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Although his accent lingers, English Beat leader Dave Wakeling has been based in California for more than 20 years. “I’m a dude,” says the native Brit with a laugh. A former resident of Dana Point and Malibu, Wakeling now lives in Pacific Palisades, where he’s still writing English Beat songs three decades after the band’s formation. He first came to California to record an album, when, as he puts it, “the charm of the place just took me over.”
Not exactly absent charm himself, Wakeling lives up to his reputation as a genuinely nice guy—friendly, relaxed, brimming with elegant witticisms. It’s not far off from his songwriting, which yielded a handful of influential albums and breezy singles in the ’80s. So canonized that he donated his trademark teardrop-shaped guitar to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Wakeling was the front man for the English Beat as well as the subsequent U.K. supergroup General Public. From the former’s ska-forged pop to the latter’s bubbly soul, Wakeling’s airy croon was a reliable constant.
The current incarnation of the English Beat aren’t to be confused with the Beat, a version helmed by some of Wakeling’s former bandmates in the U.K. (The original band were known as the Beat in England and the English Beat here.) After a 2003 reunion of nearly all of the original lineup in London, each continent’s current version of the band have continued touring. The California-based English Beat, who include onetime General Public bassist Wayne Lothian, also play a few General Public songs.
Reunion tours are standard fare today, but more interesting is the fact that Wakeling has been writing new songs for the past three years. He wrote them without expectations; many were penned on his own or with Lothian, while a few were collaborations with Rick Torres, formerly of Supreme Beings of Leisure. Wakeling and the band have demoed 17 of those songs for an English Beat album, despite talk of it being a dying art form. “The traditional ’80s person in me said it’s time to make an album,” he deadpans. “Poor timing, perhaps, but we’ll soldier on.”
So how do the new tunes compare to the English Beat’s classics? “They’re a mishmash, so they’re of a piece in that respect,” he explains. “They run the gamut. There are ballads, some straightforward punk, a few medium-tempo soul types, and a couple that shock me because they sound just like the first Beat record. I’ve even written my first waltz, which I think must be a turning point in any man’s life.”
Humor aside, it’s refreshing to see Wakeling isn’t lusting after fame. He accomplished so much so early in his career, and he has always tempered his work with an active hand in charity. The English Beat donated all their profits for the single “Stand Down Margaret” to the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament, as well as donating music to various causes and charity compilations. In 1998, General Public played the benefit concert Sweet Relief. Wakeling even worked full-time for Greenpeace in between stints with his two bands, and after the recent earthquake in Haiti, he organized benefit shows.
“I think it was the way I rationalized the undue amount of spotlight you get when you’re the singer in a pop group,” he says of his philanthropic streak. Funnily enough, Elvis Costello once chided Wakeling in front of his Greenpeace co-workers for abandoning music to “save the planet.” Not long after, Wakeling agreed to re-form General Public to contribute a song to the 1994 movie Threesome. That song, a celebratory version of the Staples Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” reached the top of the U.S dance charts.
It wasn’t the first time Wakeling found success with a cover. The English Beat broke into the U.K. Top 10 with takes on both Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown” and the Andy Williams hit “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.” In turn, his own songs have been adopted at one time or another by Elvis Costello, Eddie Vedder and Pete Townshend. When asked about his place in that lineage of songwriting, however, Wakeling is humble.
“It’s fantastic,” he beams. “And when someone tells you they’ve been enjoying a song or lyric for 25 years, that takes your breath away, too. Most of the time, you only write to cheer yourself up. That it turned out to be useful to anyone else is remarkable.”
The English Beat perform with Laughing Stalk and Darling Nikki at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 957-0600; www.galaxytheatre.com. Fri., 8 p.m. $20.
This article appeared in print as "Hasn’t Missed a Beat: Whether for charity or just for fun, Dave Wakeling has kept his version of the English Beat in rhythm."