The original voice of ska innovators The Beat is back, with an all-star cast of genre heavyweights at his back. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Dave Wakeling ahead of the band’s upcoming turn at the Opera House.
The late seventies were a time of profound social and cultural upheaval in the UK – the revolutionary spirit of the sixties had amounted to nothing but hippie clichés by the end of it, and the socioeconomic conservatism of the Thatcher-led Tories led a generation to ruin, deprivation, and disillusionment. The snarling and spitting rhetoric of the first wave of UK punk would, in time, also become another panto-dame for the country’s culture, but among the tropes of safety pins, spikes and nihilism lay the foundations for social change and inclusion, as the steady diet of dub and reggae that DJs like Don Letts and others had fed the kids at punk’s outset was, at the other end, morphing into ska, a double-time, rock-inflected strain of reggae with working-class youth at its heart.
Next year will mark forty years since the debut of the original incarnation of The Beat, in 1979. Looking back on it now, vocalist and bandleader Dave Wakeling, speaking from his home in California, is rightfully proud of how far the band got on its first run, and the legacy they’ve hewn for themselves. “I have to say, I’m terribly lucky to still be in the game. I mean, I dreamt when I was a kid that I would be in a pop group, but I never dreamt that it would go this well. And the idea that forty years later, still being in a pop group… people have liked your songs, it’s way more than a dream come true. People want to come up to you, people want to talk to you, you meet all sorts of beautiful people, all sorts of money flying around… but after all of that, for people to come up to you, and tell you stories of how their lives were affected by your songs or lyric or something like that, someone being born or someone dying in a hospice (with your music in the background). You can’t buy that. As a songwriter, that’s where the best bits come from. Realising one of your threads got weaved into someone’s else tapestry.”
Of the tunes Wakeling and company have written and put into the great ska songbook, single ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ stands out as prescient for one single reason – it saw the growing excesses of image and self that would go on to convulse social development as the eighties and openly discussed its effects. In a post-reality TV age where ample platforms of documentation and image-crafting exist, it’s almost poignant. “The sad thing about it is, online, first you see the self-obsession, then you see the loneliness, then some poor kid posts a three-minute video before they (take their own lives), because they don’t feel anyone likes them. What I was always worried about was… in the punk times, people could take a long time to get ready, put on their makeup, especially the blokes. But with that sort of self-preening, by the time everyone was ready and the hair was standing up, it was a bit hard to have a conversation, everyone had spent so long preparing (this outward expression) that it was hard to communicate. That was the first sign you saw of it. It came to me one day after a half of Guinness after being on the building site, going home, taking off the wet jeans and going into the bathroom for a shower and a shave. I looked at myself and said ‘no need for this, it’s just you and me, Dave’, and that’s when it started coming to me.”
After three albums, the band split in the mid-eighties, with members going on to form bands like ska outfit General Public and pop hitmakers Fine Young Cannibals, as well as pursuing solo careers. The band eventually reassembled in 2003, sans Cannibals, overcoming years of disharmony to reunite for a tour, but for various reasons, Wakeling felt something was missing, a wrong that could be righted sooner than expected. “It was fun, and it was exciting, but it didn’t have the needle everyone was expecting it to. Now, everybody seems to be friends again, talking on the phone, a new album for the fortieth anniversary. There’s been some thought about how many original members might like to get up and do a turn. Maybe not the full ninety minutes, but get up and do a song or two. I think it would be nice to have the album, but how much more fun would it be for everyone to get together, and do as much as they want to do? Make a party of it. I’m going to start gently inquiring (chuckles).”
After the reunion, Wakeling went on to form The Beat Starring Dave Wakeling, which sees him take on material spanning his whole career with The Beat, General Public and solo endeavours, including new material accompanied by veteran collaborators. The pros and cons of representing the band’s name and legacy alone on new recordings were quite substantial to consider. “I listened to the songs from a distance, and they were very close to how they sounded in my head. I managed to follow that through, the right tempo, the right sounds, ‘that’s where the recorder comes in, that’s where the piccolo is’, so I got to follow my star, and I picked what instruments went where, as I imagined it, and that’s very satisfying. Other records I’ve written, I’ve written a song, and six other people grabbed it like dogs, and you have to find a way to put words over that. Now I can write something, lay it down, let other people at arranging it, then head down the pub (laughs).”
Last year saw Wakeling return to Ireland for the first time in thirty years with his iteration of the band, with a pair of sell-out shows. The changes that have overcome his audience and their generation since living in Dublin in the eighties have made a mark on him, while his bandmates have certainly taken notice of the Irish touring experience. “Spent a lot of time (in Dublin) and like Birmingham, it was quite a rough place. You have to say, we noticed while driving around, Ireland is looking very well, it looks like it’s happy with itself. People are happy with each other, and there seems to be an optimism about the place, that sadly we didn’t see in England. The streets are cleaner, there’s more civic pride. You see all sorts of ups and downs over the years, but there seems to be a roll-up-your-sleeves attitude outside the concert halls, and inside, people with a lot more confidence, making sure they were going to have a good night. And the Americans noticed it particularly. The great thing now is you have these double-decker buses, so you’re properly rested before a concert. Like a guided tour, without anyone talking, so you sleep. Driving from Dublin to Cork, it went really quiet. Usually with ten or twelve people on a bus, someone’s having a go or a joke. But it was very placid. I got up, and it was though everyone was in a trance – they were staring out the window. (The Americans) had never seen so much green!”
Heading into the return leg, Wakeling has a few words for veteran fans of the bands ahead of taking to the stage at the Opera House. “We’re terribly excited about our new material. Some of the songs are about the fears in my mind that are now playing out on the world stage… we’ll play some new songs, but we know that the crowd will come with a lot of songs they’ll want to sing as well. We’ll strike the right balance.”