By Reyan Ali
10:25 AM EDT, July 9, 2013
The English Beat
w/ The Head. July 13, 7 p.m., $50, Fairfield Theatre, Fairfield, (203) 259-1036, fairfieldtheatre.org.
Note to young musicians daydreaming of cultural credibility and/or commercial success in 2013: Don't start a ska band. After the late 1990s third-wave ska gold rush led by No Doubt, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Reel Big Fish wound down, the genre has widely been treated as a jokey, dorky, dated novelty, and because of that, it now primarily exists in niche. Several big-name bands of the time abandoned their brass sections altogether by the turn of the millennium — a move that either signaled ska's downfall or hastened it.
It's a terrible shame that the style has received a bad rap since that loses out on building on the foundation of smart songwriting and positive reputations of 1970s and '80s 2-Tone/second-wave ska bands like Madness, the Specials and the English Beat. Born in Birmingham and originally known in England as simply the Beat, the group had a particular knack for variety, gamely pulling off songs that dug into confusion and arrogance while also writing cheeky songs about romance. Though the outfit only released three records and were around for five years before dissolving in 1983, their blend of pop, punk and reggae was awfully potent, which explains why a 2003 reunion was successful enough for the group to still be around a decade later. Bewilderingly, the reunited band quickly split off into two forms: the Beat and the English Beat. Guitarist/singer Dave Wakeling, an especially charming and exceptionally talkative fellow, fronts the incarnation that hits Connecticut this weekend. We spoke to him about his upbringing, the Beat's songwriting and growing old with 2 Tone.
I've read that you grew up in Balsall Heath, a depressed, working-class area in Birmingham. Tell me about your early life.
Balsall Heath is right close to a city center. You could walk into the city center from it, but it was the dirty side of it. On the south side of the city, it was the red light district. It butted right up against one of the most expensive areas of the city, so you could look one way down the street and see one life coming at you, and look the other way down the street and hope for a different [life]. [Laughs] I don't want to make out it was like dreadfully deprived. People didn't act that way, even though the ones who were a bit short on cash acted as though they were doing better. I suppose it's all comparative because the vast majority of the people living in the street when we grew up remembered what that street had been like during World War II, so you could definitely say, 'Well, they were doing better than they had been.' [Laughs] There were row houses. There were some holes that had been replaced by newer houses, and it wasn't 'til we grew up a bit as kids that we were told that's where the bombs had hit and blown those houses up.
It was an enjoyable place to grow up and you learned a great deal. One end of the street was the cricket ground where they had international cricket matches and that was all very posh, or you could on your bike with your mates and [travel down] the red light district and and see ladies with their breasts hanging out from the windows waving to you. It must have been a bit suspicious when you've driven your bike five or six times up and down [the same street]. [Laughs]
The English Beat was a band with two sides: one was a meaty, politically inclined punk side, and the other one was up for partying. Which did you feel a greater affinity for?
Well, that was the thing for me. I wanted a combination of the two. It occurred to me pretty early on that nobody's ever totally happy or totally sad. It's always a balance between the two that goes up and down during the day, during the week, during the month [based on] whatever is happening to your life although, of course, as men, if anybody asked us how we're doing, we always say we're doing fine. Most often, it's a shifting balance of percentages depending on what experiences you're having, so I wanted the ambiguity in the songs.
People think of reggae as a happy music, but the more you look into it, it's more a survival music. That's where the dignity and nobility of it comes in. It was music for people to survive oppression. I wanted that nobility. It comes across as having a happy face — 'Oh, it's just impossible to not dance to. It's so happy,' people say — and then [I wanted to] use that to be able to write about the bleaker side of life — the more testing and paranoid side that everybody goes through, and to try and combine the two so that the music could be a complete reflection of somebody's life, not just picking on one side or the other. I wanted to see whether the combination of the music and the lyrics could make a more complete picture of what it was like to be alive at the time, particularly in England.
You toured with the Clash in the '80s. Do you have any memories of Joe Strummer?
At the time, we had a bit of a competitive relationship with Joe Strummer. Having been brought up in working class industrial Birmingham and seen riots, they didn't seem so glorious [such as in the Clash's “White Riot”]. Me and Joe talked about it a few times. I was a bit snotty about it, really, but he came from the diplomatic corps. He was nomenclatura, or rich kid as we used to call him back in those days [Laughs], being born in the British embassy. I had a difference of opinion with him. I was like, 'The first thing you've got to understand is after the riots, the next day, you've got to walk miles anywhere to get a bottle of milk and everywhere that you live just stinks of burning wood and dirt for months. After all the excitement, it turns out you've burnt down all the shops where you live.' [Laughs]
You could see how the Clash's politics were developing and a lot of the stuff they said I thought was great. We used to tease them as they were going onstage after they'd finish their nap. Sometimes, people in the Beat would quip to Joe Strummer, 'Oh, are you going to do 'I'm So Bored With The USA' tonight, then?” which of course, they never did. [Laughs] Joe Strummer would laugh and go, 'Fuck off!' I became more friends with Mick Jones and Topper [Headon]. Mick Jones eventually came and played on the first General Public album from those early friendships.
