Dave Wakeling, singer songwriter with The English Beat, chats with Kevin Cooper about the Grateful Survivors Club, the tour which nearly took place with David Bowie, the release of their first studio album in over thirty years and their current tour of the UK
Dave Wakeling is an English singer songwriter and guitarist. He is most famous for singing and writing songs for the 1980s 2-Tone band The Beat and also General Public.
The first album by The Beat, I Just Can’t Stop It, was a hit and singles from this album included Mirror In The Bathroom, Hands Off She’s Mine and Can’t Get Used To Losing You which all entered the top ten in the UK Singles Chart. They also had UK hits from the albums Wha’ppen? and Special Beat Service. In 1983 The Beat disbanded, citing, “every great band only has three really good albums”.
In 1984 he formed General Public with Ranking Roger and they released their debut album, All The Rage. He would go on to record another two albums with General Public, before the band disbanded.
Wakeling released a solo album, No Warning on I.R.S. Records in 1991 and has lived in California for a number of years. He now regularly performs as The English Beat in North America.
Prior to going to a sound check ahead of his concert at Milton Keynes, he took time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.
Hi Dave how are you?
Hi Kevin, it’s fantastic to hear from you and I have to say that it is a very warm and sunny day down here in Milton Keynes at the moment.
But are the cows happy?
(Laughter) they did look happy on the way in. We drove up from Cardiff last night and to be honest a lot of the cows were sitting down so I am thinking that there might be a drop or two of rain heading this way at the moment.
I have to thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
Not a problem, it’s my pleasure.
And just how is life treating Dave Wakeling at this moment in time?
Life at the moment is treating me very well if I am honest with you. Normally we play a lot of shows every other month in America and then every alternative month we play Weekend Warrior Shows on the Friday and Saturday. However, this time we finished our American tour, came straight over to tour the UK then on the 9th October we head back to tour the East Coast of America supporting Squeeze. That will take us up to 2nd November which if I am honest will probably be the longest tour that I have ever done. Having said all of that, I am holding up quite well. I am in good voice, I’m singing better than ever and I am, as they say, firing on all cylinders (laughter).
And from what I am reading you are getting some of the best reviews of your career.
Thank you. I am currently getting the best reviews that I have ever received. Perhaps the secret is to keep on doing gigs without ever stopping (laughter).
Does life in the USA suit you?
Well I suppose that it does now as I have now been here for almost half of my life, having been here for the past thirty years. I have been living in America for so long now that it is quite ambiguous whenever I come back to the UK especially when I come back to Birmingham (laughter). Everything that I knew about the place for the first thirty years of my life has now changed and I find myself looking at it as if I know the place but of course there have been a lot of changes to the place since I was there. So it’s quite interesting, it is as if I am a tourist in the place that I was born in. It is a very funny feeling but I actually do enjoy it. I feel myself fortunate to have been able to enjoy the best of an English lifestyle together with the best of an American lifestyle.
You have mentioned the UK tour so I have to ask you just how is it all going?
It has all been going really well apart from one gig one Sunday night when we were pushing our luck a little bit (laughter). All of the dates have been packed and very close to being sold out. We are getting some really great responses to what it is that we are trying to do. People keep telling me just how great it is to hear me sing the songs and to hear them sung with the same voice that is on the records. There have been some lovely reunions over the past couple of weeks.
You will be playing here in Nottingham at the Rescue Rooms on Wednesday 5th October. What can we expect?
Well there will be a lot of action (laughter). We have started having people who are wearing Fred Perry polo shirts come up and join us on the stage for the last song of the evening. The whole place will go bonkers; it is almost like a new Fred Perry promotion (laughter). It’s been a while since I have been to Nottingham and I am really looking forward to that gig in particular.
On the subject of people wearing Fred Perry polo shirts didn’t they recently cost you a few pounds at the Hebden Bridge gig?
(Hysterical laughter) that’s right they bloody well have (laughter). It was at the concert in Hebden Bridge that we decided to pass around a bucket to help them after the dreadful floods that they have recently had up there. The club where we were playing had been running a charity in an attempt to help the people out. So we passed a bucket around and said that whatever was raised that I would match it and they managed to raise around one hundred and sixteen pounds. So when everyone was up on the stage for the last song we passed it around again asking the audience to try and make it up to one hundred and fifty pounds.
By the time that they had finished it was three hundred and thirty pounds and I had to match it (laughter). It was a bit more than the charitable donation that I had been expecting (laughter). However, fair play to them all, I suppose that’s the magic of Fred Perry.
I have to ask you about the new album. You have been financing it via PledgeMusic, how did you find the experience?
