Dave Wakeling is a founding member of The English Beat, known outside of America as The Beat. Any legit Ska playlist will include their songs: "Mirror In The Bathroom," "Save It For Later," "I Confess." Dave tells the stories behind these songs, and explains why it's our weaknesses that unite us.
Carl Wiser (Songfacts): How do you typically write?
Dave Wakeling: The lyrics - I have to just build up a head of steam, and either some kind of intense emotion, either great happiness or great sadness, something. They often come to me in a big wedge, as if it's been delivered from somewhere else. But I think what happens is that you just put yourself in a situation so you're somehow in the middle of the flow. You're in the middle of the river rather than dragging on the wave at the edges. And quite often the nucleus of the song, the hook line and the primary points I'm trying to make for those couple of rhyming couplets, they'll all arrive in a very quick amount of time.
That's why I say, sometimes it feels like it's being delivered. But then once you realize the gift you just got, it's a matter of, Okay, now what do you want to do with it? What points do you want to make? And then often it can take months. And I don't rush it, I just wait until stuff pops: like Wow! There you go. That's it. So I just ponder all the issues around it and let my self-conscious deliver suggested rhyming couplets as the weeks go on.
Songfacts: So you would write most of the lyrics?
Wakeling: Yeah. And I would agonize over them. I could sit up all night staring at the lyrics trying to figure out whether something should be sung as a colon or a semicolon.
Songfacts: But it sounds like you don't get your inspiration from waking up and sitting down at a desk and thinking, I'm gonna write a song.
Wakeling: No. I have done it a couple of times with other songwriters, and I've found it very exciting and very freeing, because in those situations, you're just writing a song from a point of view of poetry. But most often I write my own songs from a point of view of feeling really strongly about something. Something has to be very heartfelt and I have to be moved to the point where sometimes I'm shaking a bit with it.
Songfacts: What's an example of one of those songs that you felt very heartfelt and almost shaking that you wrote?
Wakeling: Well, actually, most of them. "Tenderness" was very much like that (This was a hit for General Public, a group Dave formed with Ranking Roger after The English Beat). A lot of it, in writing a song, it's like you're searching for some answers. And you've got maybe this first rhyming couplet that's come up, and that's fired up your imagination. And it sparks off a series of questions about your own life, so you start pondering it. And so there's a lot of sort of self-analysis that goes on: What do you think about this, then? What do other people think about it? By the time you get to the end of the song, sometimes you've figured out that rigor, at least in your own mind, and then you play it to people and find out if it connects.
My notion of it was that you have to find something really personal, and you have to try and find a way to express it that is as universal as possible. I also have the notion that where we connect the most is in our confessed weaknesses, not in our comparative strengths. So the songs will have a bit of a nod and a wink in them: anybody ever mess up like this? And you feel it come back from the crowd, "Oh, my God, I've done that." So I suppose the basic elements of our humanity is our own sense of foibles.
Songfacts: Well, "Tenderness" was one of those songs that definitely touched an audience. And there are some really interesting lyrics in there. For instance, when you're whistling in the graveyard calling up to your girlfriend, where would that come from?
Wakeling: It was a phrase of my father's when I would disagree with him and try to stand up to him as I was growing old. He'd be like, "You're just whistling in the graveyard." So it was like he was accusing me of a false sense of courage, like I was trying to act more bravely. I think the phrase was actually whistling past the graveyard. He said it to me as, "Oh, you're just whistling in the graveyard." I actually stick quite a lot of my dad's little phrases and witticisms in songs. And I suppose in Birmingham they had a sort of colloquial history that most people's dads would have said to them. But it was trying to build up a false sense of courage and call up your girlfriend, knowing whatever it was that she was going to catch you at because you weren't telling the truth.
Songfacts: That's great. One thing I notice is that sometimes English sayings put into songs do very well in America. There's this Steve Winwood song, "While You See a Chance you take it."
