Dave Wakeling on the short, successful, fractious career of The English Beat
More Set List
- Mark Arm of Mudhoney on 25 years of being the court jesters and knowing their limitations
- Prolific producer Prince Paul on almost being fired, De La Soul classics, and working with his son
- Marshall Crenshaw on songwriting, covers, and the album cover he absolutely hates
- The Police’s Andy Summers on his songs, Sting, and being ripped off by Puff Daddy
- Graham Parker on reuniting with The Rumour, constructing the flow of an album, and more
In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two in the process.
The artist: Dave Wakeling, a Birmingham-born singer-songwriter whose band The Beat—a.k.a. The English Beat in the U.S.—was responsible for some of the biggest UK hits of the early ’80s, as well as several songs that were staples of American college radio and MTV. When the band broke up in 1983, Wakeling and The Beat’s co-vocalist Ranking Roger formed General Public, while The Beat’s other main creative contributors David Steele and Andy Cox formed Fine Young Cannibals. Shout! Factory has just released the all-encompassing Beat box set The Complete Beat, as well as a single-disc anthology called Keep The Beat; in September, the label will be releasing a CD/DVD collection of The Beat’s performances at the US Festival in 1982 and ’83.
“Mirror In The Bathroom” (from 1980’s I Just Can’t Stop It)
Dave Wakeling: Well, I think that the bassline is revolutionary. It’s in 2/2 timing, not 4/4 timing. It seems like the same thing, but it’s not quite; it gives an edge, especially when mixed with the off-beats from the reggae. That made it stand out from the crowd, really.
The lyrics were written when I was working on a construction site. I’d had a couple of drinks the night before, and forgot to hang up my clothes to dry for the next day. It gets very wet on those construction sites, and it was the winter, so it was a snowy wet. I got into the bathroom and realized my clothes were all on the floor in a wet, sandy pile. So I hung them up and thought, “Well, if I steam them, at least I’ll be puttin’ ’em on warm.” I had a shower, and then I was shaving in the mirror, with the hangover and the wet clothes, and the thought of trying to break up frozen sand to put into the concrete machine was not that tasty. And I started talking to myself in the mirror, and said, “Dave, we don’t have to do this, mate. We don’t have to do this.” And in the mirror behind me, the door of the bathroom had a tiny little latch on it, and I said to myself, “The door’s locked. There’s only me and you. Just me and you here. We don’t have to do this.” And of course we did, because we needed money for Guinness that night. [Laughs.]
So on the motorbike we got, and skidded our way back to the construction site. And while I was on the bike, I was pondering it. “The door is locked, just you and me.” Had a nice feel to it. “Mirror In The bathroom.” That’s a great idea, but you can’t have a pop song called “Mirror In The Bathroom,” can you? That’s stupid. You’re meant to have pop songs called, “I Love You, Lady,” or something. Anyway the poem started, and continued during the day, and kept me warm while my clothes weren’t, and I’d got the germ of it from there. And when I heard David Steele’s bassline, I was like, “Wow, that poem I was writing on the motorbike fits it like a glove.”
That was the birth of the song, really. We had intended it to be our first single. We got asked by Jerry Dammers from The Specials to do a single on 2 Tone Records. I remember we were very excited by the opportunity, and he said, “‘Mirror In The Bathroom,’ eh?” And I said, “Yeah, that’s the star of the show so far.” But then we heard from Chrysalis Records, which was the sort of parent company of 2 Tone, that we weren’t allowed to have any rights to that song for five years. We couldn’t release it, and they would own the song forever. And we’re like, “Get lost, then.” We haven’t even made an LP yet, and they already wanna rip us off, y’know? Thought we were meant to make a record first, and then you rip us off. [Laughs.]
And so the argument went back and forth, and Jerry was really adamant that he wanted “Mirror In The Bathroom,” and we’re like, “Fine, just get Chrysalis to stop being stupid.” You can’t take a band’s best song and not allow them to be able to use it on their own record; that’s nuts. Eventually we said, “You want a single? We’ve been doing this version of ‘Tears Of A Clown’ at all our shows. Doesn’t matter whether it’s punks or grannies or rastas, it always goes down great. If you want a single, that’s it, and you can argue with Smokey Robinson about whose song it is.” [Laughs.] So “Tears Of A Clown” was our first single, and “Mirror In The Bathroom” actually came out as the second single, off our first album. And it went to No. 3 in the charts, and we can still use it on our records, whereas “Tears Of A Clown,” it’s still like pulling teeth, even though Chrysalis don’t seem to really exist anymore. [Laughs.] Whoever they flogged it off to… I suppose EMI. They own the world at the moment. And Sony owns EMI, who own the world. Who knows; who cares? But it’s still terribly hard to be able to get to use the song.
