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MUSIC : Dancing to New Tunes : English rocker Dave Wakeling re-emerges with fresh songs in a familiar style--with a beat, but also with social themes.

February 12, 1993|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times.

Fans of the rock-ska-soul bands the English Beat and General Public might still be wondering where Dave Wakeling, a former singer-songwriter for those acts, has been these last few years.

He never actually disappeared, although he says now that he did try to "hide my head under a rock."

That was just after the release of his first solo record, "No Warning," an event that would normally be an occasion for celebration. But Wakeling had never actually finished the thing.

"I made the fatal mistake of thinking if I walked away, it wouldn't exist anymore," Wakeling says of that record's raw demo tapes, which had left him deeply dissatisfied. "The record company proved me wrong because they gave the unfinished tracks to other guys and brought it out under my name.

"It was really painful at the time. But you get a new band together, and you get a new set of songs, you learn from it and go on."

Wakeling has re-emerged in recent months on local club stages with a new band, Dave Wakeling & the Free Radicals, which plays a soulful dance-rock mix not unlike the sound of his former groups. The seven-member act performs at 9 tonight at the Palomino in North Hollywood.

"I wanted it to still be very much dance music, pumping, but to have that live feel of musicians relating to each other, rather than computers keeping time with each other," says Wakeling, who now lives in the South Bay.

Much the same could be said of Wakeling's first band, the English Beat (known simply as the Beat back home in Britain), which enjoyed some international success in the early '80s with the songs "Mirror in the Bathroom" and "Save It for Later." It was a sound that the new Rolling Stone Album Guide says "drew equally from Motown, '60s rock, music hall and punk, in the process developing a sound that was rich and allusive."

When the English Beat broke apart after recording its "What Is Beat?" album in 1983, Wakeling and co-singer Ranking Roger formed General Public, while ex-band mates Andy Cox and David Steele went on to create the chart-topping Fine Young Cannibals.

General Public would dissolve after just two albums. And in the midst of his abortive solo career, Wakeling began work with special projects in the Los Angeles office of the international environmental group Greenpeace.

"It's kind of full time," he says of the work, in which he largely serves as a liaison to the entertainment community. "That's my day job, and my band's my night job, in the fine American tradition."

Among his projects have been organizing "Alternative Energy Now," a benefit album due in August from Hollywood Records that will include live performances by such acts as R.E.M., U2, Arrested Development, Pearl Jam, Sonic Youth, and the Jesus and Mary Chain. The record, he adds, will be "the first ever solar-produced album in history," with all production powered by a mobile solar generator.

As he did with the English Beat and General Public, Wakeling uses his songwriting to express a variety of social concerns, from the self-explanatory "Handgun" to "You've Got a Choice," which, he says, addresses "the balance of freedom and responsibility."

Those pointed messages are blended into a diverse musical weave by the Free Radicals, says Alan Yates, who helps book talent at the Palomino. "His band is a really good band and is what makes his thing work this time out," Yates says. "He's topical and is definitely up on all political and musical trends."

The Palomino show will begin with a short set of entirely new songs, followed by a brief intermission and a longer set of English Beat and General Public songs.

"In some ways, it's kind of like being your own opening act, which is kind of interesting," Wakeling says. "It also means that we can't just rely on the applause that 'Mirror in the Bathroom' or 'Save It for Later' would bring."

He adds: "I try to mix it up so it's not necessarily obvious what songs are about. There's a new song called 'How Can You Stand There?' And on one level, it's just a really happy, sort of African, slightly ska-ish sort of track: How can you stand there, when the music's so jumpin'? It's also: How can you stand there and watch the horrors of apartheid?

"But if you just wanted to dance to it, you wouldn't feel you needed to get into a political debate. It's a real balance, the normal sort of thing for me."

Where and When Who: Dave Wakeling & the Free Radicals appear with Hep Cat. Location: The Palomino, 6907 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Hours: 9 tonight. Price: $9. Call: (818) 764-4010.

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