A Private Conversation: Spin’s 1985 Interview With General Public
This story originally appeared in the July 1985 issue of Spin. In honor of Ranking Roger’s life and death on March 26, we’re republishing it here.
“The beat goes on,” say countless headlines heralding the arrival of General Public, the new band led by former Beat frontman Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger. While the heading may be catchy, it’s not exactly true…
When The Beat formed in 1979, the English Two-Tone ska revival was in high gear, as bands like The Specials, Selecter, and Madness were busy driving home the idea that such divergent styles and attitudes as punk, reggae, ska, and rock could all meet harmoniously on the dance floor.
The Two-Tone movement grew out of England’s industrial midlands—Coventry and Birmingham, mainly—where white and black working-class youths grew up on the music of West Indian immigrants.
From the beginning, The Beat made a point of confronting the political and social issues of the day, from racism and nuclear arms to madness and conservative politics. The Beat’s blend of ska authenticity (thanks to 50-year-old Jamaican saxophonist Saxa), modern melodies, and relevant lyrics earned the band a solid following. Their debut LP I Just Can’t Stop It stayed on the British charts for nearly six months. Even the banning in 1980 by the BBC of the single “Stand Down Margaret” (an infectious denunciation of the prime minister) did nothing to diffuse their growing popularity.
When The Beat finally came to America in 1980 (as The English Beat, since there already was an L.A. band known as The Beat) the group quickly garnered fans as well as an American record label: IRS.
Two years and three albums later, The Beat appeared to be ruling the punky reggae roost. Madness had gone off in another direction, while both The Specials and Selecter had disbanded. Meanwhile, The Beat’s popularity was rising rapidly, leapfrogging from a teenage mod revival in California.
But just as national music magazines were climbing on The Beat bandwagon, seduced by the soulful vocals of the hit single “I Confess,” leaders Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger suddenly pulled the plug.
The pair returned home to Birmingham in the summer of 1983 and began working on a new plan with a new name—General Public. They built upon the soul/ska/pop base of The Beat, but ventured in new, harder-edged directions. Helping with the new sound were former members of The Specials (bassist Horace Panter), and Dexy’s Midnight Runners (drummer Stoker, and keyboardist Mickey Billingham), as well as ex-Clash guitarist Mick Jones. The result was All the Rage, an encouraging first album, but without the punch of The Beat.
Still, as the response from American audiences on General Public’s recent U.S. tour proves, the band is a genuine crowd-pleaser.
Roger: If we can avoid talking about The Beat, we’re happier.
Why are people still fascinated by that group?
Wakeling: Because The Beat is more famous than it ever was when it was going. It’s selling more records than ever before.
R: People always love you once you split up, don’t they?
W: Oh, not always. I think it was because The Beat split up before they ever fulfilled the promise that a lot of people thought they had. Which I’m glad happened. If there had been many more Beat records, the dream would have shattered, because internally it wasn’t nearly as strong as the reputation. Apathy had wrought its terrible havoc so that it had even affected me and Roger. Which was a real shame. But now I love writing songs. It’s a real thrill seeing what the other musicians do with a song after I give them a tape and we start playing it as a group. Songwriting is a thrill again.
Do you two still work together?
W: Sometimes together, but sometimes separately.
R: We don’t write songs in any one way. There must be six or seven techniques and combinations that get used.
W: We both write tunes and sets of lyrics independently of each other. Sometimes, one of us might write the entire song—all the music and all the words, because sometimes that’s how a song comes to you. You’re sitting there doing nothing, and it just comes out and you’re consumed by it for an hour. And at the end of the hour you’ve got a song. You couldn’t tell by listening which of us wrote a song, because after it’s been written by one, the other messes with it so much. Sometimes people try to guess and get it totally wrong. They go by the stereotype—Roger is the black one in the group, so he does the reggae; and Dave is the white one, so he must be the one who likes the rock guitar.
R: And most of the time it’s dead the other way around!
W: Roger was a much bigger punk than I ever was.
What’s “Burning Bright” about?
