.Keeping the (English) Beat With Dave Wakeling

Ska legends the English Beat bring two nights of shows to Menlo Park

When the English Beat hit the UK music scene in late ’70s, the Birmingham group found a huge audience with its mix of 2-tone/ska with elements of punk, reggae, pop, jazz and soul.

Though the band took a quarter-century pause, today the band’s founding songwriter and guitarist, Dave Wakeling, leads a popular touring lineup, including two shows in Menlo Park this weekend.

The English Beat were part of a ska wave that ruled the UK pop charts along with bands like the Selecter and the Specials. The latter group’s lead singer, Terry Hall, died of pancreatic cancer in late 2022.

“He was always very droll and guarded, but kind,” Wakeling recalls. “Terry always wanted to know how you were doing—if you were okay—which made you wonder if he was.”

Wakeling is decidedly okay; he has earned his share of praise from well-known and highly respected artists. The Who’s Pete Townshend famously featured “Save It for Later” in live sets with his side-project supergroup, Deep End. Townshend’s cover of the English Beat hit was included on the 1986 LP Deep End Live!, and again on Live: Brixton Academy ’85.

Wakeling jokes about the recognition, but it’s clear that Townshend’s nod means more to him than an occasional royalty cheque.

“Having your hero from when you were a kid say that your song means a lot to him is absolutely priceless.”

Townshend went so far as to phone Wakeling to ask for tips on the song’s unusual guitar tuning (DADAAD). After adding the song to his set, he invited Wakeling to a show.

“It was only a short meeting,” Wakeling recalls, “but he said, ‘Songwriters, Dave: They’re the luckiest people in the world. It just doesn’t always seem that way.’”

Wakeling laughs as he admits that he appreciated the sentiment, but didn’t quite know what Townshend meant. Decades later, he’s still mulling it over. He’s sure it’s a weighty observation. “Because,” he explains with a sly grin, the Who guitarist/songwriter “could see for miles and miles.”

Elvis Costello is a fan as well; he has covered the Engish Beat’s danceable anti-Thatcher tune “Stand Down Margaret” in concert. 

“That meant the absolute world to me,” Wakeling says, adding that another big name expressed his admiration in a public way. “Sting used to wear a Beat t-shirt all the time,” he says. “We got a nod and a wink, for which I was very grateful.”

While the Beat’s lyrics often took aim at societal injustice and political misdeeds, he says these days he makes a point to steer clear of social media controversy.

“The last time I did anything overt was to support Obama’s presidency,” says the 35-year U.S. resident.

After the English Beat ended its original run in 1983, he quickly re-emerged with a new group, General Public. In the 21st century, he revived the band with a U.S.-based lineup. A highly regarded album, Here We Go Love!, was released in 2018.

The band includes the most recent album in its live set.

“I’ve been playing ‘How Can You Stand There?’ because not only does it go down well as a new one, but it fits in well to the first Beat album’s uptempo ska model,” Wakeling says.

But he recognizes that most concertgoers are there for the classics.

“Our fans are very tolerant,” he says with a self-effacing laugh. “But you have to be careful. If you play more than a couple that aren’t immediately recognizable, [they’ll say] ‘Hey, I’m going to run to the bathroom!’”

Still, many of Wakeling’s newer songs work seamlessly in a set alongside “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “The Tears of a Clown.” At a Punk Rock Bowling gig not long ago, “we just played everything from our albums that was over 130 beats per minute,” he says with a hearty laugh. 

The audience responded in kind. “People were saying, ‘Oh, they still are punks!’”

At the end of the day, Wakeling just wants his music to continue to sound fresh.

“If you had a whole band making it sound like it was Kingston Town in 1964, then you’d be better off playing in Kingston Town in 1964. We make it sound like it’s Menlo Park in 2023!”

The English Beat

Thu-Fri, 8pm, $41+

Guild Theatre, Menlo Park

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