Emerging out of the British ska revival of the late 1970’s, The Beat (known in America as The English Beat) put out only three albums in their original incarnation. But their music remained popular post-breakup, and members of the group went onto other successful projects. Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger continued as General Public, while Andy Cox and David Steele teamed up with Roland Gift to form Fine Young Cannibals. In recent years, Wakeling and Roger have returned to working as The Beat, but as two separate versions. Wakeling performs as “The English Beat Starring Dave Wakeling,” while Roger uses the name “The Beat Feat. Ranking Roger.”
Despite great success as a touring act, Wakeling’s band has only just now released new material. But their album, “Here We Go Love,” is well worth the wait. It captures the essence of classic English Beat without trying to recreate the past. In a phone interview, Wakeling discussed returning to The English Beat, making “Here We Go Now” and the status of his professional relationship with Roger.
You’ve been performing again as The English Beat for a while now, but you hadn’t released anything new until now. What made you decide this was the right time?
Dave Wakeling: “It was happenstance, really. Five years ago, I’d stuck a couple of new songs in the set. I’d had these songs for a year or two, and I had enjoyed playing to myself at home. I started practicing them at soundcheck with the band, really as a songwriting exercise, to try things out and see if it worked. We added them into the set, to make it more interesting for ourselves. When you’ve got a brand-new song to do, it makes you kind of terrified and it can put the band on their toes for the rest of the show. So, we put them in the set, and people started asking if they could buy copies of those new songs on CD. ‘Which CD is that on? I want to buy that one,’ they said. So, we quickly went about thinking about making a record, but it hadn’t been the intent to begin with. So, I went to talk to some record companies and there weren’t very many good deals out there. It seemed as though you got quite a small amount of money to make the record, and then they wanted the rights to everything forever. Looking at the deals, it didn’t even seem like they had to commit to try to sell our record or work hard on it because they could make that small amount back out of licensing, getting it into TV or something or other over the years. They would own the whole catalog forever! So, none of them seemed to make sense, and then someone told me about Pledgemusic. I got to speak with them in New York and I liked them very much.
“So, we started that in 2014 and by 2015, we’d more or less fulfilled our pledge and recording began. We recorded in an odd way. We recorded a month on and a month off and went touring around different parts of America and England on the other months. It was really nice because we got to sit and listen to the songs enough times, unemotionally. We weren’t in the studio having to make decisions. We could instantly see what was too much or what needed adding or what was missing. What was getting in the way or where two things were rubbing. Sometimes, when you’re in the studio and you’re so charged up and passionate about the song, you can make quick decisions, which sometimes can be brilliant but sometimes they can mess it up even more. It was really interesting. When we got back in the studio, there was as much discussion about which bits needed to be nipped out or which bits were clashing with each other. It’s all right having six good ideas but they all need to go with each other! So, we could do that, and then we could just add judiciously. We could talk about it and plan something with a song. We could either do it ourselves or have the right person come in to do exactly what we wanted, and we knew it would fit. There wasn’t that sort of jamming along in the studio, ‘Oh, I think that’s ok’ or ‘Try this,’ which can take a long time. There wasn’t so much of that, unless something didn’t fit exactly and we’d jam on it a bit. It was nice to try to make the songs sound like they sounded in my head before recording. And they do.”
Are there any songs you feel particularly benefited from this process?
Dave Wakeling: “I think it absolutely helped all of them. I could see intuitively what I would have done if I’d had to make a snap decision. I’d think, ‘I’ll just take that out then’ but after taking the time, I’d think, ‘Oh no, it’s only one note that’s off. If we get that fixed … oh, that’s better.’ So, you could be a bit more analytical, so you knew all the pieces of the jigsaw fit together, and you could take a risk and be a bit more daring. You knew you had a good, solid foundation. I think all the songs benefited from that, and I think that’s one of the reasons why people are telling us the album flows so nicely from the first song to the last.”
You said you initially added some new songs to the live set. Did all of those end up on the album?