Songfacts: And the next line, which I was always fascinated by, is "find romance, fake it." And nobody in America knew what that meant. I talked to the guy who wrote it (Will Jennings), and he said, "Yeah, it comes from a saying called fake it till you make it."
Wakeling: Fake it till you make it. If you have confidence, somebody might believe it.
Songfacts: Did "Tenderness" start as an English Beat song?
Wakeling: Yes, it did. It started being written during that time. We tried to get rehearsals set, and it was one of the reasons that we knew that The Beat had really come to its end: where I was before, everything had gone very smoothly and magically without even trying. It was now almost nigh impossible to get rehearsals together. Somebody would have something to do in the morning, so they couldn't be there until 2, and somebody else has got to leave at 2:30 because they've got a meeting to go at 3, and they couldn't do Thursday, what about next week? And on and on and on. And it was hard for us to get anything done. I think we managed two rehearsals, perhaps, for that third album.
Songfacts: So in a way is "Tenderness" about your experience with the English Beat?
Wakeling: No, not really. I used to like traveling with the trucks that carried the gear. I'd always been a big fan of that TV show Cannonball when I was a kid, and thought that the idea of American trucks was very romantic. So when we came on tour, I used to love to drive overnight with the truck drivers and talk rubbish on the CB in there. And so it was as if the trucks were driving in what's called "the endless gray river." And the notion was that you were driving around in there in America searching for the tenderness, whereas, of course, it's in your heart all the time. So it's like you're looking in the outside world for something that can only be discovered in yourself, because love is a verb, not a noun. That was the notion of it.
But also there was a darker side to the song, because it came out in that period of AIDS, fear of AIDS. Nobody really knew much about it, and everybody was all of a sudden terrified to touch a door handle. Being a terrific hypochondriac, and everybody was always having colds on the road on tour, it's like any time anybody sneezed, I was like, could that be AIDS? So it was to do with that, but in sort of non-obvious way.
The English Beat released just three albums, but covered a variety of styles and subjects in that short time. Here, Dave explains why the "neck down" jobs can be great for songwriting, and how an uncomfortable triangle inspired one of their classics. And if it sounds like Dave is singing something naughty on "Save It For Later," that's because he is.
Songfacts: Could you tell me a little bit about "Mirror in the Bathroom"?
Wakeling: Yeah. I was working in construction at the time, and it was the winter, I had forgotten to hang my jeans up to dry overnight, so when I got into the bathroom to shower up, I noticed my jeans were still on the floor, soaking wet, covered in sand. So I hung them up thinking well, it's probably best to have them steaming hot and wet. I went to shave, and it was snowing, and I really, really didn't want to go. So I started talking to myself in the mirror as I was shaving up. And it was weird, because I looked deeper in the mirror, and I could see the little caption on the door behind, and I said to myself, Look, David, there's just me and you in here. The door's locked. We don't have to go to work.
Of course we did. Got on the motorbike, and I just started pondering as I skated my way to the construction site on this motorbike. And that's how it started. It was thinking about how self-involvement turns into narcissism and how narcissism turns into isolation, and then how isolation turns into self-involvement again, and how what a vicious cycle that can become. So then I just started thinking about different situations where people would ostensibly look like they were doing something, but in fact they were checking their own reflection out. And you'd see it perhaps on Saturday afternoon with people window shopping, half the time they're actually just looking at their own reflection. Then this restaurant opened, and it was a big deal at the time because it had glass tables, and I was like, oh, you can watch yourself.
Then, in America in the early '80s, everybody gave me knowing winks and said, "Oh, I know what that one's about, then, Dave." And it wasn't that mirror in the bathroom at all, it was the one on the wall, and not the one on your knee. And oddly, songs can become sort of strangely prophetic, though. But certainly at the time of writing, nobody had any money or any access to cocaine... until after the song was out.
Songfacts: No wonder people got confused.
Wakeling: I know.
