New Wave Musician, Actor, and Poet Dig Wayne Walks to a Boxerbeat

One of the bright, albeit brief, marvels to have flashed upon the ’80s with a singular approach to rock music, JoBoxers filled a niche of their own creating. Bridging a nifty ’50s aesthetic with the urgency of new wave pop, their stylistic exploits encompassed everything from braggadocious swing-rock to a kind of starry-eyed pugilism. Led by the affably boisterous Dig Wayne, JoBoxers leaned on what some critics pegged simply a schtick and others a charming stratagem to produce the perfect pop package; decked out in dungarees, “wifebeaters”, scally caps, and Doc Martins, JoBoxers were the doffer boys of new wave culture, bounding the stage with raffish intent.

Singled out for his powerful charisma, Dig Wayne was offered to front the band when he was spotted by Bernard Rhodes, the then-manager for the Clash. Wayne had been performing shows in New York as the frontman for Buzz and the Flyers, a rockabilly-punk band that was just coming up in vogue during the latter half of the ’70s. Rhodes invited the young singer-guitarist to move to the UK and meet with the other members of the band (the players in punk band Subway Sect). The integration was a successful one and, born from the ashes of Wayne’s former rockabilly outfit and the remaining members’ punk roots, the band was formed.

A handsome mix of Bo Diddley-esque pop, new wave bounce, noir cinema, and comic-strip kitsch, JoBoxers took their boyish swagger to parodic heights. Driven by Wayne’s alternately suave and explosive stage presence, the band mined the records of Fats Domino and Count Basie for their influences. Reframed through an approach that was undeniably punk in execution, JoBoxers became more than just a modish pop band; they were now, with the matching Depression-era rig-outs, a pop concept to push their irrepressible swing-rock to the masses.

Photo by Егор Камелев on Unsplash

Released in 1983, their debut album Like Gangbusters, a tightly packed mix of scatting blues, ersatz ’50s swing, jubilant pop, and punk energy, made headway with the single “Boxerbeat”, a stomping dockyard jaunt that secured an impressive # 3 on the UK Singles Chart. The accompanying video for the song introduced audiences to an image of young men living it up in an English dive, dancing atop the café tables and barstools. It’s a scene right out of a Frank Capra film; romantically sepia-toned and nostalgically on-point.

Most of all, the video introduced viewers to one of pop music’s most compelling and charismatic frontmen; heralding his arrival on the freshly minted new wave scene, Dig Wayne forward-flips his salutations into the pumping first verse. He sings a vocal pitched somewhere between jump-blues croon and punk snarl and pounds the tabletops with wild abandon. It’s a joyously rousing exhibition of what the band was capable of and it set up what would next become their biggest hit in the UK and stateside.

“Just Got Lucky”, the band’s follow-up single, found them in fine fettle. While it didn’t climb a number as high as their last entry in the UK (peaking at # 7), it did finally break them in the US on the Billboard Top 40 charts. A pogoing Northern soul jam full of lusty drive, the song strikes a perfect balance between the band’s pure pop sensibilities and their rock-solid rhythm section. As befitting of their doffer boy image, the music video captures the boys in full revelry; a coterie of wharf-rats storming the shipyards, engaging in the tomfoolery of go-karting, quaffing, and Don Juaning.

The stateside success of “Just Got Lucky” allowed JoBoxers to tour the US. Meanwhile, their appeal continued to expand in Europe. Striking while the iron was hot, they released their third single; the funk-strutting, bellicose “Johnny Friendly”. Taking their pulp-novel kitsch to grandiose heights, the single’s promotional video furthered the band’s image of hip gamin boys and angled in a noirish gangster-film aesthetic. Shot in the industrial lots of Shad Thames (pre-gentrification), the band enlisted British boxer Frank Bruno to star in the video for a bit of celebrity razzle and shine.

