The bEAT still goes on

From Balsall Heath to Orange County and back. Dave Wakeling from the Beat tells all.

The bEAT will be starting a UK tour next month that will include Birmingham Town Hall, which seems as good a reason as any to talk Brummie nostalgia and future plans with their expat frontman.

You’re still living in California, but you keep an eye on what’s happening at home.

“I read the Mail online and I saw Stirchley is the big place now – I used to work in a second-hand shop there. They had the stuff out on the forecourt and when they were closing for the night me and this other lad had to take it all in and fill the shop. It’s stood me in good stead when it comes to loading gear into the van because if our crew get stuck they call for Dave the rigger and I can always get stuff in. I’ve seen a picture of a street fair in York Road, Kings Heath. I had a mate whose mum owned a wool shop there and we used to sit playing David Bowie and dreaming of a better world. I never thought York Road would become a cultural centre.”

We’ve spoken before about how the cultural desert that was the city centre in the early eighties led to a lot of making your own entertainment.

For us it came out of parties in Gough Road, Edgbaston. Barbarella’s had closed down, other clubs wouldn’t allow punks or rastas in and for a while the best entertainment was house parties. We had a punk DJ and a reggae 12 inch dub DJ. If you had all punk songs it would go great for about an hour then everybody would sod off and if you had reggae on, after about an hour the same would happen. At one of these parties Andy the guitarist said ‘What if you get both DJs into one three minute song?’ and that was the moment the Beat was born.”

Ten miles away Jerry Dammers and Terry Hall were having the same idea.

“We found they’d got there first and we thought about packing it in but we thought they might screw up along the way and we’d have a chance so we decided to carry on regardless.”

Last time we spoke you were talking about Saxa and how healthy he was. Sadly, he couldn’t last forever and even more sadly he wasn’t the only one.

“He beat prostate cancer in his eighties, he was in full remission. He had a very good innings but it was still a surprise because he’d managed to live so long we thought he’d perhaps embalmed himself thirty years earlier. Then Roger went, which was far more shocking because he was the baby of the band. He always seemed fit as a fiddle.

“We’d agreed that we’d do some shows split between America and England. We’d got two separate diaries and bands depending on us for wages but we thought we could work out a way to do six or ten shows in England and the same in America. It was a bit sad because he then started to fall sick and it didn’t happen.”

What do you think of Ranking jr still performing with his dad’s band?

“I’m not really keen on it. I know he’s got to pay the rent but he wasn’t in the Beat. I’ve seen some of the videos and he does the bits on his dad’s vocals quite well but on the other songs not so much and I don’t think it’s appropriate, really. My daughter sings in my band and she’s got a smashing voice. I think that’s great but I wouldn’t dream of her starting a band and calling it The Beat.”

Onto happier things; what brings you to the Town Hall?

“The last memorable moment I saw there was the Ziggy Stardust tour in 1972. It was magical. I used to go to the Town Hall a lot and when I saw it on our list I was thrilled. I always dreamt I would be on that stage so I’m very excited about it.”

And Bow Wow Wow are supporting. Is that what they’re called now?

“It’s billed as Bow Wow Wow with Annabella. The bass player has a band over here, I don’t know who’s in that and they’re at loggerheads so it’s billed to let you know she’s in it. We did some shows in an eighties festival last year, she was in sparkling form so we agreed that they should come over with us. It’s the fortieth anniversary of when we both toured in California.”

In America The Beat were the biggest ska band of the time.

“We did seem to do better than the Specials and Madness. I think Madness suffered in the same way as the Jam did or Squeeze in that they were seen as being a bit too English. For some reason we didn’t get collared with that.”

On their way to becoming the biggest band in the world REM started out as your support.

“I’ve teased them about it since because we never got a tour back. It was the first time they’d toured outside Georgia. They were really nervous and quiet but you could tell there was greatness there, it was a bit different from anything you’d ever seen. We remained friends for a long time. Talking Heads had insisted we got a soundcheck when we played with them, David Byrne asked if we were being treated alright and if we need anything and I was very impressed so I did the same with Michael Stipe and REM, making sure they soundchecked and got anything they wanted. About five years ago I was talking to Mike Mills and he asked if I remembered how we treated them. I told him we’d got it off Talking Heads and he said they did the same thing ever since. It costs nothing but it generates value.”

So there’s no chance you won’t give Annabella a decent run.

“Oh yes, she’ll get a great soundcheck. We’re all travelling on the same bus as well.”

It’s incredible to think how she was marketed when the band first started. You couldn’t even write what Malcolm McLaren was calling her now without getting arrested but it’s completely forgotten. When he died there was so much said about what a groundbreaking figure he was and Bow Wow Wow was conveniently glossed over

“Odd isn’t it? Absolutely you’d get into trouble now. Once he’d had a good go with the Pistols he was just looking to be outrageous. I went with Micky Billingham from General Public and Dexy’s to a private showing of a film about weed and they were looking for someone to write the music for the film. McLaren was sitting in front of us and Micky sad to me in this stage whisper ‘Don’t whistle anything Dave, he’ll pinch it for the film’.

“Talking of protest songs, they used Stand Down Margaret for Thatcher going in The Crown, which I thought was odd because the BBC wouldn’t touch that song when it came out. I wonder if protest songs create change decades later. I met somebody who worked at 10 Downing Street under Thatcher. He said he loved the band, we had a lot of fans there and they played that song a lot but they did wonder why we had something about Princess Margaret.”

And again, bringing it back to our last talk you said that former Villa owner Randy Lerner had been to a few of your gigs. Have the new owners turned up?

“I haven’t seen them yet. I think Randy was a bit of a one-off… I went to his house a couple of times and told him to spend more money.”

The bEAT will be playing Birmingham Town Hall on June 12th.