My Punk: The English Beat Live By Simon Price
, March 21st, 2014 10:09
Simon Price attends the O2 Academy Islington to revel in the live show he missed the first time round. Photograph courtesy of David Dunn
It's a familiar story. A once-popular band splits up, the former members kick around trying new projects for a few years with no great success, until they eventually realise there's still an audience out there who want to hear their old tunes, and rival versions of the original band re-emerge on the oldies circuit featuring different combinations of its founding personnel.
Sometimes (The Sweet and Gene Loves Jezebel spring to mind), the competing entities agree a geographical carve-up, with one taking the US market and the other the European one. Sometimes (the various Glitter Bands and Bay City Rollers doing the rounds), they uneasily co-exist within the same territory. In the case of Brummie ska legends The Beat, it's the former: one incarnation, led by original co-frontman Ranking Roger, has been gigging around the UK for years, reliably delivering a hugely enjoyable night out, while the other, led by original lead singer Dave Wakeling and trading as The English Beat, has toured America to entertain the surprisingly sizeable number of 2 Tone nostalgists on that side of the Atlantic.
The arrival of The English Beat - Wakeling's version - back on home soil is arguably an act of turf war, but in theory ought to be no more significant than that. So why am I so excited about this? Why has it been in my diary for months? Why, when I can regularly see another band called The Beat playing Beat songs perfectly well in my own town, am I making a 100-mile round trip to catch this one?
The reason is that The Beat are one of the most underrated bands of all time, and Dave Wakeling ought to be spoken of in the same breath as Weller and Strummer in the post-punk pantheon of heroes. And I'm not going to miss the chance to see him. Not this time.
You see, I never saw The Beat in their 80s prime. 2 Tone hit when I was 12 years old, and it was "my punk", my first taste of youth culture and the first tribe I joined after ceasing to be a non-aligned pop kid. The ska revival was the right thing at the right time, combining the three things I needed at that exact moment: adolescent antisocial snottiness, a burning anger against social injustice, and something that made you jump up and down. It also stood for racial integration in the face of the rise of the racist National Front, and The Beat - every bit as much as their Cov cousins The Specials - lived it like they talked it.
Birmingham-born Dave Wakeling formed the band in 1978 with teenage black punk kid 'Ranking' Roger Charlery, the latter's prettiness and the former's handsomeness making for a formidably photogenic front pairing, assembled a multi-racial backing band including the already-veteran saxophonist Saxa, and scored a Top 10 hit in 1979 with a jubilantly hyperactive cover of Smokey Robinson's 'Tears Of A Clown', their one and only release on the 2 Tone label. As Roger told David Stubbs in a Quietus interview in 2012, "the very spectacle of black and white kids up there having fun together, it was a 'mindbomb'." And The Beat seemed to be having the most fun out of anyone in the movement (with the possible exception of Madness).
Everything about The Beat was super-sharp, staccato and punchy, from the music to the modernist aesthetic of their own Go-Feet label, with its red/black colour scheme, dance-manual footprints and cartoon mascot The Beat Girl, a "substitute Ronette" who served as a female counterpart to 2 Tone's Walt Jabsco.
Debut album I Just Can't Stop It was propelled by an inextinguishable nervous energy, fuelled as much by insecurity and paranoia ('Mirror In The Bathroom', 'Noise In This World') as goodtime partying. The Beat's early releases were relentlessly, restlessly rhythmic, an itch you could never quite scratch. Second album Wha'ppen had a dreamier, laid-back reggae feel, and sold as well as its predecessor, reaching No.3. By the time of their third album, Special Beat Service, something had changed, in British culture as much as within The Beat.
Fashion had moved on, most of The Beat's 2 Tone peers were either faltering or had broken up altogether, and the band didn't help matters by releasing inter-album single 'Hit It', a harsh funk groove with unbroadcastable lyrics about the solitude of the compulsive masturbator. Radio wouldn't touch it, and it peaked at No.70.
The decline in sales was sharp. Special Beat Service only reached No.23 on its release in 1982. The world wasn't listening. And the world was a sucker, because Special Beat Service is a wonderful, wonderful record. Wakeling's songwriting had stepped up a level, mature in the best possible sense (i.e. the sense that isn't just code for "fucking boring"), his lyrics showing a rare subtlety and depth. Straight-up ska-pop numbers like 'Jeanette' and jerky fidgety punk-funkers like 'Rotating Head' were a throwback to the earlier material, but SBS was dominated by thoughtful songs about relationship break-ups, with the sort of chord changes that reach in, grab your heart in a fist, and twist. On tracks like 'Save It For Later' (which belatedly broke The Beat in America when MTV and college radio picked up on it), with its classic chiming guitars, the ska revival felt like a distant memory. Even jazzy piano breaks were now allowed, on 'I Confess' and the astonishingly beautiful 'End Of The Party'. I played it to the point of destruction, in the full knowledge that almost nobody else was.
