[20 September 2012]
The English Beat were perhaps the most celebrated of the so-called “2-Tone” bands to emerge from Britain’s fertile late ‘70s-early’ 80s postpunk scene. I must admit that back in the day I wasn’t a fan of The Beat – as they were labeled across the pond – and catching them one Saturday on American Bandstand did little to change my view. My then-conservative tastes ran to slick, overproduced Top 40 pop and rock, and there was little room on my turntable for the group’s ragged, earthy vibe.
Still, the American rock scene was in serious flux at the time, and the English Beat – Dave Wakeling (vocals), Andy Cox (guitars), David Steele (bass), Everett Morton (drums), Saxa (saxophone)—were invited in 1982 to play at the inaugural US Festival, Apple Computer whiz kid Steve (‘Woz’) Wozniak’s rock extravaganza in the dusty desert burg of San Bernardino, California. The Woz presented a second edition in May of 1983, and The Beat delivered a well-received encore. These twin performances have been compiled in a new DVD titled The English Beat Live at the US Festival, which also includes a companion music disc.
Apart from Dick Clark’s TV perennial, and touring with bigger New Wave acts, the Beat’s appearance at this modern equivalent to Monterey Pop was likely the largest concert audience they ever faced, and the premiere show, on 3 September 1982, occurred at a propitious time for British pop; indeed, it was the cusp of what I call the New British Invasion, a fleeting era when countless New Wave artists from the British Isles became mainstays in the American Top 40, enabled by video-hungry MTV, an expanding economy, and the golly-gee compact disc. Although the Beat never became chart-toppers in America, they developed a devoted coterie of US fans, including this writer.
“Live at the US Festival” is a modestly-budgeted affair that doesn’t display the wide angle grandeur of Hal Ashby’s Let’s Spend The Night Together, which appropriately captured the Rolling Stones at their arena gods zenith. Still, the video images we see – and film wasn’t used – remain crystal-clear, and the group’s attire is the only clue we have that we’re viewing a period piece. Well, that and the conspicuous lack of tattoos among the pasty, mostly shirtless young males in the crowd.
Long-time Beat fans will recognize every tune here, and I smile hearing the snarky “Stand Down, Margaret”; when my late grandmother was alive, she misheard the lyric as “Stand Down, Mary! The song is a jab at the Iron Lady’s unilateral governing style in’ 80s Britain, and in a moment of nervy hubris, the band finish up chanting “Stand down, Ronald”, but let’s remember that the Gipper was still unloved in his second year at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Vocally, however, co-lead Ranking Roger’s rich Caribbean-inflected toasting meshes perfectly with Dave Wakeling’s gravelly baritone honk. Other chestnuts include the jittery, menacing “Twist & Crawl”, the plaintive “I Confess”, and “Mirror in the Bathroom”.
The Beat’s tight musicianship is equally apparent in the frenetic “Two Swords”, not to mention the poppish, strings-laden “Save It for Later”, their highest-charting American single, and probably the only Beat number that casual Stateside fans would recognize. In fact, SIFL was one of the tunes they showcased in their American Bandstand debut.
The English Beat’s sophomore jaunt at the US Festival occurred the following spring, and, with only three studio albums to draw from – no new material was released in 1983 – many of the same songs are repeated. My ears insist that the rhythm section is more full-bodied in the 1982 concert, but the audience benefits from a video screen mounted above the stage during part deux, one laughably small by today’s measure.
Once again, “Stand Down, Margaret” is ironically paired with “Get a Job”, at a time when Ms. Thatcher was strong-arming unions and UK unemployment was devastating. My favorite Beat track, the joyous party anthem “Ranking Full Stop”, only surfaces in the second show, and “Jackpot” serves as an encore at both performances.
I had the pleasure of seeing the Beat last summer in a free evening concert in L.A.’s Pershing Square Park, and was unaware at the time that the group had splintered into two editions, one serving the UK, the other playing dates in America. Unfortunately, neither features crack players Cox and Steele, or Saxa – a man who performed with The Beatles in their Liverpool barroom beginnings—but thankfully, Dave Wakeling, now a US resident, was present in the sextet on stage. The purist – and armchair nostalgist in me laments not experiencing the original lineup, but the fact is I never saw them in their heyday. Still, I do agree that the sweaty, interactive immediacy of the live gig is very difficult to capture on camera and watching Live at The US Festival doesn’t change my mind.
But even more – and call me a philistine if you must – I prefer their recordings to the live show. There’s a crisp, funky flavor – enhanced by stellar studio acoustics – to their albums that make them fresh and exciting 30 years on. In fact, the CD included in this ‘package’ – the sole extra we’re granted – is less than enthralling for that very reason; the sonics seem rather muddy alongside my pristine greatest hits anthology. I’ll always be an aficionado of this band, but I suspect that The English Beat Live at the US Festival will only encourage the most hardcore fans to get up and dagger.