Special Beat Service: An Interview with the English Beat

From PopMatters:

“It was awful,” admitted English Beat frontman Dave Wakeling about the 2012 Euro Quaterfinal football game between his native Great Britain and Italy. “It was very sad how the English played. The English team just lacked passion and innovation that makes it exciting. It’s sad to see my old country’s football looking so boring.”

The sport that we Yanks call “soccer” here in the States might not be as crowd-moving as it once was for Mr. Wakeling back when he caught glimpses of the members of Black Sabbath kicking around the sphere outside the studio where they recorded in his hometown of Birmingham. But the enthusiasm he harbors for the release of the 2 Tone titans’ lovingly produced career-spanning box set The Complete Beat, a five-disc set containing expanded remastered versions of all three of the group’s albums, 1980’s I Just Can’t Stop It, 1981’s Wha’ppen? and 1982’s Special Beat Service, plus a two-disc collection called Bonus Beat that contains a CD of 12” mixes and dubs and a disc of recordings from the Peel Sessions and four cuts live from a November 1982 gig in Boston.

Wakeling is currently on tour with a modified “U.S.” version of The English Beat that doesn’t include any original members. A UK edition of the band also exists going by their initial name The Beat and includes toaster (a vocalist who speaks over the beats) Ranking Roger and drummer Everett Morton along with former Dexy’s Midnight Runners keyboardist Mickey Bilingham.

PopMatters caught up with him by telephone while he was en route to his stop at the Knuckleheads Saloon in Kansas City, Missouri to talk about the box set, touring with The Clash and the possibilities of a “Three Tenors” type tour with Roger and Roland Gift. (The latter served as the singer for guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele’s post-Beat outfit Fine Young Cannibals. But for now, the conversation starts at soccer, er, football.

* * *

Speaking of football, was the Beat big with the hooligan/skinhead crowd? [Ed. note: a “skinhead” in British slang has nothing to do with racial prejudice and instead relates to a subculture of working-class young Londoners.]

There was always an affinity between ska, skinheads and football. So we got some of that. Not as much as some of the other groups because we consciously got ourselves a beat girl as our logo in order to try to control and contain the number of fights at concerts because the other 2 Tone bands had a lot of fights, which I didn’t really fancy when I first started. I said I could stay home and watch the boxing. Then we got the Beat girl as our logo and all of a sudden the skinheads stopped fighting. I was like, ‘duh’ (laughs). What happens if you put 500 skinheads in a room with a bar? But you put a few skinhead girls in there and they are too busy showing up for the ladies to want to punch each other in the nose. And it works tremendously and the other 2 Tone bands are jealous: ‘how come you don’t have any fights at your gigs!?’ In fact, the Specials’ shows and a few of the others ideteriorated into fights that I think that made them want to pack it in at the end. Because they had witnessed the opposite of what we were seeing at theirs.

What is that logo based on anyway?

Well, it was a photograph, If you look on the Englishbeat.net, you will see the original photograph of Prince Buster, the famous ska artist of the 60s, dancing with a woman next to a jukebox. We used her as the start of the idea. She morphed a few times. She changed weight a few times. But that was the original Beat girl. We purposely made it that. You couldn’t really tell if she was black, white or Asian. We wanted a kind of one size fits all. Just a girl having fun. It was part of our multicultural drive. We wanted a logo that a lot of people could identify in England and America equally.

It’s a beautiful collection, this box set.

They did a terrific job, the people at Shout Factory. They did it as fans as much as anything else and because of that they knew what tracks have been hard to get at over the years and what sounds people within the fans have talked about. They did a terrific job and they were very inclusive about it. They got all their stuff together, did a lot of homework. Then presented us with quite a lot of different options so that we can be involved without having to start from scratch. In fact, it worked out so well, there were more arguments about the liner notes than there was about the music. We took more time picking the photographs (laughs).

Did you ever record any of those flexi disks that were big back in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s?

Yes, I believe there was [sic] a couple of them. They put them in Smash Hits magazine. I don’t think it was anything that hadn’t come out in another form. There was [sic] a couple tracks from a radio station that I wanted to try and include but we couldn’t find the master of them, so we are going to continue to search and maybe at a later date we will try and find them. But there was [sic] a couple of songs that [we] had as demos and we tried them on a radio session that never ended up being on an album. There was a really nice version of “Night and Day” that we did. I think that was 1980; I sang it very well, but we couldn’t find the master of it anywhere. The radio session had been split up into individual songs at the BBC for different DJs to play. And we never located the master or the mix of it, just the cassette. So it was an old cassette. So we tried to cue it up, [but] we couldn’t get the quality up. Sadly, in the end, we decided that there was no point in having a rarity in there if it wasn’t pleasant to listen to by the time you get the finished thing onto discs. We’ll keep searching. One of the nice things about this whole process was it forced us to go back on the master tapes and check on their health. A lot of them were starting to shed if they were on analogue tapes and a lot of had been recorded on the first digital systems to come out, which was a 3M system. Which kind of ended up to be the Betamax, you know it never really made it. So we had to take the tapes to France where there was one 3M machine still operating. So we had to take them there and get them transferred to another format. At least now as part of the process of doing the box set, we have all the masters preserved and if we hadn’t gone through that process in another few years we may have lost some of those songs forever.

Continue reading the rest of the story on PopMatters