From Tears to Smiles

Dave Wakeling's career came full circle as his guitar was pried from his hands for a display in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

In 1979, when Wakeling started a reggae/punk/ska band in Birmingham, England, called the Beat—better known to Yanks as the English Beat—he was trying to take a guitar sound like the Velvet Underground's Sterling Morrison's and mix it with a Jamaican backbeat.

When Wakeling originally gave his Vox Teardrop guitar, the one on which he wrote the hit single “Save It for Later,” to the Hall of Fame, it was only for two years. But when he saw it sitting next to Morrison's guitar in the Hall, he realized that the time may have come to let it go for good. “I had never talked about that in interviews or anything,” the wry 51-year-old says about the origin of his sound. “It was really spooky. It had just been meant to happen, I suppose.”

Though his instrument has been enshrined, “It's like not doing your homework and acing the quiz,” Wakeling says. There are still some songs from the English Beat's classic first album, 1980's I Just Can't Stop It, he claims he hasn't mastered. That causes problems when fans plead for songs not on the set list, especially since Wakeling is the only original member touring with this incarnation of the English Beat.

The challenge came at the same time Wakeling became interested in a new nonprofit organization, Smile Train. The cause offered a chance to continue his lifelong commitment to social advocacy. Smile Train teaches surgeons in Third World countries to operate on children born with cleft palates. Now when Beat trivia buffs yell out infectious pop/ska gems such as “Hands Off . . . She's Mine” or “Click Click,” Wakeling, once an aspiring Buddhist, dances for dollars to help children grin. The first time, it went so well Wakeling sang atop a bed of crumpled money. Most of Wakeling's shows now sponsor a smile.

Wakeling is no stranger to sociopolitical activism. The Beat formed at a time rife with social upheaval, high unemployment, racial tension and the growing political power of the right-wing National Front. The second-wave ska movement happened in part due to a second generation of Jamaican immigrants assimilating into British culture. The Beat's record label, 2 Tone, took its name from a movement toward racial integration.

Wakeling's activism continued after the breakup of the English Beat and General Public, his and toaster Ranking Roger's follow-up band. Wakeling went to work for Greenpeace—not as an entertainer, but as an employee.

After a while, though, “I had to go in a new direction,” Wakeling says of the much-needed kick in the ass he received from fellow Brit rocker Elvis Costello, who implored him to return to music. He put out another album with General Public and later performed again as Dave Wakeling N the English Beat. “I'm a bit past the arrogant, young-man stage, railing against the establishment. The establishment deserves railing against, but . . .”

Wakeling is drawn to California's eternally enthusiastic crowds. From the stage, he marvels at hordes of people aged 16 to 60 dancing and wearing porkpie hats, oblivious to anything but the beat.

Ex-Specials guitarist Lynval Golding occasionally sits in with the reincarnated version of the English Beat. The two second-wave old-timers often play alongside new ska bands, feeding off the younger skankers' frenetic energy. During a recent show, Golding dropped some knowledge on Wakeling. “This is so weird,” Golding said. “We started out trying to bring together the races, and we ended up bringing together the ages.”


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