In general I have to say that things have gone really well. However, there was one thing which caught me unawares. No one bothered to tell me that you only get half of the money upfront; you get the second half when you actually deliver the record (laughter). I actually managed to raise all of the money that would be needed in order for us to record through via PledgeMusic. However, when we were around half way through recording I called them up and asked them for some more money and of course they then informed me that I would get that when I delivered the record (laughter). Let me tell you that was a real surprise to me. In order to raise the difference we put on a couple of private shows which meant that we could keep things running along smoothly.
And what stage are you at with the album?
Things are going really well and it is very close to being finished. In fact, I would like to think that it will all be finished by the end of the year. We have been playing some of the new tracks in the current set and we have also been playing some of the working mixes of the songs before and after the shows and we have been getting some fantastic comments from people. I am really proud of the songs; they sound very direct, simple and straight to the heart which is how I heard them when I was playing them on the acoustic guitar. We have captured the sound of the orchestra that was in my head as I was writing the songs which is fantastic.
We have received some very nice responses to the album from quite a few of the major DJ’s over here in the UK. They have kindly given us some advice as to what songs we should present first and there seems to be some growing excitement about it. I am really looking forward to getting the album out there.
When it is finally released will you come back to the UK and tour with the album?
Yes, we are hopefully coming back to the UK next summer and we are currently working hard to see if we can get on a few Festivals. We could even jump onto a tour with a bigger band in order to tour and promote the new album. We will just have to see what materialises in the meantime.
You may laugh but I have to ask, will you be releasing the album on cassette?
(Laughter) oh my god. I am only just getting over having to re-release things on vinyl (laughter). Because of the current demand for vinyl, that puts an extra four months onto the time you need to get anything new out there. So we will be putting the album out on compact disc and download first and then we will bring it out on vinyl when it is ready. Having said that if anyone asked for the album on cassette then we would seriously consider doing that. Would it have to come with a pencil taped to the side of it (laughter).
Note: For those of you out there who have no idea why Dave has mentioned needing a pencil with your cassette tape, ask your parents! (laughter)
(Laughter) that is right, I find it very odd that within the music industry we appear to be going backwards. In my opinion vinyl still does sound the best. To be honest, I am surprised that they are resurrecting the cassette tape because the sound was never really that great. It is probably just a little bit warmer than a digital download but I never really thought that you could compare its quality to that of vinyl. You could get some nice BASF Chrome Dioxide cassette tapes but they used to eat up your machine as I remember (laughter). I think what it is, more than anything else, is that people, especially my older fans, never really felt like they had bought anything unless they had something in their hands.
We are an artefacts generation and so it is difficult for people of my age to think that they have actually bought something whenever they buy a download (laughter). They want to have a sleeve to pull something out of and to able to read the notes. Many of them will get the sleeve signed later on, put it in a frame and hang it on their wall. People like artefacts and I suppose that is the reason why the cassette is making a comeback. Back in the day the good thing about cassette tapes is the fact that they were very cheap. I can actually remember when they were revolutionary (laughter).
On the subject of cassettes didn’t you get yourself into trouble with the record company when The Beat released your second album Wha’ppen?
(Hysterical laughter) yes I did that’s right (laughter). We were all upset here in the UK because you had to make your own cassettes back then and write out all of the tracks and everything by hand. The problem with that was that you could never distinguish one cassette from another as it was just a load of scribble (laughter). So I had this idea that when Arista were going to release the album, I had the artwork guy design a postcard and I wanted to start a campaign where everyone who was a member of the fan club would post all of those postcards in the week of the release. I honestly thought that it would be a great promotion.
At that point the record company thought that it was a great idea (laughter). So we printed up twenty thousand of these postcards which were then put inside individual album sleeves with the idea that the fans would then post them. The album came out and we announced that the first twenty thousand copies all came with a cassette tape sleeve which was in fact this postcard which when you folded it even had the track listing on there (laughter). The record company were suddenly absolutely furious with the band until it became such a good story that the first twenty thousand copies of the album sold out within two days. By the end of the week the record company thought that it had been a brilliant idea again (laughter).
You have recently done a few shows with UB40 featuring Ali (Campbell) Astro and Mickey (Virtue). How was that?
Yes, we played a couple of shows over in America with Ali’s UB40 and I have to say that it really is an amazing band. Ali is in fantastic voice too. I have often been jealous of Ali’s voice because he makes it look so casual. He just stands there and out it comes. I can sometimes throw my head back, stick my chest out and give it a go but Ali just stands there and it all just oozes out of him (laughter). It really was great fun seeing the boys again. Without fail, at some point during the evening we all find ourselves standing in a circle thinking aren’t we lucky to be alive (hysterical laughter). We now call ourselves The Grateful Survivors Club (laughter).
