The English Beat Talk First New Album In 36 Years & Feeling Like 'Ska-stradamus'

English Beat
Jay Gilbert

English Beat

The leadoff track on Here We Go Love, the first new English Beat album since 1982, is called “How Can You Stand There?” Musically, the song answers its own question by jolting your system with four minutes of infectious up-tempo, major-key ska. You can’t not move your body.

But the song is about more than just dancing. It’s an attack on apathy that feels tailor-made for the age of Trump and Brexit. The funny thing is, Beat leader Dave Wakeling has been playing it live since at least 2010.

“Some of the topics on the record have been building up and building up,” Wakeling tells Billboard by phone from L.A., where the 62-year-old Englishman has lived since the ‘80s. “Some of it was Ska-stradamus. You could smell it coming.”

Wakeling is less a prophet than he is a student of history. When he co-founded The English Beat in 1979, the U.K. was facing a wave of racism and xenophobia. From that ugliness came 2 Tone, a record label whose roster of punky, multiracial ska bands crashed the pop charts with a fiery anti-racist message. Technically, The English Beat were only 2 Tone artists for one single—a cover of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown”—but they embodied the label’s ethos on the three excellent albums they released before splitting up in 1983.

With Here We Go Love (out June 15), Wakeling looks to continue the story, even though he’s the only original member in the group. It’s a duty he takes very seriously. When he first reactivated the English Beat brand in the mid-‘00s, Wakeling was content to travel the U.S. playing his back catalog to enthusiastic audiences of original 2 Tone fans and younger listeners who discovered ska during its ‘90s resurgence. But then fans started coming to the merch booth asking where they could buy the new songs he sometimes slipped into the set.

In response, Wakeling launched a successful PledgeMusic campaign in 2015 and accepted a generous offer from his friends at L.A.’s famed NRG Studios. Whenever the place wasn’t in use, Wakeling was welcome to record there—all he had to do was pay the engineer. That arrangement left him at the mercy of the studio’s schedule, and since he was playing upwards of 150 shows a year with The English Beat, the album took a couple years to finish.

Of course, before he could even start recording, Wakeling had to figure out what this new album should sound like.

“It seemed like an easy idea in the beginning, but then you start thinking, ‘How much do you make it sound like a Beat record—or what people imagine Beat records sound like?’” Wakeling says. “How much will it sound like the first record, the second record, or the third record, because they all seemed to me to sound quite different.”

Working with producer Kyle Hoffman, Wakeling made a joyful, defiant record that touches on most of the Beat’s signature sounds. The profanity-laced title track, which Wakeling describes as “an aging warrior railing against time” and “a confessional of stereotypical male uselessness,” has the terse, punky energy of the group’s 1980 debut, I Just Can’t Stop It. “The One and the Only,” about the Trump lurking inside everyone, is new wave guitar-pop reminiscent of the Beat’s timeless 1983 single “Save It For Later.”

The one facet of the Beat’s sound Wakeling avoided was the experimentation with calypso and African music heard most prominently on 1981’s Wha'ppen?. That just leaves more space for ska and reggae songs like “How Can You Stand There?” “Redemption Time,” and “Be There For You.”

“I still think rocksteady is my favorite beat in the world,” Wakeling says, referring to the ‘60s sound that formed a bridge between fast-paced ska and the mellow reggae that followed. “I just love that rolling beat. There’s something very cheery about it, in the same way there was about reggae. People always used to say, ‘That’s happy, isn’t it?’ And it is, but it’s more about being resolute in the face of poverty. It’s music instead of dinner rather than after-dinner music.”

Wakeling digs rocksteady and reggae so much that the song “Dem Call It Ska” is actually rooted in those laid-back styles—not ska. The chorus celebrates the healing power of music, while the verses ponder the peculiarities of language: “Who put the burning ‘fuse’ in confusion / Who put the ‘more’ in amore / Who put the ‘arms’ in armagideon.”

“What I’m trying to suggest is the words we use sometimes have other words inside them,” Wakeling says. “We get caught within our own lexicon and our own worldview. We can argue and argue and not really get anywhere.”

The biggest departure on Here We Go Love is “Never Die,” a gut-punch ballad of resilience given extra heft by pedal steel, horns, and strings. The song lays plain the extent to which Wakeling’s voice has thickened over the years. The deeper tone suits the lyrics, which Wakeling wrote about many things, including losing friends to HIV/AIDS in the ’80s and the experience of watching his oldest son, Adam, lay in a hospital bed after being struck by a car in 2003. The accident left the promising young musician paralyzed and unable to speak.

“Some of the song is the music of the ICU,” Wakeling says. “You hear the ambulance in there and the swell of the breathing machine, all the different gauges going off. [You’re ] watching your first son, wondering is he going to live or die overnight, wondering is there a way to discern which would be for the best—as if that’s your job—and what to hope and what to pray. And all these noises are going on.”

Discussing the gravity afforded him by his lived-in singing voice, Wakeling is reminded of original English Beat saxophonist Lionel Martin, a.k.a. Saxa, who died last year at the age of 87. In his later years, the native Jamaican suffered from arthritis that prevented him from playing, but he listened to Wakeling's demos and hummed horn lines that made their way onto Here We Go Love.

“I used to love watching Saxa play,” Wakeling says. “It used to sound great even if he was just messing about. His fingers looked like they weighed a million tons each, the way he hit the keys. There was a deliberateness, fueled not just by the 10,000 hours [of practice], but by the misery of life and the stoicism in the face of it.”

“If Killing Worked,” a clever, commonsensical look at the futility of war, features another 2 Tone alum, Roddy “Radiation” Byers, the guitarist whose rockabilly riffing helped to define the sound of the label’s flagship band, The Specials. At one point in the recording, Wakeling thought Ranking Roger, his co-frontman in the original Beat (as well as the popular offshoot band General Public), might also guest on Here We Go Love. Roger, who fronts his own version of the Beat in the U.K., ultimately declined. But there’s talk of reuniting next year for the 40th anniversary of both the English Beat and 2 Tone.

“The two of them together, with the current anxious, tense, racially charged environment in the U.K. and America, seems like either the ideal marketing opportunity or a chance to say, ‘We told you so,’” Wakeling says with a laugh.

Even if 2 Tone’s songs about intolerance begetting violence are sadly more relevant than ever, Wakeling would like to think of himself as an optimist. He’s been all over America in the last decade, and from what he can tell, most people go about their daily lives without letting fears and prejudices get the best of them. His new song “Redemption Time” sounds like the work of a guy who hasn’t completely written off the human race.

“Songwriting is probably like all of our most famous political documents: Everybody writes with the best intentions, then tries to see how they can get around them,” Wakeling says. “You set yourself up with your songs. It’s alright being a purist, but then you’ve got to try to live it. That doesn’t work sometimes.”