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Tuesday, 27 August 2013 11:10

The English Beat's Dave Wakeling on UK social history, West Indian cricket and Teenage Cancer Trust

Dave Wakeling Dave Wakeling Bryan Kremkau
Written by Michael Kuelker
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Flagship 2Tone group the English Beat returns to the Blueberry Hill Duck Room on Wednesday, August 28, promoting a new various artists anthology of English Beat cover songs benefiting Teenage Cancer Trust.  Lead singer and guitarist Dave Wakeling spoke to me recently about the album and the charity, dropping a bit of eclectic English social history along the way.

These are the bare facts and they are true. But this, brothers and sisters, is what it's like to be an English Beat fan who's been hit with 2Tone music and feels no pain.

On a recent Saturday night, I was jamming a delicious batch of tunes by English Beat on "Positive Vibrations" and a guy phoned in. He was in the irie. I had just played a dub of "Stand Down Margaret," the group's spot-on and eminently danceable anti-Margaret Thatcher anthem, and was in the middle of "Doors of Your Heart," arguably the best pure-reggae in the band's catalogue. On cue and ready to pop: "Dub in the Bathroom," an alternate mix with a very heavy groove of the first song on the first album. Speaking excitedly the caller said he had the band's three albums on vinyl back in the day and played them so many times the records were rubbish. But he still had them. I should lock myself in the broadcast studio, the caller told me, lean a chair underneath the doorknob, and play nothing but the Beat over and over and over ... and that when the authorities were at last able to break down the door, I should do myself in. Make the Grand Exit.

I could only nod. In a moment I had to hustle off the phone and onto the mike, but I thanked the man and said English Beat are on my short list if I have to go the nuclear option. Commanding the airspace on behalf of the music and the message of this band would be a great way to bring about what Caribbean poet Derek Walcott calls "a season of phantasmal peace." Meantime, though, I wanna see their next show. St. Louis' own Rocksteady Flyers open, and Murder City Players saxman Mike Powers will be sitting in for a tune or two with Dave Wakeling and the excellent batch of hired guns who make up English Beat.

What Is Old Is New Again = English Beat + Teenage Cancer Trust

2Tone sprang out of the fractious social and political conditions in England of the 1970s. Reactionary politics from England's right wing produced a counter-reaction among some of the youth, one with a Jamaican ethos of "unity is livity" as well as punk DIY. The scene included a heavy presence of working class young people of different races from a mix of the Caribbean and English backgrounds, and their new subculture powerfully asserted itself through song, fashion, politics and espirit. The music of this period is still well regarded and has influenced successive waves of ska artists. Latter day configurations of bands like the Specials, the Selecter and English Beat still command populist support.

The inaugural "Specialized" (2012) covered songs by the Specials and sold well, raising 25,000 English pounds (about $39,000). Next up, the producer wanted the Beat, or English Beat as they are known, for contractual reasons, outside the UK. Although the group cut just three albums and a few singles between 1979 and 1983, The Beat's "I Just Can't Stop It," "Wha'ppen" and "Special Beat Service" are multi-culti masterpieces of pop, rock, new wave, reggae and ska dashed with other flavors and styles. The music has worn better and more durably than a lot of popular music from the '80s.

Wakeling told me in a telephone interview this month that he was glad to link with Teenager Cancer Trust, which was founded in 1990 and is the only UK charity whose primary focus is teen cancer patients.

"For me that music always had a healing quality and especially 2Tone music has been inclusive and compassionate," he said.

"It's remarkable work [Teenage Cancer Trust] do because teenage cancer patients often get lumped in with children or with old people towards the end of their lives with cancer, neither of which is conducive to keeping a teenager happy. They build special wards that look more appropriate for a teenager and they are Internet savvy. And they have found that in their own environment and with some company, a similar peer group, they actually do much better in their recovery."

Released in the UK in July, the 2CD "Specialized II: Beat Teen Cancer" contains 44 cover songs of English Beat by an international mix of artists. Dave Wakeling and company contribute a new take on "Mirror in the Bathroom," and Beat vocalist Ranking Roger also appears on the album. (Presently "Specialized II" is available only via mail order. Full tracklist below.)

Of "Specialized II"'s 40-plus tracks, Wakeling fished out a couple of titles for special mention.

