The English Beat: In Concert at the Royal Festival Hall [DVD]
Although usually lumped in with the ska revival bands, the English Beat's exhilarating blend of pop hooks, reggae rhythms, jazzy sax breaks, and punky attitude is difficult enough to categorize that they wouldn't stand a chance on today's genre-driven radio or MTV.
The new wave explosion of the late '70s and early '80s was a rare time when just about any style of music could get on the radio. Sure, the open attitude spawned lots of dodgy bands, but it also meant that groups like the English Beat got a chance with mainstream audiences. Although usually lumped in with the ska revival bands, the English Beat's exhilarating blend of pop hooks, reggae rhythms, jazzy sax breaks, and punky attitude is difficult enough to categorize that they wouldn't stand a chance on today's genre-driven radio or MTV. Known simply as the Beat in their native UK, the band released three classic albums -- I Just Can't Stop It (1980), Wha'ppen? (1981), and Special Beat Service (1982) -- scoring minor hits like "Mirror in the Bathroom", "Save It for Later", and "Best Friend". But at the height of their success in 1983, the Birmingham band's singers, Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger, left to form General Public. Other splinter groups followed: Saxa (saxophone) and Everett Morton (drums) created International Beat; guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele formed Fine Young Cannibals; and after General Public's breakup, Roger briefly went solo before putting together Special Beat.
In recent years, Dave Wakeling has toured America playing Beat and General Public tunes, while Roger and a few of the others performed Beat hits in the UK as Twist and Crawl. It's a bit like the dueling versions of the Beach Boys, except that no one is suing anyone else, and the formation of the two separate entities is due more to geography than anything else. That's why, when Mojo magazine asked the band to reform for a one-off gig in London, everyone except the seemingly nostalgia-free Steele and Cox was onboard. The resulting February 2003 show, along with a detailed biography and a 47-minute interview with Morton, Roger, and keyboardist Dave Blockhead, comprise the band's new -- hell, first -- DVD.
Featuring 20 songs from all three of the band's albums (plus a solo Saxa performing "Stranger on the Shore"), the show is full of fan favorites, even if "I Confess" is conspicuously absent. For those, like me, who have only seen Wakeling in concert, it will be a treat to hear so many of the songs ("Spar wid Me" and "Rough Rider", for instance) that would be impossible to perform without Ranking Roger. Oddly though, Roger's presence seems to tame Wakeling. While Wakeling was jovial, chatty, and animated on the occasions I've seen him live, here he seems restrained, possibly because it's hard not to be upstaged by Roger, who has aged hardly a day, and leaps around the stage like a rabbit on uppers. The band, augmented by Neil Deathridge on guitar, Andy Pearson on bass, and a guest vocal on "Mirror in the Bathroom" by Roger's son, Ranking Junior, is in fine form throughout. Mostly, they turn out versions of songs similar to those on their records, although they slow down "Doors of Your Heart" to an even mellower groove while speeding up "Click Click" to a frantic pace. "Stand Down Margaret" gets updated with a chorus of "Stand down Georgie, stand down please / Stand down Tony".
As for the technical (i.e. nonperformance) stuff, the 5.1 sound of the concert footage is high-quality, and the picture is clear, although it's too dark at times (especially against Wakeling's dark outfit). There aren't many crowd shots, for better or worse, and unfortunately not much of Blockhead. Saxa's weird, incoherent rambling between encores could have been edited out, but I guess it's fun to see the show as the audience saw it, warts and all. The interview with Ranking Roger, Blockhead, and Everett Morton, however, doesn't have warts so much as a gigantic mole like the one Fred Savage sported in Goldmember, a flaw so obscene that you can't ignore it: The audio and video are so poorly synced that the film runs for two minutes after the audio ends. The effect is so disorienting that it makes watching a very informative interview painful. This is unfortunate, because over the course of the 47-minute conversation, the band members discuss their entire history, including Roger's candid admission that he and Dave Wakeling left the band for purely economic reasons, sending a letter to notify the others. The interview also provides the band plenty of opportunities to deny that they are a ska band, opting instead for the mantra, "We're a dance band." Well, whatever they are, I love 'em.