Dave Wakeling: “Yes, because there were only about four that we played regularly live, and all four of those are on the record. It was an interesting process. I started with a list of about 40 songs, and that got whittled down with friends and bandmembers and people close to me to 20 songs. Some of them we cut were kind of newer songs that hadn’t been finished yet and would have entailed quite a bit of work prior to going into the studio. Some of the ones in the final 20 that didn’t make this cut of 13 will show up on the next record because they are fantastic songs, but they were perhaps a bit too difficult for us to manage at the time, or I hadn’t finished writing them and didn’t want to finish writing and recording at the same time. So, I whittled it down to 13, thinking that one would usually mess up the baker’s dozen, but because we were careful about it, all of them came out as we expected and imagined, and even better than imagined. So, we put all 13 of them on the CD, which means we now have a double gatefold vinyl album.”
To what degree were you consciously thinking about how the new material should sound in relation to the original incarnation of the band?
Dave Wakeling: “Before we started, there was a lot of conscious thinking about that. How similar to The Beat would you make it? How similar to which era of The Beat, the first, second, or third record? Would you do it like The Beat might sound now if it were still all the original members together? Will that take General Public and Fine Young Cannibals into account? How would a breakneck speed dance band in their 20s sound when they are in their 50s and 60s? All those things were taken into account and all of them were gently applied. But in the final analysis, it turned out that the best thing to do was to let the song dictate, let the song lead. Let the song determine what sounds help it prosper best. And that was really what we did with The Beat in the first place. In some ways, I did exactly what we did in The Beat. I let the song lead the way and just followed it with the sounds that made sense. We resisted doing anything obverse. We joked about it sometimes. If there was a portion of a song that didn’t seem to be as exciting as others, one of us would recommend putting a ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ type of bassline in.
“We also had expert guidance from Bob Sargeant, the original producer, who was equally sensitive about it. He discussed with me and the producer some of the tricks of the trade he’d used in the studio that helped define what people called The Beat sound. We had a sound live on stage and then Bob Sargeant gave us a sort of poppier feel, especially when he was playing the piano. He had suggestions along the way during the recording, and I kept in touch with him every week. I sent him updates, and then he was very involved during the mixdown process, telling us what he liked and what he didn’t and what he thought resonated. So far, people have said that I’ve gotten it about right. I haven’t tried to make a record that sounds like I’m 23. I haven’t tried to make a record that sounds like it’s 1979, or that it’s England. I tried to make a record that sounds like it’s Los Angeles, right now. It’s not a good idea to make a record that sounds like it’s coming from Birmingham, England. I was thinking about this – often, people listen to the mixes of songs as we work on them, listening in the car on the way to the studio and back, in traffic, in Los Angeles. And there is a certain sound to that. It’s kind of beautiful but frustrating at the same time. You’re going 2 miles an hour in paradise! This is good or bad, depending on how your air conditioning is. There’s a sound to that, and I think that is associated with the record as well. Both producers, and me, and most of the musicians were listening to the stuff to and from the studio. There’s an attitude, a sort of wide panoramic beautiful but stoic feel. I think it sounds a bit like that.”
Has the lineup of this version of the band been consistent over the years?
Dave Wakeling: “No, it hasn’t. My lineup has changed quite often, I think partly because I do a lot of shows. We play about 160 shows a year, which suits people for a limited amount of time, but it’s a lot of work and it takes a lot of passion. And I understand it. I’ve been performing the songs for 40 years and have a history of my life wrapped up in them, and even I find it hard sometimes to do 160 shows a year, and I’ve got my heart in it. So, for other people, who play as accompanists, I sometimes don’t know how they manage to build the passion up as often as they do. At the moment, I’ve got a fairly new rhythm section that I just changed a few months ago. I think it shows the inkling of being the best one I’ve ever had. Whenever you change somebody in the band, it takes at least a month, because everybody has got to change a little and allow that new player’s flavor in. It’s only fractional, but you’ve got to watch the group evolve. The drummer is from Compton, Los Angeles, but remarkably, he specializes in calypso and soca and salsa, and he is a great reggae and pop player. We’ve been working hard, and some like ‘Ackee 123’ and ‘I Confess’ have never sounded better. So, we’ve got that part now that we had been missing a little bit with the previous couple of incarnations. It’s a lot of different styles to play. It’s not always easy to find someone who rocks and reggaes. They are kind of two different worlds, or they can be seen as two different worlds.”
Why had you decided to start working again as The English Beat?
