When I was about 16-years-old, the drama department—myself included—was waiting in the green room below the Boise High School stage preparing for a performance of Our Town. To relieve some of the anxiety, a small group of boys showed off their harmonizing talents by regaling us with a rendition of "Mirror In the Bathroom" by ska band The English Beat. The song had come out a few years earlier, but hadn't lost any of its shine for a handful of quirky teens just beginning to identify who they were by the music they listened to. When the curtain opened, all of the young actors moved on stage with a little more bounce in their steps.
Almost 30 years later, the beat of that song, combined with the band's founder and lead singer, Dave Wakeling's strange, peerless voice still has the capacity to move a crowd. The 52-year-old Wakeling—who also fronted General Public—has called Los Angeles home for the last 20 years. He still surfs those waves of nostalgia to nearly 150 shows a year, still billed as The English Beat and playing most weekends and two- or three-week tours every other month or so. Wakeling spoke with Boise Weekly about his music, his adopted country's new president and being stuck in Southern California traffic.
When The English Beat broke up in the mid-80s, Wakeling and fellow Beat singer Ranking Roger formed General Public whose song "Tenderness" not only became a staple on Top 40 radio, but also a track on many coming-of-age movie soundtracks. When General Public broke up a few years later, Wakeling was ready to try his hand at something completely different and went to work for Greenpeace. As a man whose career had been spent making music with a peace-love-and understanding message, it wasn't such a stretch that Wakeling would find himself involved with an organization whose mission is to try and make the world a better place.
"I worked for Greenpeace when Clinton was the president," Wakeling said, his British accent hardly marred by two decades of living among "dudes."
- photo by casperphotographics.com
- Though he's no rudeboy, Dave Wakeling takes his two-tone seriously.
"There was always this feeling that you don't want to pick on the government too much. You think they're probably trying to do the best they can with what they've got. It's sometimes easier with a Bush or a Reagan when you've got someone solid to diametrically oppose. It's easier to take a position and have something to push against. It's nothing short of fascinating to see how much time and leeway Obama will be given," he said.
Wakeling suggested that with the emotional outpouring Americans have shown for Barack Obama, it's going to be heartbreaking if he doesn't live up to expectations, but that might not be Obama's fault.
"We used to say in England: 'Don't vote. You only encourage them,'" he said laughing. "However, I do think it's good. If only symbolically, I think it's great America is fashionable again now in Europe. I mean, they could never vote themselves a black prime minister or black president, could they? So, it's nice to be ahead of the bell curve. That's what America's promise has always been and it's been embarrassing when we seem to be working in the previous century," Wakeling said.
And though America's history is relatively short, this kind of political change has been a long time coming. "It's been a long time considering the contributions to American society black people have made," Wakeling said. "I don't know if it's true, but someone told me slave labor was involved in building the White House. If that's true, [electing a black president] completes a nice circle. My dad was always a big fan of America," Wakeling said. "He liked John Wayne, Audie Murphy and Ronald Reagan. When I was a kid, he said, 'It's a good thing these yanks are always at each other's throats, Dave. If they ever got on the same team, they'd roll right over the world.'"
As The English Beat rolls through America playing clubs, larger venues and the ubiquitous summer music festival, he and his band are greeted by faces not that much younger than their own. These are people who understand their favorite band may have put out an album or two since their songs first charted, but these people want to hear the songs they heard when they were a prepubescent tangle of emotions and hormones. Though they continue to create and play new music, Wakeling and crew are happy to feed that need for nostalgia.
"I have a few new songs in the set that I rotate in. The only time the new songs disappear for a minute is when I have a new player to work in," Wakeling said.
The band knows just how a crowd is going to react to some songs, so they often sandwich new ones between beloved classics.
"We'll put a new one between 'Tears of a Clown' and 'Tenderness' to see if any of the performance magic of those two rubs off on the song in the middle. And sometimes it does. We have a nice habit now of not singing the songs in any particular order. We might start with 'Stand Down Margaret' as it's got lots of instrumentals so everyone can get their sound down. After that, it depends on where and who the crowd is," Wakeling said. "We can do fast songs, slower songs, more General Public songs or more reggae. We just play with it and rock the crowd. By the end, everybody's apoplectic, sweating and staggering out of the place, saying 'That's the best night we ever had.'"
Wakeling knows that he's in an enviable position. He's grateful that, when he's home at least, he wakes up each day to bright California sunshine and that when his band is out on the road, those sweating, dancing crowds continue to show up. He takes the tribulations of being in a touring band in stride.
When the band's van broke down, the rest of the band went on ahead by plane to the next gig while Wakeling waited for it to be fixed. He was at least eight hours away from the next show and stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeway, but it seems it would take more than a little traffic to rattle this British ex-pat as he likened the experience to a National Lampoon Thanksgiving Tour. "At least I get a little me time," he said laughing.
Monday, Dec. 8, 8 p.m., with Outlaw Nation and Chris Murray, $15 advance, $17.50 door. Knitting Factory, 416 S. Ninth St., 208-376-1212, bo.knittingfactory.com.