Legendary 1980s ska-punk band The Beat had to be renamed in America because they’d been beaten to the moniker by a power-pop act, and that’s how they came to be called The English Beat. There’s no bad blood between the two bands, however – they eventually performed together on a tour with the excellent name Two Beats Hearting As One in 2012.
But The English Beat’s frontman, Dave Wakeling, born in Birmingham, has lived in California for over 20 years now and is less English than ever. The morning we speak he’s enjoyed a session of “hot yoga”, which is the most Californian-sounding thing I’ve heard of, although really it’s just ordinary yoga in a steam room.
The English Beat were always a compromise between English sounds and foreign ones – in particular, Jamaican. In the original lineup, Wakeling shared vocals with the toasting of Ranking Roger, while their saxophone player, known as Saxa, was a veteran 30 years older than the rest of the band and had played with reggae stars like Desmond Dekker.
Saxa had a lot of advice for his younger bandmates when they were starting out in the late 1970s, even curing Wakeling of the stage fright that had him vomiting before every gig. Before a show at London’s Electric Ballroom, he took Wakeling over to a window and pointed to people lining up in the rain to get in, who’d inevitably leave the show later that night to walk to the bus stop in yet more rain. “‘And you, Mr. Wakeling, have got in for free and you dry,’” Wakeling recounts. “And I never threw up after that.”
At another of their early concerts, playing songs that would go on to be hits like ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’, they met British radio icon John Peel. The gig was part of a roadshow in which Peel travelled around the country DJing with local bands as his supports. The Beat were one such support, and they managed to impress him with their 45-minute set. “John Peel came out and said we were the best band he’d heard since The Undertones and that he was embarrassed because he was getting 300 quid for spinning records and we were only getting 100 quid for playing all these lovely songs. He wanted us to come back out in an hour’s time and do the set again and he wanted to exchange cheques, and he did. So we got to do the set again.”
That repeat performance was a turning point for Wakeling, letting him tap into the bravado he normally only felt while staring at the mirror in the bathroom but which faded away by the time he was standing in front of an audience. “We did the set again and there was a definite sense of, ‘Alright, we’re onto something here,’” he says. “I can be as confident as I might feel in my most private, arrogant moments. Well, I’m a lot better than Bono and Sting put together really, aren’t I? Lyrically – come on, be fair!”
Peel seems to have thought so, joining them for dinner at a curry house after the show. Wakeling recalls “showing off to our friends, not letting them speak to him because we’re with John Peel, and then bang! This drunk came round the corner in his car and slammed into the band’s van. John Peel goes, ‘There goes your cheque then. Maybe I can give you a radio session to make it up to you,’ and he did and from that we got a record deal with Arista Records and the rest is history. Well, probably history, but I don’t remember much of it.”