When the English Beat emerged in the late '70s, the UK group fused punk rock brashness with old-school Jamaican ska beats. The results were striking and the band delivered hits "Mirror in the Bathroom" and "Too Nice to Talk To." Though the band took a long break in the late '80s and '90s, singer Dave Wakeling managed to get the group going again in the late 2000s. Wakeling, who is "gearing up" for a new set of tour dates, spoke via phone from his Los Angeles home.I just heard one of your songs on the radio this morning. Why is the old stuff still so popular?
We were quite different from each other—although we were all from England at that time. The ages ranged from 16 to 56, and we had a mixture of people who grew up around rock and punk and reggae and soul. When we first got together, we tried to find a beat to encapsulate all that. That's one of the things. You hear our music and you go, "Oh, let's dance, shall we?" We put ourselves out on the line a bit with the lyrics, too. We said what we meant and we wanted to be personal but have a universal message. I'm pleased because 35 years later, we still do 150 shows a year and every night people tell me our lyrics mean something to them. That's good and bad. I am glad the lyrics still seem timely, but I thought I would have solved all the world's problems by now.
Talk about what Birmingham, England, was like when the group first formed.
It was like Detroit on a wet Tuesday. They are very, very similar. It was the motor city of England. It was Austin and Rover and all sorts of famous English motorbikes. It just collapsed. Not just the car plants slowing down and closing down but all those small businesses that serviced the motor industry. All those places that worked off site. We used to do a lot of dipping metal in vats of boiling acid. It's a great way to spend the day if you've never tried it. That all stopped. I was a firefighter in the '70s in that metal-working area and you don't know was it better to have a job or not have a job. You had to work for your money in dangerous circumstances. You could see something was coming. The songs grew out of that. The social system was still based on the British Empire. Our parents' generation was in denial. That allowed for someone like Margaret Thatcher to come in and slash and burn. That band started in that period when Margaret Thatcher was dismantling the infrastructure of the working classes. We wrote the songs thinking everything was going to hell in a handbasket.
Did you feel connected to the punk movement?
We came straight off the back off of it. We had been going to those shows in those years leading up to 1977. I was a big Clash fan and I liked Wire and Generation X. I was particularly taken by the Undertones and the Buzzcocks, leading into Elvis Costello. There was this return to 1960s-like pop songs. The song faded out fast and you couldn't wait to put it back on. Their attitude toward songwriting was what really inspired me. I had given up on it because to be in a band in the early '70s meant your hair was blowing and it had become a stadium thing. Punk woke everybody up. We came out of the dust from the explosion that punk caused.
When ska went through another phase in the States in the '90s, what did you think?
I think it seemed to follow something similar to punk. It was really fast and aggressive. The thing about that ska hybrid beast is that it remained energetic. The way of expressing exuberance without turning into anger. What we noticed at the end of punk was that after a little while, those bands just started to become angry. They lost all sense of irony, and it seemed redundant.
What was your experience in General Public like?
It was a fantastic experience in that I managed to take a song like "Tenderness" and have a hit on the radio. That was very satisfying. There was a stripped down, almost purist attitude in the air, and everyone adopted that. By 1983, it was almost Reagan's '80s that kicked in and it was the Me Generation. It was as almost like Caligula and it was good to show off wealth and excess. We found ourselves in an ambiguous situation. We went along and became a mass-marketed thing. Some of it got a bit much, but the message is really nice. And it still remained true.
What was it like writing a couple of songs for a Scooby-Doo cartoon earlier this year?
It was fantastic. I was always a Scooby-Doo fan. I was lucky because some of our songs have appeared in films from the '80s that have become iconic. So Scooby-Doo was the cherry on the cake. I had songs in John Hughes' movies and to have Scooby-Doo on top of that was great. It was nice because I wrote the songs in the same key and one was in a ska beat and one was a rock-pop beat, and they meshed up well against each other. If you started at the right point, you could weave the two melodies together.
You now live in Los Angeles. Have you thought about calling the band the American Beat?
Oddly enough, I did a tour with Paul Collins' band, also known as the American Beat. In the American Beat, everyone is Australian. But most of the people in the English Beat are American and live in California. So what's in a name?
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