Lawrence Poole interviewed The bEAT's Dave Wakeling ahead of their Rock City gig...
An integral part of the late-1970s/early-1980s Two Tone and Ska scene, The bEAT won the hearts and minds of the movement against the brutal backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain, with hits like Mirror In The Bathroom and Hands Off… She’s Mine. Over 40 years on and with a polished up film, Dance Craze, which documents some of the scene’s intoxicating live performances garnering rave reviews, the group return to the live circuit this summer landing at Rock City on June 23. LeftLion spoke to frontman Dave Wakeling down the line in California to get the lowdown…
I understand you live in the San Fernando Valley now – what took you out there?
I recorded out here and I got to like it. You get that sort of archetypal California lifestyle with the swimming pool and the roses but it’s more affordable than doing it right in the city. I’ve been here 36 years, the San Fernando Valley part for six of them. It gets very, very hot in the summer – over 40 degrees. where I used to live before by the ocean the breeze brings that down substantially. As it’s so hot in the summer I try to book as much touring as possible and stay on an air conditioned bus!
What are your favourite bits of the California lifestyle – aside from the weather?
It’s pleasantly multi-ethnic and remarkably tolerant. I like that you can see so many different ethnicities all doing quite well and all getting on quite well. At the concerts it looks like what we were hoping for when we were banging on in Two Tone.
You’ve just finished a big leg of US and Canadian dates – how have they gone?
Nearly all sold out. People seem to have got over their nerves from the pandemic where they weren’t sure how to act at a concert. Now they’re relaxed more. 10 percent of the audience still don’t show up who’ve bought tickets because they’ve got health concerns or whatever. It’s a celebration now of the fact that we’ve survived the pandemic. I think people have realised how important concerts and meeting their social network are to them.
If we go right back to the start, I understand your first hero was Brian Jones and you used to pretend to be him by miming with a blonde wig and a cricket bat as a guitar, is that right?
I did yes! I bought the wig at second hand shop and cut it into the right style – a rough bob. I didn’t wear it when my parents were in the house, but if they were out it came out and I’d open the wardrobe and pretend in front of the mirror until you heard the car pull up!
It’s a celebration now of the fact that we’ve survived the pandemic
What was it about him that appealed the most?
It was a quirky sense of English melody. I thought they’ve got to be one of the best rock and roll groups in the world. I liked his artsy edge on top of it that I thought was poignant – so I dreamed of being him.
Did you ever get to see the Stones play in their pomp?
In 1972 I saw them with The Meteors at Ally Pally. The Meteors were tighter. The Rolling Stones you sang along with them but it was slightly cacophonous – but still worth seeing. I got to play there a couple of years ago and it was boomy!
What early gigs did you get to that were formative for you?
Birmingham Town Hall. Ziggy Stardust. March 1972. Before that the progressive Red Penny concerts – you’d pay a penny and see three bands like Van der Graaf Generator. Those were quite good. The other music at the time I remember is that they used to play reggae at the football to keep the peace!
How quickly after forming did The bEAT take off?
It happened quickly. We did the first show at the end of March 1979. We were on the Christmas time Top Of The Pops with Tears Of A Clown. Saxa (the band’s saxophonist) had been really quiet the whole night and was turned away from the audience. I asked him about it on the way home and he said ''I was waiting to see how it went, but I think this band might have it.'' That was one of the first clues, if Saxa thought that it must’ve been going somewhere. We were a bit disappointed at one point as David Steele (bassist) came in with a Melody Maker opened up in the middle and threw it down very dramatically and said ''it’s too late somebody’s beat us to it.'' It being mixing punk and reggae in a three-minute song. It hit us Brummies quite hard as they were from Coventry (The Specials). So, we had a serious conversation about whether to carry on and we decided on a balance to have a go, and ended up with them asking us to do a single.
I think people have realised how important concerts and meeting their social network are to them
Was there a friendly rivalry then?
Yes. It was shockingly friendly. There was a real camaraderie. It was a case of if everyone’s equal that has to include popstars as well. They were nice to us so we were nice in return. Almost everyone has been that way ever since. We went on tour with The Specials in Ireland and, at their instance, we alternated headlining. It was probably one of the happiest tours we’ve ever been on.
Dance Craze has been revamped for the big screen – have you seen the new version yet?
Yes. It was very nice. It brought a lot memories back, about the audience as well. Artistically it’s a fantastic job. It’s been cleaned up enough so it still looks dark and retro but you can see right into the film and it isn’t grainy like the endless VHS copies I’ve seen. We sounded a lot better than I was expecting too. Jeremy Dammers (Specials’ keyboardist) said that too, which was nice.
The UK tour starts next month, arriving at Rock City on June 23 – any memories of playing Nottingham?
The last time, I was really impressed as there was a much bigger crowd than before because word had spread. It is a bit disappointing afterwards when you finish off the show and get on the bus and watch thousands of drunk teenagers cordoned off, and then see them fallout later and being carried home!
Do you see a broader demographic in the crowd now with the children of your original fans attending too?
You do. It’s great. You also see a young age group coming by themselves to thanks to ska bands like Rancid and The Dualers.
There was a much bigger crowd than before because word had spread
Ranking Roger died in 2019 – what are your memories of working with such a character and performer?
Ever changing. He was very young when we started. He was only 16. So, he had a lot of questions and I sort of mentored him. He soon got the hang of it - he was more technical than me so he had his own studio. His songs were almost completely finished by the time I got to hear them, whereas early on he just had ideas and we used to work on them together so they’d come out fuller. It was harder later on as he didn’t like changing things, and it’s hard work when they’re polished to take things out.
What about your touring memories?
We were roommates with two stinking suitcases of laundry most of the time. The very first tour we did when we went to Europe. Because he was still a minor, someone from the consulate came every day to ask if he’d eaten and if anyone had bothered him. Then he gave him a tenner and he’d go off and play space raiders!
His son Ranking Jnr continues his legacy – do you have any dealings with him?
Yes quite a bit. We saw a lot of him growing up. He was friends with my daughter. I’ve been in touch a couple of times since his dad died. I’ve always got on well with him. When his dad died and the band stopped I heard that was how it going to remain for various reasons, and I know everyone’s got to pay the rent but I was a bit disappointed he hadn’t found anything better to do than restart The bEAT (an alternative version). On one hand, I like the idea of my lyrics being sang in multiple places, but it can get a bit unseemly. However, I left The bEAT and so it can be argued I’ve got no bloody right to use the name either! We invited him to join us last year and only spoke to the sound guy. As soon as his dad died I said if he wanted to come to America and sing with us he could.
I like the idea of my lyrics being sang in multiple places, but it can get a bit unseemly
I hope it all gets resolved soon as I’m sure the fans would love to see you perform together.
I think so too yes. I think it would be lovely. I think he’s really quite good at the bits that his dad did.
When you head over to the UK, asides from catching up with family and friends, what do you look forward to most?
Fish and chips. Talk about the weather and political cynicism. We don’t have much sense of irony over here – we’re still a new country. I miss that a great deal.
The bEaT Skavival Tour 2023 arrives at Rock City on June 23, with Bow Wow Wow supporting.
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