Dave Wakeling, guitarist and lead singer of the English Beat and General Public, explained to me the evolution of their sound. “At the time in the 80s in the mass market it was important to have a label [ska/two tone] to sell it, but we were always part of what we wanted to be called a punky reggae party [like the Bob Marley song]. We wanted to add Motown and 60s pop to Ska; a blending of pop and politics. We wanted to come up with music that represented what was going on in our lives at the time. We wanted to sing about what people were talking about in every bar and bus stop. They'd ask about mixing pop and politics and I'd reply, 'Only if you are trying to sell music to human beings on Earth!'''
The English Beat's American tour is in conjunction with the July 10 release of a compilation CD “Keep the Beat: the Very Best of the English Beat” and a five-disc box set featuring live tracks and previously unreleased on CD cuts “The Complete Beat.”
“One of the best things and one of the worst things about the box set that's coming out is that a lot of the songs on there that were written about social situations in the late 70s and early 80s in England,” Wakeling told me. “A lot of people are telling me 'Well, you could've written that song about here right now,' and I'm like that's great in one way in that we had our finger on the pulse and terrible in another way because I didn’t think I'd be in a pop group for 30 years and the same social problems would be going on.”
I asked Wakeling, who, though he still possesses a very British charm and wit, considers himself a Californian (though he doesn't “eat bean sprouts or anything like that”), if he watched things like the Royal Weddings or Queen's Jubilee with an innate sense of homesickness and hopes that God will in fact save the Queen or does he see it as pomp and circumstantial crap. Clearly it was the latter! “I thought the Sex Pistols would have finished off the monarchy and the Jubilee. I'm stunned that they had the opportunity for another one. There is good and bad in the British Monarchy. I mean one thing I've noticed is that the British put that dangerous part of nationalism, that jingoism, that bit that says 'We're the best country ever in the history of the world,’ we put that all into this little old lady.”
When I first spoke with Dave Wakeling, he was drinking coffee in the back of a bus in Toledo, OH in what he calls his “lead singer suite,” fresh off of five English Beat shows with the Romantics. The tour also includes shows with Squeeze, whom Wakeling calls “very kind, nice people.” We spoke on everything from social media to his childhood dreams to Rupert Murdoch. (“Dirty old bugger!”) We discussed how his pre-show rituals and post-show winding down has changed over the years: “It has changed enormously and probably for the best...shake hands, shower, watch football instead of running around the club finishing whatever half-empty glass is around.” We talked about his go-to album (“Heart of the Congos” by the Congos) and what he's listening to now: “Mainly newer, younger Ska bands asking to be the opening band for our show. Some of them are really great. The quality of their musicianship is fantastic and it really always depends on the same things with me: do they have a song about anything? I don't like Ska songs that is just singing about Ska. (jauntily sings everybody is skanking)”
On this tour, the English Beat will be playing in a variety of venues. When I asked him how a small theater like the Grand plays differently from a small bar or large stadium, he replied: “It really does change a lot of things because you can fall into a trap of playing a bar and act like you are playing a stadium. You need to be true to where you are. So long as you sing from your heart to the heart of the people standing in front of you, you can't really go wrong. However, it can often take 20 to 30 years to learn that.”
Wakeling went on to tell me that, although he has played Portland a couple of times, he is “looking forward to coming farther up the coast at one of the prettiest times of year and all I have to do is sing a bit.”