The English Beat: Ska Legends Continue Riding the Wave After 30 Years

Despite only having three full-length albums to their name, The English Beat has wielded an incredible amount of influence in the music world. Along with The Specials and Madness, the band pretty much introduced ska to the masses, blending reggae, punk rock and even a bit of the Motown sound along with the message of peace and unity. The irony of those themes are not lost on singer/co-founder Dave Wakeling, who admits the band members – which had a falling out in 1983 – didn’t always adhere to their own lyrical advice.

For the past five years or so, Wakeling, and his crew have played in the U.S. as The English Beat, while co-founder and vocalist Ranking Roger has played occasionally in the UK simply as The Beat. There was an ill-fated attempt to try and get all seven members to reunite for a VH1 show years ago, but they couldn’t get everyone to agree.

Regardless of the internal issues over the years, everyone from The Bosstones and Fishbone to No Doubt and Operation Ivy have talked about listening to songs like “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Save it for Later” while growing up. Thanks to an unrelenting tour schedule (30 years after their last album was released) and the release of an impressive box set The Complete Beat this summer, the current incarnation of the band could very well be winning over yet another generation of fans.

Wakeling was kind enough to wake up early recently somewhere in Middle America and discuss the band, the box set and whether a full reunion will ever happen.

Innocent Words: I actually discovered ska and punk thanks to you guys.

Dave Wakeling: We were lucky, weren’t we? A lot of people have said that to us, and we were just trying the best we could at the time, but we didn’t realize that whole wave of music that followed on the back end of punk was coming.

IW: Obviously, ska was not that well known before bands like yours came around. How did you discover reggae and ska music?

Wakeling: Well, the first time I heard it was at the soccer matches. They used to play the music in the stadiums. My interest in reggae grew from that, and I discovered music like Toots and The Maytals and the like. When we started the group, what we wanted to do was mix up reggae and punk, and then we brought in Motown and some of the classics and we had a nice hybrid, all of our favorites in one place.

IW: Was it difficult at the time to get labels, clubs and managers to take a chance on you?

Wakeling: We were very lucky I think because quite a few of the punk bands had slipped through the net.

IW: When you were putting together that first album, did you ever imagine that this sound would last? That you’d be playing these songs 30 years later?

Wakeling: I had no idea. Then again, I had no idea that my dreams would come true and I’d ever be in a group at all. For me, the more the merrier. When we started we thought, “Oh, this might last three months,” and it’s been 33 years. But it’s been very satisfying. I couldn’t think of doing anything else more enjoyable or that would have taught me more than this would have taught me. I got to see the world without having to kill people. It’s been terrific.

IW: I’ve been doing interviews for 20 years, and I think that’s the best way I’ve heard that explained. Ska as a genre has always ebbed and flowed, and there have been plenty of bands that have cited you as an influence like Reel Big Fish and Goldfinger…

Wakeling: Yeah, it always goes back to that first wave from Jamaica in the late ’60s and early ’70s. That’s what people might call the original start, and every few years people go digging back into that and become influenced, and I think there’s probably been about five or six waves – I can hardly keep up with the waves – and every time a new wave comes in someone dusts me off and checks me out, so that’s good.

IW: Do you have a lot of opportunities to play with some of those younger bands?

Wakeling: Well yes, we did a whole tour with Reel Big Fish, and that was really good, and we got to meet a lot of younger fans, people who were meeting us for the first time, and they came to our later shows when we toured on our own. We also came on as a surprise guest at the [L.A. radio station KROQ] Weenie Roast and did “Here in My Bedroom” with Reel Big Fish. That was a lot of fun.

IW: When you look out into the audience, do you see several generations out there?

Wakeling: It’s very moving, I’ve got to say, to see people 16 and then people in their early ’60s, and they are all dancing in step with each other. That actually frees you when you see anything in our society besides sports games where there are people of different generations. We usually separate ourselves demographically, but it’s great that we have people of all different colors and sizes and ages. That makes it all the more real to me and why I started the band in the first place.

IW: How did The Complete Beat project come about?

Wakeling: It was very interesting meeting the people from Shout Factory [the label releasing the set], who are very famous for their box sets. Our box set is very compact. I wanted to be able to take it on the road and sell it at shows, and I didn’t want people to have to walk around with something looking like a shirt box. They also had some fans of the band at the label, and they made the type of collection that they thought real fans would like, in particular with the rarities. We were given CDs to listen to, so we got everyone engaged… They did a really good job at finding the right tracks and putting them in the right order. The musical part of it went quite smoothly; we actually had more arguments in the band about what photos to use, something far more important.

IW: So was Roger or any of the other original members involved in putting this together?

Wakeling: Oh yeah, everybody was absolutely involved. We had to be very careful and delicate, and everybody had to give their opinion, even if you thought it was rubbish.

IW: There are some bands that once they go their own way, that’s it; all communication ends. You two seem to have come to an agreement on how to coexist well together.

Wakeling: Well, I think we had our moments when we split up. There was some misunderstandings, some rancor, but as the music continued to be popular it became obvious to us that as we were the love and unity boys, we couldn’t be fighting all the time while recommending love and unity to everyone else. So if we haven’t got anything nice to say we keep it to ourselves, which is terrific.

IW: If only politicians had the same philosophy. Like many, I had watched the VH1 show “Reuniting the Band” years ago when your group was the subject. When that was being filmed, did you think that this could be what put you guys back together, or did you know it was likely never going to happen?

Wakeling: I really knew that it wouldn’t work out, because regardless of our feelings, I knew full well the majority would never work together. There are many layers of the onion. You have to peel back layers of Fine Young Cannibals and General Public [both post English Beat bands] to get to the heart of the beast, and enough things have happened with those bands that I already knew that it was impossible to imagine a whole unit. I thought we’d get most on board, but we never got seven out of seven [members]. In their defense, [Andy Cox and David Steele] each said to me under different circumstances they might be willing to play a few shows together for old time’s sake, but I don’t think either would get over the troubles they have.

IW: You played the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Do you think you would ever reunite on stage as a band if The English Beat were inducted?

Wakeling: I wonder. I don’t know. When some things have gone on for as long as they have, people sometimes forget the reasons why. It’s almost like breaking a family tradition if we could all work together again; that might change things. I know a growing number of artists who have been waiting [to be inducted] for quite a number of years, and they are actually quite happy that they aren’t on the list because it’s also seen as the kiss of death. You get on the list and you’ll be dead within two years… I think I’d survive though, because my work here is not done. There are still corners of this great nation that I have yet to play. I cannot rest