Two-Tone Legend Dave Wakeling Talks To Essentially Pop

Dave Wakeling is probably best known as lead singer of The Beat. After a debut hit on 2 Tone Records with a cover of Smokey Robinson’s ‘Tears of a Clown’, he and his band went on to gain almost legendary status within the two tone and ska music genre and continued to have hits until they split in 1983.

He has fronted General Public with ‘Ranking’ Roger Charlery and released solo albums to great acclaim. Truly one of the UK’s outstanding musical innovators he will be taking to the road this year with The Beat to bring the classic album ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’ to audiences old and new.

Steve Holley was thrilled and honoured to get to pose some questions to him and it was incredible that he was happy to answer in so much depth. We hope you enjoy his answers as much as we did.

EP: Hi Dave, it must be almost unbelievable that its 40 years since you formed The Beat. You were seen as originators of Two-Tone, what do you remember of that original line up?

DW: It was a magical confluence of people. It was the first person we met who played that instrument that came into the group and it ended up with an age difference 16 to 59. Because of that, we didn’t always see eye to eye but that wasn’t important really. It was more important that we could perm the best ideas out of the six of us and the best ones ended up in the song and that created a kind of magic that we couldn’t have consciously made if we had tried.

EP: Given how original the band’s music is, does it seem strange that it all started with a cover?

DW: It was by accident really. When we were rehearsing the songs, we’d sound great for a minute or two then we’d all veer off into our own personal visions of the song then it’d become a cacophony again, then it would all veer back for another minute or two and it would sound wonderful. Just the right amount of balance and tension.

The drummer, Everett, said, “Why don’t we all try and learn to play a song that we all know already, know how to play and then we can go back to your weird ones like that mirror song.” It took us quite a long time to think of a song because we were not a peer group but after about ten minutes of shouting out song titles everyone knew ‘Tears Of A Clown’. Well we said knew it, but it turns out we didn’t really know the chords to it, but we knew some of them… most of them. Andy eventually learnt the chords, which helped a lot. So, we would practise ‘Tears Of A Clown’, then we’d practise ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’, ‘Tears Of A Clown’, ‘Twist And Crawl’, ‘Tears Of A Clown’, ‘Click Click’, ‘Tears Of A Clown’, ‘Big Shot’, ‘Tears Of A Clown’, ‘Two Swords’ etc.

So, every practice, we’d end up playing ‘Tears Of A Clown’ a lot more than any of the other songs and eventually, we had 7 songs. David Steele who was the punk translator because he was 19, coming on 20 and Andy and I were now 21, and you weren’t allowed to be a punk if you were over 21. But we were 20 for the first two months of ’77 so we were, ‘in,’ the club and we worked on the basis that once you were in then you were in the club and that was it; you weren’t kicked out of it after your first birthday.

Anyway, David said you only needed 8 songs to do a show and we had 7 so we decided to put ‘Tears Of A Clown’ in. We played everywhere we could: punk shows, reggae shows, working men’s clubs, parties for old ages pensioners who used to work at factories and their grandchildren. Some songs that would go down great and some songs not so good but it didn’t matter who the crowd was, ‘Tears Of A Clown’ always went down. “Fantastic,” they said, “Fantastic.” So we kept it in the set then Jerry Dammers came down to our show on a Tuesday night and then he gave us some shows with The Selecter and he asked us if we wanted to make a single and we said yes, and we all presumed it would be ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’. But then Chrysalis Records told us that whatever song it was, we couldn’t have that one on our album. In fact, we couldn’t have it for five years. So we said, we love our 2-tone, don’t get me wrong, but we’re not giving you our best song and then we can’t ever use it again because that’d be ridiculous. What would be the point in starting a career that way? So, this went on and on and on and Jerry couldn’t convince Chrysalis Records of any other rule so we said alright then you can have ‘Tears Of A Clown’ then and you and argue with Smokey Robinson about whose bloody song it is.

