When The English Beat hit the UK music scene in late ‘70s England, the Birmingham group found a huge audience for its brand of 2-tone/ska with elements of punk, reggae, pop, jazz and soul. Though the band took a quarter-century pause, today the band’s founding songwriter and left-handed guitarist Dave Wakeling leads a popular touring lineup.
The English Beat was part of a ska wave that ruled the UK pop charts for a time. That movement included other bands like the Selecter and The Specials. The latter group’s lead singer, Terry Hall died of pancreatic cancer in late 2022. Wakeling has fond memories of his friend. “He was always very droll and guarded, but kind,” he recalls. “Terry always wanted to know how you were doing – if you were okay – which made you wonder if he was.”
Wakeling is decidedly okay; he has earned his share of praise from well-known and highly respected artists. The Who’s Pete Townshend famously featured “Save it for Later” in live sets with his side-project supergroup, Deep End. Townshend’s cover of the English Beat hit was included on the 1986 LP Deep End Live!, and again on Live: Brixton Academy ‘85.
Wakeling jokes about the recognition, but it’s clear that Townshend’s nod means more to him than an occasional royalty cheque. “You love the money, and you love the fast cars,” he quips. “But having your hero from when you were a kid say that your song means a lot to him is absolutely priceless.” Towshend went so far as to phone Wakeling to ask for tips on the song’s unusual guitar tuning (DADAAD for those keeping track). And after adding the song to his set, Townshend invited Wakeling to a show.
“He invited me down to The Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles,” Wakeling recalls. “It was only a short meeting, but he said, ‘Songwriters, Dave: They’re the luckiest people in the world. It just doesn’t always seem that way.’” Wakeling laughs as he admits that while he appreciated the sentiments expressed, he didn’t quite know what Townshend meant. Decades later, he’s still mulling it over. But he’s sure it’s a weighty observation. “Because,” he explains with a sly grin, the Who guitarist/songwriter “could see for miles and miles.”
Elvis Costello is a fan as well; he has covered the Engish Beat’s danceable anti-Thatcher tune “Stand Down Margaret” in concert. “That meant the absolute world to me,” Wakeling says, adding that another big name expressed his admiration in a public way as well. “Sting used to wear a Beat t-shirt all the time,” he says. “We got a nod and a wink, for which I was very grateful.”
Wakeling was deeply moved by those high-profile expressions of support for his creative endeavors. “To do anything that meant anything to your heroes is enough, really,” he says. “I could go back to gardening!”
And in fact he has done that, to some extent. While The English Beat’s lyrics often took aim at what Wakeling and his bandmates saw as societal injustice and political misdeeds, he says that these days he makes a point of trying to steer clear of courting controversy on social media. “The last time I did anything overt was to support Obama’s presidency,” says the 35-year U.S. resident.
Instead, during the pandemic Wakeling launched a popular series on Facebook he calls Skardening Sunday. “I shared photographs of different areas of my rose garden here in Woodland Hills, and invited people to send their favorite photographs of their garden,” he says. “It became very good; we got a few fans and responses.”
But it’s not as if Wakeling has turned his attention away from music. After The English Beat ended its original run in 1983, he quickly re-emerged with a new group, General Public. In the 21st century, he revived the band with a U.S.-based lineup. A highly-regarded album, Here We Go Love! Was released in 2018.
The band includes some of the most recent album’s songs in its live set. “I’ve been playing ‘How Can You Stand There?’ because not only does it go down well as a new one, but it fits in well to the first Beat album’s uptempo ska model,” Wakeling says. But he recognizes that most concertgoers are there for the classics.
Our fans are very tolerant,” he says with a self-effacing laugh. “But you have to be careful. If you play more than a couple that aren’t immediately recognizable, [they’ll say] ‘Hey, I’m going to run to the bathroom!’”
Still, many of Wakeling’s newer songs work seamlessly in a set alongside “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “The Tears of a Clown.” He recalls a Punk Rock Bowling gig from not long ago. “We just played everything from our albums that was over 130 beats per minute,” he says with a hearty laugh. And the audience responded in kind. “People were saying, ‘Oh, they still are punks!’”
Wakeling is proud of his band’s approach of starting with reggae/ska roots and adding other textures and style influences to make something fresh and new. “If you had a whole band making it sound like it was Kingston Town in 1964, then you’d be better off playing in Kingston Town in 1964. We make it sound like it’s Menlo Park in 2023!”