Special Beat Service: An Interview with the English Beat

Ron Hart

Though disappointed with UK football, English Beat frontman Dave Wakeling is excited about The Complete Beat , a five-disc box set. He chats about that, touring with the Clash, and the prevalence of reggae.

The English Beat

The Complete Beat

Label: Shout Factory!
US Release Date: 2012-07-10
UK Release Date: 2012-07-10

"It was awful," admitted English Beat frontman Dave Wakeling about the 2012 Euro Quaterfinal football game between his native Great Britain and Italy. "It was very sad how the English played. The English team just lacked passion and innovation that makes it exciting. It’s sad to see my old country's football looking so boring."

The sport that we Yanks call "soccer" here in the States might not be as crowd-moving as it once was for Mr. Wakeling back when he caught glimpses of the members of Black Sabbath kicking around the sphere outside the studio where they recorded in his hometown of Birmingham. But the enthusiasm he harbors for the release of the 2 Tone titans' lovingly produced career-spanning box set The Complete Beat, a five-disc set containing expanded remastered versions of all three of the group's albums, 1980's I Just Can't Stop It, 1981's Wha'ppen? and 1982's Special Beat Service, plus a two-disc collection called Bonus Beat that contains a CD of 12" mixes and dubs and a disc of recordings from the Peel Sessions and four cuts live from a November 1982 gig in Boston.

Wakeling is currently on tour with a modified "U.S." version of The English Beat that doesn't include any original members. A UK edition of the band also exists going by their initial name The Beat and includes toaster (a vocalist who speaks over the beats) Ranking Roger and drummer Everett Morton along with former Dexy's Midnight Runners keyboardist Mickey Bilingham.

PopMatters caught up with him by telephone while he was en route to his stop at the Knuckleheads Saloon in Kansas City, Missouri to talk about the box set, touring with The Clash and the possibilities of a "Three Tenors" type tour with Roger and Roland Gift. (The latter served as the singer for guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele's post-Beat outfit Fine Young Cannibals. But for now, the conversation starts at soccer, er, football.

* * *

Speaking of football, was the Beat big with the hooligan/skinhead crowd? [Ed. note: a "skinhead" in British slang has nothing to do with racial prejudice and instead relates to a subculture of working-class young Londoners.]

There was always an affinity between ska, skinheads and football. So we got some of that. Not as much as some of the other groups because we consciously got ourselves a beat girl as our logo in order to try to control and contain the number of fights at concerts because the other 2 Tone bands had a lot of fights, which I didn’t really fancy when I first started. I said I could stay home and watch the boxing. Then we got the Beat girl as our logo and all of a sudden the skinheads stopped fighting. I was like, 'duh' (laughs). What happens if you put 500 skinheads in a room with a bar? But you put a few skinhead girls in there and they are too busy showing up for the ladies to want to punch each other in the nose. And it works tremendously and the other 2 Tone bands are jealous: 'how come you don’t have any fights at your gigs!?' In fact, the Specials' shows and a few of the others ideteriorated into fights that I think that made them want to pack it in at the end. Because they had witnessed the opposite of what we were seeing at theirs.

What is that logo based on anyway?

Well, it was a photograph, If you look on the, you will see the original photograph of Prince Buster, the famous ska artist of the 60s, dancing with a woman next to a jukebox. We used her as the start of the idea. She morphed a few times. She changed weight a few times. But that was the original Beat girl. We purposely made it that. You couldn’t really tell if she was black, white or Asian. We wanted a kind of one size fits all. Just a girl having fun. It was part of our multicultural drive. We wanted a logo that a lot of people could identify in England and America equally.

It’s a beautiful collection, this box set.

They did a terrific job, the people at Shout Factory. They did it as fans as much as anything else and because of that they knew what tracks have been hard to get at over the years and what sounds people within the fans have talked about. They did a terrific job and they were very inclusive about it. They got all their stuff together, did a lot of homework. Then presented us with quite a lot of different options so that we can be involved without having to start from scratch. In fact, it worked out so well, there were more arguments about the liner notes than there was about the music. We took more time picking the photographs (laughs).

Did you ever record any of those flexi disks that were big back in the late '70s/early '80s?

Yes, I believe there was [sic] a couple of them. They put them in Smash Hits magazine. I don’t think it was anything that hadn’t come out in another form. There was [sic] a couple tracks from a radio station that I wanted to try and include but we couldn’t find the master of them, so we are going to continue to search and maybe at a later date we will try and find them. But there was [sic] a couple of songs that [we] had as demos and we tried them on a radio session that never ended up being on an album. There was a really nice version of "Night and Day" that we did. I think that was 1980; I sang it very well, but we couldn’t find the master of it anywhere. The radio session had been split up into individual songs at the BBC for different DJs to play. And we never located the master or the mix of it, just the cassette. So it was an old cassette. So we tried to cue it up, [but] we couldn’t get the quality up. Sadly, in the end, we decided that there was no point in having a rarity in there if it wasn’t pleasant to listen to by the time you get the finished thing onto discs. We’ll keep searching. One of the nice things about this whole process was it forced us to go back on the master tapes and check on their health. A lot of them were starting to shed if they were on analogue tapes and a lot of had been recorded on the first digital systems to come out, which was a 3M system. Which kind of ended up to be the Betamax, you know it never really made it. So we had to take the tapes to France where there was one 3M machine still operating. So we had to take them there and get them transferred to another format. At least now as part of the process of doing the box set, we have all the masters preserved and if we hadn’t gone through that process in another few years we may have lost some of those songs forever.

Tape does not have that much of a shelf life, unfortunately.

After 20-30 years the tape starts to oxidize. If you are not careful, the actual pieces of tape can stick to each other on the reel. And as you start to play the tape, the music sticks to the piece of tape but it stuck against the back of so as it goes through the machine. And once it's done that, you just end up with a bunch of playing heads black with a bunch of big holes in the music. Some of them we had just saved in the knick of time, which was great because we had the opportunity to do that.

Did you guys have material from radio broadcasts out here in the States?

There are some tracks from a show in Boston but I think that was connected to WLIR.It was a live concert at a concert hall. More often than that -- I don’t remember being invited, I don’t know if they did those radio sessions back then as they tend to do now.

Did you guys ever do any American television, Letterman, Saturday Night Live, Tom Snyder and the like?

Nope never did either one, and I don’t know why. Well I do know why really. Although the legacy of The Beat has gotten quite big over the last couple decades, at the time, we were more like college darlings. We were like number one in the college charts for a year but none of the singles ever broke into the Top 100 in the Billboard chart. That was because the record company that we were using concentrated on the college radio and they really didn’t put out the bribery money -- oops I’m sorry -- the "independent promotion" I think its called. They didn’t put the fixing like the other labels to buy you into even having a chance at the Top 40. So I think at the time I remember being quite jealous of the other groups, but in retrospect we never got the live beat out of themselves. We never really compromised them too much and they sort of retained their credibility so long because of it which is sort of odd.

Either way, it's really amazing to see just how much reggae and punk intermingled back in that era, especially in the United Kingdom.

Yes, it was easier in England; we had [a] whole generation of people that moved over from Jamaica and other islands to help rebuild Britain in the '50s after the second World War. The idea at the time was, the people were invited to come over with the notion being just being like just work here for three to five years to help rebuild the motherland. The idea was to go back home with a load of money to build a big house for yourself and then live in luxury back in Jamaica. Then, of course, people settle and have kids and those kids have Birmingham accents. And one thing leads to another and people start to call England home and the next generation [is] born in England. Like Ranking Roger, for instance. He’s born English, so going home for him meant Birmingham, and he still lives in Birmingham to this day. It was a bit easier for us in England to get into contact with reggae whereas in America white folk weren’t that interested in reggae. Now I mean you see reggae beats all over American television commercials and kids' shows. So it’s a groove that’s been adopted and accepted and is pretty well-regarded here now.

You guys toured with the Clash. Did you get along well?

I was such a huge Clash fan before I was in a group. I used to sometimes close my eyes and go to sleep dreaming that I could hang with the Clash. Then a few years later, there I am on the side of the stage and I just finished my set and there they are playing. I got my collar up just like them. And I’m spitting and getting away with it. I was like, "Yeah! I love this!"

Did you get to talk records with them?

Yeah, me and Mick Jones used to swap cassettes. At the time there wasn’t file sharing and stuff like that. So people used to make party cassettes and you would put them on the radio, press the button and record these kind of compilations from the radio. Or then someone would get a copy and you would make a copy of the cassette. And when me and Mick Jones would meet up every now and then, we would swap cassettes. That was file sharing back in the day.

Did the English Beat ever try to set up a recording session like Studio 1 in Kingston, Jamaica?

No, we never did. I think at that time as it was going on we were so immersed in what we were doing. Seem to be just rushing from one thing to the next. Afterwards when you have a break and sit down for a year or two, you say, 'oh we should have done this or could have done that.' At the time you are just rushing from one exciting thing to the next. Its kinda like being stuck in a whirlwind. You might feel calm but that’s only because you are stuck in the eye of the storm for a second.

Have you ever thought about consolidating the two current factions of The Beat and reuniting with Roger and Everett?

No, though I do have some notions of doing something similar in a live way next year if I get the chance to do it. I’ve invited Roger and Roland Gift, and we could do something similar to the Three Tenors and have us play the greatest hits of the English Beat, Fine Young Cannibals and General Public in a sort of all-in-one three-hour show. If I get to that point, the next thing is to invite Mick Jones so we could also add Big Audio Dynamite and Clash tunes to it. And I just think it would be a fantastic summer tour for next year where it would be one non-stop show.

Would you try to get Andy Cox and David Steele on board?

No they’ll never do it. They won’t work with each other and because of that, they won’t work with anyone else. I’ve given up on that. You know after you get in your ways.


Spawning Ground

David Antrobus

In this ancient place of giant ferns and cedars, it seems the dead outnumber the living; the living fall away too quietly, too easily, taken away by stealth. There is tremendous natural beauty here, but its hold is tenuous, like moss clinging to rotting bark that will ultimately break and sink into the forest floor.

If I were to choose a visual symbol of my adopted home of Mission, an average-size town in the impossibly green western Canadian province of British Columbia, I would probably come up with a rotting carcass in a verdant pasture, a vision of death amid life. If this sounds harsh, hear me out and I'll tell my own truth about this place.

Clinging to the swift-scoured, salmon-haunted northern bank of the mighty Fraser River like an ailing lamprey to the deadly smooth flank of a Great White, this town, situated about 70 kilometers east of Vancouver, owes its entire existence to the water of its rivers and lakes, and to the wood harvested from the dense, surrounding forest. Settled in the mid-19th century, Mission has managed to survive despite two serious floods, a bridge collapse, the ominous early signs of malaise in the natural resource sector (did we really think the salmon and the great conifers were infinitely, magically renewable?), and a general reputation for unfocussed, redneck belligerence.

It all comes down to the Fraser River. The river has brought both food and trade; it provides a thoroughfare upon which the people of Mission (among others) float the great log booms that are the defeated renderings we humans fashion from the vast tracts of coastal rainforest (cedar, spruce, fir, hemlock) in our seemingly inexhaustible compulsion to exploit her resources and bring Mother Nature to her matronly knees — in part because (we believe) we can.

But the details about life in this town — the jeweler murdered in a robbery, the pretty high school graduate killed by a drunk driver, the 14-year-old suicide — in fact, all the jostling narratives crowding like paparazzi, each insisting on exclusive front page drama, bubble and coalesce and ultimately conspire to reveal the hidden Mission. There is a dark vortex lurking beneath the seemingly placid surface; the ominous shadow of something ancient beneath sun-dappled waters. Even the countless apparent banalities playing out on the town's rural borders disguise something deeper, more clandestine: the hobby farmer up in MacConnell Creek bemoaning his exhausted well; the entrepreneur hungry for an investment opportunity, eager to transform the hillsides of quiet, bucolic Silverdale into sudden, lockstep suburbia; the hiker mauled by a black bear in the mountains north of Steelhead. And always, the numerous lives derailed by marijuana grow-op busts. For all the gradual liberalisation of laws at the consumer end of this local economic rival to wood and water, those who supply the celebrated crop usually feel the full force of Canadian justice, anyway. There are times when nothing in Mission seems devoid of some kind of meaning.

A monastery sits above this town, a Benedictine haven of alternating silence and the evocative clatter of Sunday Matins bells. Its tower is phallic and disproportionately defiant, rising above the landscape like a giant darning needle, casting its intrusive shadow over the patchwork quilt of human settlement as if to stitch a final tableaux, symbolically and definitively, of the history of the original inhabitants and their mistreatment at the hands of the white settlers. Said inhabitants were (and are) the Stó:lo people (their language, Halq'eméylem, was an exclusively oral tradition, so the words are spelled phonetically nowadays). Stó:lo territory stretched along the river valley from present-day Vancouver to Yale in the Fraser Canyon, a 170 kilometer swath of virgin, fecund land, teeming with such totemic creatures as salmon, ancient sturgeon, deer, black bear, cougar, coyote, beaver, and wolf.

The Stó:lo, a Native American (or First Nations) people belonging to the larger group of Central Coast Salish, settled this area around 10,000 years ago. Europeans, attracted by rumours of gold, arrived in the 1850s. The resulting clash of cultures did not work out well for the indigenous people, and today they are still recovering from the trickle-down effects of at least one generation having been torn from its extended family. Residential schools, for which the monastery in Mission is a present-day symbol, were sites of a particularly virulent form of cultural genocide. First Nations children across Canada were taken from their homes, often exposed to physical and sexual abuse and occasionally murder, their mouths scoured with soap if they even dared to utter their own languages. St. Mary's in Mission, founded in 1861 and relinquished in 1984, was the last residential school in Canada to close.

There are 82 Indian Reserves in the Fraser Valley. There are eight correctional institutions, two in Mission alone (Aboriginal people represent around four percent of the Canadian population, yet account for 18 percent of the federally incarcerated population). Somebody — something? — really likes to control and segregate people, around here.

This fragmentation is reflected in the odd demographics of the town in general. Leaving their multicultural mark have been, at various times, Italians in Silverdale, Swedes in Silverhill, the French in Durieu, the Japanese in the early years of the fruit industry (as in the US, the Japanese were rewarded for their labours by being sent to internment camps in 1942), and immigrants from India in the early days of the shake and shingle mills. (The Western Red Cedar, with its straight grain, durability, and imperviousness to the incessant rain, while inspiring Native culture with the quixotic grandeur of totem poles, grabbed more prosaic European imaginations in the form of the shake and shingle industry, which provides reliable roofing and siding components for homes.)

In some ways, Mission is a vibrantly conflicted example of Canada's multicultural mosaic. With just over 30,000 residents (of which 3,000 are First Nations) mostly crammed into a relatively small area, bordered by the river to the south and the mountains to the north, mill workers and biker gangs, artists and Mennonites, muscle car boys and summer folkies, soccer moms and Sikh Temple-goers, merchants and pagans, Freemasons and caffeine addicts, street people and Renaissance Faire anachronisms all rub shoulders with varying degrees of friction, occasionally achieving harmony in spite of themselves. Perhaps the relative accord is due to the overall youth of the population (73 percent are under 35-years-old).

Earlier, I mentioned the presence of death. Why? Because it is everywhere here, its proximity eerily palpable. It inhabits the sly rustle of the towering conifers. It taints the air with the swampy pungency of skunk cabbage in springtime. It hums incessantly in the sub-woofer buzz of the hydroelectric dams. It shuffles along in the downcast, scuff-shoed limp of a lone child returning to a chilly home. From a distance, even the monks in their dark cassocks, knit-browed and bound by their vows of silence, seem eerily close to the Reaper caricature. For actual evidence of its pervasiveness, though, one need not go far back in time.