“Tears Of A Clown” (from 1980’s I Just Can’t Stop It)
DW: When we started rehearsing as a band, we were trying to get David Steele’s punk basslines and Everett Morton’s reggae drums, and mine and Andy Cox’s power-pop melodies all put together. We’d rehearse, and for about a minute or two it would gel, and everything would seem great. And then we’d all drift off into our favorite grooves, and it was as though there were a number of ellipses going on, and every now and then those ellipses would converge and we’d make a perfect circle for a minute or two—something like we’d never quite heard before—and then we’d drift off again. After a few weeks of that, Everett said, “Why don’t we try to learn a song that we all know, practice that ’til we’ve got it right, find out where our grooves meet, and then we can try one of your weird songs like that ‘Mirror’ thing.” It actually took us 10 minutes in the rehearsal room to come up with a song we all knew; that’s how different our influences were.
But “Tears Of A Clown” we all knew, so we went home and learned it. Well, learned most of it. We didn’t bother with the really, really difficult chords. [Laughs.] We worried about the main ones, and would practice that, and then play “Mirror In The Bathroom” and “Tears Of A Clown,” and then “Big Shot,” then “Tears Of A Clown,” then “Click Click,” and “Tears Of A Clown.” [Laughs.] Slowly but surely we started to develop a groove and a vibe, based around our practice of “Tears Of A Clown.”
So we had about seven songs, and David Steele said one gig was worth a thousand rehearsals, so we should start doing concerts. And we said, “Well we’ve only got seven songs, can’t do much of a concert with that.” He said, “Well, we’ve got ‘Tears Of A Clown,’ we can throw that in, can’t we?” So that was eight, and we could get opening gigs with that. Anyway, in the punk days, at the end of the ’70s, if you were onstage more than 45 minutes you were lying. [Laughs.] That was the proverb.
We started doing shows and we took any that we could get. Sometimes they were factory Christmas parties, sometimes they were student halls, sometimes they were punk clubs, sometimes they were reggae clubs… anything. And sometimes the punk songs went down great and the reggae didn’t; sometimes the reggae songs went great and the punk ones didn’t. But every single night, “Tears Of A Clown” took the roof off the place. It’d get the crowd going, and they’d go better off our other songs once we’d got their limbs and their brains warmed up a bit. It sort of became an essential piece of the set; that was how we explained it to Jerry Dammers. We said, “This record you want us to make isn’t going to come out until September or October, and it’s going to be party season, isn’t it? And everybody loves ‘Tears Of A Clown,’ so it might just turn out to be a great Christmas party song, whereas ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’ would’ve had some obnoxious effete obsessed with himself in the mirror.” [Laughs.] Might not be such a great Christmas theme. Anyway, we had our way with it, and “Tears Of A Clown” shot straight up the charts, and was No. 6 in the charts Christmas week, and we were on Top Of The Pops, and everybody was playing it to death at their Christmas parties and thought it was a really novel and exciting remake of the tune. And… the rest is history.
“Whine & Grine/Stand Down Margaret” (from 1980’s I Just Can’t Stop It)
DW: Our second show we ever did was opening for a punk band in Birmingham that we liked called The Au Pairs. We lived in the same area, south side of the inner city. And we decided to put up some posters to help promote the fact that we were going to be playing with The Au Pairs. We decided on, like, one of those Pirelli calendar women, and we put a big tattoo on her arm, and she had a whip in her hand. We were trying to play off different aspects of the word Beat, and, y’know, supporting The Au Pairs. We thought it was clever. We put the posters up on Saturday, around where we lived, and remember, The Au Pairs lived around there, too. Well, on Sunday morning we got a huge knock on the door. A very angry knock. Sounded like the police or a landlord, frankly, or irritated neighbor. But no, it was irritated local punk band. [Laughs.] They’d tore off every poster. And they were quite big posters we’d put up. They threw them at us as we opened the door and said, “This is so sexist!” The Au Pairs were kind of a feminist punk band, with two women and two men. We became great friends with them, and we toured afterwards, but at that moment we weren’t quite friends. [Laughs.]