We are all heading into our sixties so we watch with keen interest as our heroes like David Bowie pass away in their seventies and then Prince of course has to jump in doesn’t he. He was always ahead of his time wasn’t he that young one. Always ahead of his time. The union needed to have a word with him and say “wait your bloody turn mate. We have all of the sixty year olds to do yet” (laughter). But it does put a totally different aspect onto it and you do become extremely grateful that you are still around; you are still doing it, and people are still enjoying it and are having fun. It does however give you a passing thought of the people who you have lost along the way, the ones who didn’t quite make it.
I am a big collector of everything Motown and I really did love what you did to Tears Of A Clown.
Thanks for saying that. I am pleased that you liked what we tried to do with the song. It’s not an easy song to cover as it was extremely well written and quite a lot slower than we wanted to record it. I have to sing it every night and I have to be at my very best for the second verse (laughter). It always goes down great but strangely the further North that we go, the audiences all seem to want to singalong with us (laughter). In fact we can hardly hear ourselves singing at some times.
I understand that you are quite the D. H. Lawrence aficionado and have a family connection with Nottingham?
Yes that’s right, I really did love reading his books when I was a youngster. They really did give me a deep sense of Nottingham from centuries before. We recently tried to trace our family history and we managed to get as far back as 1713 when a certain James Wakeling shows up and gets married in Birmingham. However, no one really knew where he came from (laughter). They were all trying to work it out in a scientific manner but they couldn’t. However, my eldest living relative, my auntie Joan who is almost ninety years old managed to solve it all for us. She informed me that when she was six years old her father had told her that the Wakeling family had originated in Nottingham and had moved to Birmingham after the collapse of the lace business over in Nottingham (laughter). So we do actually believe now that we could be from Nottingham.
I recently spoke to Ranking Roger and he told me that he was so pleased that you and he have finally managed to sit down together and talk things through. Do you feel the same?
Yes I do, and we did have a really lovely chat towards the end of last year. It was such a nice chat that I actually thought that it might lead to the two of us doing a bit more work together. I have to be honest with you and say that I actually invited Roger to be on our new record. It took him quite a while to say no but he then informed me that he had his own record coming out a couple of weeks before we thought our record would be coming out. So I delayed my record on purpose because I thought that there had not been a new Beat record for thirty years, so there is not much point in having two within three bloody weeks is there (laughter). To be honest I was a bit disappointed by that but you know, it is what it is.
I suppose that I am like him in the fact that I think that my record is far better than his (laughter). We will just have to wait and see what happens. I think that we should work together once again before we retire, not that much and not that often. I have made it clear to Roger that everybody who has ever paid for every meal that we have ever eaten in the last forty years would like us to sing the songs a couple of times again together. It is as simple as that (laughter). I think that we could certainly organise a tour although I don’t think that you would get all of the original Beat members as some of them no longer tread the boards at all and Saxa is now in his nineties so he wouldn’t be a part of it. I honestly do think that the people out there would like to see me and Roger sing the songs once more, even if it was just one tour of the UK.
I think that something exciting could be done with it perhaps even a charitable edge to the tour. That would certainly make it something a little special and not merely a trip down memory lane. Perhaps we could make some effective change that could help the present day situation, maybe even some of the stuff that we were talking about back in the day. Social things have changed but still some of the problems that we faced in the late 70s are still with us unfortunately. I personally find that there is a bit of scapegoating going along at the moment. It’s a shame when you have got two sets of unemployed people and just because they are different colours one want to blame the other party for having all of the jobs because they are unemployed as well. We know that story, we have seen it all before and it is an easy one to get people going.
You have mentioned the fact that you haven’t released an album in over thirty years so I will ask you, why now?
Well it all started around five years ago now when I first started playing shows all over America and not just in California. I had written a couple of new songs which I had started putting into the set and they seemed to generate some interest. Then people started asking for the CD with the new songs on it as they wanted to buy it at gigs (laughter). Once that started to happen I then seriously started looking into making a new album. To be honest with you there are lots of 80s bands who bring out albums not noticing that the fans have all disappeared and they end up with boxes and boxes of albums in their garage and after a couple of weeks you are not meant to ask how it is doing (laughter).
So I wanted to avoid that and at that point I would rather keep the songs in my head. But over the last few years people were really starting to request the songs so I started looking round seriously for a record deal. About two years ago now we started the pledge campaign and six months after that we started recording the new album. At that time the recording fitted in perfectly with our touring schedule and it allowed me to work four or five days per week on the new album. However, when the touring started to take off once again it really did become hard work. I had never worked so hard in my life really which is funny because I only went into the music business to try and get out of hard work (laughter).
