An interview with Dave Wakeling by JD Alvarez
A funny thing happened to me a few months ago. I was minding my own business when a buddy of mine asked me to help his kid with a school project. It was simple, watch me do my radio show, and ask a few questions. The first part was easy, the second part was interesting to say the least. The questions were simple, but that last one took me to a place of reflection. The question was why do I do radio? The answer was decisive, “because I love music.” Then for whatever reason, I followed-up with another quick answer, “and because it’s a time machine, no matter who you are, it transports you back to where you were and what was going on in your life when you first heard any song.” I liked that answer, so much so that I started to daydreamed back to sometime in 1983. A time when I saw my first real concert. At least one that wasn’t part of Grad Night at Disneyland. I was a freshman at Cal State Fullerton. I remember seeing a flyer for a band called X. Although I didn’t have a musical bone in my body, after seeing that show, I thought music might be my calling. A year later, like most teenagers, I still hadn’t done anything about that light bulb moment at the X show. It was 1984 and I was back at CSUF. I saw another flyer, I wasn’t familiar with this band at all, nor their genre of music. I thought I would check them out nonetheless. The band was called General Public. I don’t remember a lot about 84′, but what I do remember is that show gave me the happy feet.
It was a few years later, common sense sunk in and I thought better of getting into music. Instead, I decided to try radio. It wasn’t long after my venture into broadcasting that I landed at KROQ FM in Los Angeles. It was the late 80’s and a great time to be in radio. The Smiths, OMD, Oingo Boingo, the Chili Peppers, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Depeche Mode, Love & Rockets and the Cure were all the rage. There were even bands called the English Beat and General Public we would play. Back then, I produced a public affairs program. One organization we interviewed often for our talk show was Green Peace. I remember that at 7 a.m. one Sunday morning, Green Peace was scheduled to come down. To my surprise, Dave Wakeling showed up for the interview. Turns out he was their new spokesperson. Over the years, Dave came down to visit us at KROQ many times to support Green Peace, so I got to know him a little bit. The two CSUF shows were well over two decades ago. Since then, I have been to a ton of shows and interviewed countless artists. For whatever reason, I still remember those shows back in 84′.
Let’s flash forward. Over the past year I have been interviewing bands for TNN Radio. I started to see a trend, these 80’s bands I remember from my college days seem to be all the rage again. So I decided to go to a few 80’s shows. I noticed that DEVO was playing with the Tom-Tom Club at San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino. I also noticed that the English Beat was on that bill as well. I decided to reach out to the bands management, they were very accommodating. I had been given an interview for their San Manuel gig.
So on the day of the interview, I was there fairly early. A funny thing happened to me on the way to the interview. Turns out, I didn’t get the proper casino clearance to get into the concert hall. The staff was very apologetic, but I still couldn’t get in. The bands Tour Manager (Candy Kelii) came out and asked me to stick around while she chatted with Dave. About ten minutes later I heard the sound check abruptly end. A few minutes after that, out came Candy with Dave in tow. He shook my hand and said he wouldn’t think of it having me come all that way to see him and not give an interview. He said sometimes “there’s too many rules for rock n’ roll.” The next thing I knew, we were walking down to the bar area to do an old school sit down interview. As we walked down the casino his fans, young and old came up to say “hello.” A few even offered to buy him drinks. I don’t know if Dave is normally this way, or if it was just his English manners, but he was very accommodating to all the fans. He said he remembered me from my KROQ days. I don’t know if he really did, but I wanted to believe he did.
We started our chat by covering the bands early days in Birmingham. We moved on to current events, Dave was sincerely heartbroken by the tragic death of Amy Winehouse. We then discussed self-producing music. He elaborated on music and marketing, then and now. His budget forecasts and matrices analysis would lead anyone to believe he was a record executive in another life. The second part of the interview was in regards to advice for new bands. His advice was eerily similar to that of another ska icon I interviewed a few weeks earlier (Aaron Barrett of Reel Big Fish). The advice was to be in music for the love of your craft. If you’re in it for the money, you may be in for a very bumpy ride. Be humble was something else I took from the interview. We got a little side-tracked after that. We got on to the fact that as a young man Dave was Bingo Caller before he joined the Beat. The interview was cut short as another journalist found his way down to the bar. Dave suggested I check in with his management, and we could set-up a second interview to finish up our chat. As for the show, it was an abbreviated set, but it was a great performance. The band had the floor shakin’ and proved that the English Beat could still pack the dance floor.
Not long after the interview, I was editing an article for the L.A. Rising show I covered. I recalled seeing a kid in the middle of countless Rage Against The Machine and Muse fans. How funny I thought to myself, the kid was wearing an English Beat t-shirt. With that image in mind, I remembered what Dave suggested, so I reached out to his management team again. This time the venue would be at L.A.’s Pershing Square. The beat was scheduled to do the last show of the concert in the park summer series. I’ll be honest, sometimes artists are polite and say they’ll do another interview, and in the end… it doesn’t always work out. On the day of the show, I received a very pleasant surprise. I received an email telling me to be at the venue at 4:30. Needless to say, I got to Pershing Square literally at 4:30 on the dot.