“This is really sexist! How dare you?” They were absolutely furious, and it was questionable for me then whether we were going to keep the support slot. And Lesley [Woods], the singer, said to me, “Anyway, have you got any women in your group, anyway?” And I was like, “Uh, no.” And they stormed off. I had to go and report back to the band, and everyone was very downhearted, and then Everett said, “You can tell Lesley you’ve got a black bloke playing the drums, that might get you a couple votes.” [Laughs.] Anyway, they forgave us, and we didn’t do any more posters. Looking back on it, a woman with a tattoo on her arm was ahead of its time. Hardly anyone was sporting tattoos, apart from Hell’s Angels or prisoners. It’d be quite the popular poster now, I imagine.
We managed to keep the gig, but Everett still had a bee in his bonnet about it, and he said, “Well, if that’s what she thinks about us, we ought to do like a really dirty reggae song. We should do a Prince Buster song. What about ‘Whine & Grine?’ Let’s learn that song and dedicate it to Lesley.” And of course it’s filthy: “She likes it long, she likes it strong, grab her hard, you can’t go wrong.” All with a big smile, y’know, in the fine tradition of filthy calypso songs, like “The Mighty Sparrow,” or any of them. So we played it, and then we told Lesley we’d done it for her. She was not thrilled. [Laughs.]
Once we’d left that situation where we were trying to have a little bit of a tease about it, it seemed a bit rude just standing on its own. But it was a really gorgeous instrumental, and I had an instrumental mix of it, and was listening to it a lot. And I’d always been a TV news junkie. Margaret Thatcher gave us much food for thought, and food for songwriting. She thought it’d be good to go back to the 1950s, as some people still seem to think. We tried it, hated it; it doesn’t work. The ’50s weren’t that great, anyway. You always had a friend in elementary school who’s got two calipers on his legs because he’d had polio; and parents of your friends that you’d know would go into the hospital with cancer on a Monday, and they’d be dead on a Wednesday, and nobody talked about it. I don’t remember it being the good ol’ days meself. Anyway, I digress. The point is I started doing some little poems and skits about Margaret Thatcher, and my objection to what I thought was her myopic, revisionist view of the world. And elitist.
Also I was irritated that she was born above a store in Nottingham. Her dad ran a store, and then she adopted these airs and graces. They’re the worst type of traitor, because they adore picking on the working class, to try and make it appear that they’re not from there. But she was. She was one of us, really. She wasn’t “Dame Margaret” when she was born; she was just a lass from Nottingham. D.H. Lawrence would have been terribly offended by her, I think. [Laughs.] So this poem started to come up, and lo and behold, what I’d been writing started to fit into our instrumental of “Whine & Grine.” Andy helped with a few wordplays. “How can it work in this all white law?” William Whitelaw was the Home Secretary in Thatcher’s cabinet. We thought that they were all not only anachronistic but also racist and sexist, really. It all started to fit together, and “Stand Down Margaret” was born on the back of “Whine & Grine,” for the weirdest of reasons.
All of a sudden we were like political superheroes. [Laughs.] Elvis Costello covered it, and we ended up doing more interviews about politics than music. It was on the album and went down fantastic, and the record company liked it so much that they wanted to bring it out as a single, even though we’d had quite a few singles after the record already. We ended up—in England at least—with six singles off I Just Can’t Stop It, and when we dissolved a few years later, we brought out a seventh one, “Can’t Get Used To Losing You.” And that went to No. 3 on the charts, as our farewell song. We ended up with the most hit singles off one album in England in that period, including Thriller. [Laughs.] Which was very odd.
But we agreed to bring it out as a single, but thought that it would look bad if it were to be making a lot of money off a song that was about a social situation. We’d look like we were sponging off politics, basically, and it would somehow diminish the sincerity of the message. Because we did mean it. So we decided to donate all the proceeds to a number of anti-nuclear groups that were going on at the time. There was a lot of kerfuffle, as you could imagine, about how Margaret Thatcher couldn’t take enough missiles off Ronald Reagan, and people in England thought we were really becoming just a stationary aircraft carrier, y’know. The USS Britain.