A fourth single from the album, “She’s Got Sex”, was released and, afterward, the band would return to the studio to record a follow-up album. Changes in management and record company hassles would eventually seal the band’s fate and JoBoxers subsequently dissolved. Left on his own, Wayne made a bid for a solo career, releasing one single, “Mastermind”, in 1987, which stalled by the wayside with little push or promotion.

Determined, gutsy, and curious as ever, Wayne would explore other activities beyond music, including acting, landing roles in Judge Dredd (Danny Cannon, 1995), Phoenix (ibid, 1998), and the Harvey Keitel vehicle The Young Americans (ibid, 1993). He’s made the rounds in television series as well, scoring roles on ER, CSI, and Criminal Minds and, in 2008, he began teaching acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute in LA.

In addition to his thespian pursuits, Wayne is an accomplished poet as well, revealing an emotional and poignant depth in his work that tills deeper the soul than the work of his pop-lyric past. As a photographer, he is given to a fruitful sort of happenstance and captures a kind of ingenious beauty in the mundane. Stripped of the glamour and larger-than-life pop music theatrics of his former preoccupations, Wayne is far more aligned with the likes of artists and poets such as Theo Bleckmann and Anne Waldman. He continues to make music; in 2007, he released Shack Rouser (with the Chisellers), an album of rustic, dream-soaked blues. He’s also reunited with his earlier rockabilly band Buzz and the Flyers for a number of shows. A reunion show with JoBoxers is rumored for 2021.

Always busy and on the go, and perhaps a little hesitant of delving into his pop past, Dig Wayne discusses with PopMatters the various facets of his work, tracing his days as a spry youth thrashing about in punk clubs to the very present, as one of LA’s hardest-working artists.

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You moved to New York just before you started your band Buzz and the Flyers. Did you hang around the likes of Blondie, Defunkt, Lizzy Mercier Descloux, John Lurie, Lydia Lunch, and other members of the No Wave scene? What do you remember of the New York punk scene?

I knew John and Evan Laurie of the Lounge Lizards. I had some good talks with John. You’d see everybody in the clubs. I wasn’t friends with a lot of bands. Levi and the Rockats were the only band I considered to be friends. I met Levi and Smutty [from the band] in Kentucky before any of us had moved to New York. There was a lot of “my gang, your gang” on the scene then. We hung out in the clubs but never saw band people in the daytime.

I do remember Sid Vicious at Max’s Kansas City. He always had a big wad of cash, out of his mind. Johnny Thunders was a rockabilly fan so he would sometimes show up at our gigs and want to get on stage and play the Chuck Berry song, “Round and Round”. He did the same thing to the Rockats. You couldn’t say no to Johnny Thunders if he asked, so you let him up. Then, he’d play the song forever. He wasn’t exactly sober. Good times, eh?

Buzz and the Flyers are a rockabilly band that came up in the scene with those aforementioned bands; how did the band fit in with the New York scene amongst the other bands?

We were all just playing what we loved. There were enough punks that dug rockabilly so we always had crowds. There were a handful of real rockabilly fans but the crowds were always mixed. The energy was not that different between punk and rockabilly at the time. A few people could really play but most of us just had the fire and youthful drive to deliver a punch without being musical geniuses. That’s all the audience wanted.

Tell us about your move from the US to the UK to start your next band, Joboxers.

During the summer of 1980, the Clash did a week at [the nightclub] Bond’s on Times Square. They chose a different New York band to open for them each night. Someone from their camp had seen us and offered us a night. Great gig.

Their manager, Bernard Rhodes, saw us and approached me after the show. He said he liked my stage presence but he didn’t like the music I was doing. He told me that if I was interested in moving to London, he would introduce me to musicians so I could start a new band over there. He said he’d manage me and shop for a record deal once I was ready. I was getting a little tired of the rockabilly scene by then because the Stray Cats had broken and we were getting a lot of people telling us we sounded like them. My fragile ego couldn’t take it so I was looking for something new. Not long after Bernard and I spoke, I left New York for London.

