Photo © Judith Ann Warren, MPress Productions

JoBoxers Frontman, Actor, and Poet Dig Wayne Walks to a Boxerbeat

Whether a spry youth thrashing about in punk clubs, a writer publishing poetry, or an actor appearing on police procedurals, JoBoxers frontman Dig Wayne’s life has spanned a full artist’s spectrum.

One of the bright, albeit brief, marvels to have flashed upon the ’80s with a singular approach to rock music, JoBoxers filled a niche of their own creating. Bridging a nifty ’50s aesthetic with the urgency of new wave pop, their stylistic exploits encompassed everything from braggadocious swing-rock to a kind of starry-eyed pugilism. Led by the affably boisterous Dig Wayne, JoBoxers leaned on what some critics pegged simply a schtick and others a charming stratagem to produce the perfect pop package; decked out in dungarees, “wifebeaters”, scally caps, and Doc Martins, JoBoxers were the doffer boys of new wave culture, bounding the stage with raffish intent.

Singled out for his powerful charisma, Dig Wayne was offered to front the band when he was spotted by Bernard Rhodes, the then-manager for the Clash. Wayne had been performing shows in New York as the frontman for Buzz and the Flyers, a rockabilly-punk band that was just coming up in vogue during the latter half of the ’70s. Rhodes invited the young singer-guitarist to move to the UK and meet with the other members of the band (the players in punk band Subway Sect). The integration was a successful one and, born from the ashes of Wayne’s former rockabilly outfit and the remaining members’ punk roots, the band was formed.

A handsome mix of Bo Diddley-esque pop, new wave bounce, noir cinema, and comic-strip kitsch, JoBoxers took their boyish swagger to parodic heights. Driven by Wayne’s alternately suave and explosive stage presence, the band mined the records of Fats Domino and Count Basie for their influences. Reframed through an approach that was undeniably punk in execution, JoBoxers became more than just a modish pop band; they were now, with the matching Depression-era rig-outs, a pop concept to push their irrepressible swing-rock to the masses.

Released in 1983, their debut album Like Gangbusters, a tightly packed mix of scatting blues, ersatz ’50s swing, jubilant pop, and punk energy, made headway with the single “Boxerbeat”, a stomping dockyard jaunt that secured an impressive # 3 on the UK Singles Chart. The accompanying video for the song introduced audiences to an image of young men living it up in an English dive, dancing atop the café tables and barstools. It’s a scene right out of a Frank Capra film; romantically sepia-toned and nostalgically on-point.

Most of all, the video introduced viewers to one of pop music’s most compelling and charismatic frontmen; heralding his arrival on the freshly minted new wave scene, Dig Wayne forward-flips his salutations into the pumping first verse. He sings a vocal pitched somewhere between jump-blues croon and punk snarl and pounds the tabletops with wild abandon. It’s a joyously rousing exhibition of what the band was capable of and it set up what would next become their biggest hit in the UK and stateside.

“Just Got Lucky”, the band’s follow-up single, found them in fine fettle. While it didn’t climb a number as high as their last entry in the UK (peaking at # 7), it did finally break them in the US on the Billboard Top 40 charts. A pogoing Northern soul jam full of lusty drive, the song strikes a perfect balance between the band’s pure pop sensibilities and their rock-solid rhythm section. As befitting of their doffer boy image, the music video captures the boys in full revelry; a coterie of wharf-rats storming the shipyards, engaging in the tomfoolery of go-karting, quaffing, and Don Juaning.

The stateside success of “Just Got Lucky” allowed JoBoxers to tour the US. Meanwhile, their appeal continued to expand in Europe. Striking while the iron was hot, they released their third single; the funk-strutting, bellicose “Johnny Friendly”. Taking their pulp-novel kitsch to grandiose heights, the single’s promotional video furthered the band’s image of hip gamin boys and angled in a noirish gangster-film aesthetic. Shot in the industrial lots of Shad Thames (pre-gentrification), the band enlisted British boxer Frank Bruno to star in the video for a bit of celebrity razzle and shine.

A fourth single from the album, “She’s Got Sex”, was released and, afterward, the band would return to the studio to record a follow-up album. Changes in management and record company hassles would eventually seal the band’s fate and JoBoxers subsequently dissolved. Left on his own, Wayne made a bid for a solo career, releasing one single, “Mastermind”, in 1987, which stalled by the wayside with little push or promotion.

Determined, gutsy, and curious as ever, Wayne would explore other activities beyond music, including acting, landing roles in Judge Dredd (Danny Cannon, 1995), Phoenix (ibid, 1998), and the Harvey Keitel vehicle The Young Americans (ibid, 1993). He’s made the rounds in television series as well, scoring roles on ER, CSI, and Criminal Minds and, in 2008, he began teaching acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute in LA.

In addition to his thespian pursuits, Wayne is an accomplished poet as well, revealing an emotional and poignant depth in his work that tills deeper the soul than the work of his pop-lyric past. As a photographer, he is given to a fruitful sort of happenstance and captures a kind of ingenious beauty in the mundane. Stripped of the glamour and larger-than-life pop music theatrics of his former preoccupations, Wayne is far more aligned with the likes of artists and poets such as Theo Bleckmann and Anne Waldman. He continues to make music; in 2007, he released Shack Rouser (with the Chisellers), an album of rustic, dream-soaked blues. He’s also reunited with his earlier rockabilly band Buzz and the Flyers for a number of shows. A reunion show with JoBoxers is rumored for 2021.

Always busy and on the go, and perhaps a little hesitant of delving into his pop past, Dig Wayne discusses with PopMatters the various facets of his work, tracing his days as a spry youth thrashing about in punk clubs to the very present, as one of LA’s hardest-working artists.