Making the beat great again
As The English Beat return for a new album, is the U.S. political climate kind of like 1980s Britain?
As a self-taught musician, Dave Wakeling has always struggled to make his live performances sound effortless. But he has a hell of an ear in the studio: If the percussion track is off by a millisecond, he’s the first to notice.
“It’s like a stone on a railway line,” he said. “The train’s running all smooth, and then I’ll go, ‘What was that?’ It’s more like a feeling. The song is being orchestrated by the emotion in the vocal, and everything else has to follow along. When it doesn’t, it sounds wrong to me.”
Wakeling is a founding member of The English Beat—known simply as The Beat in Britain—a seminal band in the ska and reggae-rock genres best known for the hits “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Save it For Later.” After recording three albums and touring with the likes of David Bowie, Talking Heads and The Pretenders, the band broke up in 1983, and Wakeling and fellow vocalist Ranking Roger moved on to form the group General Public (famously penning the 1994 hit “I’ll Take You There"), while other members formed Fine Young Cannibals ("She Drives Me Crazy").
Wakeling regularly performs with his Los Angeles-based version of The English Beat. The band recently dropped its first album in 35 years, Here We Go Love, delivering the rocksteady beats and breezy melodies fans have come to expect. Indeed, the new songs fit right in with the classics.
“There seems to be almost universal warm feelings about the album,” he said. “Everybody says it came out great and it’s everything they hoped it would be, especially since they had to wait around for us.”
The English Beat’s tour includes a show at Ace of Spades on Friday, August 24. Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Wakeling said there’s just one thing bothering him on this tour—overpowering bass.
“They have those big subwoofer speakers under the stage,” he said, “and a lot of club PA people love to turn them up as full as they’ll go. The only trouble is that it makes the whole stage resonate with bass and you can’t hear what you’re singing. You can hear the bass drum and nothing else. It feels like depth charges going off underneath you. We’ve had a few problems with that.”
Concert technology has changed since the 1980s, but much of what Wakeling sings about has not. The English Beat formed amid the social upheaval and turmoil of 1978 Britain, and Wakeling sees parallels to the political climate in the U.S. today.
“I think that’s the reason this record came out, because it’s a bit of a bookend,” he said of Here We Go Love. “The vast majority of the situations we seem to be struggling with the worst were indeed being discussed and argued strongly in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.”
He’s frustrated by the idealistic stagnation of Western society and how it keeps returning to concepts such as trickle down economics and isolationism, and how surrounding conversations often fail to account for personal blind spots. “I’m living in a fucking fairy tale / It seems I’m not the only one,” he sings on the album’s title track. Wakeling, for one, is ready to move forward.
“America has always been great in my mind, and it can continue being great in a different way,” he said. “We just can’t have the 20th century back. It’s gone.”