W: The verses are about watching the TV news and how they always use nice-sounding voices and therefore they anesthetize you to the real horror of what they’re actually saying. You can sit there and casually watch burning children in Lebanon. And after about 15 years of it, it doesn’t bother you anymore. I started thinking, “Do they do that on purpose?” That friendly polite voice, especially on English news; they under-dramatize it. They make it seem awfully polite while you’re watching all this horror going on. And the chorus is an attempt to put some hope in the situation, although it’s rare that I feel any real hope when we’re faced with a choice of either international solidarity or nuclear Armageddon, for which “Burning Bright” fits either way. In my daydreams it’s international solidarity, and in my worst nightmares it’s huge mushroom clouds. Both affect me quite strongly.
You remarked somewhere that you didn’t want to be obvious in your lyrics anymore because it got you banned.
W: Right. We don’t want to be expected to be obvious. “Burning Bright” is fairly obvious, as is “General Public,” but it’s a very fine line between telling people what your opinion is and preaching to them. And certainly, during the experience of The Beat there was this terrifying feeling that sometimes people, because they hear you singing something in a song, will adopt it entirely as their particular philosophy for the week. And that isn’t why I want to write lyrics. I don’t expect my shoes to fit everybody, and I don’t expect my views to fit them either.
You’re afraid of that?
W: Yeah, very much, because it can demean the things that we’re singing about. We might have joint concerns with people in the audience, but pop is transitory—that’s one of the charms of it, that it’s fashion-conscious, here today and gone tomorrow. But some of the things we try to sing about are much more important than the foibles of pop.We were really worried about the anti-nuclear stuff we got involved with through The Beat—that as the band got less popular in England, the less fashionable it would be to be involved with the campaign for nuclear disarmament. And that made us almost wish we’d never said anything in the first place! So we thought it would be better to insinuate and suggest, because then people aren’t sure what you mean, and it forces them to think about what they mean with a situation. Also, because we’re in ever-increasing conservative times—not just in governments, but in the media as well—there would be no point in writing a “Stand Down Margaret,” because it would never get anywhere near the radio. It would be banned before it would have a chance to be banned. Nobody would hear it, so there’s no point in making it.
General Public was formed almost by accident. If you had to form a new band, would you do it in the same way?
R: Yeah. I don’t know if we’re isolationists, but we only get along with musicians who come from the same town as us. So we’d probably do exactly the same thing—see who is in town that we like who is not working.
W: But there’s no way we’d do that at the moment, because we’re quite satisfied with the way things have turned out so far. I have a feeling that General Public might be the last group I’m ever in, and if I wanted to do something else musically, it would be solitary.
Weren’t there bomb threats and searches going on while you were recording “General Public”?
W: Yeah. It just helped the general sentiment of the song. It made the dub even tougher. We kept getting kicked out of the studio for bomb searches, and every time we came back in the dub got harder and harder. The IRA bomb had gone off at Harrod’s department store a few days earlier and they’d been leaving them all over the West End.
What is the mood in England now?
W: Apathy. Nobody thinks they’re ever going to get a job, and they’re probably right. And everybody thinks they’re going to die in a nuclear explosion in the next 10 years. Whether they’re right about that, I don’t know. They probably stand a good chance. Nobody even talks about it much anymore. There’s an immense psychic shutdown. When it looked like there was a little bit of hope, people were really angry about it. But as the situation got worse and worse, people just walked away from it. When something nuclear is on television, someone will switch it off and say, “Yes, yes, yes, we’re all going to die. No need to remind me.” Bit depressing, isn’t it? And I think it goes all through Europe. That’s not a particularly English phenomenon. When the Cruise missiles came, everybody gave up the ghost and sat down. “There’s going to be a nuclear war,” they said.
You have this line, “The bland leading the blind…”
W: Horace wrote that. It’s good, isn’t it? I think it has to do with the quality of our leadership at the moment. People are reassured by dull conservatives. They can act strict, at least. They don’t say anything, but they act stern. No substance. And the blind aren’t ignorant of the situation; they’ve just turned away from it. They feel dispossessed of any political direction. They feel the people in the government ignore them, so if they ignore the government, maybe they’ll go away. Unfortunately, they don’t. They just get worse. The other sadly insidious thing about conservatism is that whatever takes them a year to do takes 10 to undo. We probably haven’t got the time to build another welfare system, another national health system and another free education system.