Songfacts: It sounds like you're not like Bruce Springsteen, who has just made music his whole life. You've actually had some real jobs before you became a full-time musician.
Wakeling: I was a firefighter for a couple of years. But I used to like working construction because it was called a "neck-down" job, what we call it in England. Clock on, switch off. They could have the use of your muscles below your neck for the eight-hour shift. But quite a lot of the lyrics, at first we tell them, we wrote over that snowy winter.
Songfacts: Were you in the band, or were you making music while you were working this job?
Wakeling: Yeah, they kind of overlapped a little bit. It got to be very tough work, because you'd get home from the site and then go off and do a gig, and sometimes when it was out of town you wouldn't be back till the sun was coming up and you'd get home and get on the motorbike and go to the site. It became too much in the end.
I was the only English kid on the squad. And I said to my foreman, "I won't be coming in." And he said, "Oh, Jesus. Well, fuck you, then." He says, "I'll see you tomorrow." I said, "No, no, you can't. I won't be coming in." And that was it. The last day of my construction career. I took a break during the early '90s and I worked full-time for Greenpeace.
Songfacts: That's an interesting kind of a job direction there.
Wakeling: It had always been an ambition of mine. To be honest, I wanted to be three things; I wanted to be in a pop group, I wanted to work for Greenpeace, and I wanted to be a Buddhist monk. And those were the only three things I really wanted to do when I was 18. And so I needed to pass a good few years of IRS records, I needed a soul cleansing. And this opportunity came up with Greenpeace, and the timing of it was so magical, I loved it and stayed there for five years working special projects and everything with liaisons in the entertainment industry. I got to be executive producer of the solar power live album called Alternative Energy, which was a fundraiser and all about the issues of global warming and climate change, which are very difficult for Greenpeace to get hard news all of the time, because there was a lot of money invested in saying the science wasn't real, it was an unproven theory.
Songfacts: And then you still haven't become a Buddhist monk, huh?
Wakeling: I haven't. I say my prayers every day, and I find it probably more helpful than anything else in keeping a sense of humor, a sense of irony, and a slight sense of detachment. I don't go skinning like I used to. And sometimes it helps when things are difficult or painful, to be able to just sit in it instead of looking for an escape away from it. They say that when we get in trouble, that it's actually a sign that we're just about to learn something very important to us, if we can sit in it.
Songfacts: One of the harder things is just sitting there quieting the mind.
Wakeling: Well, it's impossible, especially with a jackhammer mind like mine.
Songfacts: There's what's called a Dharma Center in Vermont where if you don't want to go all the way to Asia, it's a good way to get a little Buddhism.
Wakeling: Yeah, I've always fancied going on one of those ten-day retreats. I'm told they're very challenging. But I very rarely get ten days off from work, and I've always felt a bit guilty disappearing and leaving the family, if they've only just seen me coming back off tour or whatever. So I still haven't managed it, but I always think I will one day. At the moment I try and convince myself that I'm doing a kind of Dharma yoga. You know, I'm trying to spread good feelings with my concerts. Trying to uplift people's spirits a bit and remind people you can still have a bit of fun with a sense of irony and although life's tragic, so be it.
Songfacts: How about the song "I Confess." Can you tell me about that?
Wakeling: Well, like a mixture of my songs, they would have an element in it that was autobiographical, which would often be very, very deep. And it would borrow from stuff I'd read in magazines and seen on the news, or overheard. I used to love listening to people's conversations on buses. And in order, I suppose, to make it appear more confessional and more personal, I would often mess with which person it was written, whether it was I, or he, or she.