"I really like Nick Welsh's version of 'Save It for Later' because he had the courage to change the melody around but still make it attractive. So I thought that was really nice, and I also like Rhoda Dakar's breathy version of 'Too Nice to Talk To.' I was glad that she'd sung that song because she asked me to recommend a song that she might try and I recommended that one. And she did it great, did it torchingly."

Dakar, by the way, sang lead in the short-lived but immensely interesting 2Tone group the Bodysnatchers.

Margaret Finally Stands Down

I last interviewed Dave Wakeling prior to the band's performance at Blueberry Hill in March 2013. In our conversation I asked about just two songs in the Beat's catalogue -- one of them being "Stand Down Margaret," which is somewhat ironic, or maybe just bloody prescient on my part, because two weeks later Baroness Thatcher, prime minister of England from 1979-90, was dead at the age of 87.

"Stand Down Margaret" stands as one of the best political songs of its generation. With its "please" ("stand down, Margaret, stand down pleeeese"), it was also one of the most proper and British of protest songs. But no one was ever confused about its core message: "I see no joy, I see only sorrow, I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow."

Upon the Iron Lady's death, publications ranging from Rolling Stone to NME called on Wakeling to reflect, and he also penned a powerful commentary for Hollywood Reporter.

In our most recent interview, I didn't ask Wakeling about the Thatcher song. I went meta: the reactions to his reactions to the death of the old autocrat.

"People have been talking about 'when Margaret Thatcher dies' for such a long time ... some people wanted to have a big state funeral and other people wanted to have a funeral pyre...," he says.

"I suppose that one of the things we learned through it at the very end there was even though we had loathed the things she did to us when she was full of vim and vigor, it was very hard to continue feeling opposition towards a sad old lady dying alone, you know?" Wakeling pauses. "There was a sense of humanity that came to it and I got into a quite lot of trouble because I wished her family all the best through the grief of it."

"And I was shocked on Facebook ..." he notes with a laugh. "I had a lot of people [go], 'How can you sympathize with those people?! C'mon!' So the feelings are still very well entrenched. However, I mean there are still people in generations who are still suffering from, you know, her short, sharp shock, her way of slashing the budget, which destroyed small towns and large industries. A lot of northern England is still kind of reeling from it."

West Indies Meets the UK ... and It Gets Loud

Coming of age in Birmingham, England in the late '60s and early '70s afforded Wakeling (b. 1956) ground round view observations of reggae as it was initially making waves there. And so he described the ways reggae and, more generally, Caribbean culture cropped up in his life in the UK.

"You'd see it pop up quite a lot. Cricket matches, for example, which were very staid and, you know, quiet applause was all that was required. Then all of a sudden England was playing in the West Indies, and the West Indies fans have got two Red Stripe cans and would play a 2000-man calypso on beer cans. [Wakeling vocally demonstrates a fast-paced calypso beat.] A completely different take on cricket. It was all very quiet in England, just the sound of leather hitting willow and light applause, 'Well done that, love.' So that was a big shocker and I used to like watching the cricket matches.

"The captain of the West Indies, Gary Sobers, scored the first six sixes, which I suppose is the equivalent of a home run. Six home runs in a row in the same over. Never been done before ... and the place absolutely erupted. The look on the English people's faces ...," Wakeling laughs at the memory, "was precious." He chuckled some more. That famous event, by the way, occurred 45 years ago this week, August 31, 1968.

"You'd see it all over the place," he explains, "different times and at every game, these bursts of exuberance and you'd walk past a house and a bass speaker would be blowing reggae at you ... and push you across the sidewalk. Especially I think when people from the Caribbean had only just started really to arrive in England in the late fifties and early sixties, they still had a very loud and vibrant lifestyle. The English reign hadn't gotten into their bones yet and quieted them down.

"I thought that was fantastic as a kid -- the meeting of the cultures sometimes the clashing of the cultures, but over and above, a realization of an overarching humanity and the things that we had in common."

"Doors of Your Heart": A Window to a Time and a State of Mind

The creativity and unity ethos of the original 2Tone generation were one thing. But there was also the economic stagnation and civil unease of England, and the rowdy energy sometimes descended into violence at some 2Tone bands' concerts. It was in conversation with Wakeling about one of my personal favorites in the Beat's catalog -- "Doors of Your Heart," which comes on the "Wha'ppen" album like a swelling Caribbean breeze, a salve to the consciousness -- that he raised some of the social context behind the tune.