So we brought out the single, and we donated the proceeds to the CND: The Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament. That’s where we get what’s known as a peace sign over here; y’know, the circle that splits into three, a bit like the Mercedes sign. That was actually the original CND poster, and it was the word “no” separated into three pieces. It actually meant “No Trident missile.” The three straight bars was a graphic of the Trident missile. So it’s odd now that it’s considered the peace sign, because it’s actually a schematic for a Trident missile broken into the word “no.” Anyway, we split the money between them and a group called the END—European Nuclear Disarmament—and the Anti-Nuclear Campaign, or ANC, which was fighting for much stricter control of the production of nuclear power. Because in those days we had absolutely no idea what to do with the byproducts of it. It was hopeless. And it was very dangerous. There’d been a nuclear accident the year I was born, and children weren’t allowed to drink milk, and then same thing happened again with my first son in 1982. Windscale, out by Blackpool, there was another nuclear accident there, and a cloud came up over Birmingham, and we couldn’t take kids out the house and no kids could drink milk again… all this stuff. So we donated the proceeds of the single to those three organizations, and raised about $60,000, I think. Probably a lot more now, but $60,000 in 1980.
It was funny how we ended up being political darlings, and supporting our favorite anti-nuclear causes—and they were very grateful, because it not only gave them some funds but also helped spread the word—and it all stems from Lesley hating the Pirelli calendar poster. [Laughs.] It’s a funny ol’ world, isn’t it?
“Hit It (Auto Erotic)” (1981 non-album single)
DW: Completely just in-jokes about masturbation really, and also… pressure. Pressure of life, and masturbation, really. [Laughs.] “Six thousand million million tons of pushing” is the weight of the world. I’d read in a magazine that’s how much the planet weighed. Six thousand million million tons of pushing; it’s a crisis point too hard to hold. You either take to heart what people say, or toss it all away. Some of it has to do with the pressure of the world. “Make yourselves dance,” that’s another good one. About not being able to cope, and the search for relief through masturbation. That’s what the song was about. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: How did you determine which songs you were going to put out just as a single, and which ones were going to be on an album?
DW: Oh, you’d finish recording the LP, and then whichever song was the first one finished next, the record company would be, “That’s it! That’s the single!” [Laughs.] We had a bit of bad luck with that one. When they mastered the record in England, the chap that had produced it, Mike Hedges, had done fabulous work with The Cure, but he drove the system very hard and pushed everything into the red. When he mastered the record, he mastered it too hot, and we didn’t hear the master before they played it on English radio. They had a show where they would play all the new releases, and they played it and it was disgusting. It had been cut so hot the whole thing was distorting—just a huge mess of modular distortion, like there was a big hairball on the needle. Just like, “Oh my God.” And we all got together at David Steele’s house to listen. “They’re going to play our single!” And they only got halfway through, by which time even the black people in the group where white. “Oh. My. God.” And I’d written the song and they’re all looking at me like, “Grrrrr!” But it wasn’t my fault!
The DJ took the record off halfway through and said, “This is unplayable, unlistenable. I don’t know what the chaps from The Beat think they’re up to. What are they on? This is a joke, this is stupid. Let’s move on to the next record.” And that was the death of that one. [Laughs.] We never recovered. They tried to re-master it, which of course they have now. Got it cleaned up. But too late for the fickle 15 minutes of the English charts. You’d had your chance, it had been declared crap, in front of millions of people on the radio, nobody would give it a second look. Boooooo! [Laughs.]
AVC: That song and most of your other singles appear on the box set in their album versions and also in their extended 12-inch single mixes, which is a format The Beat made good and frequent use of. How much did you, as a band, work on the 12-inch mixes? Did you farm them out to somebody else?
DW: Oh no, they were completely our work. And it was very serendipitous, really. We would record the songs, and that would be the album version that you’d hear, and then the record company would want to change out anything that was a bit new, or different. They’d want to get rid of any dubbed bits, or they’d want to get rid of the toasting, or at least cut it down to its minimum, so it was there just as a flavor. But they really didn’t want it in there at all. The deal that we finally struck with them, because we argued and argued and argued, was that we would give them an opportunity to make 7-inch single edits from the album version if in return they paid for us to go into the studio and do 12-inch versions, so we could do all the dubs we liked.
And as luck would have it, at the time something new had happened in the British charts that record companies were taking advantage of. The charts people hadn’t really gotten on to it, but if you released a 12-inch single of the same song, it counted equally as the sale of the 7-inch single for the Top 40. So record companies started bringing out 7-inch singles, and then a few weeks into it, at the moment it looked like the record was gathering momentum and starting to build up towards the top end of the charts—or conversely was starting to lose steam, and look like it might drop—they’d bring out a 12-inch single. And a lot of people who’d bought the 7-inch single would now buy the 12-inch single as well, and that could either save a single that was falling, or it could help propel a single into the top 10.
