The Beat goes on

After three decades, The English Beat's sociopolitical songs are just as relevant — and danceable

January 06, 2011|By Evan Haga, Special to The Baltimore Sun

For English Beat singer, guitarist and songwriter Dave Wakeling, the phrase "put your money where your mouth is" could be a mantra.

Case in point: His band's stop at Bourbon Street this Saturday is one of select dates on his current tour that offers an admission discount for the unemployed. That's right: Fans with a current unemployment letter to show at the door can purchase half-price tickets online.

Wakeling, who turns 55 next month, talked to many fans who'd lost work and saw a striking similarity between the turmoil-ridden England that birthed the Beat — later called the English Beat in the U.S. — and the America he calls home today.

"In the late '70s and early '80s in England," he recalls, "when a lot of people were unemployed — even higher figures than we have here now — you used to be able to get a discount at concerts and various other things if you showed your unemployment benefits card. … And I thought, well, just my doing something like that might make people think, 'Oh, what could I do to lend a hand here?' rather than blame the unemployed for the Wall Street crash."

But even if Wakeling, a former Greenpeace employee, is known for being charitable, nightclub owners certainly are not. "Most of [the venues] have managed to do it in a way where I don't think it's going to cost them or anybody else anything," he says. "We don't mind if it costs us a little bit."

In many ways, that ideal of selflessness the Beat was founded on is more evident in Wakeling today than ever. In its fervent live shows and on three studio albums released in the early 1980s, the multiracial Beat presented a stunning duality. Lyrically, Wakeling and company took on the weightiest of issues — Britain's dire economic state and the hypocrisy of the ruling class, among them. But the music expertly combined various English tastes — punk rock, ska, pop, reggae, R&B — into a danceable whole.

As Wakeling explains, crafting fun music to encourage social change has been part of ska's "positive protest" ethos, and the most efficient way to get the messages over.

"You can actually bring up subjects that you wouldn't want to bring up in a song if everybody was sitting down listening," he says. "Something makes you more courageous when you're dancing."

Fast-forward three decades, and that vibe is the same, even if Wakeling is the sole original English Beat member in his touring sextet. The band's legendary "toaster," Ranking Roger, with whom Wakeling later formed General Public, maintains his own touring outfit in Europe billed simply as the Beat.

Wakeling was hoping Roger would perform with his group when he travels overseas in April, which could have led to performances this summer, though he doesn't think it's likely to happen given the touchy nature of their relationship. Attempts to reunite the original lineup in 2003 and 2004 saw all members participate except bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox. (Post-Beat, the two formed "She Drives Me Crazy" hitmakers Fine Young Cannibals.)

Regardless of personnel, at Rams Head Live last February, Wakeling's band was tight and the set list was satisfying. He hits English Beat favorites like "Mirror in the Bathroom," "Hands Off … She's Mine" and the band's cover of "Tears of a Clown," pulls out General Public hits like "Tenderness" and peppers the set with new material. A solo acoustic version of a new song, "The Love You Give," is available on iTunes as part of a benefit project for those affected by autism and constitutes Wakeling's first studio recording since the mid-'90s. The songwriter has also been working on a grip of new English Beat material — some toting his socio-political bent — that he hopes to release at least part of this year.

But the most striking thing about the Rams Head show had to do with the fans. The English Beat's crowd is impressively diverse, particularly in age, a testament to Wakeling's lengthy history and his message. Original Beat fans mix with Gen-X'ers who arrived via General Public, younger folks who came to ska through "third-wave" bands like No Doubt and the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and teens Wakeling refers to as ska's potential "fourth wave."

"What's really nice about it is they're all dancing together," he says. "There're not very many places where people of 30 or 40 years age difference can mingle socially and freely and have a good time. So I like it."

If you go

The English Beat performs Saturday at Bourbon Street, 316 Guilford Ave. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 with proof of unemployment; regular price tickets are $20 in advance and $25 at the door. Call 410-528-8377 or go to bourbonstreetbaltimore.com.

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