Interview: Dave Wakeling


Dave Wakeling is the lead singer for The English Beat, one of the key bands in the British ska revival during the late 70’s and early 80’s, along with The Specials and Madness. The English Beat’s songs included the hits “Mirror in the Bathroom”, “Save it for Later”, “Too Nice to Talk To”, and covers of “Tears of a Clown” and “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”, all of which still sound fresh some thirty-odd years after their first release. After The English Beat broke up, Wakeling co-founded General Public, which released the hit songs “Tenderness” and “I’ll Take You There”.

This interview was for a preview article for for the concert by The English Beat at SOhO in Santa Barbara on 6/4/16. It was done by phone on 5/16/16. (Eugenio Iglesias photo)

Jeff Moehlis: What can people look forward to at the upcoming concert?

Dave Wakeling: Well, it’s one of the best nights of dancing. It’s dance music for people who can’t really dance but like to anyway. We’ll play the hits from The Beat and from General Public, and we’ll try to play a couple of brand new hits-to-be off the new album that’s coming out in the fall.

JM: You’ve performed in Santa Barbara fairly often in recent years. Besides playing music, what do you like to do when you come to visit?

DW: The nice thing about Santa Barbara is you can enjoy yourself even doing nothing, just looking around. I’ve always been taken by the way the ocean air gets trapped by the mountains. It gives you you the kind of sparkle that people say is reminiscent of the south of France. That’s true, at least from what I can remember about the south of France, and I can see why so many photoshoots are done there. There’s something very crystal sharp about the air there, isn’t there? So I like that.

I did used to like – kind of bemoaning the passage of time – I used to like all the thrift stores and consignment stores that were on [State] Street. And now, I just go from one Old Navy to the next, then I do Starbucks, then I cross over and there’s four more Old Navy’s. That’s a little disappointing, you know? It used to have that same sort of thing that Ventura used to have, with bookstores and nice second-hand things that you never thought you’d end up owning but for some reason you did after your glorious stay in Santa Barbara.

I’ve got lots of lovely memories of Santa Barbara. I’ve played at the Arlington Theatre a few times, and we got to be the opening band for The Clash at the Santa Barbara Bowl [on June 20, 1982], which I think was a highlight of my young life.

JM: Can you give a bit of historical context of what was going on in England when the ska revival got going in the late ’70’s?

DW: It’s interesting, because the 2 Tone movement came up off the back of punk, and the worsening social situation in terms of opportunity for the working classes. The masses were not happy. There was whining and screaming and raving against the Empire with punk for a few years. Everybody’s throats were a bit sore.

There was still a lot of social commentary. Everybody in every bar was talking about it. So 2 Tone found a way to capture the angst of punk and the seductive and life-sustaining rhythms of reggae, and put it all together in sort of a festival jamboree of social commentary. So that you could still wail against the Empire, but that didn’t mean you had to act miserable. You could still be happy about the good stuff. You just hoped you’d live long enough to be able to say that in 30 years time, and, look, here I am saying it.

JM: Your first single was a cover of “Tears of a Clown”. Why did you choose that song?

DW: Well, we chose “Mirror in the Bathroom” for 2 Tone, but Chrysalis insisted that they had to keep the rights to that song for a certain number of years. We said, “Well, we want it on our first record – it’s our best song.” They wouldn’t let us do that. It went backwards and forwards. [2 Tone Records founder, and Specials bandmember] Jerry Dammers wanted “Mirror in the Bathroom” for 2 Tone, and Chrysalis were absolutely adamant that if we gave them that one we couldn’t have in on our first album. We said, “Alright, we’ll do ‘Tears of a Clown'”, written by Smokey Robinson. Then Chrysalis wouldn’t let us put it on our first album in America. Anyway, Chrysalis – where are they now? I’m still singing “Tears of a Clown”.

JM: How did [saxophonist] Saxa come to join up with you?

DW: We saw him play at our local pub on Thursday nights, and he was just mesmerizing. There would be a fluid, changing set of musicians on these Thursday night sessions, and whoever they were, by halfway through the first number they were all following Saxa as he did these elliptical Moebius loops of melody and rhythm. He was just stunning. We just enjoyed him as fans, really, this crazy old guy playing saxophone.

But then we got offered the chance to do the “Tears of a Clown” single, and so we said to him one Thursday night, “Do you do records?” He said, “Yeah, sure.” “Would you like to do one Saturday, then?” “Yes.” So he played on “Tears of a Clown”.

I think we did one show first, and I had him stand next to me. I wasn’t much of a musician myself, certainly not theoretically. For me, what key the song was was whatever my first chord was on the guitar. Which is not true, but that’s what it was to me. So each song would start, and when I got I chance I’d look at him and say, “It’s in G”, or “It’s in C”. Sometimes I was right, and sometimes I wasn’t. Halfway through the set he said, “Don’t worry, David, me know all the keys. Me know them all!” [Long laugh]

He would just go off, and change the timing, and play the melody backwards. We’d all be looking at each other terrified. We wouldn’t really know if we were on the end of the second beat or what. Everybody’s looking at me like, “Well, you should know where to come in singing. It’s your song.” We were completely lost. We’d just have to wait til Saxa stopped, and the crowd would clap, then we’d go, “1, 2, 3, 4… OK, here we are.”

I saw him last year when I was in England, and he’s just as nice. Probably the best saxophone player I’ve ever enjoyed. I really liked that tone that he got.

JM: You mentioned “Mirror in the Bathroom”. How did that song come together?

DW: I was on a construction site, and I’d forgotten to hang my jeans up to dry. So I turned the shower on to try and get the room warm, at least, and I was having a shave. I saw myself in the mirror, and I said, “You know, Dave, you don’t have to do this. You know, the door’s locked, it’s just me and you. Have a shave, and just get back to bed.” I got on my bike to the construction site, and some of the stuff that I’d been saying in the mirror to myself came back to me when I was riding to work. “The door is locked / Just you and me”. It just went off into a big, long ramble of sorts.

As you get more self-obsessed, you also get more isolated from society. And both of those feed into each other, so the more isolated you become the more lonely you are, and the more lonely you are the more self-obsessed you get, the more self-obsessed you get the more isolated you become. I thought that was amusing, and put it into the song.

My biggest problem was I really thought that “Mirror in the Bathroom” was a stupid title for a song. It took me a little while to introduce it to the band, and say, “Look, I’ve got these words that fit David’s bassline, but it’s a bit stupid.” I showed them, and they said, “It’s not stupid at all.” I’d been thinking that our song’s really good, but you can’t have a song called “Mirror in the Bathroom”. “It’s stupid.”

When the record came out, it was a success in England and then it came to America, and “Mirror in the Bathroom” was taken to be something completely different, which it wasn’t at all. It was about having a shave. We’d heard about cocaine, but we certainly didn’t have money for it.

JM: What advice would you give to an aspiring musician?

DW: Be prepared for lots of tears, some of joy and some of misery.


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