Friday, October 20 , 2017, 10:17 pm | Fair 60º


Michele Cohen: Dave Wakeling Still Singing with Upbeat Energy

Venerable English Beat fueled by a Street Team of fans spreading the word

If there’s one thing English Beat front man Dave Wakeling knows, it’s his fans.

“I can always tell when it’s about 20 till or a quarter till the hour because people will start looking at their watches and deciding how much more they’ll need to pay the babysitter,” he joked.

Dave Wakeling and his signature teardrop guitar.
Dave Wakeling and his signature teardrop guitar. (Michele Cohen / Noozhawk photo)

The quintessential ska band English Beat, known for its message of peace and racial unity, was born in the United Kingdom, but has been based in Los Angeles for more than 20 years. After a long break, Wakeling (who also formed General Public in the mid-1980s) reformed the band and it has been touring nationwide for the past three years, playing to clubs full of forty-somethings who still know all the words to all the songs and still dance like they are 16.

A club-packing band that hasn’t released any new music in two decades is interesting enough, but the real story lies in how English Beat does it — by utilizing those fans Wakeling knows so well. Via Facebook and MySpace, the band invites fans to join the English Beat Street Team. Members hang posters and tell their friends about upcoming shows in exchange for free tickets and an invitation to the sound check.

After a recent sound check in Charlotte, N.C., Wakeling talked about the band’s Street Team success, the enduring quality of his lyrics, and building the next generation of Beat fans.

Michele Cohen: What got you going as far as fan involvement and the Street Teams and the social networking?

Dave Wakeling: It came about in a very interesting way. We’d go to do a show and be outside the venue and some guy would walk by and say, “Oh, you’re playing. I didn’t know. You’re my favorite group. When did you get back together?” And I’d say, “Well, this is the third time we’ve played here in two and a half years.” And he’d say “I had no idea.” And I realized to a lot of our fans, particularly, they don’t use the regular media to see what bands are on. It’s become quite personal, people dovetail their own information sources, so we thought “We’ve got to try and find out how to get the information to where they actually are.” So, we hit upon this idea of a Street Team to go hang flyers wherever Beat fans are hanging, and it’s had an amazing effect. It’s had a bigger effect than the regular advertising. More people tell us about hearing about the shows via the Street Team than any other way. It’s worked out really nicely. We get to meet people at each show and find out more about towns.

MC: Are you getting big groups of people? Does it vary by location?

DW: It varies enormously. And it’s funny ... in San Francisco, we’re still waiting for our first one. We have huge crowds in San Francisco, but we haven’t attracted a Street-Teamer yet. Then we went to Burlington, Vt., and I think half the audience was on the Street Team. It’s been great for the band as well, because it gives you a chance to meet a bunch of fans — not just fans, but people actively involved in helping with the show. It gives you a chance to talk with them in the afternoon, which is better than meeting fans at the end of the night when everyone’s had a few drinks. No one can really remember what was said. So it’s been really quite good in terms of not just social networking, but social research as well — the demographics, what else do they do, etc. We’ve found out quite a lot about people.

MC: Do you feel like you’re bringing in younger fans?

DW: We have a ton of younger fans. They’re probably the single most enthusiastic set.

MC: Well, you’re speaking their language.

DW: Yes. One chap, who is 13, got his dad involved and took video while he was out sticking up posters everywhere. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an all-ages show, so we had him stand on the side of the stage by the soundboard. He was on the crew. He was the assistant soundman.

MC: Are you surprised at all the people screaming your lyrics back at you, that we all still know the words?

Dave Wakeling and Wayne Lothian keep up the English Beat.
Dave Wakeling and Wayne Lothian keep up the English Beat. (Michele Cohen / Noozhawk photo)

DW: It still amazes me. Last night (in Atlanta) someone sang “Twist ‘n’ Crawl” word for word. I can only just remember the words myself! Some people know all the words to all of our songs, which is stunning. It’s probably the greatest compliment they can give, really.

MC: Are you surprised at the timelessness of your music?

DW: Well, you write them (songs) to try and sort out problems you’re going through. You don’t even know that anybody else is going to hear it. So, the fact that it resonated with somebody else 20-odd years ago to the point where they’re still fond of it, it really is the greatest compliment a troubadour can have. There’s lot of great stuff out there, so you really can’t beat someone saying that your lyrics meant so much to them for 30 years. It always floors me, actually.

MC: What is your go-to music, what do you listen to?

DW: Oh, I listen to the same record all the time: Heart of the Congos by The Congos. It’s my favorite reggae record. It was produced by Lee Perry, and they say it was one of Lee Perry’s three finest works ever. So, I just put that record on and whatever it is that was bothering me, it’s gone by the time that record’s done.

MC: Do you listen to your own?

DW: Heck, no.

MC: Some people do and some people don’t ...

DW: I read early on that Keith Richards said that the Rolling Stones had stayed together all these years because he’d never listened to a record; as soon as one comes on, he walks out of the room to make sure he doesn’t listen to it.

(Michele Cohen video)

MC: So, as a musician, how have you changed over the years?

DW: I don’t drink, that’s the main change. That changed things a lot! I’ve done about a 180. I pace myself. That hour and a half on stage is the single most important part of the day now, whereas after the show used to be as important. It was like the concert was a little a bit of noise in the evening you had to get over and get on with the rest of the day. That’s the blessing and the curse of being 54 — you have to corral your energies. It’s actually better.

MC: It certainly shows. I e-mailed a friend of mine the video of you singing “Ackee 123” at the Carrboro show last year, and she said, “They should be called the Upbeat. They look like they’re having so much fun”. And that’s what I tell everybody.

DW: It’s interesting that you hit that word “upbeat,” because that reggae or ska beat came from the Caribbean and we always perceive it as a very jolly, happy beat, but I’m sure it came out, at the time, as their music of survival. It wasn’t because everything was happy, happy, jolly, it was a way of cheering yourself up because of quite severe deprivation probably. And so that’s why it always has that effect on people; it just lifts your spirits. I don’t think it comes from a happy place, I think it comes from a ...

MC: Try-to-get-happy place ...

DW: That’s right ... trying to survive, and that’s what gives it its real staying power.

MC: What’s your favorite song?

DW: “Save it for Later” is still my favorite because it’s so easy to play and it’s hypnotic and it always works terrifically on the crowd. And I wrote it when I was a teenager, so I have a very special affinity toward it. It was my “trying to grow up” song. And I still sing it! On that happy note ... (Wakeling heads to the tour bus.)

Catch the English Beat at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club, 1221 State St. Admission is $20, $15 with dinner.

Interested in meeting the band? Join the English Beat Street Team by e-mailing .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). You’ll be asked to hang posters at your favorite places and take pictures of yourself doing it, and in return you’ll receive an invitation to the sound check and a free ticket to the show.

— Former Santa Barbara resident Michele Cohen is a freelance writer in Cary, N.C.

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