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Frontman Dave Wakeling keeps the English Beat ticking

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There's something timeless about the English Beat's arresting mix of Jamaican rhythms, 2/2 time signature, and smooth vocal hooks. But even so, the release of last year's five-CD box set, The Complete Beat, seemed to come out of nowhere.

After all, this was the band that helped lead Britain's early '80s ska revival before splintering into General Public and the Fine Young Cannibals. What's more, the English Beat's three-year recording career yielded just three albums — at a time when vinyl records rarely ran beyond 45 minutes.

But for Dave Wakeling, sole proprietor of the Beat legacy for the past three decades, The Complete Beat makes perfect sense. Now based in California, the founding frontman plays some 150 English Beat shows a year, headlining venues like Denver's 1,000-capacity Gothic Theatre and locally at the more intimate Rawkus nightclub.

Happily, the current lineup does justice to the original band's airtight arrangements of impossibly catchy hits like "Save It for Later," "Stand Down Margaret" "Too Nice to Talk To" and "Mirror in the Bathroom." The group also throws in a half-dozen songs from General Public — the spinoff band Wakeling formed with English Beat co-founder Ranking Roger — as well as a few new originals soon to be recorded when the frontman ends his 20-year studio hiatus.

So how did the band's three LPs turn into a five-disc set, especially without a single unreleased song to help fill it out?

"It's a very funny story," says the cheerfully droll Wakeling in his incurable English accent. "The record company — after saying they signed us because we sounded so different from everything else they heard — now wanted to edit out all the bits that sounded different. So part of the deal was that they paid for the B studio next door, and allowed us to make 12-inches whilst they carved up the album version of the song to see how banal they could make it for the radio."

Between tours with labelmates the Talking Heads and the Pretenders, the English Beat did what any band influenced by Jamaican music would at the onset of the 12-inch single era: They stayed up all night doing tons of dub-heavy remixes, which would ultimately fill up two of The Complete Beat's discs. A good thing, too, since an exhaustive search revealed just one unreleased song.

"We only ever found a cassette version of it," says Wakeling. "They EQ'd that for about a month to see if they could bring it anywhere near the audio level of the rest of the record."

As if to compensate for the wasted effort, he sings a bit of the unreleased song: "'It makes me rock / And roll myself into a ball / It makes me rock / And roll myself into a ball' — that was the chorus. I mean, somebody back then obviously thought it was vile and pulled the plug on it, but I rather enjoyed it."

Too much pressure

The rest of the band's output proved far less disposable and, in the case of "Stand Down Margaret," decidedly controversial. A follow-up to the Top 10 U.K. hit "Mirror in the Bathroom," the anti-Thatcher single wasn't technically banned by the government-supported BBC, just dropped from its playlists.

"They'd already learned their lesson about banning records, sadly," Wake-ling says. "After they banned the Sex Pistols, everybody just spent the next eight weeks buying a copy of the single. It stayed at No. 1 for two months. So with 'Stand Down Margaret,' they just stopped playing it. Instead of biting its head off, they slowly got the pillow and smothered it — nothing to do with the politics!"

A similar fate awaited the band. "Although we'd done well, we'd shared all the moneys and royalties pretty widely and equally, so nobody was particularly well off," recalls Wakeling. "But some people had had enough and wanted two years off, and other people had just had their first children and didn't really think they could afford that."

Wakeling fell into the latter camp. Plus, he had a love for playing live, which continues to this day. "A sort of inertia had set in," he says of the band's final six months. "Everybody expects you to just carry on making records, but we had always promised each other, if it ever got like that, we would pull the plug — and so I did. I kind of went down as the executioner, but really I was just the messenger that took the death certificate down to the office."

Guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele took an extended rest before forming the Fine Young Cannibals, while Wakeling and Roger went off and started General Public with former Specials bassist Horace Panter and a couple of refugees from Dexys Midnight Runners.

"It was odd because they all just happened to be doing nothing around that time," says Wakeling. "And so it was like local lads who were all living within 15 miles of each other, but we had all just been part of superstar pop groups, quite by accident."

Meanwhile, Mick Jones had left the Clash and was just starting Big Audio Dynamite. "We didn't have a lead guitarist at that point," says Wakeling, "so we thought, 'Well, we know Mick Jones. Why don't we ask the most famous guitar player in the whole world if he'll play on our album?"

Jones was up for it, just as long as Wakeling and company came down and sang some "la-la-las" over his demos to help him come up with vocal melodies.

So did any of those make it onto Big Audio Dynamite's debut?

"Not the actual la-la-las," says Wakeling, "but I do hear a couple of melodies that I think I managed to tinge and sway a little bit."

Unity through diversity

While Wakeling thinks he and Roger may work together again, he doubts the original group will ever reunite. "No, I think they still want their two years off," he says with a laugh.

Still, Wakeling remains proud of the band's legacy, as well as the "2 Tone" scene in general. "One of its charms, and intentions, was to have diversity within the bands, to show that diversity and unity could coexist. The Beat had Saxa, who was 56, and Roger, who was 16. It didn't really matter that they were both black, they saw the world entirely differently. Saxa saw it from a Jamaican perspective, Roger saw it from a Birmingham punk perspective.

And I think the same was true of the Specials and Selecter. People had come from various backgrounds; some were working-class, some had gone to posh schools."

None of which was in tune with the era's political culture. "There was a lot of extreme politics, pretty much what we've seen here over the last few years. So it was a bit of an antidote to that. It was hard to start a race war on Monday morning when you'd all been dancing together shoulder-to-shoulder on Saturday night."

And to this day, Wakeling notes, the band's mix of upbeat music and fairly dark lyrics — "Can I take you to a restaurant that's got glass tables / You can watch yourself while you are eating" — remains as potent as ever.

"'Mirror in the Bathroom' is not the cheeriest of topics for a song," he admits. "But combined with that irresistible chugging-along beat, you end up with thousands of people smiling their heads off, singing along with me about what might have been my first nervous breakdown."

So the song wasn't just about narcissism?

"It was, but it was also about how narcissism can draw you into such isolation that you can become disassociated from the rest of the world."

Which quite possibly has happened to a few musicians.

"Really?" says Wakeling in mock disbelief. "Well, certainly not our group!"

scene@csindy.com

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