Jerry was very disappointed and I was too but then we started thinking, “Well, it’s going to come out in October,” which is really the start of the Christmas Top Of The Pops rush and that’s what all creative artists at the time started to do at the start of October: aim for the Christmas Top of the Pops, and we made it with ‘Tears Of A Clown’, and we were locked in over the Christmas period on the playlist and it went to number 6 in the charts, and we’d still kept ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’ so it was like wow, that was a well-played Bridge hand there wasn’t it?

We expected ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’ to come out in the springtime and then the record company, our new label, Arista, who were feeling like they were pushing their look were like, no let’s do ‘Hands Off She’s Mine’ now and then bring out ‘Mirror’ with the album. We were like OK alright then, and then ‘Hands Off She’s Mine’ got in to the top ten too, and then when they brought out the album with ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’ it went to #3! So, it worked out well for all the worst of reasons and I got to meet Smokey Robinson too at a Grammy party. He knew of our version of the song and I told him that I used to sing along to his songs when I was a kid because I thought he sounded like an angel and if I could sing like him, I might be an angel too.

Then he gave me one of the longest public hugs in the history of Los Angeles’ music events! Christopher Cross had to come in like a referee and split us up – Step Back! He was a lovely fellow though, really lovely and he was genuinely touched I think that I thought he sounded like an angel.

EP: The legendary Pete Townshend has covered one of your hits, ‘Save It For Later’, live. How did that come about?

DW: He phoned me up one morning and somebody gave me the phone and said it’s Pete Townshend on a Saturday morning. And I sarcastically said, “Oh yes, he always phones about this time Saturdays.” I thought to be honest it was Mickey Billingham from General Public at first because that’s just the stunt Mickey would play that is. And so, I answered the phone in that light like, “Hello Pete ahaha.” Then Pete replied, “Oh hello Dave, err it’s Peter Townshend here and I’m sitting with David Gilmour (Pink Floyd) and we’re trying to work the chords to your song ‘Save It For Later’.” Which was really, really weird because The Who’s early singles and then ‘Ummagumma’ (Pink Floyd) had been two of the biggest sort of guitarist influences on me ever as I was growing up as well as Jimi Hendrix. It was stunning really, and it turned out I had made up the tuning to the song by accident.

I had tried to do Jon Martyn songs and sing along to his record and he played in DADGAD tuning and I thought I’d done that but I’d actually tuned by G string up to an A so it was DADAAD and so they couldn’t get it because they thought it was DADGAD too. So, I told them the source of my mistake and ingenuity, and they tuned their G’s up to an A and that was it. He’s done a few versions of it now, quite a number actually, but they are nearly always for charity, so I don’t think I’ve made anything off of it as of yet! I must admit as he was telling me that him and David Gilmour were going to play my song, I thought wow, my heroes are going to play my song; this is going to pay me a fortune! And then he said oh this is for I think it was for an earthquake or a volcano benefit in Peru or Bolivia and I said, “Oh no Pete, no, they’ve already had plenty of them over there they don’t need any more!” I don’t know how funny he felt that was at the time. He’s played it a lot of times, but I’ve only been ever paid in heavenly terms. Maybe that’s good witchcraft as it has never been crossed with the sense of Luca. It has never been earthbound by something as mundane as a fucking royalty!

Pearl Jam covered it too, which was interesting. They do a segue of it in ‘Better Man’ because it is, to be honest, the same song and I found that out in the most peculiar way. I worked with Greenpeace in the 90s and we made a global warming themed album called, ‘Alternative NRG’, and we recorded Pearl Jam live and then we were going to get Chrissie Hynde to do the vocal on this song called, ‘Better Man’, because Eddie Vedder didn’t want to sing it because it was written from a woman’s perspective. So we’re recording the song in this really fancy ranch place in Northern California and I’m looking at the guitarist Stone Goddard and the line he’s playing and he nods at me and I watch him again and he nods at me again and then they took a break and he said, “Yeah, you’re right it’s the same song,” and I went, “What! I thought it might be!”