"I Confess" was only partly autobiographical. A lot of other references point to a story I'd seen in a magazine about how a guy screwed his wife's sister on their wedding night. That was taking it a bit far. But it made me think of how people can get very sorry for themselves in any sort of situation regardless of their own actions. And so two things in it that were really personal for me was that I found that I ruined three lives, but didn't care, till I found out that one of them was mine. And the second thing was, I noticed in my own life and in the young friends' love affairs that were going on, that when things started to go wrong in them, the argument was often about who loved each other the most, and the accusation was that the other person didn't love as much as you did. And so it seemed to me that the hardest confession to make in those sort of situations were they were right, you didn't actually care very much. And so really the deepest of the confessions for me in that song was if it's all the same to you, I'll stay indifferent.
Songfacts: Like you said, you ruined three lives. So that is really how you feel.
Wakeling: Well, it can be whenever you get caught in some sort of uncomfortable triangle.
Songfacts: And this did happen to you?
Wakeling: Yeah. (laughs) And not just once. But yes, it happened once to the point where it reminded me of this story I'd seen in a magazine, so I mixed the plight of this guy in the magazine who had been caught having sex with his new bride's sister on their wedding day. "No, no, you don't understand, it's not what it said." "Yes, it is." And I mixed that with my own tawdry tales of young love.
Songfacts: Oh, my goodness.
Wakeling: But often in order to make a point harder I would switch the stories around. Like in the song "Best Friend," I'm actually singing it to myself in the same mirror that "Mirror In The Bathroom" was written in. It was actually my sister's bathroom in Birmingham. But I kept that mirror for a long time, eventually lost it. But "Best Friend" was singing a song to a reflection, you know, I just found I'm your best friend – you.
Songfacts: How about the song "Save It For Later"?
Wakeling: "Save It For Later" is funny, because it's not really about anything - I wrote it when I was a teenager. I wrote it before The Beat started. And it was about turning from a teenager to someone in their 20s, and realizing that the effortless promise for your teenage years was not necessarily going to show that life was so simple as you started to grow up. So it was about being lost, about not really knowing your role in the world, trying to find your place in the world. The actual hook line itself was just a dirty joke, I just thought it was hilarious that you could get in a song: "save it – comma – for later – F-E-double L-A-T-O-R."
Songfacts: Oh, so it's fellatio.
Wakeling: (laughs) So I thought it'd be really neat to get that in a song and everybody would be singing it. I didn't know it was going to be a joke that lasted for 30 years. So, you couldn't find your own way in the world, and you'd have all sorts of people telling you this, that, and the other, and advising you, and it didn't actually seem like they knew any better. So it was like keep your advice to yourself. Save it – for later.
Songfacts: In the song "Jeanette," is she a real person?
Wakeling: It was an archetype, but there was somebody, evidently her name was Jeanette. It wasn't a friend of mine, but a friend of somebody else's in the group who did have a Ronettes' style haircut, like a big beehive hairdo. And she was the initial inspiration for the song. But then it sort of got written about an archetype, I suppose. Sort of a rich girl that might want to hang around musicians. Like a trustafarian or something.
Songfacts: Your song "Twist And Crawl," could you tell me about that one?
Wakeling: Well, not really. Because I didn't write the lyrics too much to that one. I filled out the lyrics, but it was actually a friend of David Steele's, the bass player, Peter Greenall, wrote the lyrics to it. We sat and talked a bit once and he showed me the poem. I filled in the song and made it scan a bit more, and I wrote the changes in sort of middle 8 breaks and stuff like that.
It was about somebody wanting to be in the twist and shout kind of casual '60s confidence, but found that it was more like twist and crawl. Just social discomfort to the point of pitiful pain of always feeling you're in the wrong place at the wrong time and saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Never getting anywhere with it, you know.
Songfacts: Well, that sounds similar to the theme of "Too Nice To Talk To."
Wakeling: Yes, that was exactly "Too Nice To Talk To." There was a club called Barbarella's in Birmingham that was quite famous. And they used to have this dastardly trick at 20 past 2 every morning, because they closed at 2:30, it didn't matter what was happening, whatever record was playing, they would just scratch the record off and turn on the lights. And it was like (screeching sounds), "Okay, thank you, good night." And you'd be in the middle of some delightful fantasy dancing with somebody. They used to play a lot of Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music in there, very romantic. And a lot of punk songs, too. And so it was a story really about wanting to go and dance with somebody and just spending too long, and going over in your mind what you would say, or what you ought to say, or having your friends going, "Go on, go and talk to her."
