Dave Wakeling is a man who needs no introduction. His bands The (English) Beat and General Public have had several top 10 hits in a career that has spanned more than 30 years. By phone, he discussed the beginnings of The Beat, having his guitar in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, gardening, and bees (yes, really).
What were your expectations when you started The Beat?
There weren’t any really. We just hoped that our friends wouldn’t laugh at us. The results were a bit better than that in the end.
I’d say so.
We were pretty nervous about it. We thought it would be fun to have dance music that combined itself with interests that people were talking about outside of the music world. As luck would have it, socially conscious pop, social commentary anyway, was still in.
How would you say your approach has evolved over time?
It’s more of a service industry now. I try to find the groove that will tickle the audience’s fancy. At the beginning, you’re so nervous that you’re happy to just stand there and play. After you’ve done it for a couple decades, you don’t stop being nervous. But you understand that the nerves are there for a good reason, to help you deal with it. You use those nerves. You get less nervous and you start realizing what an honor it is to have people to come out and see you. You put all of your energy into doing the best concert you can. When you’re starting out, you’re trying to play pop stars and the concert is something you do at the end of the night.
What does it mean to you to have your guitar in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
It’s as wonderful as it is surreal. I tuned the guitar to a G chord because I couldn’t play it. I still play most of the songs in that tuning. It feels like that thrill of not doing your homework and still acing the quiz. I’m thinking I might learn to play it someday. Give me 30 years and see if I’m in tune first.
If you were going to learn to play guitar now, who would you want to take lessons from?
That’s a good idea. I don’t know. I was sort of being funny. Lynval Golding of The Specials is my favorite reggae acoustic skanker. I like Roddy Byers of The Specials because he could teach me shredding. It’s a difficult thing to learn shredding. I don’t know if I have the same shredding tricks available to me.
I was looking about your website and it says to ask about the metaphorical bump on the head you got from Elvis Costello. How can I resist?
It was right there in Orange County at Irvine Meadows. Elvis Costello was kind enough to have a Greenpeace table. I was showing off to my friends that I know Elvis Costello. They said you better introduce us. He said, “Wakeling, you and Jerry Dammers (of The Specials) I’d like to bang your heads together.
It was a good laugh for a couple weeks. Not long after that, I was asked to do a song for a movie called “Threesome.” Within a few weeks, I was in the studio recording a new record. Within three months of that, we were number one on the Billboard charts. It was fantastic. It was the right point at the right time. I mentioned this a couple times in interviews. Maybe he’ll give me that spot opening on tour with him. I’ve been waiting for that since before I was in a group.You’ve worn your heart on your sleeve as far as causes that are important to you. Why is it important to you to be involved in these causes?
A number of reasons. I think I would have been involved in them even if I weren’t in a pop group. I didn’t want being in a pop group to change the things I felt I could do. I still wanted to be me. I think there was something else early on. There was just this ridiculous amount of mass media thrown at you in the early 80s. You’d be all over the newspapers, but they weren’t asking you about anything. “What’s your favorite breakfast?” “Two girls of course.” Everybody knows that one. It was a bit boring. It’s a little bit embarrassing actually to have access to that much media and not use it for anything. We thought you could talk about stuff that people are interested in. At the time it was nuclear power. It was a turbulent tumultuous time with Thatcher and a lot of parts of English culture being changed dramatically to be more like America. There was lots to talk about. We just tried to have the same conversations in our songs as people were having at every bus stop and bar in town. We didn’t think there was much special about that until people started asking us, “Do you think politics mix with pop music?” “Only if you live on planet earth.”
Tell me about your involvement with autism awareness.
My mum had nursed autistic kids in the 60s and 70s and they didn’t know much about it then. It fascinated me. I had an acoustic version of a song called “The Love You Give Lasts Forever.” It’s about my mum. It worked out very nicely and Acoustic for Autism used that song.
What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?
I’d still be doing everything I do now. Probably gardening. I’m gardening all the time. That’s what I’d be doing. I’d probably be working for some kind of environmental group that works on bees. I’m very worried about the bees, just because they’re integral for so many species. Even us. We rely on them more than anyone imagines. If you’ve got no bees, we get a bit short on dinner.
The English Beat plays The Galaxy Theatre on Saturday 30 July. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 the day of the show. The doors open at 6. The show starts at 8.