He said he used to work at 91X in San Diego as an intern and that was his favourite song when he worked at the radio station. So it is the same song and I think the association is so nice that I’ve never bothered to chase any money on it and they fit together perfectly so when I’m in Seattle I always do a verse of ‘Better Man’ in the middle of ‘Save it for Later’ to give them the honour back.

Then Chrissie Hynde couldn’t sing it because she was doing an ‘I Love You’ acoustic album and her manager didn’t want her to be interrupted so we didn’t end up using the song at all but it’s absolutely fantastic. Edited from three different live takes with Pearl Jam in full bore playing ‘Better Man’. A really, really great version of it. So, Eddie still insisted, “Oh I can’t sing it no, we’ll just have to throw it away,” and then the record company heard him and went, “No you’re fucking singing it.” The nicest thing about it was that it did cost us about $10,000 for that day to record all the stuff and I was kind of crestfallen because that’s like hundreds of peoples’ donations from ‘round the country that and they think that they’re saving the dolphins and not blowing off the sessions! Then Pearl Jam’s manager sent all the money back. He didn’t ask for a receipt or nothing he just sent a cheque for ten grand and said, “Sorry about that,” and that was lovely wasn’t it. Which is what I think you get with Pearl Jam; they always have this sense of decency about them.

EP: I hear you got to meet David Bowie, one of your heroes. They say you should never meet your heroes. How was that?

DW: He was absolutely stunning! I’ve met many of my heroes and luckily most of them have turned out to be smashing. He was completely down to Earth, and he came into the dressing room and he congratulated us and thanked us. He said that the previous night he thought the crowd was in the best mood he’d ever walked out to because we’d primed them for him and he asked us if we needed anything. Immediately, Saxa put his arm round his shoulder and dragged him down the caravan to the fridge and opened the fridge and said, “You see in there sonny boy, do you see any Red Stripe?” David Bowie looked at went, “You’re right, no, I don’t see any Red Stripe,” and he told him that he played saxophone as well but not as good as Saxa.

Then he left and he came back around 15 to 20 minutes later with a pack of Red Stripe for us. We were stunned. He had to send someone out to get a pack as there wasn’t any on site and he brought it back himself, We were just blown away and we shook hands a lot and he left and we were all speechless apart from Saxa who was like, “Nice boy that, who him anyway? Coming in the dressing room.” We were like, “Saxa that’s David Bowie!” He said, “I thought he was a waiter!” Because he’d got his little black suit on, Saxa thought he was a waiter. You couldn’t pay for experiences like that!

EP: Having a hit with one of your first songs must have made it difficult to appreciate how hard a band has to work to break. Did that contribute to the break-up of the band in 1983?

DW: We didn’t think at the time that you needed to work hard to be a success because a lot of our favourite punk groups had just brought out a great song and followed that. We kind of felt it was more like how good your material was rather than how good you worked. We weren’t trying to be famous, we were just trying to make good songs and we thought if they were as good as we thought they were then we’d probably become famous.

Then after congratulating ourselves that we’d managed to avoid work for a good portion of our lives, we suddenly found out that we never had to work so hard in our fucking lives. It was like 14 to 18 hours days regularly with travel in between sitting up in a fucking van and it was much harder work than being on a building site, harder work than being a fireman. It was way harder than I think any of us had expected. But we had all sorts of pressures on us to keep working because the records were selling and everybody surrounding us was making money and so, of course, they were very enthusiastic about convincing us to continue working on the strength that it was good for our careers, which it probably was, but it was probably just as good for theirs and they didn’t have to get on the bus.

So, we probably ended up working too much. Especially once we became really successful in America because it takes 8 weeks to tour America and if it’s a successful tour then they usually put on another month of shows on everywhere that you had sold out but up in a bigger place with a new single to push more album sales. So, it was quite common to be on tour for going on 12 weeks in America. I think everyone got a bit shell-shocked from it and it got to the point where the only way people could express that was that they wanted two years off just to be real and have the opportunity to write songs about the real world not from the prison of the rock and roll vision of the world. They were worried we’d start writing songs about barrelling down rock and roll boulevard. “More planes than buses,” was one way of how it was expressed.