And you waited that long for it, you took a big breath and strode towards the dance floor, all the lights in the club went on and the record got scratched up (screeching sound), "Okay, thank you, good night." Oh, it's too late now, it's 20 past 2, I've spent all night just watching you. But yeah, it's to do with that shyness to the point of discomfort. And then finally making the bold move just a moment too late.
Songfacts: And you do have one very political song, which is "Stand Down Margaret."
Songfacts: A lot of Americans don't really know what was going on there, could you give us a bit of an idea of what you were dealing with?
Wakeling: The late '70s in England were troubled times: high unemployment, secession, the fear of nuclear war breaking out, the kind of fantasy end-of-the-century, end-of-the-world kind of feeling. And Margaret Thatcher came on, kind of like the last great hope of the British Empire. She'd actually been born above a grocery store in Nottingham, a working class city. But had developed airs and graces and a posh accent and kind of saw herself as being of the upper classes, which she wasn't.
So it was sort of a false accent, and a false attitude that went with it. Then she fell head over heels with her teenage heartthrob, Ronald Reagan, and went about trying to dismantle any sense of social unity that England had: breaking the unions, letting people go out on strike and starve. And in a very few short years she managed to turn people in England from neighbors to competitors. A lot of people bought shares in the gas company and the train company and the water company, bought shares in the companies that our dads had already paid for. And in doing so turned everybody into competitors - instead of neighbors now we were competing as investors, jealously guarding our shares.
Our people stopped talking to each other at bus stops. People started to become more suspicious of each other. And the sense of camaraderie was broken in a way that I haven't ever seen fully replaced, really. It may have been that Britain needed dragging into the 21st Century, but it may also be that making the mistake of believing that just because communism was obviously collapsing, that didn't mean that all of the tenets of world capitalism were absolutely accurate. That there was perhaps stuff in our system that weren't that great, either. And I think they're starting to see that it's okay for someone to make a billion dollars, but if they do, somebody else has to go without dinner that night, because that money comes from somewhere.
And so the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, and poor old Margaret was acting as though she had airs and graces to the manor born. So it was stand down in the political sense – resign. But it was also stand down as in get off your soap box. Get off your high horse. Stop trying to talk down to people. You don't really know that much more than them, anyway. And stop putting on this hoity toity accent, because you know you're really a shop girl from Nottingham.
Songfacts: Well, the whole theme of unity and getting together, that seems to show up in your song "Doors Of Your Heart."
Wakeling: Yeah. Everybody needs someone they can cling to now and then, no more defense, no more pretense, no reason to explain you can feel love thumping at the doors of your heart. I try sometimes to stop pretending everything's okay and be isolated, and actually enjoy the fact that we are all one, that what's good for one of us is good for all of us, and what's bad for one of us is bad for all of us. And that whether we like it or not we're all in the same boat. So that was what it was about, really, and how much comfort could be derived from that. Sometimes you can have as many intellectual ideas about something as possible, but when your heart starts bursting through your chest, you get a different sense of reality.
Songfacts: I know the heart versus the brain.
Wakeling: Exactly. And I am trying to get the two of them to co-exist whenever possible.
The first single for The English Beat was an uptempo cover of the Smokey Robinson classic "Tears Of A Clown." It was released on the Chrysalis subsidiary 2-Tone Records, which was started by Jerry Dammers of The Specials. After this single, The English Beat negotiated a deal with Arista records to form their own Go Feet label, which gave them a great deal of creative control.
Songfacts: What gave you guys the idea to cover "Tears Of A Clown"?
