The Beat Goes On
The Beat goes on and to New York where Paul Gallotta met up with Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger
When two Birmingham lads started The Beat they were young and naive - when it all finished they were chastened and much wiser. Paul Gallotta met them in New York and found out how their new outfit, General Public, embodies the lessons they learnt...
When The Beat disbanded in August 1983, guitarist/vocalist Dave Wakeling dismissed the surprise disintegration as simply a matter of Rock 'n' Roll ethics.
"We could have made another LP and sold a million copies just by doing the same old thing. But that's not the reason I picked up the guitar."
Former Beat frontmen Wakeling and vocalist/toaster Ranking Roger suggest that the rift with their old group went a lot deeper than they had revealed previously.
"It came down to commitment," Wakeling says matter-of-factly. "The Beat were a democracy, and sometimes the idea of a democracy is better than the people who practice it. People will sometimes do whatever they can to remain equal, and yet contribute less and less. We were very altruistic when we started The Beat; we felt we didn't need an incentive to make everyone contribute. We counted on human decency, but that wasn't enough."
So are General Public a two-man solo project rather than a comprehensive unit?
"No, not really," replies Roger. "We are a group. With me and Dave, we are very much a democracy."
"Yeah, but the others work for us," stresses Wakeling. "We are fair and nice bosses, but we may as well admit that we are the bosses. It's the old carrot-on-the-stick routine. Sometimes it is necessary. The Beat will not repeat themselves. We had started out with the idea of achieving musical integrity, and we stopped just before we were going to fall in that pursuit."
"How could we avoid sounding like The Beat when we were two of The Beat's writers?"
Maintaining artistic integrity is certainly admirable, but The Beat's dissolution immediately following their most successful album, Special Beat Service, struck many observers as foolhardy. Both Roger and Wakeling maintain, however, that there was no real alternative.
"It was very painful to watch The Beat lose their purity," asserts Wakeling. "These are conservative times we're in, and it's time for boxing rather than fighting. I don't think that if we were to bring out Stand Down Margaret (The Beat's invective against Thatcher), now we'd get it on the radio.
I just felt it would be terrible to sing songs that carried a message if we didn't mean it. It all goes back to commitment, and it simply wasn't there. We are still politically conscious when we're not in the group, and our songs reflect that more obliquely. I just don't think we could afford to be obvious anymore."
After The Beat's demise was made official (the other members are continuing under the name Fine Young Cannibals), Wakeling and Roger spent three months doing little more than practising and discussing what it was they wanted to do. The overall speculation among the press jury was that no matter who joined. General Public would merely be The Beat II, since Wakeling and Roger had been the outfit's most identifiable members, as well as its principal songwriters. Ranking Roger admits that it posed a problem.
"How could we avoid sounding like The Beat when we were two of The Beat's writers? You can't start out saying, 'Let's write a really good song that is totally different from the other 30 good songs we've written.' Setting up restrictions to prevent that would sort of be like cutting off your nose to spite your face."
In as much as the resultant LP doesn't deviate noteably from the Ska/R&B amalgam that was the heart of The Beat, General Public's overall sound is a familiar one. But All The Rage can hardly be called a Xerox copy. As Wakeling explains, "You can only do your best when you do what comes naturally. A couple of the songs sounded like they might have been Beat songs until we got other musicians to work on them."
"(Horace) Panter phoned up one day and said, 'I'm your new bass player'. Of course he was right."
The first to join was keyboardist Mickey Billingham, who uses a Yamaha PF15, a DX7 and a Roland JX3P.
"We wanted him because we got on well socially and he lived around the corner from us," says Wakeling. "In addition, Roger and I never found it necessary to read or write music, but we felt it would be a good idea to have someone around who could."
Originally, they decided to keep General Public just a trio, with Roger doubling on bass and vocals.
"We saw no need to turn this into a conventional band situation," says Wakeling. "But then after working out the songs together, we realised with a mixture of joy and horror that we actually missed a full band. So we called Stoker."
Stoker, an original member of Dexy's Midnight Runners, plays a five-piece Pearl kit with Paiste cymbals. At the time, he was working with British techno-pop artist Tin Tin, but the prospect of teaming up with Wakeling and Roger proved more attractive. Shortly after he joined, ex-Clash guitarist Mick Jones entered the picture.
"We are fair and nice bosses, but we might as well admit that we are bosses."
Wakeling recalls, "We used to open for the Clash quite a bit, and we usually ended up hanging around with Mick more than the others. He had just been sacked from the Clash and was feeling pretty bad, and he sat in with us. He was on and off for ages trying to decide if he was going to join us or not. It was finally decided that he would be our 'special guest', because he felt that he had to get something off his chest in reference to his being sacked from the Clash, and he didn't want to do that on our record."
Completing the line up was fellow Two Tone label refugee Horace, bassist with the Specials.
"Panter phoned up one day and said, 'I'm your new bass player,'" chuckles Wakeling. "Of course he was right." On the album Panter used a Fender Precision strung with Fender strings and customised with DiMarzio pickups. He DId on every track. On stage he uses an Ampeg V4 amp and Ampeg cabinets with two 15's.
All The Rage was recorded at several locations — most notably Air Studios and the Town house in Shepherd Bush, and the Manor in Oxford — and was mixed at Genetic Studios. The recording procedures, interrupted by bomb threats, were slow and arduous.
"It was the most expensive rehearsal I've ever been to," sighs Wakeling, who alternates between a new Fender Telecaster and his old Gretsch Tennessean, both strung with Fender 10 gauge strings and put through a Roland JC-160 Combo amp. Wakeling uses Ernie Ball picks and his only effect is a Boss DD-2 delay pedal. Ranking Roger added various percussive effects, including two Simmons pads, which he also plays live. His vocal mike is a Shure SM58. (For their live show, General Public have enlisted the aid of former Beat guitar roadie Kevin White, who plays a vintage '62 Stratocaster and a new Fender Telecaster. For amplification he uses a Carlsbro Stingray Lead Combo, and his effects include a Yamaha octaver, a Roland 501 chorus/echo and a Guyatone compressor).
"It was your typical learning process," says Wakeling of the sessions. "We would record five tracks one week, then find out the next week that we could do them even better. We kept on repeating ourselves, re-recording the same tracks. But it was worth it. I am very happy with the end result. We pulled no punches, although maybe we were a little less blatant — which is good. People can interpret us more to their tastes. After all, if you can write 12 songs and totally avoid the social situation of the country in which you are living, I feel that says something even more dramatic than coming right out and saying something. Anyway, I'm not going to preach to anyone."
He pauses for a moment and laughs.
"And besides, getting banned isn't fashionable these days."
Interview by Paul Gallotta
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