The English Beat perform in Portland Oregon at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom. Portland OR December 4, 2006 © Jackie Butler / Retna Ltd.

So, it ground to a halt because of that and we did try to keep it going but it kept floundering for one reason or another and eventually me and Roger, who had kids now since The Beat had started, couldn’t really afford to have two weeks off.

We were a socialist operation, so nobody was particularly wealthy, and we couldn’t afford to stop so we started up General Public and that became quite a decent success in America although not so much in England.

In fact, we’ve got a TV commercial on now on the Hallmark channel with the song, ‘Tenderness’. Who would have known? If you work at it and keep at it for 40 years Dave it starts to come good.

EP: It must be so exciting to be taking the music on the road again in a country where there is only one Beat, what can fans look forward to? Given the tour name I assume you’ll be concentrating on your first album?

DW: It will be exciting but it’s going to be really exciting in a different way because it will also be a sort of remembrance of Roger and Saxa. So, the songs will be done in that sense as well as with the normal sense of exuberance that you can muster, which is to do with dealing with everybody in the room that has survived and still struggles. It will be very emotional and that is good really.

I like to go on stage feeling nervous and if you don’t on go on stage feeling nervous, you’re becoming blasé. It is a weird thing to try and go out and open up and connect and discuss the darker side of life with a wry grin and get some sense of redemption for yourself and the crowd out of that so it is a scary thing and I imagine because of the extra emotional weight of it I will probably even be a bit more scared.

I used to try and stop myself being scared but I don’t at all now, I welcome it. It comes on like a volcano about 30 minutes before the show. Nobody really sees it now, but it is there, and I am grateful for it. I once read a French writer who said that it was the butterflies was what took the artists souls to heaven and the moment, I read that I was like, “Ohhhh that’s what it is.” So now I welcome my white-hot fear as a dear old friend returning to prepare me.

It’s a long way to go just to go through the routine of it and it’s always really nice to be real for that particular show and that city and that set of friends and so the sense of history that I have with a lot of people who will be in the crowd and in England is quite an enormous one really. Enormously satisfying as well as enormously challenging.

EP: It’s almost a year since we lost “Ranking” Roger Charlery, I bet you must be proud of how the band’s catalogue is seen as almost classic these days. How would Roger have felt, do you think?

DW: I think we all felt that in kind of a surprised way over the last 10 or 15 years as we’ve been licensing the catalogue and realising that it was selling very well and it was being touted as one of the best albums of that particular era on both sides of the Atlantic on different polls as well as the next wave of ska fans as you might loosely call them. Bands such as No Doubt, the Dualers, The Skints and so many of them reference our records as one of their inspirations, which is a fabulous honour to get and that many of them could play cover versions of our songs in the same way that we did ‘Tears Of A Clown’. So that is beautifully satisfying that is.

I think Roger was of an accord with the rest of us that sometimes it seemed despite our best efforts, our songs had stood the test of the time. All I remember was that we really, really did mean it at the time. We meant it not just from the point of view of wanting to be a pop group, or to be in on the television or any of that or even make a living out of it. We wanted to make some songs that affected us or other people the way that our favourite songs had affected us, just in the celebration of the power of music in being able to transmit ideas. I think we were all quite surprised and proud of that.

We were pretty ruthless with each other with the editing. You couldn’t get too far off on an artistic tangent before someone said, “Well that’s crap! Yeah that’s crap, don’t do that bit.” Oh right, well thanks for letting me know. I think perhaps because we weren’t a peer group, people were kind of free to say whatever they wanted at the time because it wasn’t expected that they would have a similar opinion and it was quite interesting to hear a different opinion from a different generation or a different culture. Most often we managed to combine the best of all of us rather than the worst of any of us – which we all tried later of course!

So, I’m sure he’d be proud but I’m sure he’d rather be here to be proud. I’m sure that was a big of a surprise to him as it was to everyone else.