So they were quite happy. We were surprised they said yes, but we weren’t aware of this scam that was going on at the charts. They paid for it all and said they didn’t recoup it, but if you looked at the accounts now they probably did. Anyway, that was the deal that was struck at the time. While they were busy editing anything that was at all provocative out of the 7-inches in Studio A, me, Andy, Everett, and Roger would be acting like octopuses on the decks in Studio B. There’d be like 10 hands playing and pushing buttons at the same time. We’d all have great ideas, and just whizz off loads and loads of runs and tapes and mixes, listen to what the best bits were, and then try and recreate them and see if we could do it all in one choreographed pass, where somebody would be shouting, “Drums out! Vocals in!” We’d just happily spend all night doing that, and the record company and producer are thrilled because they’ve got rid of us whilst they cleaned up the 7-inch version for the Top 40.
And I didn’t realize, but it never came to mind that the same situation wasn’t true in America. They didn’t have this thing where you could bring out the 12-inch single and pump up the 7-inch sales. And also, at the time we weren’t really a singles band anyway. We never really had singles in the charts in America because that cost like a million dollars, and IRS Records would rather make us go around playing colleges and be No. 1 on the college charts, and make almost as much money without them having to spend any. I mean, by happenstance that bought us a lot more credibility, I think, than if we had just forced our way up the charts like a lot of our competitors did. But it wasn’t until we started compiling this box set actually that it fully occurred to us that quite a few of those 12-inch mixes had never been heard in America by anyone other than the most serious of import fans. So that’s a nice little bonus. Many years later, a lot of our 12-inches got a lovely compliment in the British press, who said that our take on the dubbed reggae style of bass and drums had been the beginning of things that had morphed into Morcheeba’s version of drum and bass. That was the start of something that was to become quite big in years to come.
“I Confess” (from 1982’s Special Beat Service)
DW: Dave Blockhead, the piano player, had been our lighting guy. And one evening Saxa was unwell—he’d had a bit too much to drink the night before probably, but we used to call it “unwell”—and said he couldn’t play that night, and was adamant about it. He’d said that a few times before, but he really didn’t look that well, and didn’t look like he could play, so we were stuck. And Blockhead popped up and said, “Well, I know all of Saxa’s horn lines on the piano, and I could play them on an organ, if you could get one.” He was a classically trained pianist, and lived in Barbados for about eight years as a geography teacher and while he was there he taught himself how to play Calypso on the piano as a hobby. This is a 6-foot-3-inch skinhead. [Laughs.] So he jumped onboard and played Saxa’s solos on the keyboard that night, and it worked. We got away with it. We asked for the audience’s sympathy and they let us get away with it. And he played the solos note for note, so at least the music was intact, and nobody complained.
We had been getting keyboards from our producer Bob Sargeant on the records—Hammond organ mainly, because he was a great Hammond organ player—and we said, “Well, if Blockhead can do that, and in fact you never know what’s going to happen next, maybe we should invite Blockhead to be the keyboard player in the band. He can play Bob Sargeant’s parts, he can play brass parts with Saxa, and if Saxa ever drops out for a minute or two then Blockhead can stay in and play the solos for us.” At which point, Saxa never missed another gig, of course. [Laughs.]
So Blockhead was a member of the group, by accident I suppose, and one day I heard him playing a tune. I was like, “Ooh that’s nice, what’s that?” He said, “Oh, just this little calypso thing, I’ve had it in my head for ages.” I was like, “It’s fantastic, can you make a cassette of that?” It had all the charm of calypso, but the drama of Wuthering Heights, I thought, with the chord changes. David Steele came up with the bassline, which was very reminiscent of Chic. “Umm badumbam umm badumbam.” Chic goes Calypso. [Laughs.] The song started to form.
At the same time, I had a bit of an obsession with what was called “Photo Love” in England. They were those teen magazines where they had photographs with bubbles coming out of their mouths. Broken hearts and redemption, that sort of thing. I loved the cloying, hyper-driven emotion of them, and I’d had my photograph as a pin-up in a couple of them. I’d even talked my way, because of being a pop star, into actually acting in one. I got one where I was a prisoner who had just come out on parole, and my wife at the time got the part of my parole officer. Which was actually more true than anybody might have known, really. [Laughs.] Very apt, I thought.
