curiosity rather than preach. It's a presumption that your views would fit somebody else as well. But what we do have in common is the human predicament, and so I think you can raise all sorts of interesting, one-eyebrow-up questions about that sort of thing and approach it from the human experience end, and you can end up in quite deep political waters without having to have a huge banner and party affiliation.
Part of what made bands like the English Beat and the Specials revolutionary was that you were mixed-race groups. When I saw you last year, you were the only white guy on the stage.
You're the only person that has mentioned that. I've noticed it for quite a while; I wondered if I was turning into Sting. [Laughs]
Is that multicultural makeup still an important part of the English Beat sound? Because it certainly was when you formed the group.
It certainly adds, but it's interesting. Our saxophonist is half black and half Jewish with dreadlocks, so that was another subgenre we managed to check out. We have a lead guitarist who is half Indian and half American — he was born in India. We like to call it "ska from four decades and four continents." I don't think it harms, but it didn't really work out that consciously, as many things do.
And it all comes together in English Beat 2.0.
It seems to have evolved that way. It does look sometimes like we're trying to get a Benetton sponsorship of some sort. [Laughs]