Has suicide increased much in Britain?
W: Yeah, but nobody shoots themselves like they do over here, because there are no guns. There are many suicides amongst the unemployed. And they’re mainly middle-aged men taking drug overdoses because they can’t get a job. They’re embarrassed because they can’t keep the family supported. And there are the young people, but they do it with heroin.
Do you base your view on Birmingham? Are things worse there?
W: It is much worse in Birmingham than London. The more north you go, the worse it gets, so Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle are much worse than Birmingham. And people say that Glasgow is just a nightmare. But around London, it’s not too bad. Birmingham has 25 percent unemployment. And that’s among the white people, so the blacks are closer to 50 percent.
Given that situation in your own neighborhood, how do you feel about the various rock benefits for Ethiopia?
W: A lot of people said that to me, that we ought to do a record for Handsworth, not Ethiopia. And a lot of people say that the Ethiopian things are just ego-preening for the artists—and incredibly naive politically, because it’s not as if it’s a regular famine. It’s actually a war of attrition. The people in the north are being starved to death on purpose. Half of the reason they are starving is because they burned the fields for three years to make sure nothing would grow. They show people starving in Eritrea, in the north, but none of the food generated by the records is going there at all. It goes to Marxist re-education camps in the middle of the country. But we were on a record for Ethiopia called “Starvation.” They gave the money to Oxfam, who spent the money air-lifting the food into the north. And if that will just make the war of attrition go on for another five months or not, I don’t know. We felt it was hard to give the political reasons not to go on it, because then you would appear to be callous and uncharitable. Maybe if the food doesn’t go to the right place all the time, some of it might. One bag of rice is better than nothing. It’s a good record. Roger did a great toast on the 12-inch African version. The group was called Starvation and included Madness, Specials, Pioneers, ourselves. It was kind of a two-tone Ethiopian record.
Did Jerry Dammers appear for it?
W: Yeah. He was the commander in chief. I like him a lot because it’s nice to meet someone who is more neurotic than yourself.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
W: Being able to vent your spleen and be paid for it rather than be put into an institution. That’s marvelous. It really is a most lucky break, because you start off and think you’re just writing songs, but then you have to dig deeper and deeper into yourself to find out what you really mean. And you learn so much about yourself, usually all the nasty things. And then you have to come to terms with them, reconcile them. And at the same time go to a concert and play the songs and there are 3,000 people smiling and laughing and dancing! It used to strike me odd in The Beat days when we’d play “Mirror in the Bathroom” and everyone would be laughing and waving their arms in the air and I would think, “This song is about having a mental breakdown! This is nothing to smile about!” I like being able to find out about myself and be paid. Even the bits that really hurt are okay. I never used to get those opportunities in any other jobs I had. In other jobs, I used to try and find ways not to think about things. I like music because it gets you past words and takes you places you can’t explain.
What’s the worst thing about your job?
R: Too many sharks in the business. If you’re not careful with contracts … from record companies to tour promoters, you have to watch who you trust.
W: It’s the same anywhere; there’s easy money and lots of people think that about the pop business. Half the people it attracts are idealistic and fairly creative, and the other half are like, if they weren’t in the pop business, they’d be selling heroin. Or sponsoring other people to sell heroin. If something is worth a dollar it’s good, and if it’s worth $1.10 it’s brilliant. It doesn’t matter what it is. While you are trying to be altruistic, if you have one of those types around you it can drive you to distraction. It brings out a very rude side of you. You’re always getting people trying to con you. People say, “I can do this for you or that,” and after you’ve been talking to them for five minutes, you realize they’re making it up as they go along. And what they actually mean is, “Can I stand by your side and empty your pockets while you’re doing something else?” Usually, the more wicked they are, the more they’ll keep at you; the more you swear at them, the more they smile and try to be “a real help.” That brings out a side of me I don’t like, that I’d rather not develop. The only way to get rid of them is to be as vile as they are. And that’s the battle they play. They depend on the fact that you’re not willing to be as nasty as they are. You get that in everyday life as well, but they take it to a fine art in the pop trade. That’s the only bit I dislike. That, and when people book you for two things at the same time. That happens a lot when a record gets hot. But compared to being allowed to record in studios, all that is water off a duck’s back.