Joboxers had a sound and image that was very evocative of certain eras. There were some carry-over influences from the Flyers, but Joboxers mined many influences from the early part of the century; ragtime, big band, swing, jump-blues — all combined with punk/new wave and pop structures. Did the band already have this conception of sound before you joined, or were you, as the frontman, primarily responsible for helping to shape the music?

When I met the guys, who became JoBoxers with me, they were playing with Vic Godard from the seminal punk band, the Subway Sect. By then they had moved into swing-influenced music. Vic was wearing a tux and the band was in bow ties. They had a show at the Wag Club in London’s West End one night a week, which they dubbed Club Left. It was a cabaret-type deal with them being the house band. Vic, a female singer named Lady Blue, and I would do a set with them. I did some rockabilly songs and Lady Blue did torch numbers. Vic would close it out with some original swing numbers.

Vic didn’t like touring and I wasn’t happy just being one singer on the bill. I told them we should join forces, reshape and rename the band, write new songs and push Bernard to get us a record deal. We all loved vintage music but were still very influenced by the current sounds and styles. The one band we all agreed was the best was Dexys Midnight Runners. I had no idea of them before I moved to London (pre-“Come On Eileen”). Once I saw them with the docker look and soul sound, I knew we had something in common. I brought the American, On the Waterfront/Marlon Brando vibe mixed with the Bowery Boys’ swagger to the image. The British side of it was heavily influenced by Dexys. We didn’t try to hide it. We found our own version, but that’s how it all began.

Lyrically, Joboxers had these sort of speakeasy narratives in their songs. A lot of them seemed directly influenced by a lot of ’40s and ’50s noir. What kinds of things inspired the lyrics for you?

Old movies,
Chester Himes novels and short stories, Mickey Spillane paperbacks. I’ve always kept a notebook with snippets of dialogue and conversations I hear on the street. I love a good turn of phrase. I’m always referring to these words/lines to help me tell a story. I carried around the words “Just Got Lucky” for a few years before I used it in that song. Our bass player, Chris Bostock came up with that bassline and it all just fell into place. Now, as a published poet, I still use that same process.

The great thing about the Joboxers music videos is that they capture a now long-gone England. Many of the places you filmed have been remodeled or gentrified (much in the way areas like Times Square have). What are your favourite memories of filming the music videos?

The “Just Got Lucky” video was very memorable because we shot it on the old abandoned London docks. We found the little blue fishing boat just sitting there. A great prop just waiting for us. I don’t know if the record company got permits or not but we just moved in for a day.

The “Johnny Friendly” video was shot on Shad Thames. It was an old industrial area. We did a lot of early photoshoots in that area, which is now luxury apartments. The first video we did was for “Boxerbeat”. That was shot in an old pie and eel shop in Islington. I’m pretty sure it’s been absorbed into the modern world. We stomped all over the marble tabletops and actually cracked one. We had a lot of fun.

Boxer Frank Bruno appeared in the “Johnny Friendly” video, and he also appeared with you on the cover of NME. Any stories about working with him?

Frank was a big sweetheart. We all got in the ring with him, à la the Beatles with Cassius Clay in 1964. I think Rob, our guitar player, jumped on Frank’s back. We fake-sparred for the cameras. Frank got me in a headlock. That was the pic on the cover of NME. His manager was Terry Lawless. He was always looking to make sure Frank didn’t get hurt. Frank is a big guy but he doesn’t seem to have any real danger about him. I knew he wouldn’t have a chance against Mike Tyson.

The band’s debut Like Gangbusters was both a commercial and critical success. The band was slated for two more albums (listed as Skin & Bone and Missing Link), but neither of those albums was released. What happened to them?

I don’t remember it being a critical success but if you say so… A lot of people liked it but I mainly remember getting slagged off terribly in the NME by Julie Burchill. We sold a few copies and got to #18 in the British charts for a hot minute if I remember correctly.