A funny thing happened to me when I got to Pershing Square. Turns out, I had the same issue that I experienced at San Manuel. I couldn’t get in to see the band, the staff was apologetic; I still couldn’t get in. As luck would have it, Candy came to the rescue once again. She found Dave, and in a very gentlemanly manner said “let’s do the interview outside.” So we walked down the streets of Los Angeles and found a park bench and did the interview there. Dave was very apologetic for the hiccup. I thought that it was no reflection on him, but then again it was. The way he handled it was very professional, it was consistent with the guy I remembered from back in my early days of broadcasting. Before we even we started the interview, we chatted about ska music in general. For some reason, after a few minutes he was more inclined to talk about other genre’s of music. He went on to say he didn’t want to limit himself to playing, or just talking about ska, ironic I thought. Then again, after three decades of ska related chats, I could see why he might want to mix it up.
I thought I would slip the last few questions I didn’t get in at San Manuel. We covered politics and music, specifically the political overtones of music from bands like the Clash, Sublime and Rage Against the Machine. We discussed the reasons we see so much turmoil today. Dave cited that regardless if it’s 1992 Los Angeles, or 2011 England… there is a respect factor to consider. Sometimes, people just get fed up with seeing politicians say one thing and do another, or watching media moguls like Rupert Murdoch build their empire on deception. He also commented on how the acts of looters takes away from the real reason why there are riots in the streets of London. It was at that point Dave was somewhat reflective. He expressed sadness when he saw images on CNN that took place on the very streets he grew up on. He went on to say that sometimes, people lose site of what’s important. We all need dignity and respect in our lives. If there was more respect for each other, this world would be a much friendlier place. Wakeling said it was themes like these that inspired songs like Stand Down Margaret. We added a few lighter questions that came from our fans. The questions were 1) why are there two versions of the English Beat, 2) would we ever see the original band back together, 3) when will we hear new music form the English Beat? Dave responded with both he and Roger have separate lives in different parts of the world. Dave is in L.A., and Roger in England. The logistics alone were not feasible for any regular engagements. So Dave does his touring in the US, while Roger tours in the UK with Neville Staple and Pauline Black. That was the simple answer, he also gave a deeper one too, he said that sometimes there are things we’ve done in our past that are hard to forget. Be it good or bad, they just are. Although there are no immediate plans for a reunion, Dave hopes for their fans there will be some day.
We walked back to Pershing Square, on our way we discussed the potential for more music. He said that a new catalogue would be coming out very soon. He is working on new material and it is only a matter of time before that is ready to be released, but no time table was given. Inasmuch as the English Beat has a storied past, I got the sense there are more surprises in store for their fans. Although Wakeling is a living legend, I got the impression he doesn’t see himself that way. He expressed humility and the need for redemption that all good people do. He carries a profound source of inspiration, swagger and grace. I didn’t know for sure before the interview if he really remembered me from all those years ago, but after the interview, I believe he did. I also found it quite amusing that as we finished the interview, I mentioned his Bingo Calling gig again. He disclosed he was also once a fireman. It turns out he has a very good sense of humor and the kind of person you can sit down with at a bar and have a drink. All the requirements of a living legend. That, and the music catalogue and storied past. Some of this might be considered as obscure facts that are barely worth mention by some. For his fans, these are factoids they will find interesting… so there it is.
The interview was over, it was time to take in the show. By now, Pershing Square was at near capacity Urban Dread took the stage. They played a variety of original songs, they also played a few covers. Like the Madness inspired ska classic One Step Beyond, The Specials cover of Pressure Drop, a Ramones-esque-ska version of I Wanna Be Sedated and Bob Marley’s One Love. They were definitely the right band to open.
By now it was nearly 9:15 and the English Beat finally took the stage to the capacity crowd. Fans of all ages were there, no matter who you were, dancing and singing was in order. The fans screamed and skanked when they played hits like Tears Of A Clown. They also went into a very fresh sounding MUSE-like version of Click-Click. They even covered a few General Public tunes like I’ll Take You There, Never You Done That and Tenderness. Fans were dancing and screaming out of their minds to Save It For Later and some nearly lost consciousness over Ranking Full Stop, Twist and Crawl and Mirror In The Bathroom. All-in-all, it was a great night for Pershing Square and English Beat fans who got to hear great music under stars in the city of Angels. If you want to experience ska at its best, I highly recommend that you do yourself a favor and check out the English Beat while you still can.
The English Beat (US) features: Dave Wakeling (Lead Vocals/Guitar), Antonee First Class (Toaster), Rhythmm Epkins (Drums/Vocals), Wayne Lothian (Bass/Vocals), Kevin (Keys/Vocals) and Matt Morrish (Sax/Vocals).
The English Beat is currently on tour, go to davewakeling.com and the English Beat on Facebook and MySpace for details.