The English Beat's Dave Wakeling on the band's new box set

Dave Wakeling and the English Beat are back.

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  • Jackie Butler
Dave Wakeling, frontman for the long-running 2-Tone ska act the English Beat, is not a man who's afraid of the past. He reunited the Beat in 2003, and the group's been making summer tours of the United States a regular deal for the past few years. That revived interest in the band has led to the forthcoming release of The Complete Beat by Shout Factory. The five-disc box set features all three of the band's original albums, B-sides, live performances, and dub versions. It's astoundingly good, and the English Beat is at Knuckleheads tonight, touring in support of it. Wakeling spoke with The Pitch by phone about The Complete Beat, touring, and going back to those old songs.

The Pitch: Tell me a little about this box set that's coming out.

Dave Wakeling: They did so much more of a job than I could've imagined. Tremendous. It was easier than I thought it was going to be, and it turned out a lot better than I thought it was going to be. Shout Factory Records did ever so much an amount of preparatory work, so the whole catalog - everything which had been found - was presented to us all in such an easily accessible way that it was remarkably easy to make decisions: "Ooh, I like that one." "Oh, I'm not sure about that. "What about that bit, there?"

So, there was not much major difference or confrontation about the contents or the design. It all went together sort of incrementally and took account of quite a few people's different feelings about more or less everything, and still managed to come up with something that was fun to do and cohesive to look at in the end. It's remarkable, would be the word I would use.

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What I find fascinating is that you had a deep involvement in putting this together, as I know quite a few acts have recently spoken out on how much they despise repackaging past records, as they weren't able to be involved.

Well, it's a number of bits of good luck. I live only around the corner from Shout Factory Records. Ten miles - around the corner in Los Angeles terms - so I could go down there a lot. And they're really nice people, so you spend a bit of time with them and come up with a couple of good ideas. They're not precious and use whatever good ideas are flyin' around and integrate them.

I like them as a company because of this sort of new paradigm of the entertainment world. There isn't loads of money to throw at things to advertise or try and market them - you've got to be kind of clever. The same sorts of lessons I've learned on the road the last seven years, where we've actually become more and more popular during the recession. You have to learn why you're doing it in the first place, and then, like a service industry, give people what they like and what they want, and use cheap and cheerful ways of doing it.

So, the more attention you can pay on something - that's what I was impressed with, even before I'd gotten involved with them. The start of the listings of the tracks and stuff were from the perspective of what a Beat fan would like to hear. Which makes it easier, you know. You're not putting it out there and expecting, "Oh, they'll love it." You're thinking quite consciously, and there are people who are Beat fans at the record company who are like, "I've always liked this one" or "What about this?" or "Don't forget that one!" "Oh, this is the one everybody's always want to find."

And to be able to integrate all those sorts of things, what we'd always been told from Facebook and so over the years, into the same package together. Then, I had a notion that I might be able to sell a few at concerts. A lot of my fans don't really like online buying. They like to pay for something and be given an artifact that they might get signed or something, so we designed the box set about as small as you can make that sort of thing, rather than being as long as a shirt sleeve. About the size that you can stick it in your pocket.

What sort of songs did you rediscover as you went through this? I was happy to hear all the dub versions which had never really been put out on CD.

A lot of us in the band haven't fully realized that. Those dub mixes were on the 12-inch singles in England, and they came about for an obvious reason: We wanted more elements of that side of our music on the singles, and we'd usually write them with that in mind. We'd use Roger toasting in the middle section, rather than the usual musical bridge or middle eighth, and echoes flying and stuff like that.

Th record company sort of offered us a deal and said, "We'll pay for you to do your own 12-inch mixes, non-recoupable, in a studio at the back of the studio. You can do your dub mixes all night. Just let us have a go at editing your single." So, sometimes the trade-off was that Roger's toasting got halved. A couple of times, it was took out altogether, but we got to do this 12-inch single of it, which became quite famous in England, because at the time, the way the charts worked, a 12-inch single counted the same as the sale of a 7-inch single.

They would bring out your 7-inch single, and it would either fly or crawl its way up the charts, hopefully. When it started to look like the following week might be its peak, they would bring out a 12-inch single, and a lot of your fans who had bought the 7-inch single at three weeks or a month ago, they were dying for the 12-inch single because - just like us - that was their favorite bit, too. So they would buy the 12-inch single, and that would make the single go back up over the next month of charts, where it would be in the top 10, and everybody would pay more attention, and sometimes it would help drive the song all the way into the top three, you know?

So, it was funny that we got the artistic chance to do those mixes for really all the wrong reasons. It's a funny old world. But some of those were my favorite mixes, too. Some of those John Peel radio sessions were surprisingly good, and more than anything else, there was a sense of strength and determination that I could hear. Young people, putting their foot down: "This is what we stand for! Even though we're not quite sure what we stand for! This is it! I think."

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  • Eugenio Iglesias
Has revisiting these songs made you want to revisit any deep cuts, or do you have no desire to relearn songs which you'd forgotten?

Only to a certain extent. Only to the ones that we play well, and only to the ones that the majority of the fans would like. You put a couple of things in that are surprises, but you do it too often - or you do it with too many new songs - then people that've waited 20 years to hear you, and only know 20 of your songs, are like, "Eh? What's this?"

So it's a fine line. You don't want to be a slave to the past or, really, you don't want to be a slave to the audience, but you've got to be careful how much you stick in. I did have three or four new songs circulating, but I took them out. It kind of mixes apples and oranges a bit, and some of the band members were quite keen that nobody was to bring out new material while we revisit this old material, so I took the songs out and let them have a rest.

I put some old songs in their place - "Soul Salvation," we're working on "Jeanette" - which is really difficult - and "Too Nice to Talk To." So, yes, the idea is to replace the songs in the set with songs that were agreed on by the original lineup that would be on the best-of, some of which I've not done for a while.

Is there a downside to playing in a band for so long, or do the positives outweigh the negatives?

Oh, the positives by more than anything outweigh them. It's only right now that I have to take into account the feelings of people 10,000 miles away that it gets a bit awkward. In these last 12 months, as I've been starting to put just one or two new songs in the set, then three or four the next time we went through, and then I started to have people asking at the merchandise counter if they could buy a CD of those new songs that I knew I was going in the right direction.

If it hadn't really been for the box set, I think I would've been further into that process. I had imagined bringing out a three- or four-track EP that I could sell at shows, and see what sort of interest might develop from there. So that's the only current frustration: that I have to wait a bit.

However, I've got 20 really nice songs. Now that we've done all of these new record and publishing deals for the Beat and General Public, I'll be able to bring out my new songs with the support of the record company and the publishing company with my new songs, too, and we'll all learn a great deal about the market.

It's been a long while since I've had a record on sale. We'll probably learn a bit about the market going through these Beat releases and the General Public releases, so that probably this time next year, when I'm bringing out my new songs, I'll probably be a bit wiser about the process than I currently am. It's all a bit of an exciting thing at the moment.

Shout Factory did a thing where they had a bit of a pre-sale, and asked if I would autograph the booklet that fits in the box set, and I said, "Oh, sure," and they said it would probably be like 200 or something. It ended up being 700 or something, and I almost ended up getting carpal tunnel from signing these things. That was a good problem to have, and they were pleased with that. That was a good sign.

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