"'Doors of Your Heart' came out only a few weeks after 'Ghost Town' came out from the Specials," he says. "All our experience on the road with the Beat had been happy ones as far as crowds were concerned. We had a very mixed crowd of boys and girls, men and women, black and white, and we very very rarely had any trouble. Mainly, I think, because we had the Beat girl as our logo and it made the girls come to the show and that made the boys behave.

"The Specials didn't do so well and had endless fights. Their concerts were more male-oriented. You put five skinheads in a room with some beer and lock the door, what you think is going to happen?

"We were having a completely different experience of it. Whereas they were feeling a lot of tension at their shows and a lot of fights and the angst of the men, particularly young white men at the time, was spilling over into their shows, we weren't feeling that at all. We started 'Doors of Your Heart' because we always had thought that things were turning around," he says with a rueful laugh.

"So I was surprised when they brought out 'Ghost Town.' I was like, oh my heavens, they must be having such a dreadful time of it. I thought they'd missed the temperature completely. But sadly their song went to number 1, and our song stuck at number 33 for three weeks. Which is great numerology but not such good chart results. 'Ghost Town' is a downbeat classic, 'Doors' an upful and hopeful number.

"I was a bit disappointed in a way. I had thought that we'd come further than that," he concludes, "but then I still do."

And it became clear that Wakeling was talking at this moment about more than the band and more than chart positions. He had in mind the ethos which drove the English Beat back then and still does in the present day.

"When I go back to England ... you see that it's easier to start a fight than to stop one, isn't it. You get enough people doing that in society all at the same time, it starts to create a vibe and it's hard to push against it. And you understand people are frustrated, some people are desperate, some people feel they're missing their jollies not just in terms of voting but any real say in the society they live in, and it adds to anger and violence a lot. It's a shame that that can't be put in a more productive, creative and helpful effort that could help themselves and other people."

"Specialized II: Beat Teen Cancer" (artists and tracks)

Addictive Philosophy - Big Shot (UK)
Andy Perriss (Ft.Gary 'Dada' Brown) - Spar Wid Me (UK)
Big Fat Panda - Doors Of Your Heart (UK)
Bigger Thomas - Sole Salvation (New York)
The Spritely Allstars Ft.Ranking Roger - Two Swords (UK)
Bluebird Parade - Best Friend (UK)
Buford O'Sullivan meets Ruff Scott. Featuring the Chronic Horns - Get a Job (New York)
Butterfly Collective - Over and Over (UK)
Button Up - Rough Rider (UK)
Demelzas Tea Party -- Drowning (UK)
Dirty Revolution - Two Swords (Version) (UK)
Dubskamen featuring Percy Dread -- Cheated (UK/Jamaica)
Dubtonik - Monkey Murders (Jamaica/Italy)
Ed Rome ft.Bella - I Confess (UK)
Erin Bardwell collective- Which Side of the Bed? (UK)
Esperanza - Rotating Head (UK)
Lucy Dean & Ska-Toons - End of the Party (UK)
Mighty Vipers - March of the Swivelheads (UK)
Nick Welsh Ft.B.J. Cole - Save It for later (UK)
Rhoda Dakar - Too Nice to Talk To (UK)
Robb Johnson & Friends - Stand Down Margaret (UK)
Ska Face - Psychedelic Rockers (UK)
Ska Light - Sorry (UK)
The Splitters - Rankin full stop (UK)
Swagga ft. Darren Fordham - Jackpot (UK)
The Amphetameanies - I'm Your Flag (UK)
The Chancers - French Toast (Czech Toast) (Czech Republic)
The Funaddicts - Jeanette (Australia)
The Humanitarians - Sugar & Stress (UK)
The Kosmos - Tears of Clown (UK)
The Pressure Tenants - Ago Talk (JAMAICA/UK)
The Rough Kutz - Noise in Dub (Noise in This World) (UK)
The Simmertones - Whine & Grine (UK)
The Skanx - Can't Get Used to Losing You (UK)
The Stiff Joints - Ackee 123 (UK)
The Talks - Hands off She's Mine (UK)
Smiling Ivy - Hit It (UK)
The Values Ft. Neol Davies (Selecter) - All Out to Get to You (UK)
This Modern Youth - Click Click (UK)
Urang Matang - Walk Away (UK)
Bombskare - Twist n Crawl (UK)
Dave Wakeling of the Beat - Mirror in the Bathroom

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