The second album, Skin & Bone was recorded in Berlin but never came out. We were young and had inexperienced management. Bernard Rhodes was gone by then so we made a lot of mistakes. Once the record company is pissed off at you for not doing what they say, your days are numbered.

We had enough material for several more albums but RCA put an injunction on us, for some reason that I can’t remember now. CBS wanted to sign us but RCA’s injunction made it impossible for us to do anything with the new material. We lost momentum and eventually, I lost interest in the whole affair and walked away. The masters are in a vault somewhere.

In 1987, you recorded a single on Polydor Records called “Mastermind” (with a B-side, “No Such Love”) from a parent album, reportedly called Square Business. Was your solo album given an official release? What happened to the solo album?

Dave Collard from JoBoxers and I wrote songs for a solo album with Polydor, which Mark Riley from the band Matt Bianco produced. I only had a singles deal to start with and “Mastermind” didn’t take off, so they wouldn’t take a chance on the album.

Tell us about your experience on stage, performing in Louis Jordan’s Five Guys Named Moe in the West End.

That was practically a fluke. I never enjoyed musicals at all. The audition came to my agent who told me I was right for the role. I didn’t want to go. He convinced me. I had to do a monologue and sing a song for the audition. I don’t remember what I did, but I was called back several times before I finally was offered the part.

Once I got the part, I started to enjoy the process of rehearsing a musical. The songs were rhythm and blues, so it wasn’t like I had to sing “Hello Dolly” or some cornball tunes. Louis Jordan wrote great songs so it became a lot of fun. The cast was terrific and very supportive. It was the best thing I could have done at the time. Doing eight shows a week gets you in shape like nothing else will, as far as being an actor goes. Big crowds, hit show, West End… Great money. I loved it. I did it for five years.

What are some of the things you miss most about England or look back fondly at, now that you’re back in the US?

Oddly, I miss the weather. The rain could be tiresome but I liked that you could get dressed in layers. I love LA, but the sunshine and heat can be oppressive. I’d rather put on a jacket and real clothes than just tee-shirts and shorts. Plus, the London I knew is no longer there. Like everywhere, it’s been gentrified. Most of the grit and grime that gave the city so much character has been bulldozed and replaced with overpriced luxury shoeboxes.

When you moved back to the States, you began writing and performing your poetry onstage. How did the work in spoken word begin to come together for you?

I had always been a poet, putting my poems to music. The spoken word came from meeting an actor friend named Paul Mabon, who was involved in the spoken word community here in Los Angeles. I read him some of my work and he said I should come with him to read at an open mic. After that, I was on my way.

It was the nearest thing to performing as a singer that I could do without the pressure of keeping a band together. He produced a CD of my work called Digambiguation. I’ve been published in a few literary journals along with my photography. I’ve self-published a book of poetry called Hip Pockets. I’m working on a new collection called Horny Chandeliers.

Right now, I’m spending a lot of time submitting to publishers. I get a lot of rejections but that’s the way it goes. Someone will bite eventually – I’d rather not self-publish in the future.

You are an acting teacher in LA. You have acted in numerous television and film projects for the past 30 years now. Do you have any ideas/plans for writing and directing a project as well?

My writing only extends to poetry right now. I spent time writing plays in the late ’90s. I directed a play for the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2017, Nights of the Round Table. It was about Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Hotel in the 1930s. I enjoyed that but I’m not actively looking to direct. My focus is on my poetry and teaching at the Lee Strasberg Institute. I am very excited about teaching Method Acting. I’ve been teaching since 2008.

You’ve returned to music, leading Dig Wayne and the Chisellers and reforming the Flyers. Do you have any other musical projects you’re working on at the moment? Or any plans to reunite Joboxers?

I recorded an album in 2005 called Shack Rouser with the Chisellers. I also did a reunion of Buzz and the Flyers in 2014 at Viva Las Vegas. We had plans to reunite JoBoxers in England in 2020 but COVID-19 put all that on hold. We may do it once things clear up. We’ll see.