EP: I still have the vinyl of ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’ at home. It’s still one of my favourite songs! It opened a world of music from the 60’s for me but also acted as a gateway to your brilliant album ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’. What made you choose a twenty-year-old Andy William’s song for the album?

DW: It came from two sources: my Dad and David Steele.

My Dad told me, “I don’t blame you’d Dave, but you know where you’re going wrong don’t you?” He’d had a couple of drinks by this point, so I was like, “No, where is this going?” He said, “No I don’t blame you Dave, I blame The Beatles. They were the first ones who thought they could do the bloody lot weren’t they? You didn’t catch Frank Sinatra staying up all night writing bloody songs, did you? He was out doing models. He had proper people come in to do the songs for him. Not being funny but like Tin Pan Alley: professional songwriters Dave, not trying to be funny mate.” I was like, “Ohhh right, we shouldn’t be writing out own songs I get it.” He said, “You know what you can sing the piss out of don’t you Dave?” I said, “No, do tell.” He said, “Can’t Get Loosed To Using You.” He got the word the wrong way ‘round.

So, it’s stuck in my mind and I had a listen to it and I thought, “Oo, look it does sound a bit like a reggae bass line. My Dad’s quite clever.” Then not too long afterwards, David Steele said we should do the song, ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’ we should rehearse that and see what it’s like and I immediately agreed because my Dad said I could sing the piss out of that one. So, we started rehearsing it and it went well and it made it on to the first album.

There had been stories floating around for many, many years that Wham! had covered that song before they ever got a record deal and there was stories that a demo of Wham!’s had been sent by George and Andrew to The Beat’s offices in Hemsworth because they were Beat fans and they wanted to be on our Go Feet label. Fuck me, missed that one didn’t I! I didn’t get that cassette, but someone did, and I’ve never established who it was who did, but I know it was David Steele that suggested we should try rehearsing the song! It was always just a rumour and a story, but Andrew Ridgeley just last year started talking about it and he still seemed a bit bent out of shape about it! He said, ‘That was our first taste of the music industry, we sent our demo of ‘Can’t Get Used To Loving You’ to The Beat and they put it out and had a number 3 hit with it!” Sorry!

I think I would’ve been keener to have signed them. I think we might’ve got the short end of the stick there! George Michael always seemed to take it in good stead. He had mentioned it a few times in interviews and then he invited me to go on tour with him but his tour never happened and then he wasn’t around not long after that so it never happened but that would’ve been smashing, I would have loved to have toured with him.

We could’ve done ‘Can’t Get Used To Losing You’ together! Now I have to sing it for him, Andy Williams, and Roger and Saxa – the list is getting long!

EP: Thank you, Dave, for your time and good luck with the tour. It might just end up being the perfect antidote to all the current madness.

Catch The Beat on their, “…Still Can’t Stop It” UK tour on the following dates:

03 JUNE CONCORDE 2
05 JUNE COVENTRY THE EMPIRE
09 JUNE JUNCTION
10 JUNE NORWICH EPIC STUDIOS
11 JUNE MANCHESTER CLUB ACADEMY
12 JUNE GLASGOW ST. LUKES
15 JUNE BELFAST EMPIRE MUSIC HALL
16 JUNE DUBLIN WHELANS
18 JUNE NORTHAMPTON ROADMENDER
19 JUNE NOTTINGHAM THE LEVEL
21 JUNE WAKEFIELD WAREHOUSE 23
23 JUNE MARGATE DREAMLAND
24 JUNE SHEFFIELD LEADMILL
25 JUNE NEWCASTLE RIVERSIDE
01 JULY HARPENDEN PUBLIC HALLS
02 JULY LONDON ELECTRIC BALLROOM
03 JULY SALISBURY CITY HALL
05 JULY BIRMINGHAM GLEE CLUB

EXTRA DATES ADDED BY POPULAR DEMAND:

08 JULY LIVERPOOL THE CAVERN
09 JULY CARDIFF PORTLAND HOUSE
10 JULY BRISTOL THEKLA

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