In 1995 Melody Maker, the magazine I was writing for by then, asked us to come up with ideas for a free giveaway book about great lost albums, called Unknown Pleasures. Special Beat Service sprang to mind, but I didn't have the confidence that anyone would care enough to read me banging on about it, so I opted for the comparatively much-feted More Specials instead. Even among 'lost' albums, Special Beat Service gets left out, by the very people who rate it. That's how overlooked it is, and how overlooked The Beat are.
After one more proper hit - their biggest - with a belated single release of their pointless crooned cover of Andy Williams chestnut 'Can't Get Used To Losing You', The Beat quietly called it a day. And, cruelly, I'd never got to see them at the time. When they played Cardiff, I took the "Over 18s Only" advert in the music press at face value, and instead made do with a copy of the I Just Can't Stop It album signed "Love And Unity from The Beat - Dave Wakeling", procured by my dad via his job at a local radio station when Dave came in for an interview before the show. The next day, when my classmates told me they'd got into the gig with no problems, I vowed never to believe anything I read in the papers again.
Finally, in 2003, I got the chance, when the original line-up (minus the bass/guitar duo David Steele and Andy Cox, who had gone on to success with Fine Young Cannibals) reformed for a one-off show at the Royal Festival Hall in London. VH1 tried to engineer a full reunion the following year for their Bands Reunited show, and for a whole decade the only chance for Brits to get their Beat fix was by watching Ranking Roger's outfit. Until now.
So here we all are, expectant grown-up Rude Boys and Rude Girls (uh, Rude Men and Rude Women?), and there HE is in a navy Fred Perry, a new edition of his familiar white Vox Teardrop guitar round his neck (the original is in the Rock'N'Roll Hall Of Fame now), with his Californian band and his surrogate Roger, the garrulous London-born toaster Antonee First Class, ripping into 'Ranking Full Stop'. There's no hint whatsoever of Wakeling slowing things down with age, breaking a string within six songs, although he does joke, after the frenetic glossolalia of 'Twist & Crawl', that there are "too many words, almost. It gets harder with every decade..."
If there's a criticism, it's that the saxophonist toots too politely, and needs to be given free rein for a real dirty blast a la Saxa. And that the merch stall is selling a tacky T-shirt of the Beat Girl wearing suspenders and brandishing a whip. But these are minor matters.
There's just the slightest hint of tension with the absent Roger when Wakeling explains his set list with "I've made a point of trying to do the ones Roger doesn't do", and rips the piss out of a couple of joyless scowlers at the barrier, lost in Twitter rather than living in the moment, with a sarcastic impression, "Ooh, I like it better when Roger sings Dave's songs..." As great as Roger's Beat are, it's doubtful that anyone does, and it's a real kick to hear hits like 'Hands Off... She's Mine' and 'Too Nice To Talk To' delivered by the original vocalist (if not the original musicians).
Suddenly, a stooped, russet-quiffed figures steps out of the shadows. It's Roddy 'Radiation' Byers, guitarist from The Specials. "The greatest miracle of 2 Tone wasn't black and white uniting," jokes Wakeling. "It was getting people from Birmingham and Coventry to like each other. We should've taken it to the UN. Next to that, sorting out Palestine would be a piece of piss." Byers and The Beat play three Specials classics he wrote, 'Concrete Jungle' with the lyrics changed to "I'm being chased by... Terry Hall!" (oh man, not another ska schism?), 'Hey Little Rich Girl' (dedicated to Amy Winehouse, who covered it), and 'Rat Race'. The surreal sense of having crashed a 2 Tone Reunited bash is complete when there's a tap on my shoulder, I turn round and it's Rhoda Dakar from The Bodysnatchers/The Special AKA.
"Throwing bricks at Nazis' heads seemed like a good idea when I was young," Wakeling reminisces. "I was quite handy with a brick, and I hit a couple of 'em. Then, on the way home, I felt ambivalent about violence as a method of conflict resolution..." The song he's introducing is 'Two Swords', and like 'Stand Down Margaret', it's a reminder that things have come full circle, and only the names have changed: Cameron for Thatcher, EDL for NF.
When he floats the idea of playing a couple of General Public songs, the reaction ranges from indifference to outright hostility. Ah, General Public, only the band The Beat could have been. Formed from their first band's ashes by Wakeling and Ranking Roger, General Public had considerable success in the States but made zero impression at home. To give you some idea, the first time I even heard 'Tenderness', GP's glorious pop-soul single from 1984, wasn't till the 00s when one of The Donnas played it in a DJ set backstage at Reading and I rushed over to find out what this amazing tune was. Since then it's never been off my mp3 player and is one of two songs which, had Dave played it tonight, I'd have gone totally, eyes-screwed, fingernails-in-palms emo about.
Discouraged by the crowd reaction, Dave decides against it. But he does play the other obscurity I've been praying for: the sublime 'Sole Salvation', a Special Beat Service album track criminally tossed away as a B-side. After a couple of the greatest hits - 'Tears Of A Clown' and 'Mirror In The Bathroom' - he's gone, back to the California sunshine.
And, in fairness, you couldn't blame him. Just don't leave it ten years next time, OK?