Sunday, 28 April 2013

Wha'ppen next, Dave? a conversation with Dave Wakeling, who wrote 'Stand Down Margaret'

"I often think this band reunion thing is like inviting the first five or six people you had sex with... and expecting everyone to get on great." 

Hunt Emerson's brilliant logo
It's complicated. Dave Wakeling was a founder member of The Beat, one of Birmingham's finest original pop/ska bands. Now he's in California, leading the English Beat, and fellow founder Ranking Roger leads a 21st century Beat at home. Roger was profiled here last year ahead of Birmingham's Reggae City May festival; The Selecter are starring this year. 

The original Beat line-up is long gone, but a classic song has echoed down the years of late. Stand Down Margaret got renewed airplay in the weeks leading up to Thatcher's funeral. I wondered if Dave would want to revisit all that old territory. But, courtesy personified; revisit it he did, especially as it ties in nicely with Specialized 2 Beat Teenage Cancer, a soon come album of covers of original Beat Songs to help Teenage Cancer Trust

You’ve been out on the West Coast for 25 years or so, but you are still, at least for professional reasons, a Brit in the US, touring the English Beat. Where is your centre of gravity?
I am a Californian, and I notice that traveling around the States, as much as when I'm in Brum. The sunshine here helps create a background atmosphere of optimism and fun. LA has more languages and religions than any city in the history of the world, and is a vibrant chaotic melting pot. No one knows who's got a gun on them, so everyone calls each Sir and Ma'am when shopping, we hold doors open and say please and thank you more than you can believe! I find it an exciting, grown-up and tolerant society, considering the enormous diversity and challenges. And I like that so many of the kids look golden, regardless of where their parents come from! Blue Mink in action! John Peel told me Melting Pot was his least favourite song of all time, so I threatened him with a ska party remake...
Am I right in assuming that the original Beat had to take the name The English Beat in the US ?
When we got there, there already was a Los Angeles The Beat. It was started by a guy called Paul Collins, after he split with Peter Case in their previous band - the two of them wrote Hanging on the TelephoneOur record company helpfully suggested Beat UK; we wanted Beat Bros; English Beat made everyone happy. I've just toured with Paul, we called it "two beats hearting as one". Lovely chap.
I’m trying to trace the number of waves of ska there’s been – from the mid-sixties where the originators come over to us on 7” 45s, and then Brit home-grown pop stuff like Millie through 2Tone and you guys in the late 70s. I know there’s been a huge ska scene in Boston, and there’s a fourth or fifth wave of new bands in the UK right now - lots of good local bands. Which leads me to the next question – what do your audiences know about the originators from maybe 50 years ago? And what does Ska mean to a sun-drenched crowd of Californian kids? 
Some of the Cali ska fans have gone back to 60's and 70's roots, like Hepcat and Aggrolites, others have pushed the Madness skamedy angle, like Reel Big Fish and the Aquabats. Ska can mean anything in the US (laughing) from The Liquidator to Save It For Later. It has become a generic term for any offbeat syncopated dance grove, either mixed with original jazz styles or driven frenetic by continually punking it up.
Of course, you didn’t just write ska – you put out some fantastic pop that anyone would be proud of back in the day. What sort of material are you writing now?
Thanks! I'm still writing a wide variety, some ska, reggae, pop, soul and ballads, even my first waltz ! 22 songs have drums recorded all on 2" analogue tape with a 16 track head. The sound is rich, warm and full: John Mostyn would approve! (John was the original manager of the Beat -see the blog piece on his analogue studio here). My new manager has some great ideas and plans, and we hope to be unveiling new material this year.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this a ton of times. In the torrent of media coverage leading up to Thatcher’s funeral, three songs got the airplay: Shipbuilding, written by Elvis Costello and sung by Robert Wyatt, Ghost Town from the Specials, and Stand Down Margaret from yourself. How does that song sit with you now? 
It was a polite and humorous jab at a very pretentious, anachronistic and unimaginative person who harmed countless people over a few generations and removed the heart of co-operative English culture. She won, and her tragic legacy continues today. Absolutely honoured to be up there with Elvis and the Specials! 
What does that song mean to US audiences? 
They sing it really loud in Canada and Australia, with passion, and they sing it in the US like they know its a naughty thing they shouldn't really do...
When you put the English Beat together for the US , what were you looking for in your band? What did you especially need?
When we started in 78, we wanted to sound like UK 78, not Kingston 62. So when I started this line up I wanted it to be California Millenium. Groove, tightness, and harmony vocals are priorities at live shows, so I went for musicians who were good at following arrangements, with dynamics, not just playing the parts. Everyone comments on how tight the band is. Vocals upfront, and at the right tempo for the mood of the crowd. We are closer to 50 than 20, we are not so frantic, we don't play 1000 miles an hour for blokes to punch the air and relive their youth. We play so that the women will shake their tails, and the men will be unable to resist the invitation! We like to get the whole room to throbbing and connected mass consciousness. 
Tell me about Specialized 2?
What a brilliant idea. I was sad to not be invited on the first one last year (the covers of Specials songs), and sad that the Specials and the Selecter wouldn't be on this one, but the versions that have been produced are lovely, some of them stunning. Hearing all the various interpretations of my lyrics is fascinating, to feel the different inferences brought out by the phrasing and delivery. Stand down Margaret has some amazing new lyrics that bring it bang up to date... And tremendous to hear someone else covering my songs in the UK, not just Ranking Roger
Er - ouch. Mind you, Roger's on the Specialized 2 album as well, with the Spritely All Stars. And he runs his version of The Beat in the UK… do you talk at all? 
We've been in touch a bit, around the Beat box set and re-releases, and we seem to be getting on well, friendly and respectful. But I most likely wouldn't work directly with Rog at present, apart from on a full original Beat reunion.
People might get rather emotional (in a good way) over that, in the UK at least. Would the 
numbers work, do you think?
I have asked half a dozen times and only got five out of the seven at best, so I can't imagine it, but I would be up for a brief get together if they ever fancy it. I feel I can say that with such confidence because I know some of 'em don't want to do it, and might not be able to anyway, even if they did. I often think this reunion thing is like inviting the first 5-6 people you had sex with, and expecting everyone to get on great! It often doesn't take long for these reunited combos to start remembering why they hated and ran from each other in the first place! If it's for the fans and the music, then great; but if it's just a pension plan, be very careful that it don't bite you in the arse!
You’ve run a band since moving to the states. So there has to have been some evolution, right? What material are you interested in now? Do you ever want to take the band – or yourself - beyond being the English Beat? 
New material will be released as Dave Wakeling and the English Beat. Everything is always evolving. I like the name, I've lived with it for 35 years, and it is a comfort of continuity to the fans and myself. But to be honest, If I'd ever guessed I was going to be a pop star, I would have changed my name to Steve Danger or something like that. David Steele said my name sounded like a West Midlands wholesale citrus fruit salesman! So 'ere y'are Robin, taste my satsumas, how juicy are them then mate?! Runs all over yer 'ands don't it? And no bleedin seeds... From Morocco mate, top of the line, same as they sell in Rackhams...
... Dave, gotta tell you: it's House of Fraser now, and there's no food hall... 
I'll give you a bag to take home with you for the nippers, no prob.
Specialized 2 Beat Teenage Cancer Facebook page
Specialized Project site
Teenage Cancer Trust site
English Beat site

Beat site

More music posts on Radio To Go

Get the Radio To Go Newsletter to your in box every Monday.

No comments: