Special Beat Service: An Interview with the English Beat

The English Beat
The Complete Beat
Shout Factory!

“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.

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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 Englishbeat.net, 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.