English Beat Relive 2 Tone Ska’s Glory Days in Brooklyn
The last few years have brought tremendous validation for two-thirds of 2 Tone’s big three. The Specials, founders and figureheads of that British post-punk-era ska label, as well as the movement it spawned, followed a string of worldwide reunion shows by performing alongside Blur and New Order at Hyde Park in London to close out the 2012 Summer Olympics. Madness, who left 2 Tone after releasing only one single yet remain affiliated with the sound and style, also played the Olympics, but their real triumph came earlier that summer, when the North London knuckleheads rocked the roof of Buckingham Palace as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
And then there’s the English Beat, or simply the Beat, as they’re known to U.K. audiences. Over the last decade, the group — led by singer, songwriter and lone original member Dave Wakeling — has toured yeoman-like around the world, providing nostalgic nights for aging rude boys and skinheads and something akin to time travel for those ska fans who missed out on 2 Tone the first time around. Theirs isn’t a glamorous existence, but given the strength of shows like last night’s (Jan. 31) at the Bell House in Brooklyn, N.Y., it’s a justified and valuable one.
Wakeling’s reconstituted lineup opened with three of the English Beat’s early classics: ‘Rough Rider,’ ‘Hands Off … She’s Mine’ and ‘Tears of a Clown.’ The latter, a Smokey Robinson cover, is indicative of what set the original Beat apart. As they made the inevitable move from ska to other forms of music, the Birmingham band used its knowledge of classic soul and pop to transition more gracefully than the Specials, who got bogged down in leader Jerry Dammers’ “muzak” experiments, and arguably even Madness, who ultimately let ’80s gloss overshadow their sharp, Kinks-grade sociological songwriting.
As befits a group forever on the go, today’s Beat is slick and rehearsed. Wakeling, dressed in a 2 Tone-appropriate Fred Perry polo, has lead-in banter for each number, and during the Bell House gig, it sometimes felt like he was fronting a wedding band or Vegas revue. But the new players keep it tight and lively, particularly on punky-ska party-starters like ‘Twist & Crawl,’ ‘Two Swords’ and ‘Click Click.’ The newbies are less handy with such latter-day, pop-leaning Beat cuts as “I Confess’ and ‘Sole Salvation,’ whose reverb-drenched sax always threatens to slide into Haircut 100 territory, and the same goes for the handful of selections from Wakeling’s excellent post-Beat outfit General Public. But the songs are infectious enough to withstand some heavy-handed drumming and the silly (but well-intentioned) toasting of Antonee First Class, stand-in for original second vocalist Ranking Roger.
Therein lies the reason for the Beat’s longevity: likability. They were as political as their peers — Thursday’s set included ‘Stand Down Margaret,’ their 1980 attack on British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — but they were seldom rageful (like the Specials) or dour (like Madness). Their album covers featured bright colors — a break from 2 Tone’s accepted monochromatic aesthetic — and when John Hughes needed a song for that final backyard-sprint scene of ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,’ he wisely nabbed the Beat’s ‘March of the Swivelheads,’ a tune that didn’t surface Thursday but isn’t far from ‘Mirror in the Bathroom,’ which closed the set.
Later this year, the Specials head stateside for a handful of high-profile dates, and should Madness cross the pond, it’ll be to play gigs like Coachella, where they appeared last year. In the meantime, the Beat goes on, as well it should.