One thing led to another, and I started writing a song based on the emotional vibe of the magazines, mixed with the most sordid parts of my own experience that you could never really tell your best friends about. Once you’re in the group, writing songs, you can mix in your real life with that sort of drama. “I Confess” was born out of that. That’s why in the video there’s a little bit of me with a black cape on, with flames in the background, as if I’m on top of the mountain of love. I’m actually trying to be Heathcliff in it, in the video. A bit obtuse. [Laughs.] I don’t think anyone really noticed, but I was satisfied with it.
And the video was a bit of a take on “The New Romantics,” too. We were getting pretty jealous of them, y’know, because they’d stolen our thunder. We looked like a bunch of plumbers on the unemployment line in comparison. We were like, “Y’know, everybody goes through a phase of trying on their mum’s clothes, and a little bit of makeup when she’s out, but the idea is to get them back in the wardrobe and get your face washed before she gets home. You’re not meant to go on TV like that, are you?” So we sort of camped it up a bit for that video, which was our mocking criticism, and that went completely over people’s heads as well. [Laughs.] We heard, “Oh, you look gorgeous!” Nooooo! [Laughs.]
You have to be very careful sometimes. You think you’re making a very obvious and quite a witty little point in a pop song, and people can sometimes take it completely the opposite. “Hands Off, She’s Mine” is the worst one. It was meant obviously to mean the opposite. Of course she’s not yours. Nobody is ever anybody else’s, are they? And some people got it, but some girls were really offended. They were like, “I can’t believe you’d come up with something like that! ‘Hands Off, She’s Mine.’ What nonsense!” I’m like, “Yes. That’s the point. It’s nonsense.” So you learn your lessons. You can’t be too subtle in this game.
“Save It For Later” (from 1982’s Special Beat Service)
DW: “Save It For Later” was written before I was even in The Beat, but it was banned by David Steele for being too “rock,” too “old wave.” The record company had liked it all along, but they didn’t have any say in what songs went on the album. With the third record, though, David Steele really wanted a rest. He’d stopped writing hits on the third album—not the major ones, as it turned out. And the record company sort of had a hissy fit and said, “Well, fuck this, we’ve had this for long enough. This song’s been a potential hit for the last three years, and you haven’t written any hits this time out, David.” At the same time, we’d managed to work some financial renegotiation with the label because something had not done as well as we’d thought, and in return, “Save It For Later” went on the record.
I never expected it would do so well, though I always liked the song before I was in the group. It’s actually ended up earning about a third of our catalogue’s publishing money, nowadays. Over the last 10 years or so, it counts for a full third of the catalogue. Very odd for a song that nearly never came out at all. It was only really when the record company insisted, and I got a bit of courage and said, “Well, look, if it’s not on our record I’d just rather go and record it myself and bring it out.” At that point David acquiesced.
It started off as a dirty schoolboy joke. The phrase “save it for later” is meant to be “save it,” comma, “fellator.” As in, “Leave it as it is, cocksucker.” [Laughs.] But we didn’t have the term “cocksucker” in England at the time. We didn’t really learn that one ’til we came to America. So it wasn’t really a putdown, because we didn’t really use that term to put down people at the time, and I don’t think they do very much in England now, either. Anyways, that was the nature of the joke.
It was a song really about not knowing what to do, because you knew people looked at you as though you were a man, but you knew you didn’t know how to operate in a man’s world. You still were responding to things the same way as you always had as a boy. And it’s a scary thing, really, being scared of all the implications of your life and not knowing what else to do other than to try and bravely march forward into the dark regardless. It’s been hard to describe. People ask, “What’s that song about?” Well, it’s about nothing. It’s about not knowing anything. [Laughs.] Or feeling like you know nothing, and grasping in the dark for your place in the world, and trying to do it with a wry humor. It’s like your legs give way, and every time you try to stand up and pretend to be a man, the boy in you would flip over in front of everybody and you’re embarrassed again, y’know? Particularly I suppose as you try and learn how to deal with girls turning into women. They could say one thing and you’d go bright red, look at the floor and start shuffling around like you just got told off by your teacher at school.
So that’s what the song was about, and I’d written it on a National steel guitar I’d been given, and I was trying to find a tuning to play along to John Martyn’s songs. I very nearly got it. Turns out his tuning was DADGAD, which is a pretty famous old blues and folk tuning, I’m told. But I got it wrong, and I tuned the G string up to an A as well, so I ended up all Ds and As: DADAAD, from the thickest string to the top string. I made up my own chords to go along with that, cause it didn’t quite seem to fit the John Martyn songs. And I came up with the chords for “Save It For Later.” It just sounded so hypnotic. I would play it for hour upon hour on this metal guitar. It would just be ringing, and I’d go a thousand miles away, and all these words and lyrics and images would start to pop into my head. Sometimes I’d just play it for an hour straight, and then stop and try it out with some lyrics.