Working seven days a week for eighteen hours a day certainly wasn’t in the brochure (laughter). Anyway it was slow work which was painstakingly done and we didn’t manage to burn ourselves out in the studio because we kept getting breaks from recording. That gave us that chance to take a listen to what we had recorded and to make sure that we were heading in the right direction. We could also check that the songs were as good as we had expected them to be. In the main part everything went down smoothly but there were just a couple of small things that we changed after having listened to them. We tried something else which worked better but on the whole everything was starting to gel together.
I have recorded one set of lead vocals which we have compiled together and when I get back into the studio in November I will try to sing the whole lot again and see if I can make them better and whichever is the winner I will start double tracking that together with some harmonies and backing vocals. There are a couple of other singers to put onto the album and then we can get down to mixing the bloody thing (laughter). Hopefully, then I will be able to sit back and have a nice quiet Christmas (laughter). It’s like having a baby but this takes ten and a half months instead of nine.
Is there any material recorded by the original Beat that is still hidden away waiting to see the light of day?
No, I think that we dug up most of everything that we could find. Actually there were a couple of tracks that we couldn’t find, which we are still looking for which I think were stuff from the Radio One Sessions. The BBC would give you a tape of your performances which they had broadcast. For example, there was a Kid Jenson Sessions song called It Makes Me Rock. It was meant to sound like it was about pop music but it was actually about being catatonic (laughter). I don’t know if that one ever made the light of day but someone will tell me no doubt (laughter). Whenever we would record something if the song wasn’t working out we would drop it half way through.
If we were trying out a new song and one or two members of the band couldn’t play it or simply didn’t like it we would drop it before they had the chance to tell me that they thought that it was crap anyway (laughter). We didn’t really have a lot of choice back then. It was more of a case that there were the twelve songs that we could play, those are the twelve songs that we have finished so I guess that they will probably be the twelve songs that will find their way onto the record (laughter). I dare say that on the master tapes maybe there are probably versions of us playing stuff but nothing of note has been left behind. I think that we more or less pillaged everything that we did.
What you have to remember is that we were lazy buggers really (laughter). It all came a bit too easy for us. We didn’t sit around too much during rehearsals or anything like that. In fact it was almost impossible to get a rehearsal together. By the time that we had got four people there the first three had got to go onto something else (laughter). It was more like a meeting room with instruments and empty beer bottles really. I’m giving away all of the secrets now (laughter).
What would you say has been the highlight of your career so far?
There have been a few but some of the ones that stick out are having Pete Townshend cover one of my songs, Save It For Later and inviting me over to discuss it with him. Having Robert Plant say that the same song was his song of the year. Both of those were pretty special for me. Also it was brilliant when Elvis Costello, who is one of my all-time favourite lyricists and who made me want to be in a band in the first place, covered Stand Down Margaret. Hearing Pearl Jam cover Save It For Later, I think that those are probably the things that seem to mean the most to me. Meeting the late David Bowie at Milton Keynes and being able to chat with him; I think that those are the greatest parts of it. Don’t get me wrong, I like the fast money, the fast birds and the fast cars, they are all good but they all come and go.
But those sorts of little moments you could never imagine your luck. There is absolutely no financial value to them whatsoever because they are worth way more than their weight in gold. So I think that those are probably the highlights so far. Also it happens most nights whenever someone comes up to you after a gig and tells you just how much your songs have meant to them for over forty years. What can you say to someone who tells you that; it is simply an honour and a privilege that someone has taken some of your threads and has woven them into the tapestry of their lives. As an artist I don’t really think that you can ask for any more than that.
You have mentioned meeting David Bowie at Milton Keynes Bowl. Wasn’t there a funny incident involving him and Saxa?
(Hysterical laughter) who told you about that (laughter). Yes there was. David liked Saxa’s saxophone playing so much that he went off to get him some cold bottles of Red Stripe. The only problem was that Saxa didn’t know who he was, he thought that he was a waiter (laughter). When David bought him the beers Saxa simply said “he’s a nice young boy, what a nice waiter”. If you remember David was wearing a short tuxedo styled jacket at the time (laughter).
Staying on the subject of Milton Keynes for a minute didn’t David ask you to tour America with him?
It was a funny situation really because I had just that very same day decided that I was going to leave The Beat and I had put my resignation notice under the door of the office. We ran off stage on the second night and David was standing right there. I ran straight into him and he said that we were the best opening band that he had ever had. He said that after we had played our set he could see that the whole crowd were up and so he asked me if The Beat would go to America with him for three months. It was funny because ever since the age of twelve I had always wondered what you would say if you met David Bowie. And probably like a lot of young men of that period I just stood there like I had got a tennis ball in my mouth and went blugh, blugh, blugh (laughter).
