Dave Wakeling talks what he’s learned as a songwriter after decades fronting The English Beat

Tahoe Onstage
Photo: Shaun Astor

“We’re like angels trapped in mammals’ bodies,” Dave Wakeling says. “I try to focus on that optimism. If there’s any chance for decency or survival, it’s based on keeping optimistic.”

As songwriter and vocalist for his band, The English Beat, and later with General Public, Dave Wakeling fused lyrics panning the undercurrents of human interaction with ’80s pop and ska, creating an upbeat sound bordering on the ecstatic. The results being a navigation of often the darker side of human relationships and actions packaged into radio friendly songs such as “I Confess” and “Tenderness.”

Wakeling will front his band The English Beat as they perform at this year’s Punk Rock Bowling Festival – probably the largest punk fest on the West Coast, and one that dives deep into the genre’s surrounding and supporting pool of performers as well. The annual festival takes place in Las Vegas this year from May 24th-27th.

“The megafestival has become a cultural event, and a cultural statement,” he says to me about playing larger gatherings of likeminded musicians and scenes. “In England (from where Wakeling hails), people don’t meet in church anymore, but standing in a field with mud in your toes, drinking beer and communing. It’s an enjoyable experience.”

Along with his ongoing ambitious tour schedule, Wakeling and the English Beat have just re-released their album I Just Can’t Stop It, with a few new demo and live versions of songs. Over since the record was originally released in 1980, Wakeling has maintained his recurring voice of an outsider looking in.

“I [am] a different person. I don’t drink, but I’ve also stopped smoking. It was caffeine to lunchtime, wine in the afternoon, and cigarettes from morning until night. I smoked them for nearly 50 years. But for the record, I thought ‘you might as well be focused for it.’ I used the record, and I ended up feeling and looking much healthier than when I had started.”

The slow intellectualizing and processing, the thoughtfulness of a perspective outside of a given scenario coming to inform an autopsy of a series of events, this has been a consistent quality of Wakeling’s lyrics. When I ask him if there is anything he tried on this new recording that he had previously sworn he would never do, that thoughtful air fell over the phone for a second, and then he broke his silence…

“No. But then again, I’m struggling to think of anything I said I would never do. That’s the problem, you’ve got to be careful about trusting your own point of view.”

He acknowledges how — over the years that have passed since those early English Beat and General Public albums — that age has changed a bit of his perspective.

“Just because you believe something strongly, it doesn’t mean you’ll believe the same thing in 10 years. Look at photographs of yourself from 10, 15 years ago: at the time you thought you looked fantastic and not like everyone else. You look at those photos now and you think, what on Earth was I thinking?” he laughs. “And if we can’t trust ourselves with something like our appearance, how do we trust ourselves with religion and politics?”

And thus, he brings it back full circle, to revealing where that sense of fragile optimism underlying his music comes from, and how he can make sense of these themes and perform them in a way that communicates optimism.

“With music, you have to remember it’s a stage, not a soapbox. The ultimate prize is if someone comes up to you and says that that song or that lyric meant the world to them. Or that they played it in the birthing room or the hospice or the wedding.

“That your words connect with others’ suffering or joy or subconscious, that’s the aim really. If you can learn about your own dilemmas, and take frustration and fear and turn it into commentary and mass consciousness and it flashes over the room like wildfire. After 40 years, I may be finally getting the hang of it.”

Dave Wakeling and The English Beat perform on the final day of Punk Rock Bowling opening for Madness, held May 24th-27th. For more information, head to PunkRockBowling.com

ABOUT Shaun Astor

Picture of Shaun Astor
Shaun Astor cites pop music singers and social deviants as being among his strongest influences. His vices include vegan baking, riding a bicycle unreasonable distances and fixating on places and ideas that make up the subject of the sentence, "But that’s impossible…" He splits his time between Reno and a hammock perched from ghost town building foundations. Check out his work at www.raisethestakeseditions.com

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