Suppose your favorite band's creative differences reached the critical stage and the whole thing went ka-blooey, thus ruining your wallpaper and your finances as well. The English Beat was just such a worst-case scenario when they called it Quitsville in the early '80s.
The English Beat, a multiracial dance outfit out of Birmingham, England, helped, along with the Specials, to fuel a dance-crazy ska revival about 1980. The Beat's aptly named "Just Can't Stop It" was one of the best albums of the last decade. The band toured incessantly, then broke up shortly after a memorable performance at the US Festival in 1982.
Now comes the confusing part: The two Beat singers, Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger formed General Public. The Beat rhythm section recruited a new voice and became the Fine Young Cannibals. General Public went away after a few albums and the pieces re-formed variously as the Special Beat, then the International Beat.
Now Wakeling, the blond guy with a very funny accent for a guy who lives in Dana Point, has formed the Free Radicals. As a member of many of those other bands, Wakeling certainly knows the way to Santa Barbara, where his band will play Friday night. This will be his third gig there with the Free Radicals, but his first at the Beach Shack, a place that provides nonstop dance bands for the nonstop dancers. Wakeling spoke recently from his home deep in 714-country.
How long have you been in California?
Three years now--am I a dude yet?
Well, you haven't lost your accent.
No, I suppose I'm sort of like the talk radio Michael Jackson. I live in Dana Point, but I'm not a surf dude or anything. I have a nice view of the beach from my deck and I enjoy walking on the beach in the morning and the evening.
What do you think of the Southern California music scene?
Well, I don't really know that much about it because I'm not that much of a scene person. One thing about the clubs in L. A.--they don't keep them very clean. I think they could use a coat of paint. Also, I do think a lot of those Seattle bands burst the bubble by proving you could make it without having a perm.
How often does the band play?
Right now, two to three times per week. It seems to be getting better and better, more like a complete unit. For advertising purposes, it's called Dave Wakeling & the Free Radicals. Once we get name recognition, we'll become just the Free Radicals. We hope to get a record deal by summer.
You've played Santa Barbara a lot of times before?
Endlessly with the Beat and General Public at the Arlington Theatre, on campus at UCSB and the Santa Barbara County Bowl. With this band, we've played Toes Tavern twice. This will be our first show at the Beach Shack--they pay more money, which is a consideration.
Why is ska music so popular?
The Free Radicals are not really a ska band. General Public was not really a ska band, and the English Beat only had a couple of ska songs. With the Beat, we wanted to combine punk and reggae, but there was already fast reggae music and it was called ska. I can't really get excited if I had to watch a ska band all night.
Back in 1982, the Beat seemed on top of the world--you just played the US Festival, then broke up. What happened?
We just got tired of each other. Why aren't you still kissing the first girl you ever kissed? I just thank my lucky stars that I was ever in a band called the Beat.
After the Beat came General Public. What happened to them?
Roger was getting more into machines and I was more into a band. My music didn't have a metronomic edge, and it was hard for me to write a song on an acoustic guitar, then translate it into dots for a computer. Roger's coming over soon on vacation for a few weeks, and maybe he'll do some gigs with us.
Whatever happened to that old saxophone dude from the Beat, Saxa?
Saxa's in the International Beat--it's still going as far as I know. He had such a gorgeous tone on his sax, sort of a clarinety sound. A lot of the younger players blow it too hard and it sounds raspy. His first instrument was a clarinet, which probably accounts for his tone.
How did you get started in the music biz?
I think really by writing songs, writing poems and being a lyricist when I was a kid. I liked to sing but I always avoided the choir. Then Andy Cox and I became roommates. We were too shy to get our own groups together, so we'd look in the band members-wanted section of the paper; and we made each other join other bands. He made me join a '50s revival band doing "Chantilly Lace" and like that, and then later, a jazz fusion band. I made him join a cabaret band and they made him rent a tuxedo. Finally, all this gave us the courage to start our own group, which turned into the Beat around 1979. I remember our first gig in Birmingham was the same day as that nuclear incident at Three Mile Island. They introduced us as "the hottest thing since the Pennsylvania meltdown."
So do the Free Radicals still do Beat songs?
Yeah, we do. We do two sets, one of Free Radicals songs, then we come back and do a set of Beat and General Public songs. It's sort of like being our own opening act. Our new stuff is soul underneath and rock on top. It's rock 'n' roll and dance and bassy underneath so it's sexy and you can dance to it. It's sort of like the Four Tops to the left ear and the Clash to the right ear.
So what's it like being the band boss?
Well, I get to stand in the middle of the stage and I have the loudest microphone. I'm the manager, the tour manager and the nanny, all in one. Sometimes, 10 minutes before a gig, someone will call and say their car broke down as if I could do something, and as if I care.
If not for the rock star thing, what would you be doing?
Actually, I do something else. I work full time for Greenpeace. I work on a special project--an album that will come out in August on Hollywood Records. It will be the first album totally produced on solar power--the recording, the mixing, everything. R.E.M., U2, Public Enemy and others will be on it. Half the songs will be brand new.
So music can change the world?
Oh yeah, it already has. Sometimes it takes 20 years. Without the Beatles, there wouldn't have been a Bill Clinton. And now, even your uncle is wearing a paisley tie. Change sometimes occurs years later. People listen to music before they take power. The people who were listening to the Beatles are in charge now.
So would John Major wear a Free Radicals T-shirt?
I wouldn't want Major to wear a Free Radicals T-shirt. He's conservative so he can pretend to have rich friends. At least Margaret Thatcher was a straightforward bigot.
So what's next?
Some more shows for a while, then maybe record a couple of shows and make a couple of demos. I want to try and take it gently and allow the band to settle in. I want six people to sound like they know what they're doing. We want to produce a record that is musically correct but also has that interaction between the players. That's about as close to religion as it gets for me.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Dave Wakeling & the Free Radicals at the Beach Shack, 500 Anacapa St., Santa Barbara. Friday night, 9-ish, five bucks or less. For information, call 966-1634.