Dave Wakeling: “I first went out as a group called Bang. I thought it was a good name for a group, and I was amazed that no one had thought of it already. So, I went out as Bang and I’d get there, and at the club, it would say ‘Tonight: The English Beat, General Public, Dave Wakeling, and Bang.’ And you’d want to get all mad, but you’re playing English Beat and a couple of General Public songs and there’s a line around the block. So, I started putting in the contract, ‘You have to call it Bang.’ There was another attempt at it, as the Free Radicals as well, which I thought was another good name. I’m good at names, I should start a name company. There’s good money in naming prescription drugs, I hear. So, I put in the contract that you’ve got to call it just Bang and if you put the English Beat or General Public, then you’ve got to pay me in full but I don’t have to do the concert; it’s a breach. And I forced them to sign it and I got there and it said ‘Tonight: The English Beat, General Public, Dave Wakeling, and Bang.’ And what do you do? You can’t live up to your threat and cancel the concert, so you go in and you play. And I realized, really, that if over 50% of my set is songs that I sang as The English Beat, that’s probably what people know me as, and that’s probably what promoters are going to try to sell tickets as. So, I gently, probably over a 2-year period, just succumbed, just gave up and was like, ‘Fine, English Beat.’ Luckily, I like that name. I like the name The Beat better, but The English Beat seems to have been a popular adaptation of the name Beat here in America. For the past decade, I’ve been playing shows at The English Beat and am more or less accepted as such. We agreed within the band that everybody had access to the name, but we should add our own name for recordings. You can use the name for concerts, but if you’re making an LP to distinguish it from the original albums, we should add our own name. So, I took the opportunity to call it The English Beat starring Dave Wakeling. I always thought my name should be up there in lights anyway. It just took 30 years for them to realize it. I hate the word ‘featuring’ but ‘starring’ sounded nice. I had some posters done with the word ‘starring’ made out of tiny little stars, like 60s Broadway, and that was it for me. My name in lights! My work here is done.”
Do you have any plans to work with Ranking Roger again?
Dave Wakeling: “He’s popped on stage a couple of times now, to sing ‘Ranking Full Stop’ with us. The only thing I managed last year was that we drank a pot of tea together and discussed doing some work together next year, which is the 40th anniversary of Two-Tone, and also the 40th anniversary of the band. So, there is some talk of it. Roger wondered at one point last year whether a General Public reunion might be a safe meeting ground for us, so we didn’t have to risk either of our Beat operations. It would be a first round, to meet and see if we could create sometime in General Public that was worthwhile before looking into other opportunities. So, that’s out there. Whenever we meet, we seem to get on really well, but he’s got an old friend of both of ours as his manager, who seems to delight in just messing with things so Roger can come out on top of anything I ever get involved with. So, I’m a bit gun-shy, really. I’d like to do something with Roger. We’re just going through something at the moment. The manager is a lovely guy but he just won’t stop. We have a TV compilation album coming out in England. It was set for the fall and we found out this manager had managed to put Roger’s record coming out at exactly the same time! Piggybacking. It’s stuff like that. So, I’m not sure. All our fans who have fed us for the past 40 years would like us to do a few shows together. And I think on that basis, we unquestionably should. It doesn’t have to be a lot; we live 6000 miles apart. But we could do a bit and we could do enough, and I think that next year, with the 40th anniversary of 2 Tone, there might be some decent opportunities. But we shall see.
“At the moment, it’s a bit too competitive, I think, for it’s own good. It looked like it was just about to start cannibalizing on the catalog, to get a leg-up over me and my record coming out, Roger was going to bring his out on the back of the Beat television album. I don’t think we should use each other to slipstream, and I don’t think we should be using the catalog to be slipstreaming anything. If the songs aren’t good enough to stand by themselves, we shouldn’t have the catalog dragging them along the street. I was tempted myself; who wouldn’t be? But no, if it’s any good, then they’ll want to sell my music on the next ‘Best of the Beat’ album. That’s the way to prove it. And now I’m glad. We’re on the radio in England. It’s on Radio 2, which is a big deal, with 15 million weekly listeners. We’ve gone from the C list to the B list, which means we get a load more plays. It’s pretty heavy play, including the breakfast show in the morning, which is millions of people. We’re starting to see messages pouring in now from people who’ve heard us on different DJ shows. The song is starting to sink in and people are thinking that it’s really catchy. Oddly enough, people think it sounds just like The Beat. And hopefully, that success will lead to some healthy appreciation of the album in England, which we can then use to tell people back here in America, ‘Oh look, we’re even doing good in England.’”
For more info on The English Beat and how to purchase the new album, visit englishbeat.net.