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The English Beat hits the road supporting two retrospectives

Dave Wakeling_photo by Jackie Butler.jpg

Three studio albums — that’s all The English Beat released, but they were enough to form a solid foundation for Britain’s burgeoning Two Tone ska movement and later influence the likes of The Mighty Mighty Bosstones and other ska-centric bands.

The Beat’s catalog is also enough for a boxed set. On July 10, Shout! Factory is set to release the five-disc The English Beat: The Complete Beat, featuring remastered versions of the band’s three studio albums with bonus tracks, plus dub and extended versions as well as concert and radio performances. On the same day, the label will also issue the 16-track Keep The Beat: The Very Best of The English Beat, featuring “Save It for Later,” “I Confess” and other signature songs.

Singer, guitarist and longtime leader Dave Wakeling recently reflected on some restricting comments he made during the early days of The English Beat, what went into assembling the two new compilations and why he thinks his band is appreciated more now than it was in the early 1980s. Some artists like revisiting their past efforts, and others not so much. With Shout! Factory releasing an English Beat single disc and boxed set, how comfortable are you with turning the clock back and going over so much of the band’s history?
Dave Wakeling: “Well, you don’t know when you start, and of course you fear the absolute worst. But we had a best-of record that had come out about 10 years ago, where everybody was forced by the producer to listen to all of the albums, and we had to discuss and pick and vote. And during that process, we were all pleasantly surprised that we weren’t thoroughly embarrassed by most of it. … And so slowly, over a period of 10 years, we’ve become more confident in what we did. There are a lot of things that get smashed up the charts, and it would look as though it’s the new Mozart, and 10 years later, you pretend you weren’t ever in the group: ‘No, no — that was another guy with pink hair. He kinda does look like me’ (laughs).

“But we’ve all been very pleasantly surprised over the years. We were a bit scared, of course, because [with the boxed set], now we were going to be thrown live tapes that some of us have never heard before and radio sessions that we probably only ever heard when they were on the radio, if we managed to catch the program or somebody had a cassette.

“And so, yes, [there was] trepidation, but [the project organizers] were Beat fans and sifted through what they thought were the finest moments. They sent their lists separately to us and had a lot in common, so that helped guide us — [they are] people with no axes to grind who actually liked the group anyway. So we started listening there, and from there, everybody seemed to build up confidence.”

On the subject of longevity: When The English Beat formed in 1978, The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks were about 15 years into their careers, and a lot of people thought they were too old and should hang it up. What was your thinking back then about how relevant a band was after, say, five years or 10 years or even longer?
Wakeling: “We sort of built our own cross to nail ourselves on by saying too often too publicly that we thought most of our favorite groups had had three great albums in them, and most of them should really had probably packed it in at that point and let somebody else have a go. Not in every case, but a lot of cases. Sometimes, after a band’s third record, I started finding their live records more interesting than their studio ones because there was still an immediacy and a sense of spirit to them, whereas the lineup might have started recording in separate little booths on different dates for their fourth album.

“So we did say that, and I think it’s probably true that any one particular lineup has probably got three great strokes of immediacy, and then it tends to become a bit more studied just by definition. And that can be the difference between superb rock ‘n’ roll and a great record.”

Do you get caught up in thinking about who has been influenced by your music? And do you feel underappreciated in any way?
Wakeling: “I think our influence has probably been greater because we weren’t appreciated enough at the time. We were college-chart darlings but rarely broke into the Billboard Top 100 in terms of singles. We never had singles because the record company we were with at the time didn’t play the Top 40 game. They didn’t put in all the money that the big major labels put in, but they built you grass-roots fans in college — and I still see most of them. They still come and tell me, ‘Oh my God, last time I saw you was …,’ and they’ll name the college and the year. And I’ve got that good at it; I can usually name the support band [that played with us], and when I do, they’re thrilled: ‘Oh yeah, R.E.M. opened.’ ‘Oh my God, you remember the show.’

“So we did feel underappreciated at the time because other bands that were sort of in [our] peer group who you and them knew weren’t as good as you, but they would try to show off a bit in your face because they were in the Top 40 charts all the time. Of course, at the time, you don’t say, ‘Well, wait 30 years, mate — we’ll see’ because you all figure you’ll be dead in the next year like James Dean, that sort of thing.

“There was a resentment, sure, and yes, [now] there is a gentle sense of validation, which is nice, but still doesn’t quite make up for the fact that we should have made millions and millions of dollars more than we did at the time [laughs], and I probably wouldn’t be sitting in a van doing an interview now.

“It’s odd the way things work out, but because we didn’t get that huge mass-marketing push where you get so sick of hearing the record every 12th song on the radio, to the point where you hate the band, we never suffered that part. So our songs managed, by default, to retain their credibility for future generations and have bands along the way like Mighty Mighty Bosstones say what a great influence we were and continue to be. And one of the things I like about it is the music doesn’t sound dated.”

Does that belated validation and latter-day appreciation keep you going, or are there other things you’re out to achieve moving forward with the band?
Wakeling: “What keeps me going mainly is two starving teenagers with a love of fine European cars. I travel around the country in a van with 350,000 miles on it in order to satisfy their unnatural lusts. It’s so funny because you hated it when you’re dad sat you down and talked about how he was raised in a coal mine, had to walk to and from school, and it was uphill both ways — all of that. It was wonderful to be able to sit down with my teenagers [recently] and say, ‘Do you know what? When I was 17, I had my own apartment, I had my own job, I was saving up for some wheels, and I thought I had it good.’ They looked at me very odd and said, ‘What’s your point, Dad? Am I getting the Jag service, or do I have to get a rental for the weekend?’ ” (laughs)

— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior

The English Beat on tour (schedule subject to change):

* July 9: Grand Auditorium — Ellsworth, Maine
* July 11: Tupelo Music Hall — Londonberry, N.H.
* July 12: The Bell House — Brooklyn, N.Y.
* July 13: The Stone Pony — Asbury Park, N.J.
* July 14: Parkway Field — Pleasantville, N.Y.
* July 15: Bay State Cruise — Boston
* July 18: Sellersville Theater — Sellersville, Pa.
* July 19: Bottle & Cork — Dewey Beach, Del.
* July 20: The Stephen Talkhouse — Amagansett, N.Y.
* July 22: Baltimore Sound Stage — Baltimore
* July 27: Monte de Oro Winery — Temecula, Calif.
* July 29: The Hangar — Costa Mesa, Calif.
* Aug. 4: Bimbo’s 365 Club — San Francisco
* Aug. 10: Doug Fir Lounge — Portland, Ore.
* Aug. 11: Showbox at the Market — Seattle
* Aug. 17: Humboldt Brews — Arcata, Calif.
* Sept. 21, 22: Belly Up Tavern — Solana Beach, Calif.
* Sept. 28: Coach House — San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
* Sept. 29: Saint Rocke — Hermosa Beach, Calif.
* Oct. 6: The Canyon Club — Agoura Hills, Calif.

Photo by Jackie Butler