After a long time, people were asking, “What is that thing you keep playing? It’s very catchy, isn’t it?” I was embarrassed they’d even heard it. It was for my ears only, as far as I was concerned at the time. And whilst I was going through it I was trying to think about those things about your transition from youth to manhood. We did try it out the first few times in The Beat’s rehearsals, but David Steele put the end to that, and “End Of The Party” too, which I’d written just immediately prior to The Beat starting. Again it was too “old-wave Dave” for him. And I don’t know how or why, but he always considered he had a veto in the group. I mean, he was quite a bit of a genius as well. [Laughs] But he’d have had trouble sharing the stage with Mozart.
So both of the songs were banned at first, and he even said some horrible things about them in interviews when they came out on the record, which I think was one of the other nails to the coffin for The Beat, really. Of that lineup, anyway. “Save It For Later” never got played until the third album, and then only at the record company’s insistence, and even at that point David Steele still wouldn’t play on the main track. “Oh I’ll do mine as an overdub, I’m not doing a backing track like that.” And he didn’t. Nor did anybody else, really. I knew the drummer would do it, so me and Everett played the song over and over until Bob Sargeant said we’d got a really good take on it, and then the rest of the band reluctantly acquiesced. And now I tease them rotten about the publishing earnings that they get from a song that they loathed.
AVC: It was popular enough that Pete Townshend covered it, on a 1986 live album no less.
DW: That’s right! Probably one of the greatest honors in my life. I got a phone call at 11 in the morning, and somebody gave me the phone and said, “It’s Pete Townshend for you.” And I said, “Of course it is, he phones about this time every Saturday doesn’t he?” [Laughs.] I thought it was somebody making a joke. I picked up very sarcastically, “Oh, hello Pete.” And he said, “Oh, hello Dave, this is Peter Townshend here and I’m sitting with David Gilmour, and we’re trying to work out your song ‘Save It For Later,’ but we can’t work out the tuning.” They presumed it was DADGAD as well, and couldn’t make it work, and so I had to explain that I’d made a mistake and it was not DADGAD, it was DADAAD. And he laughed and said, “Oh, thank heavens for that! We’ve been breaking our fingers trying to get our hands around these chords.” [Laughs.]
He did a number of splendid versions of it, and played it live a number of times. I heard he played it at one of The Who reunion shows as well—what an amazing honor is that. “I Can See For Miles” and “I’m A Boy” were two of the songs that made me want to be in a group when I was a kid. Y’know, “That’s what I wanna do; I wanna be that.” Then he played a show in Los Angeles at The Wilson Theater, and I got a message from his tour manager through my agent, “Would you like to come to the show? Pete would like to meet you.” He’d set aside half an hour, in a separate dressing room, and we sat and talked for half an hour, and it was wonderful. I think the most memorable thing he said to me was, “Dave, songwriters are the luckiest people in the world, it just doesn’t always seem like it.” And that’s proven to be quite true.
Then he played the show, and I didn’t really look at my ticket until I went into the auditorium, and it was seat A1, right at the very front, in the corner seat right on the aisle, right in front of Pete Townshend. And it was an amazing lineup: Pino Palladino on bass, Mac and Katie Kissoon on backing vocals, Simon Phillips on drums, the bloke from Amen Corner [Andy Fairweather Low] on guitar, as well as Pete. God, what an all-star lineup is this, isn’t it? And he started with a big speech about me. “I just want you to know that a guy I really admire and a great friend of mine is in the audience tonight, Dave Wakeling, written one of my favorite songs in my whole life and we’d like to start the set with it if you don’t mind.” And they played “Save It For Later,” and the crowd all stood up, and I stood up. And I swear I didn’t cry. I didn’t cry, but there were tears rolling down my face. There was no effort to it at all. They were just rolling, rolling. I was mesmerized really for the next hour or so. I couldn’t breathe properly.
“Tenderness” (from 1984’s All The Rage, by General Public)
DW: Toward the end of The Beat, I started to ride in the truck, y’know, the 18-wheeler. Our bus driver was a Vietnam vet with a razor-sharp sense of humor; could burst anyone’s balloon from a thousand yards with his words. I really enjoyed his company. We’re still pretty good friends now, even. Facebook buddies. [Laughs.] Because I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable with stuff that was going on in the group, and because I wanted to keep myself out of the after-show party troubles—which I had a propensity for—I started riding in the truck overnight.