It was nice. Me and Joe talked about a lot of nice stuff as well, but I did have a bit of a bee in my bonnet. That was punk generally though, wasn't it? It was really a middle class arts students' type of endeavor and it was portrayed as a working class revolution, but the working classes were really just to be the foot soldiers of it. I thought that was once again abusing the working class, taking their good-hearted spirit for granted and using it for other people's ends. I didn't really like rich people suggesting that working class people should revolt. I said to Joe, 'If you have a riot on your end, you can always go and stay at your dad's country house, can't you, until they rebuild the shops and got milk back in the area? For the rest of us, we're all stuck.'
I think he accepted it a bit. Much of the politics that followed from the Clash was far more nuanced and sensible, I thought. I don't really have a problem with him. But I think it was more a problem with the notion of punk and where it had actually come from.
What's been one thing about the 2 Tone era that's not been talked about enough?
One thing that I have noticed was there was an enormous sense of camaraderie. I think all of the 2 Tone bands had taken a leaf out of the Undertones' and Buzzcocks' book where they'd made themselves accessible to the audience to the point where you sometimes couldn't really tell the difference between the band and the audience. There wasn't that sense of adulation in the same way.
That camaraderie is still there. People that meet at shows are people that went to shows together back in the day. They often become huge reunions and after-show parties where people who were together as teenagers at those shows are now together in their 50s reminiscing about it and seeing how well they can keep up with the dance moves. Now, everybody's a skinhead, but they don't have to do anything to stay that way. [Laughs] They're just natural skinheads now. It's great 'cause they still shave around the edges like they do it on purpose, but you know there isn't that much to shave anymore.
I'm not sure how familiar you are with teenagers and 20-year-olds' perceptions of ska. It's unfortunate, but what they associate ska with is a jokey sound like Reel Big Fish. Unless you're seriously into music, you won't know 2 Tone. There's a negative stigma surrounding ska.
During that third wave of ska you mention, there was too often a chance to turn a bit jokey. I don't know whether they took the lead from Bad Manners and Madness and then just kept multiplying the jokey, comical side of it [until it] just took over. I do remember feeling a bit disappointed sometimes during the '90s when we would go to shows and you've got a brass section all wearing silly hats and costumes and goofing it up. At the time, I thought, 'Well, they're only doing it because they're too scared to actually go there, aren't they?' They were treating ska as though it was a dead art form [rather than taking] a bit of ska, mixing it with what else you've got and [talking] about what's in your heart right now and singing it right to their heart right now. It seemed to me that after No Doubt and Mighty Mighty Bosstones and a few others had become popular because they did sing songs from the heart to the heart, there was a tendency to jump on the bandwagon, and so some of it became a bit shallow.
But I think that's cyclical, because we actually get quite a lot of young people to our shows. We actually did a tour with Reel Big Fish, and we were surprised how well we went down. We opened up for them and played to their younger fans and got really lovely compliments from 'em, but I know what you mean. I don't like anything being used as a joke, and it did get a little bit to that point, but in the main part, I think the people who started turning it into a comedy act was 'cause they hadn't got any songs or they were too scared to write songs about what was really going on in their dark hearts.
Imagine that you were given the task to repair ska's reputation or bring it to a new audience and revitalize it. What would you do?
Well, I noticed from traveling around in California that there's a huge Hispanic interest in ska. There's a lot of bands and a lot of people in the crowd. In England [in the 2 Tone era's] time, we've got Caribbean people, white people and some people from India and Pakistan. Now of course, they're all just Brummies from Birmingham. But I think that's something that could be worked on — to bring those two sides and our culture together 'cause that's where our rubbing point is likely to be.
One of the things that I like about California is that in the main part, we all seem to get on pretty well. We have our differences and often speak in different languages, but we seem to coexist pretty well. If ska is the great unifier that I've seen it to be, reaching that link between Hispanic ska and Anglo ska would be something I'd say would be a terrific area. There's probably loads of bands that are doing that, and I apologize if I'm coming at it like it's a great new idea.
The other thing is to make it your own. I'm glad that the Beat didn't really sound like anybody else at the time. We didn't really sound like Madness or Selecter. We sounded like we were using that basic beat — an optimistic, happy-sounding beat — and putting our own take on top of it so that we created something that nobody can say sounds only like this or like that. It just really sounded like the Beat. You need to make it your own. You can't just join in. From the lyricist's point-of-view, you've got to sit there all night on the verge of tears, looking into your own heart and writing something that moves you. If it doesn't move you, it's not like it's going to move anybody else or make any sort of difference at all.
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