Dave Woodhall listens to (English) Beat frontman and Balsall Heath expat Dave Wakeling.
From Balsall Heath beginnings to a current home in Orange County, Dave Wakeling is one of Birmingham’s finest cultural exports. With his version of the Beat currently touring the UK we felt obliged to grab his attention for a bit.
May as well get the obvious one out of the way. How are you and Roger getting on now?
“We seem to be getting on smashing. We met up in Birmingham last September and we went and visited Saxa and we all got on like a house on fire. Saxa’s fantastic. When he started with us he was my age now, 58 or something like that and he was always at death’s door. Now he’s in his nineties and he’s as fit as a fiddle. We invited Roger to be on the record and after a bit he decided not to do it then he announced his own record was coming out the same week as ours which was a bit awkward so we’ve decided to put ours back a bit. That’s worked out well becasue it gave us a bit more time to work on it. I thought we’d been waiting for a new Beat record for thirty years so there’s no point in having two come out together.”
A bit like waiting for a number eleven then?
“Something like that. You’d wait for ages and when one turned up it’d only be going to Acocks Green. What was there at Acocks Green all the elevens wanted to stop there?”
It’s where the garage is. Do you keep in touch with any of the other original band members?
“I still see Andy Cox quite a bit. I’m in touch with Everett as well, we see each other a great deal.”
You live in California. Why do you want to come over here and get cold and wet?
“It’s boiling hot. I told the band that it was going to be freezing and it’s in the eighties in Brighton when we played there.
“This is the third time we’ve been here at this time of year. It suits our schedule – we’e been busy with festivals over the summer. We did some wih Culture Club, the B52s, UB40, That was a busy summer.”
What do you think of the Birmingham renaissance?
“I’m a Balsall Heathen and it was funny. because when I left Birmingham in the eighties it was like it always was but when the band come over now they think it’s wonderful.”
Would the Beat have been able to be what they were in the modern Birmingham?
“That’s interesting. Back then you grew up politically aware because we were all pushed against the wall so I suppose it would be harder now. Things on the surface look more comfortable, the ciy centre seems safer and the city in general seems better. It might be harder to come up with political and social commentary with the changes that have happened.”
Outsiders don’t realise how creativly diverse Birmingham was at that time when you were breaking through. There were all those completely different bands getting into the charts.
“The Au Pairs as well, Fashion. It’s odd how it all came together. I’ve been doing shows with Boy George and he was in Birmingham before either of us were in a group. We had no idea it would turn into that, we had parties at our house in Edgbaston, there were all these people there and nobody knew they were all going to be famous.”
I wonder if that diversity became a weakness. There wasn’t one separate scene like you had elsewhere. Birmingham had the Rum Runner, the Kings Heath/Moseley area with yourselves and the UBs, Dexys were a bit different. There wasn’t one defined thing you could call ‘Birmingham’ so you all ended up being pulled into the general pop culture and nothing was able to follow you.
“Until then anyone in a band moved to London and we bemoaned that because other cities had their own scene but Birmingham was too close to London.
“There was also no-one pulling it all together. John Mostin had a bit of a go but it was quite difficult because the Cadbury’s and the Quaker influence made the licensing laws so difficult. I’m sure Quakers are lovely people but they have some odd ideas. I was at college in Bournville and you couldn’t get alcohol there at all.
“When you grow up around stuff you don’t notice but later you realised that Birmingham was a very restrictive place, wear a tie to get into a pub and all that. It was a funny time. Maybe that was why all those groups sprang up. We didn’t realise we were under manners and we made our own entertainment.
The new album, Here We Go Love. When will that be coming out now?
“February. I’m aiming for Valentine’s Day with a single before that.”
You were lumped in with the Two Tone bands. Did you see them as your contemporaries or were they a bit different?
“I liked UB40 because they were from Balsall Heath but we were a bit shocked when we first saw that the Specials in Melody Maker. We were rehearsing when Dave Steele came in and threw it on the floor saying ‘We’re too late. Somebody’s beat us, and they’re from COVENTRY!!!’ We thought everyone would think we we copying them but we gave it a go anyway.”
And you ended up playing with Bowie, the Clash, the Police, REM…
“We did the US Festival twice and I stood on the side of the stage watching what we didn’t know then but was the Clash’s last show. I was there. My heroes. They were still the best band ever but in some ways they were like the Grateful Dead of punk. If the show caught fire in the first couple or three songs you knew you were in for one of the great nights of your life but if they didn’t gel it was going to be a very long evening. They all loved us because we opened well for them, starting up an optimistic vibe in the audience.”
Balsall Heath’s becoming quite hip now. People who can’t afford to live in Moseley are starting to gravitate towards Balsall Heath. Did you ever think you’d hear that?
“That’s a bit of a turn around isn’t it? The actual area itself is lovely, I was lucky to grow up between Cannon Hill and Calthorpe Park. I didn’t know it was meant to be rough until – grew up. It was normal to me – you just had to watch your step in a few places. Hip, eh? How strange is that? I couldn’t afford to live there now then.”
The Villa have got worse though.
“It’s not been easy has it? Randy Lerner used to come to the shows when we played the Hamptons and we’d talk about different players he wanted to buy but the last one I told him definitely to get was Nigel Reo Coker. That’s probably why he lost all interest. In a way it’s nice to watch a hungry Aston Villa trying to achieve something and at least they look now like they’re trying to have a go.”
The English Beat play the Robin 2 on Friday 23rd September (tickets £18 from http://www.therobin.co.uk/ ) and the O2 Institute, Bir mingham on Saturday 1st October (ticket £19 from https://www.academymusicgroup.com/o2institutebirmingham/ )