Wakeling: When we first started rehearsing the songs, the drummer (Everett Morton) thought our songs were a bit weird. We had rehearsed the songs, and it would go okay for a minute, and then we would all veer off on our own little tangents and we'd lose the groove on it again. And so Everett said, "Why don't we find a song that we all know and learn that one by ourselves, come back next Tuesday, and we'll play that song and get a groove with that one. And then we'll go back and play one of your weird songs, like that mirror thing."
And so that's what we did, we'd play "Tears Of A Clown," then we'd play "Mirror In The Bathroom," then we'd play "Tears Of A Clown." We'd play "Twist And Crawl," and we'd play "Tears Of A Clown," "Big Shot," "Tears Of A Clown," "Click Click," "Tears Of A Clown." And by the time we got five or six songs together that would hold together, David Steele, the bass player, said, "Let's do a show. We should do a concert." We're like, "We've only got six songs." He said, "Yes, but one concert is worth a thousand rehearsals." Because you can sit around and be pretentious in rehearsals as long as you like. So we started doing shows, and in order to have seven songs instead of six, we put "Tears Of A Clown" in the set. We'd practiced that song more than any of the others, it turned out. Because it was our magnet, our training model for all the other tunes.
We took all and any sort of gigs, some were punk gigs, some were reggae gigs, some were working men's clubs, some were pubs that were trying to get some business going mid-week, we'd take anything. And sometimes the punky songs went well, sometimes the reggae songs went well, and sometimes neither of them would go down well, but everywhere we went, every time, "Tears Of A Clown" always went down fantastic. So Jerry Dammers came to us, told us about 2-Tone and came and saw the band. He said, "Would you like to do a single for 2-Tone," and we said yes, we'd love to, thanks. And he said, "We really liked that 'Mirror In The Bathroom' song." And we said, "That's probably our best song. Yeah, that would be a good one." Then he came back a week or so later and he said, "Oh, Chrysalis says you can do 'Mirror In The Bathroom,' they like it, but they would own the rights to it for five years." We're like, "No." I said, "You know, that's our best tune. We'd want it on our album. But so long as we can bring it out on our album, that would be fine, you can have it as a single." So he went off again and he came back and he said, "No, Chrysalis said if it's the single it can't be on your first album." So we said, "Well, tell them to fuck themselves." and we said, "We'll do 'Tears Of A Clown' then." Because that always goes down great. And you can tell the fellows at Chrysalis they can argue with Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson about whose song it is. And so we just insisted, and as luck would have it, our song came out in October, and by December 6 it was Number 6 in the charts, and it was the runaway dance party hit of the Christmas of '79. It was on every jukebox and every turntable for every Christmas party. So I think it probably worked out really well, because I don't know if "Mirror In The Bathroom" would have been that cheery as a Christmas single.
Songfacts: Probably not.
Wakeling: A British song about isolation and narcissism that will morph into a song about cocaine in the bathroom, you know?
Songfacts: The B-side of "Tears Of A Clown" is a song called "Ranking Full Stop." It's a lot of fun. Could you tell me what "ranking" is, and anything about that song?
Wakeling: Yeah. I can't tell you much about the song, because it's Roger's lyric. But "ranking" is just like in top ranking, or high ranking, you know. It would be the sort of boast or name that an MC, a Master of Ceremonies will toast at a concert he'll give himself. The guy that works with the DJ and talks over the radio and talks over the songs and introduces the band. So that would be where "ranking" Roger came from. It's just like high ranking or top ranking.
Songfacts: But that's a fairly common saying over there?
Wakeling: It's a Jamaican phrase that we use quite a lot in England.
Songfacts: It was always strange to me how Jamaican sayings make their way over to England, the reggae sayings.
