Dave Wakeling’s Five Favorite Ska Songs

English Beat circa 1979. Photo: Fin Costello/Redferns

From the slippery, skanking grooves of “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Twist and Crawl” to the pop perfection of “Save It For Later,” the English Beat served up a flavorful sonic stew of ska, New Wave, reggae, and ‘80s pop-rock. Emerging from the late-‘70s British Two Tone ska-rock scene alongside the likes of the Specials, Madness, and the Selecter, The Beat (as they were known everywhere but the U.S.) eventually broke through to the wider world by the time of their third album, 1982’s Special Beat Service, but they broke up soon after, splintering off into General Public and Fine Young Cannibals.

Today, frontman Dave Wakeling tours with a revamped lineup of the band, but the new five-CD box set, The Complete Beat, offers the quintessential classic Beat experience. Besides the three original English Beat albums, the box includes a bounty of bonus tracks, including concert recordings, 12” mixes, cuts from the live archives of the BBC, and more. Shout! Factory’s also unleashing a full complement of reissues and a new anthology, Keep the Beat, in conjunction with the set. Since ska was the sound that powered the Beat’s engine from the start, we asked Dave Wakeling to sound off about a handful of his favorite ska songs from the past. ‘They’re all really from the same period,” Wakeling explains, “When I was 13 or 14. On the football terraces, to keep the skinheads happy, they played these songs from the Tighten Up [ska compilation] albums on Trojan. So they came at a very volatile time. That music then came up with my growing interest in sex, I suppose. And some of the songs that were very suggestive and sexual sort of hit me at just the right time.”

1. Nora Dean, “Barb Wire”

That was a great one. Those were some of the songs of my first, you know, “Are you dancing or are you groping here?” Because the girls would squeeze up against you when that song was on. [Sings] “He’s got barbed wire in his underpants,” an extra little swivel would be delivered sometimes if you were lucky on that lyric [laughs]. It was just sexual energy, but you could pretend you were just dancing to a song.

2. Clancy Eccles, “Fattie Fattie”

Skinhead girls were my first sense of being terrified of women [laughs], you know, awesome in all of the various aspects. I was a little bit chubby as a teenager — although I was a swimmer, I seemed to have a bit of padding on me, and the other swimmers would tease me about it. So sometimes girls would sing that to me, [sings] “I really love you fattie fattie.” I’d go [in embarrassed adolescent tone] “Aw shuddup!”

3. Desmond Dekker, “A It Mek”

I’m also a big Desmond Dekker fan, so “Israelites” and “A It Mek,” I’ll include those. Sometimes one of them is my favorite, sometimes another. But at the time they were both very formative tunes for me — style and everything. “A It Mek,” I just like the poetry in the lyric, the way it scans [hums the tune]. That melody itself is awe-inspiring.

4. Desmond Dekker, “Israelites”

The first thing that hit me on it was [sings] “Ooh ooh, Israelites,” the big bass voice, which was turned up quite loud in the mix, louder than you’d expect the first time it hits you, but it works just perfectly just where it is.

5. Harry J. All Stars, “Liquidator”

That they used to play on the terrace at the football games when the team West Bromwich Albion would take to the field. That’s one of the three Birmingham teams. Most of the Beat were West Bromwich Albion fans, so we went to a few games. And they had two black strikers, Laurie Cunningham and Cyril Regis. And Cyril Regis went to the same school as me. We used to see each other sometimes in the morning, looking a little worse for wear. And they also became England strikers, the pair of them at the same time, so it was a terribly proud moment. And that song “The Liquidator,” it’s an instrumental about an assassin, a sort of James Bond type, I think. That song meant an awful lot. When we [General Public] got to do [the Staple Singers’] “I’ll Take You There,” we played around a bit and sort of did a mashup, really [of “I’ll Take You There” and “Liquidator”].

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