Which was very nice. I’d always fancied doing that ever since I was a kid. There’s something very romantic about American trucks. I’d even been a big fan of that black-and-white TV show, Cannonball, remember that? [Sings the theme song to Cannonball.] I used to build “Cannonball” out in the back garden, out of old shed doors. My dad was in the motor trade, so there were always plenty of old tires. And my mom would go crazy and make me take it down, so I’d put it up somewhere else. I would cover my arms in a bit of mud, to make it look like oil, like I’d been working on the truck. And me and my friend would play “Cannonball,” and we’d pretend we were driving from American city to American city. “Let’s go to Albuquerque, yeaaahh!” Wherever that was… we had no idea. [Laughs.]
So I had a thing for the romance of American trucks, I suppose, and I started riding in ours. And once you get going with the rhythm of the truck, there’s this particular beat to it that occurred to me maybe was where a lot of my favorite amphetamine 1950s country songs had come from. The sound that them wheels get, from the endless gray rhythm. The groove of “Tenderness” came from that. And I’d be bouncing around the truck and the lyrics would come as well: the notion almost that you were going endlessly round and round on this endless gray rhythm, searching for something. What was it you were searching for? You were searching for some tenderness in life; that’s what you were searching for.
The song got born that way, and became a reflection of how I might search for tenderness myself, and the sadness that would make you want to do that: the feelings of being disconnected from other people and wanting to feel a sense of us all being one. It took a long time to write—probably six months or so—but I enjoyed writing it. I’d just about finished it by the end of The Beat, and tried to arrange a couple of rehearsals to play this new song, but nobody could be bothered. Somebody would have to come to the rehearsal two hours late because they were buying a new car, and somebody had to leave two hours early because they got a new fridge being delivered and they had to be there make sure it went okay. So you’d have 20 minutes in the middle of a five-hour session where you could just have an argument about something and go home. So I, sadly, never really got to present it—not for want of trying.
I continued to work on it, and had a pretty good finished version, but it became obvious that David wanted two years off. We had a record deal offered to The Beat from Virgin Records that he kept finding problems with. He had a manager that wanted to manage us, and the manager kept finding problems with the contract. Negotiations had gone on for months and months, ’til Virgin Records got bored, saying, “The Beat obviously don’t want to do anything, so what’s the point of us offering you a record deal if one of your band members wants two years off and never wants to tour America again anyway? This is stupid. But we think you and Roger have got something going. You still got energy, you still seem excited, you’re still writing songs, and we really liked that demo ‘Tenderness’ that you played us, we think that could be something. Would you like to do a record deal with us?” And I said yes. Sadly, that went down in history as me having split the group up, but to be honest, the group had been split up months before then. I was just the one with the balls to pull the plug. And so “Tenderness” became the beginning of General Public’s career.
AVC: Some Beat fans often wonder what the fourth Beat album would’ve been like. Do you think it would’ve been like a mix of the first General Public and Fine Young Cannibals albums?
DW: It may have been, although David really did need those two years off to come up with his notion of the Fine Young Cannibals, and fair play to him, it was genius, certainly in terms of Top 40. We had discussed that Elvis song they covered, “Suspicious Minds.” David had gotten an idea that we should cover “Suspicious Minds,” so that probably would’ve been on the record, and “Tenderness” would have probably been on the record. Unless David Steele had banned it! [Laughs.] Who knows? But I dare say those two songs probably would have made it onto the record, though I don’t know how else it would have been. There was an ennui that had set in, and I don’t know that the record would have been very spirited.
It was sad for us that we’d stopped being pop stars in England. We’d only had three years at it, and it’d been a whirlwind, and now all of a sudden we were yesterday’s newspaper. That was bad enough, but for some of them, becoming a huge success in America was worse. Y’know, you’d come off the stage after playing for 15,000 people and some wry wit would go, “This is crap! We’ve turned into another American stadium rock band.” And I’d be like, “They’re all going nuts! We’ve got 15,000 people screaming for more, they think it’s so great.” I didn’t get it. It was a big point for them at the time.
And so we went our separate ways. And sad as it was, it was probably for the best, I’m sure. Within four years, both General Public and Fine Young Cannibals were back playing stadiums of 15,000. [Laughs.] They didn’t seem to mind the second time around. [Laughs.]