Wakeling: Well, it's not that strange, really, because there were hardly any black people in England until the mid-'50s, which I think a lot of American people don't know. My mama tells me she remembers seeing her first black person ever sometime in the 1940s during the War. They were all very excited and followed him down the street, poor buggar. But it wasn't really until after the end of the second World War when the British infrastructure had been devastated with the German bombings, that they invited people from the British colonies and protectorates and commonwealth – British Commonwealth country, they call them – to come and help rebuild the motherland. And the idea was that people would come out for three years, make a load of money, go home, and build themselves a big house in Jamaica. But like anything else, when you travel across the world on some sort of spurious idea like that, people ended up setting roots, people ended up having kids, going to school, you never quite saved enough money to go back and build that big house in Jamaica. But although some people now have some roots that they've re-established in Jamaica, the vast majority of the population ended up staying in England. So that first set of kids of Jam-English people were born in the late '50s, and so about the time I was born, mid- or to late-'50s, you had a whole generation of first generation English born of Jamaican parents who had only been in England for a few years. And the Mods and the Rude Boys on the Jamaican side have seen styles of sharp suits and ties and hats and a slightly dandy-ish approach to stuff. Dressing up is a big thing. And looking smarter and richer than you actually were, you know. It's like a working class way of putting on a brave front dressing sharp. So there was quite a lot of cross pollination between Mods and Rude Boys there towards the middle to late '60s. And that was where I heard my first ska music, the Trojan Tightened Up volumes 1 through 4 that become very popular amongst the Mods, who turned into Suedeheads, the Suedeheads turned into Skinheads. And that early ska/reggae was the favorite music of the skinheads on the soccer terraces. That was where I heard my first reggae was at the soccer games.
Songfacts: The Mods and the Rude Boys, were they necessarily black or white? Or did that even matter?
Wakeling: The Mods were white, in the main part. The Rude Boys were the first English generation born to Jamaican moms and dads who had emigrated to England. So they were the first JamEnglish generation.
Songfacts: That's really interesting. I don't think a lot of people over here know about that stuff.
Wakeling: No. It's always been so convoluted, I think the racial politics of America, they presume that England must have had a very similar racial background to America. But although the good old British Empire helped design and make fortunes out of the slave trade, there weren't any slaves in England. Very few. A handful. But they would be more personal butlers than people who were used in the fields.
Songfacts: So which of the songs that we haven't talked about are some of the ones that you feel are some of your stronger more really intense songs?
Wakeling: We've covered most of the main contenders. "Click Click" is about suicide. About there being five shots in the cylinder. "Click, click, click, click, click, six shots and you've clicked it five times, so you know the next one's a bullet.
Songfacts: What made you write that song?
Wakeling: A rainy afternoon in Birmingham, England when you've just got 15 months of rainy Tuesday afternoons in England. And suicide can seem like a viable alternative, you know. But it was with a sense of irony about it, as well. It was like considering suicide, but not really. Probably not going to do it, but pondering it. And it was funny, because I've had a lot of people tell me, "Do you know how really close I came to killing myself when I was 19 or 20 or 21..." That time when one does consider that sort of thing the most. They say, "It's your song 'Click Click' that put me off the idea." Made me laugh about it a bit."
"Big Shot" was about being stuck at a bus stop trying to go to work, and everybody would be driving by, one person in the car, and enjoying splashing in the puddles so as to soak everybody at the bus stops. So there I was at the bus stop seething. So it's people going after their office jobs, you know.
Songfacts: This was when you were a construction worker?
Wakeling: No, actually this was a little before then. My dad had hooked me up with a great job in a car battery shop that ruined your clothes - every time you touched a battery it burned another hole in your shirt. It was horrible. And it stung, battery acid. Nice people, though. Very nice people. He really wanted me to be in the motor trade. Terribly disappointed.
Songfacts: The last thing I have for you, Dave, I'm wondering how you went from Greenpeace to then leaving Greenpeace to make music again.