The bodies of three women were dumped between here and neighbouring Agassiz back in '95. Suicides and the furtive aftermath of murder, barely registering in the town at all, have spattered Burma Road, a potholed strip of rocks and dirt skirting the shore of Stave Lake. In 1997, Doug Holtam of Silverdale (a small community west of Mission) bludgeoned his pregnant wife and six-year-old daughter to death with a hammer. Against all odds, his young son Cody survived the attack. In 1995, a drunk driver, leaving in his wake not only the proverbial outpouring of community grief but also a devastated twin sister, killed 18-year-old Cindy Verhulst during the week she and her peers were busy celebrating their high school graduation. There was the little boy who slipped away from his day care centre and drowned in the swollen Fraser River. The 12-year-old boy found hanging from a school washroom towel dispenser. The elderly pilot whose body was discovered in dense forest a full two years after he had gone missing. And there was Dawn-Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Native girl who took her own life in the basement of her home after enduring relentless bullying at school; barely noticed in life, Oprah material in death.

As disturbing and tragic as these stories are, however, there was little precedent for the breaking news in the summer of 2003. This one will need a little background.

Since the mid-'80s, women have been disappearing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Canada's poorest postal code. Partly due to the initial incompetence of the Vancouver Police Department and jurisdictional issues with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), partly due to the amorphous (read: investigative nightmare) nature of the disappearances, and partly because so few people cared about missing hookers and addicts, more and more women went missing, with nary a ripple in the public consciousness (or conscience). In fact, as of this writing, a horrifying total of 65 individuals are currently on the Missing Women list. For years, law enforcement didn't even refer to their disappearance as crimes, and it wasn't until 1998 that an official task force was even assigned to investigate.

Finally, in February 2002, Robert William Pickton, a pig farmer from the Vancouver suburb of Port Coquitlam (approximately half way between Vancouver and Mission), was charged with two counts of first-degree murder of two of the missing women. More charges followed in the months ahead. Pickton currently faces 15 counts of first-degree murder with seven more expected. DNA samples of 31 women have been linked to his 10-acre farm. In short, potentially the largest serial murder case in Canadian history is now underway just 35 kilometers from Mission.

Given the frequent intrusion of death into the area, I suppose it should have surprised no one when, on 20 July 2003, the missing women's joint task force announced they would be searching an area of wetlands near Mission. Just south of Highway 7 (aka the Lougheed Highway) and the man-made body of water known as Silvermere (itself the subject of a delightfully creepy urban legend or two), the area is basically marshland bisected by a meandering slough. Immediately following the announcement of the search, the site was fenced off with temporary chain link, and the highway's wide shoulders — traditionally home to roadside fruit and flower vendors hawking their locally grown products — were suddenly and unequivocally off-limits.

Driving this formerly innocuous stretch of blacktop, especially under the after-dusk arc lights, with their swirling bug armadas and liquid island oases in the dark, now touched off an indescribably eerie feeling. It was a relief when, on 8 August, the entire ensemble of law enforcement personnel (numerous forensic investigators plus 52 anthropologists) took up their tools again and vanished. They gave no word of what they had uncovered or even whether anything had been found at all, leaving our community to its familiar, fitful dreams once more. Mission's part in this unfolding story, as it relates to the wider world, remains amorphous and indistinct, with its usual chilly glints of barely suppressed horror flickering amid the overall grey.

Here, it seems, empirical proof takes a back seat to rumour and anecdote every time.

Sometimes, while hiking alone in the tree-bejeweled mountains west of Steelhead, east of the dams, I have suddenly felt the fetid breath of graves, a harsh raven-shadow lurking behind the abundant emerald and olive greens of this sodden paradise. Inexplicable noises in the deep tangled brush; distant rending, gnashing. Something skulking and hungry. With all the assured rationality of the white male immigrant, I've been known to smirk at the idea of ghosts, and yet stumbling along a jade-tunnel trail bristling with old man's beard and devil's club, I've occasionally recoiled from something, the skin of my arms prickling with gooseflesh. There are spirits here, all right, something not too far removed from the capricious tricksters who inhabit indigenous myth. Spectres of a kind, nursing some nameless, hollow ache of unrequited need rendered manifest, paradoxically, by a landscape dripping with life.

