In 1978, amidst economic downturn and subsequent social upheaval, The Beat was born in the British borough of Birmingham. Wrought with massive industrial decline and caught in the middle of the Cold War, the sociopolitical landscape indelibly informed the group’s style, forging a composite of lyrical realism-meets-positivism set to infectious, genre-bending dance music.
“We were living in a lot of nuclear fear at the time, with the standoff between America and Russia,” says Beat frontman Dave Wakeling. “I think that’s where the urge to play music came out of.”
Their music instantly resonated with audiences. “We were trying to uplift our own hearts while watching the stuff that was going on,” Wakeling says. “Books were being written about the start of World War III. We were just waiting for it to happen, you know? So that’s how we grew up, and that’s what we started writing songs about. It gave us a kind of graveyard humor—Apocolypso, we called it. We thought, if we’re all going out, we’re going out with one big, last dance.”
And dance they did. The Beat—known as The English Beat in the U.S. for legal reasons—etched themselves in the annals of pop rock history with chart toppers like “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Save it for Later” and international tours with the likes of The Clash, Talking Heads and David Bowie.
Whereas genres are far less finite today, in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s cross-genre fusion was still considered avant-garde. “We were looking for the perfect black rose of dance music,” Wakeling says of hybridizing pop, ska, soul, punk and reggae. “We wanted to come up with a universal beat that reflected the hopes and aspirations of everybody, but also contained a little bit of the threat, grit and dirt of the city that we’d grown up in. Although life is tragic, beauty can be found in it. A lot of people think of ska and reggae as having a happy beat, but in many ways it’s a beat of survival. It gives you the opportunity to sing about everyday woes in an optimistic, ironic, tongue in cheek sort of way.”
Continuing to channel their ideas and energy, The Beat went on to become notable proponents of the UK’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Wakeling later spent five years working full time for Greenpeace (after fronting another legendary group, General Public).
“You often get a lot of attention being in a pop group, and some of it is absolutely worthless,” Wakeling chortles. “Because you are Mozart, just misunderstood. Especially if you have a hit record, you get so much media it gets silly. It’s nice to share some of that with a cause that’s near to your heart.
“If there was any chance to make a difference, the only way we could do it was by trying to cheer people up by appealing to what we all have in common,” he continues. “And if there’s a chance of us getting through this life with any sense of joy and decency, then we need to get together in a way where we can have an ironic laugh about the plight we face as human beings, rolling through our decades and evolving through the various governments who promise to help us on our way. You try your best. You try to cause harm as little as you can along the way and you try to offer as much help as you can along the way, and just pray to whatever gods may or may not exist that the same will be done to you.”
Wakeling calls today a “fascinating time to be a troubadour.” He acknowledges things are tough, but says that without “community and compassion, we’re all fucked, basically—and not in the pleasurable way. But if we have a sense of both of those things, then we all have a fighting chance—without having to do the fighting.”
Speaking of fighting, if you were in attendance at The English Beat’s last Maui performance in December 2009, you might remember security’s shakedown on dancing.
“We have a very exuberant crowd, but it’s a very positive crowd, so no one ever gets hurt,” says Wakeling. “But a few people tried to dance on stage as they do quite often at our shows, and it got a bit panicky. When there’s beautiful people jumping on stage and dancing, singing along with the words, it’s a bit hard to explain to security that you don’t really want them dragged off backwards. So it caused a ripple in the vibes. We were sorry for any misunderstanding. It turned out to be a beautifully spirited performance and if people more expect that sort of thing, everyone will have a really great time. When everyone is dancing in step, that’s the start and the real magic. It’s Jung’s sense of mass consciousness in action, with a smile—and I get to look down their shirts whilst they’re doing it.”