The English Beat’s Dave Wakeling Takes Us There (to the late 70s UK)
by Michael Kuelker
Let’s raise a pint and toast The English Beat. They’re back! And in advance of the concert on Wednesday, March 20 at the Blueberry Hill Duck Room, co-founder/bandleader Dave Wakeling spoke to me for an interview that I used in last Saturday’s “Positive Vibrations,” which can be heard (like all KDHX programming) for up to two weeks.
Formed in Birmingham, England in 1978, The Beat (as they are known outside of the USA) were among the shining lights of the 2 Tone movement, which blended ska, reggae-rock, punk and rebel consciousness. Lyrically conscious and danceable, the songs hold up well lo, these three decades later, something Wakeling attributes to a savvy producer who wanted a bedrock sound.
The band issued three studio albums before dissolving in 1983. Wakeling and bandmate Ranking Roger then went on to form General Public, cutting three albums and scoring large on the pop charts. Some of those numbers will surely appear in the setlist Wednesday night, and in my conversation last week, Wakeling took me back to a catch-a-fire moment of one of the biggest of those General Public hits …
From “Liquidator” to “I’ll Take You There”
In the nineties, General Public unveiled one of the great ideas in pop music of the time: “I’ll Take You There,” a brilliant melding of the Jamaican instrumental “Liquidator” by Harry J All Stars with the gospel/soul of “I’ll Take You There” by The Staple Singers. With a punched up tempo, crisp horn line, Wakeling’s keening vocal and Ranking Roger’s spot-on Jamaican toasting, the song was galvanizing and ubiquitous.
The musical DNA behind GP’s “I’ll Take You There” runs back to a pleasant if ordinary reggae pop song in 1969 by Tony Scott called “What Am I to Do.” The producer, Harry Johnson, used the bassline for “Liquidator” credited to Harry J All Stars the same year and then bam! The latter swiftly became part of the collective consciousness among listeners of Jamaican music, including those in the Jamaican diaspora in England.
Tunes such as “Liquidator” were part of Wakeling’s very coming-of-age.
“Skinheads went to soccer games, you know, football games in England, and they figured that a good way to keep them quiet, or quieter at least, was to play skinhead reggae before the game. West Brom, a Birmingham team, used to come onto the field and their theme song at the time was ‘Liquidator’ by Harry J & the All Stars, which was really the basis for the song ‘I’ll Take You There,’ which we covered in the nineties. We mixed up the two songs.
“That’s where I first heard it. It struck me as a rare combination of being happy and blue at the same time. Something really strong about it. I realized afterward that the music’s trying to cheer yourself up during times of deprivation so there was a streak of survival that ran through it. It was not being cheery for jollity’s sake. It was perhaps dinner music instead of dinner, not music for after dinner.
“It moved me from the first time I ever heard it, really, and it combined with my early teenage years, which is your usual first nervous expeditions toward girls, in my case skinhead girls. And so that music meant an awful lot to me because it was wrapped up in my early fumblings, early slappings, early humiliations, that sort of thing. So it was a very potent music for me in many ways.”
Caribbean Immigration to England:
The Secret Sauce of the 2 Tone Sounds
Reggae has had a British audience from its inception. The late sixties/early seventies were go-go years for singles from Jamaica on import and for new reggae in England with UK labels such as Trojan releasing records regularly. A multiracial working class youth cleaved to it, skinhead reggae as the sound and style became known, and forged an identifiable subculture.
Jamaican music in the UK when he was growing up, Wakeling says, was “a little under-the-radar although it was pretty open in Birmingham, which had a large Caribbean population since the late 50s. After the war, it was taking Britain a bit longer I think than they imagined it would to get back on their feet, especially if there were no buildings left in some cities. So people around the British commonwealth, particularly in Jamaica and the Caribbean, were invited to come to England and rebuild the mother country.
“The notion at the time was that people would come for three or five years, make a fortune comparatively, bring it back home and live like lords with the money they’d saved. And of course like most things like that, it never worked out. People settled down, people had kids. The kids have now got Birmingham accents and probably wouldn’t thrive in Jamaica and didn’t want to go anyway. We were the first generation of kids starting to grow up with that generation of kids, the first set of Jamenglish kids, if you will. So there was plenty of ska and reggae and calypso about, and it was played quite loudly in some houses. You only really needed to be in the streets to hear it sometimes.
“So it was an undercurrent, it was under-the-radar, but it was getting louder and louder.”
Behind the Music: “Stand Down Margaret” and “Best Friend”
Exercising interviewer prerogative, I asked Wakeling about two of my favorite songs from English Beat’s 1980 debut, I Just Can’t Stop It.
One of them is “Whine and Grine / Stand Down Margaret,” a peppy musical slab whose second half memorably critiques prime minister Margaret Thatcher.
“[‘Stand Down Margaret’] was as much that she’d come from middle class, working class, shopkeeper class, but had adopted the airs of graces of royalty and was using that to sort of talk down to the people that she came from. So it was ‘stand down’ as much as ‘humble yourself, please, love.’ Get off your soapbox, we know where you’re from and we know that’s a pretend accent.
“Which was I think the thing that was missing in the movie [2011’s The Iron Lady]. It was a pretty good movie, but it didn’t really take into account that her accent was volatile. When she got angry, she talked like something that you’d hear out of a DH Lawrence play or film. Because that was her natural accent, a Nottingham accent, northern Midlands – Robin Hood accent.” Wakeling laughed and continues. “So you would see flashes of that … And then she went right back to being Oxford when she got her covers up again. It’s a shame the movie didn’t make more of that because I always thought that was very telling.
“So it was a plea to her to stop pretending […] because that’s preventing you from connecting with people who actually live in the country.”
Coming with another sound and with another consciousness is “Best Friend,” an unstoppable juggernaut of a pop song. Press play and gain instant transport to 30 years back.
“It’s a good example of what we were trying to do with The Beat because you listen to it from a distance, it’s cheery and happy and jangly and reminiscent of The Byrds maybe on a good day, and then you listen in to the lyrics, it’s the same guy looking in the same mirror in ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ continuing the conversation about how he realized that him and his reflection like each other more than anybody else in the world. [laughs] It’s the person they feel most comfortable with. ‘I just found out the name of your best friend – you!’ Sometimes that can get very frustrating. You just think the world is not listening. […] That’s a bit of a rude awakening, or rude a-Wakeling, sometimes to young people growing up.
“I wanted it to be both happy and sad at the same time because I think that’s what life is like. It’s never all happy-happy or sad, sad, sad. There’s always redeeming factors, whatever mood you’re in. Even if you’re in desperate straits, crying out, you find yourself stopping and having a laugh at the irony of the situation.
“I wanted a music that could have a combination of happy, uplifting musical parts and rather questioning and howling, lonely vocal parts and lyrics where you could get that combination. I think that’s what life feels like most of the time.”
See more @ The English Beat online.