The closest we Europeans get to perceiving this (however inadvertently) can be heard in the low extended rumble of the nighttime freight trains as they call out in the dark, hunching parallel to Railway Avenue long after most residents are asleep, lonely as a buffalo herd that's somehow seen and almost comprehended its own approaching ruin.

Of course, my telling is by no means the complete, illustrated history of Mission, a town that can barely hold onto its own name (since 1884, take your pick: St. Mary's Mission, Mission Junction, Mission City, Village of Mission, Town of Mission, and currently the District of Mission). Not by a long shot; this lurid splash portrays but a small corner of the canvas. How can any one person paint the full picture of a community, after all? No, despite my perverse zeal to stir the viscous mud below the bright surface, great deeds and happy memories adorn the history of this place, too, adding the sparkle and lustre of life above and hopefully beyond the stillness and silence. And yet, no matter how much joie de vivre this community may exhibit on its special days, like a red-carpet celebrity when the cameras start rolling — whether it be the laughing children with their maple leaf flags and pancake stacks celebrating Canada Day up at Heritage Park, or the benevolently stoned crowd at the annual Folk Festival, or even the choked air and sharp adrenaline at the Raceway — surely one thing cannot go unremarked: nearly half of those missing-presumed-dead women were of Aboriginal descent. This adds one more layer of indifference to a jaded populace apparently caught somewhere between the small town rural cruelties of its past and the uneasy suburban shrugs of its gathering future.

I know this. I worked with the street kid population here for years, witnessed their hardscrabble resilience. Few people ever gave a genuine damn about the plight of these children, even though some of the throwaways had not yet reached puberty. Two-thirds of street-involved youth in Mission are Aboriginal. Many are sexually exploited by family members, neighbors, pimps and selected citizens, but few speak of it. Some of these kids head west to Vancouver for a date with misery, stretching already tenuous community ties to the breaking point. My job as a street worker was to speak for these lost children, to ensure some semblance of the child welfare system would kick in through advocacy with social workers or teachers or families or counselors or probation officers. In a world in which the so-called "bottom line" — money and the politics of money — has become drawn too garishly, these already marginalized youth were, and continue to be, largely abandoned by a system designed to protect them. Sometimes I stand beside the town's failing heart, its run down main drag (1st Avenue), taking in the pawnshops and thrift outlets and dollar stores, and I'm convinced I truly hate this place... but only because I've loved it so deeply. In life: death. In death: life. The great inscrutable cycle.

In this way, the perennially troubled summer Pow Wow, always skirting the edge of ruin (corrupt, inept politics and sporadic funding, take a bow), yet often prevailing regardless, seems to me a far more accurate symbol of the clutching, ragged breaths that secretly haunt the sleep of this community. The fleeting vibrant colours of traditional dancers whirling in bright regalia — poignant as the plumage of endangered birds, flying amongst the high wailing melismas of the Northern-style singing and the vital, aorta-punching drums of the circles — somehow speaks more of an unavenged wound in time and place, set amid the cruelty that underlies so much beauty, than anything else this conflicted human settlement seems capable of offering.

An absurd contrast, really — this vibrant gathering and the judgmental silence of all those surrounding stories of the dead — the whole place holding its breath waiting for these mortal sorrows to purge themselves before the pristine lawns and asphalt and vinyl sidings are allowed to spread and eventually suffocate every fucking thing that ever felt like something here.

For here, tenacious as the town itself alongside relentless churning waters, the living will no doubt cling to hope and the perpetual dream of life until the muscled river — unnoticed, stealthy, taken for granted — wrestles away everything (horror, joy, splintered wood and the final word) at long last, sending it all tumbling toward the planet's dark and pitiless seas for good.

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