Wakeling: Well, it was odd. Stoker, the drummer from General Public, got in touch with me and said that he bumped into Roger and they'd been talking. And would I fancy doing a General Public style thing again? I said, "Oh, that might be fun." And about the same time this guy I knew who put songs in movies, he was just starting at it, but he ended up becoming very big at it and very successful. And he said that he'd got this movie called Threesome that he was looking for music for, and they wanted kind of suggestive songs to go with this soundtrack. He'd got a big long list of songs that we'd thought up, and he actually first approached me, "Would you like to do 'Stuck In The Middle With You,' and I was like, "No. Thanks for the thought. No."
I noticed "I'll Take You There" was on that list. And "I'll Take You There" had always appealed to me as a song, because there was a Harry J & the Allstars instrumental called "Liquidator" about an assassin. And it's the bass line to "I'll Take You There." In fact, it came out in Jamaica and in England two years before "I'll Take You There" came out in America. And "I'll Take You There" is, for all intents and purposes, just the "Liquidator" with lyrics on the top.
And so I thought that would be good, we could do a version of "I'll Take You There" for this movie, and we could try and knock as many pieces of the original "Liquidator" back into the tune and see if anybody dared say anything. And of course because it had been a dirty secret for 30 years, nobody dared mention it now. Even when we said, "Well, actually, there's a lot of this song 'Liquidator' in there, should we mention that in the publishing?" "Nonono, just leave it." And we did. And it went to like #1 on the dance chart, so that was it.
We made an LP then, and toured a little bit for General Public. But it really wasn't to my taste. Some people were living in England, some people living in America, it cost ten thousand dollars to fly everybody together for rehearsal, and the Earth starts being a place twice as big as your hand. We had technicians scurrying around. it was all a bit high-falutin' for me. So after a little while I'd got the bug back in my feet for wanting to tread the boards again, but I wanted to do it in a different way. I started my own 4-piece band and called it Bang. And sort of went back to roots. The Beatles, there was only four of them and they sounded okay, so I did that instead. Bang went on for a couple of years, but so many times I would show up, and they would say, "Tonight: The English Beat, General Public, Bang, and Dave Wakeling," like it was four groups. In the end, I just gave up. I was like all right, fine. English Beat it is. You can't fight against the tide.
Songfacts: Yeah. It's like what Eric Clapton tried to do with Derek and the Dominos. They would show up and it would say, "Eric Clapton, and Derek and the Dominos."
Wakeling: That's right, exactly. I had all sorts of stuff in the contract, you know, if he dares mentioning The Beat or General Public you have to pay me in full and I don't have to play the show. And you get there and it's sold out and there's a line 'round the block, and everybody's really excited. So you just shut up and sing.
Songfacts: I guess that's the lesson. Which of your songs go over particularly well when you play them now?
Wakeling: We do a segue of Ranking Full Stop into Mirror In The Bathroom that always brings the house down. "I Confess" always goes down great, because I think the whole crowd is wondering, will he hit the six falsetto? A couple of the covers, the dirty reggae songs of Prince Buster. "Tenderness" and "Never You Done That" always go down very well. "Hot You're Cool" goes down great if we do it. We end up playing about two hours and 20 minutes a night now. And then we come off stage and somebody, some bright spark, will rattle off the names of eight songs that we haven't done. And we just look at them in disbelief. I suppose it's a compliment if we played 28 songs and you're still bummed about eight that we haven't done, then obviously the cup runs pretty deep.
Songfacts: Yeah. I think you're seeing a lot of guys that are probably now about 40 years old who were playing your records back when they were DJs at college radio, and are so happy to see that they were right, this was a big deal.
Wakeling: Oh, it is. It's a lovely feeling. And I get to meet a lot of them. You know, we played 138 shows last year (2007), most of them were sold out. We do three or four different new songs every night as we build up a collection of songs that will be on our next record of some sort. We have some new songs, some live songs, some acoustic songs, some studio modern remakes of old classics.
We spoke with Dave Wakeling on March 1, 2008. Learn more at davewakeling.com.