Interview with Dave Wakeling of The English Beat

The English BeatIf there ever was a band that embodied the spirit of working-class Britain, it was The English Beat. Formed in Birmingham during the fertile period of social upheaval in the late ‘70s, The English Beat were punk royalty, rubbing elbows with The Clash, The Specials, and The Talking Heads. The band released three albums in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that have since become classics of early ska, and guitarist Dave Wakeling continues to tour and play today with a new lineup of musicians. Dave took some time out to offer up thoughts on saxophone players, naming disputes, and “toasting,” a blend of singing and speaking born from reggae.

I guess I should start off by asking you where you are now.

I’m on a balcony in the sun in California. I’ve lived here for more than twenty years now. I did thirty years in Birmingham, and since you only get thirty years for murder in England, I figured I’d done my time. (laughs)

You’re one of a bunch of bands that had to change your name in the U.S. for copyright reasons.

Well, the frustrating thing about that is that it was actually avoidable. We got a call from Bill Graham in San Francisco, before we’d even got a manager, before a record deal, before anything. Bill Graham called me, and he said he’d heard of the band. And this is the famous Bill Graham—the one everyone had heard about! He said, ‘I’ve got some bad news for you. I’ve got a band called The Beat.’ And I thought to myself, ‘God, we haven’t even started!’

This must’ve been in the late ‘70s.

It was in the summer of 1979, perhaps. He asked if we had management, and I said no. He said, ‘Well, if you’re interested in management, I might be able to help you with the name.’ At that point, I should’ve said yes and jumped on a plane right there, but we were still punks and purists, so I said, ‘If you get another group called The Beat that’s even better than us in two weeks, you’ll say the same thing to them.’ Which was stupid of me.

That’s not a very happy ending.

It was frustrating at first. The Australian record company was absolutely certain that it should be called ‘The British Beat.’ In fact, the first few records that came out in Australia had ‘British Beat’ on the sleeve. But then, we were in New York, to meet up with Arista Records to see whether they wanted us in America. And sitting in a deli eating breakfast, we noticed on a menu that they had English muffins. And of course, in England they aren’t called muffins—I don’t suppose French fries are called French fries in France, either. But I saw that word, ‘English.’ Americans seemed to like that word, whereas ‘British’ seemed to bring up images of the empire.

It has a tea-drinking quality to it.

Exactly. A lot of heritage. So I thought, well, what about ‘The English Beat?’ And I told Sire Records, and they all fell off their chairs!