Music News & Reviews

Iconic ska band English Beat plays SLO Brew

Dave Wakeling quit music for a time in the early 1990s to work for Greenpeace.
Dave Wakeling quit music for a time in the early 1990s to work for Greenpeace. COURTESY PHOTO BY WILLIAM CASPER

When the English Beat returns to San Luis Obispo, count on front man Dave Wakeling to visit Bubblegum Alley before the show.

“I pick a piece of chewing gum every time I come,” he said. “I never take one of the biggest ones — I take a small piece — and I chew it through the show. And after the show, I put it back on the wall. That’s what recycling is all about.”

Wakeling ought to know about saving the planet. For five years, he took a break from music to work for Greenpeace, the nonprofit environmental group. That was during the early 1990s, when few people were talking seriously about global warming.

“In the normal political sense, it was very, very hard to get a discussion going,” Wakeling said.

Still, Wakeling did his part, organizing a benefit concert with U2, R.E.M., and Annie Lennox that helped garner publicity for global warming. But ultimately, Elvis Costello talked him into returning to music.

While the aficionados call his ska band the Beat, in America it has always officially been the English Beat, because when the Beat came to America in the 1970s, the band was told that there already was an American group called the Beat.

“So we hit upon the English Beat really from seeing English muffins,” he said. “Which, of course, like french fries, they’re not called English muffins in England. Or ‘Freedom muffins.’ There seemed to be in America something about the word ‘English,’ which had positive connotations.”

Early on, Wakeling was a blue-collar English guy, working in construction and then for a couple of years as a firefighter in his native Birmingham.

“I never thought I’d find anything more socially valuable than being a firefighter — I thought I’d found my niche,” he said. “And then poems took over.”

Some of the poems he worked on during his day jobs later became songs for the Beat, which formed in 1978 and eventually performed with other bands on the 2 Tone label, including the Specials and Madness.

Early on, their audiences were primarily rowdy males.

“You sometimes felt as if you were the soundtrack to an amateur boxing match or some kind of weird Spartan ritual,” Wakeling said.

Wanting to soften the crowds, they had popular English cartoonist Hunter Emerson devise a logo, the Beat Girl, a mod-inspired, dancing woman of uncertain ethnicity. The logo quickly changed the band’s image, and soon the guys in the crowd were preening for girls.

“There were lots more girls at the concerts, and the fighting stopped, and the mating ritual began,” Wakeling said with a laugh.

Combining punk, New Wave and, above all, ska, the band would become influential to bands like No Doubt and the Police, whom the English Beat toured with in the 1980s, along with R.E.M., the Pretenders and the Talking Heads. Police singer Sting famously wore a torn Beat Girl T-shirt in the video for “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.”

“For a little while, then, people were asking if we sold ‘The Sting Shirt,’ which meant it had the sleeves cut off and the neck cut off into a V-neck. We never actually sold that model. We said, ‘You can Sting it yourself, really.’ ”

While the band always had more chart success in England, songs like “Save it for Later,” “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” made their mark, some of them appearing in commercials and film.

After just three albums, though, the band split. Wakeling and fellow singer Roger Ranking went on to form General Public. Meanwhile, band members Andy Cox and David Steele went on to form the Fine Young Cannibals.

While General Public had a hit with ‘Tenderness’ and a cover of ‘I’ll Take You There,’ Wakeling eventually reformed the English Beat in America while Ranking reformed the Beat in the UK.

“I’m going back to England in April, and I’m going as the English Beat Starring Dave Wakeling,” Wakeling said. “So it couldn’t be any more confusing.”

Reach Patrick S. Pemberton at 781-7903.