The Beat goes on

Dave Wakeling’s English Beat won’t save it for later

Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling beat up crowds worldwide.

Ranking Roger and Dave Wakeling beat up crowds worldwide.

Certain music, like fashion, always comes back in style. Ska has had a recurring influence on American music for the past 20 years, from Operation Ivy to the Mighty Mighty Bosstones to No Doubt—all ripples of the English Beat’s initial stateside impact in the early ’80s.

Like their British brethren Madness, the Specials and the Selector, the Beat came out of the late-’70s 2-Tone movement, or the second-wave ska revival. (America was ground central for the third and fourth waves.) Ska began in Jamaican dancehalls with the rude boys in the ’60s, and made its way over to England, where it found favor with the similarly leather-jacketed mods. The music became a staple at soccer matches where teens, including the Beat’s singer-guitarist Dave Wakeling, first heard it.

“They were the records to which we had our first sexual gropings,” Wakeling said on the phone before a show in Las Vegas. “When we started up with the Beat we were actually trying to blend punk and reggae, our two favorites. Once we got it kind of steady, we realized it had a similar beat and tempo to some of our favorite ska songs of the early ’70s.”

Named after the label that launched the ska revival, 2-Tone arrived on the heels of punk, which had leveled the music establishment and thrown down the barricades. Suddenly, it seemed anyone could make music.

“Punk had burned everything down,” Wakeling recalled. “The record companies hadn’t reconfigured the rules yet, so as long as what you were doing was catchy, you could get all over the TV and the radio. Then they’d find out you were talking about nuclear war or the prime minister resigning after it was at the top of the charts. It was a blessed time.”

Founded in the working class town of Birmingham, the band featured two singers, Wakeling and Jamaican singer Ranking Roger. The latter added the traditional chant/rap vocal style of toasting, in addition to his harmonies. Since the factory floors already were integrated, a biracial band made less of an impact in Birmingham than in London, where they and similar-minded peers helped bridge racial divides.

Politics was an important element for the Beat and the 2-Tone movement itself, which wedded the roots rebellion of reggae to punk’s social critique. The Beat scored a hit with a dub version of their debut album track, “Stand Down Margaret,” a scathing indictment of Thatcherism. Another track “I am Your Flag,” off their second album, Wha’ppen?, laments war in the name of freedom, referencing both Northern Ireland and Afghanistan. (Acknowledging its prescience, Wakeling cheekily pronounced himself “Ska-strodamus.”)

Sadly, the English Beat broke up in 1982 after four years. “We knew it wouldn’t last for long,” he said. “It always seemed more like an orchid than an oak tree. Everybody was from different culture and different age groups. It was remarkable we managed to make three records together, frankly.”

In the end, one of the biggest sources of contention was the sound of the band’s third and final album, Special Beat Service. The producer, Bob Sargeant, had been instrumental in honing the polished pop of early new-wave act Haircut 100.

“He’d gotten the two groups confused,” Wakeling said. The Beat felt the album’s sheen was far too staid for an English scene that was becoming much edgier, even as Haircut 100 was ascending the charts. Yet, the new sound worked to their advantage—sort of.

“The fact that it was a bit traditional-sounding helped it become a chart hit in America, which was the first time we ever had any chart success in America at all,” Wakeling said. “In truth, the reaction to Special Beat Service in England was that we were a bit out of date and that was the start of it. The more successful we became in America, the more appalled some members of the band became. It was like, ‘We’ve just turned into a hugely successful rock act. God damn it! We’re filling stadiums, this sucks.’”

After that American tour, the band broke up—the members couldn’t even agree on a meeting to sign their next contract. Guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele recruited singer-erstwhile actor Roland Gift to form jazzy soul-pop act Fine Young Cannibals, while Wakeling and Roger formed General Public to continue their ska and new-wave explorations. They scored another hit with “Tenderness,” featuring guitar work from the Clash’s Mick Jones, before breaking a couple years later.

Ironically, despite two albums of heavily ska-infuenced tracks, including covers such as “Rough Rider” and “Jackpot,” it’s the sound of Special Beat Service for which Wakeling and the Beat always will be known here in America. “It was a blessing or a curse,” Wakeling said. “Thirty years later people insist ‘Save it for Later’ and ‘I Confess’ are their favorite ska tunes of all time. I find I’m very happy to take the compliment, but neither of them are anything like a ska song.”