STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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In the late ’70s, unemployment was high in Great Britain and punk rock was the soundtrack for the disenfranchised.
However, Dave Wakeling, singer of ’80s new wave groups The English Beat and General Public, said that many punk shows of that era would also have a reggae band on the bill that was also voicing frustration with the powers that be, albeit in a different presentation.
“You can celebrate the joys of life, but you could still protest,” he said of the ethos behind The English Beat, a handful of bands that 35+ years ago revived ska, reggae’s sped-up dancefloor ancestor. “It was like the Velvet Underground jamming with Toots and the Maytals … and I got to be (a frontman like) Van Morrison and Bryan Ferry.”
Wakeling’s American-based lineup of The English Beat (not to be confused with former bandmate Ranking Roger’s U.K.-based The Beat) will be performing songs from the three English Beat albums of the early ’80s, some General Public tunes, as well as two or three songs from a yet-to-be-released album titled “Here We Go Love” at a modern-day “punky reggae party” with Soul Asylum July 2 at the Trocadero in Philadelphia.
Soul Asylum singer Dave Pirner said in a separate phone interview that back in the day, he was “always aware” of The English Beat’s music but didn’t know much about the band. That changed when the Daves — Wakeling and Pirner — crossed paths at Washington D.C.’s 9:30 Club.
“I got the greatest feeling from them. They seem to put a good vibe out there,” Pirner said of The English Beat.
Formed in the ’80s, Soul Asylum kept the punk torch burning, setting the stage for grunge in the ’90s. Not widely known outside of college radio and the Minneapolis music scene, a dreadlocked Pirner was suddenly on MTV as the acoustic-driven, gold-selling, Grammy-winning “Runaway Train” became one of the essential songs of the ’90s. The single helped propel the album “Grave Dancers Union” — the band’s sixth — into rarified platinum air, even playing Bill Clinton’s presidential inauguration in 1993.
The heart-wrenching video for the song, which had several different versions customized for the regions and countries it was airing in, took on the issue of missing and runaway teens in the pre-Amber Alert era. It wasn’t at all what the song was about, said Pirner, but thanks to the video’s director, Tony Kaye, the song took on another life of its own.
“The first thing that came out of (Kaye’s) mouth was: ‘milk cartons,’” said Pirner, who gained a deeper appreciation for the video after he became a father. “It’s the saddest (expletive) thing in the world. I can’t think of anything more terrifying.”
Pirner credits drummer Michael Bland, a musician whose résumé includes Prince’s New Power Generation, with assembling the band’s set lists.
“Between the two of us, we’ve got a pretty amazing amount of the (Soul Asylum) catalog at our fingertips,” he said.
Songs he’s particularly enjoying playing live right now are 1990’s “Something Out of Nothing,” “Can’t Even Tell” from the “Clerks” soundtrack and the single “Supersonic” off the band’s new crowdfunded album “Change of Fortune.”
“I like that people are calling out for ‘Don’t Bother Me,’ which is in the middle of the (new) record,’ said Pirner, adding that the future of the music industry could well be having fans directly pledge money to cover the recording expenses of their favorite bands. “There’s a great deal of gratitude (to the fans). It still shocks me to know how long I’ve been doing this.”