It is not every day an international music legend gets a second chance at making a first impression on the ever-changing landscape of popular music. And yet for Dave Wakeling, that is precisely what he is getting in 2015.
After three decades, The English Beat is releasing a new album.
It has been nearly 33 years since Wakeling, the founder, singer and main songwriter of The English Beat, recorded the last of three albums that put them on the international music map.
Wakeling's lyrics protested the faltering Thatcher-era economics, but did so with an undeniably catchy dance beat.
The modern-day ska classics, I Just Can't Stop It (1981), Wha'ppen (1981), and Special Beat Service (1982), helped set the tone for the taking-a-stance-that-lets-you-dance mentality. Unfortunately, the group would prematurely disband in 1983.
Now, three decades later, Wakeling and his Americanized version of the English Beat are on the verge of releasing a new album that has been in the works for more than a decade, but one its founder hopes will pick up where his original band left off.
"It's very exciting, and it's kind of completing a circle for me," offers up Wakeling in his trademark thick, yet clear, Birmingham voice. "I'm walking to the studio I can't help but hearing myself say, 'Don't miss it, don't miss it. Try not to mess this one up.'
"It's a combination of a great studio and great musicians and tracks that are fitting together, and you get excited playing them. Your head is just a mass of interlocking notes."
But don't let Wakeling fool you, he has methodically mapped out the timing of a new album with a grass roots movement-style of tireless touring, playing for the old-school fans, and gaining new ones along the way all over the country, and even back in the UK.
"It's a 'troubadour's meanderings,' I think it's called," Wakeling explains. "There is a method to the madness, though, you know? It is been really a five-year racket that turned into a seven-year venture. I started playing outside of California after my kids had grown up."
"We can drive 200 to 300 miles anywhere in America and see friends once or twice a year, and we look forward to it. It's not only been great fun doing that, but we have gotten to play some new songs. ... Those people who have listened to your music for a long time are really quite frank about what they like, and that's been quite an education."
It was in 1978, As lead singer-songwriter, Wakeling and the English Beat helped introduce the world to the aptly-titled Two Tone label sound of second wave ska bands, which would include the likes of Madness, The Specials, Bad Manners, The Selecter and all-girls group, The Bodysnatchers.
Inspired by the immortal Trojan Record original ska greats of the '60s, Prince Buster, Desmond Dekker, Fred "Toots" Hibbert, and early Bob Marley from the West Indies and Jamaica, Wakeling and mates emulated and yet quickened the beat of their predecessors.
Wakeling, along with energetic toaster Ranking Roger, guitarist Andy Cox, bass player David Steele, drummer Everett Morton and legendary saxophone player Saxa combined tongue-in-cheek lyrics that spoke out on issues of racism, economic hard times and the fear of nuclear war, with a beat that was infectious, entertaining and uplifting for band and fans, alike.
With hits like "Mirror in a Bathroom," "Hands Off, She's Mine," "Whine & Grind/Stand Down Margaret," "Too Nice To Talk To," "Save It For Later," and "I Confess," the Beat quickly gained popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. Eight songs made the British charts and four made U.S. ones.
Following the all-too-brief tenure of the band, were two shorter stints with General Public (1983-87 and 1994-1995) for Wakeling and Ranking Roger. That band had hits with "Tenderness" in 1984 and then ten years later with a popular remake of the Staples' "I'll Take You There" in 1994.
In between the two stints, Wakeling, ready to set out on his own, had an epiphany and moved across the pond to California. It was there he met his wife Damessa, and raised two children.
Wakeling's two grown children from his first marriage were also both musicians, and at one point Wakeling was going to start a family band called The Ska-tridge Family, an obvious nod to Patridge Family of the '70s U.S. pop culture.
After a sold-out reunion of several Beat members at the Royal Festival Hall in 2004, and time working for Greenpeace, Wakeling began to set in motion the creation of a new English Beat, albeit in his new homeland, as Ranking Roger has a version of the Beat he and his son Ranking Junior had and still front in the UK.
Several years and many cross-country tours later, Wakeling is now looking at the new album as a way to share his most recent music-writing attempts with his fans. It has been a learning process.
As the era of multi-million dollar contracts went the way of the cassette player, musicians have had to come up with creative ways of financing their recording time, mixing and packaging of their music. Wakeling and dozens of national acts have turned to PledgeMusic, which is an online music platform started in 2009 by English musician Benji Rogers.
The program allows fans to show their support of their favorite bands by pledging and getting free advanced cds, MP3s and autographed copies of their favorite artist's newest work. The English Beat pledge drive began last June and in a few short months reached its goal, as more than 775 fans pledged enough funds to put the campaign at 114 percent to goal.
Wakeling is not setting out to revive the exact sound of the original Beat and its original members. Having gone through a few different lineups over the past decade, Wakeling has solidified the band with rhythm anchor drummer Rhythmm Epkins, who has actually been the band's drummer longer than original drummer Morton, guitarist Larry Young, keyboard player Kevin Lum, and sax player Matt Morish.
"It's a duty and an honor, and it's somewhat more of an obligation to make a record that people who are fans of the band from the early days will say, 'I like that.' But at the same time you want to make a record that somebody just walking past the store will hear and say, 'Wow that's good.' So, it's a fascinating challenge," says Wakeling, who turns 56 next month.
The new album will be on the Tucson-based label, SlimStyle Records, which also has Dexy's Midnight Runners and Ian Hunter on its roster, along with several up-and-coming hip-hop artists. Wakeling recruited Jesse "Dubmatix" King, known for his own music and production of reggae legends Michael Rose, Alton Ellis and U-Roy, as the album producer and co-melody writer.
As for the new songs, Wakeling is culling a few dozen from a collection of two dozen or so songs he has written and accumulated over the past ten years.
"The best songs rise to the top as you work on them and listen to responses," Wakeling shares. "At the same time, I am listening to the fact that there are different styles. We wanted to do some poppy ones, some rocking ones and some ballads. That way we have a perfect balance; something for everyone."
The early odds-on favorites to make the final cut, include, the eternal, uplifting toe-tapper, "The Love You Give, Lasts Forever," the hard-driving ska syncopation of "How Can You Just Stand There," and the torchy, heartbreaker "You Said We Would Never Die," which Wakeling affectionately calls "warm and smoochie."
Overall, the new songs have a more refined sound. Gone are the frantic guitar licks and rapid fire drum, replaced with more attention to dynamics, all the while maintaining the care-free, sing-along lyrics and dance atmosphere associated with the original English Beat.
For Wakeling, touring is both the testing ground of new material, and also a way to truly connect with fans.
"It is one of the most wonderful sensations, not just personal satisfactions, but feeling connected to other people and the value of what people take away from a show. It makes you kind of feel useful. You feel that mass consciousness and it's nice to feel that. You ride on top of their energy."
As Wakeling and the English Beat begin wrapping up production on their long, anticipated album and begin yet another tour, they appear to have set the course for riding yet on another wave of ska packed full of adventure for fans and band alike.
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