It was the first and only ever time that Wakeling had been lost for words (laughter). But I knew that I had already put my resignation notice under the door so I drove back from Milton Keynes that night and I went straight round to the office taking with me a stick which I used to try and get the letter back. I could see it on the floor in the office (laughter). It was now four o’clock in the morning, I was in Handsworth which wasn’t really the place to have your hands through a letter box. I kept trying and trying with the stick which clipped the envelope which went up in the air and then landed on the floor even further away from the door.
At that point I thought that the reason that I was leaving the band was because other members had already said that they wanted two years off and they didn’t want yet another tour of America. They were bored with it and they wanted to stay at home, go shopping and write songs about being real people. I thought that if I dragged them over to America for three months then it would be horrible, and so I walked home and that was the end of that.
Testing your memory now what was the first record that you bought?
That would have been Pretty Flamingo by Manfred Mann. And I think that more or less at the same time I got The Mighty Quinn as a present off my grandma (laughter). Thinking about it, the first record that I ever owned was something called Little Brown Jug Don’t I Love Thee which was an old drinking song (laughter) which I would play on my plastic record player. Who knew that this young five year old singing along with that song would end up drinking gallons and gallons of beer out of a little brown jug later in his life (laughter). Perhaps that was my training for it, giving me the thirst (laughter).
Who did you first see performing live in concert?
That was a band called The Locomotive who came from Birmingham who had a hit single called Rudi’s In Love. For some reason best known to themselves they played at one of our school concerts. They played the school concert together with The Box Tops. God knows what they were doing playing a concert at our school (laughter). I think that some clever sixth formers had talked the headmaster into booking them (laughter). However, growing up in Birmingham, my early commercial concerts as it were would have been Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin who were at that time a couple of local up and coming bands. I also remember seeing Hawkwind quite a lot for some reason.
Who were you listening to whilst you were growing up?
In the early 70s the Trojan Reggae albums were being played a lot on the football terraces and I was starting to hear the same music booming out of living rooms in Balshall Heath in Birmingham and that was really my introduction to reggae. A song that I particularly liked was Wonderful World, Beautiful People by Jimmy Cliff. I totally loved the Catch A Fire album by The Wailers. It captured my heart before I had even played it (laughter).
On the subject of reggae I have heard a rumour that you may be touring with Toots And The Maytals sometime in the future. Is that correct?
(Laughter) who is telling you all of this (laughter). Yes it is correct; we have been speaking to his representatives to see if there is any chance of us touring with him next year in the springtime. Toots wants to get back out on tour over in America and I think that would be great; he really is a lovely chap. Some time ago now we played a concert with them in Baltimore and I noticed that his band was at the side of the stage watching us. We finished our set which went down nicely and a very formal sounding lady came to our dressing room and told me that Mr Hibbert would like to speak to me. So I followed her to his dressing room and there he was. We chatted for about fifteen minutes and I was really touched when he told me that he had seen me play a few times on the Festival circuit and he said that he had noticed that we always managed to get the crowd really moving.
He told me that he had bought his band to the venue an hour earlier than their show time and he made them stand at the side of the stage to see how we did it (laughter). You could never get better than that could you. I know that he has struggled after being hit by a bottle whilst on stage a while ago now but he is up and ready and so we are talking at the moment about doing something together. He can be the headline act as it would be him who is selling the tickets. For me it would simply be an honour and a pleasure to tour with the great man.
What was the last record or piece of music that made you cry?
That would have been Coming of Age by Foster The People. I have to say that their songs manage to make me cry quite often because they act very simple on the top. It sounds like a very simple pop tune but the lyrics are savage. They use beautiful and witty poetry which can connect to all of our various human foibles. That has always been my aim in my songs to be able to sing about our common weaknesses in a catchy way. They do it marvellously well and I think that everybody at some time in their lives have had that coming of age feeling. Often it is true and often the white light that you can see at the end of the tunnel turns out to be a train after all (laughter).
It reminds me of the Andy Capp cartoon where the man is playing the piano and Andy is leaning on the piano with half a pint of beer left, crying his eyes out. The man playing the piano says “oh Andy I didn’t know that you were emotional” and Andy says “I’m not, I’m bloody musical” (laughter).
On that note Dave I will once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me and I hope to see you here in Nottingham.
It’s been a real pleasure Kevin and I can’t wait to see you at the show in Nottingham. You take care and bye for now.