The English Beat

By Paul Ballard

Artist:  The English Beat

Date / Venue:  Saturday May 31st, The Studio, Auckland

Some music always stay with you. Growing up in the UK, I wasn't too young to remember the first time I heard the unique 2 Tone sound. Granted, I had already been exposed to ska and reggae, listening to my parents' collections, but there was something about the rawness of that post-punk era that really resonated with me. At such a young age I may not have understood the politics, but I definitely embraced its lively, multi-cultural stance. Bands such as The BodysnatchersThe Selecter and The Specials helped define our time. For us kids, they represented more than just the usual Top 40 nonsense. It was the rise of a whole new attitude, one which was rebellious, captivating and quintessentially British.

In amongst it all was The Beat. Hailing from an unemployed Birmingham in 1978, they had three successful albums between 1980-82 before officially parting company in 1983. Today, original frontman Dave Wakeling continues to fly the flag with his US-based English Beat assembly.

After seeing the 'other' current live incarnation of The Beat back in 2006 (fronted by founding member 'Ranking' Roger Charlery), as well as witnessing The Specials tear the roof off Auckland's Shed 10 a couple of years back, my faith in the genre had been re-affirmed. I had also missed Wakeling's previous sell-out show at The Powerstation back in 2012, so I was not going to let this one pass me by.

I needn't have worried.

As we arrived, local support the AceTones were warming things up with some classic instrumental ska and rocksteady. It's always great to hear that original Trojan sound played live and although sharper in tone and more polished in execution, they captured the vibe perfectly. It kind of reminded us why we were all here. 

Their rendition of the Alton Ellis rarity Ska Beat was a standout, as well as their originally penned Don't Be Shy which simply glowed around The Studio walls, allowing the amazing Heather Bolton on keys to really show us what she's made of.

Once again Rawiri Motutere on drums nailed it and if I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times - if there is one instrument that adds true depth and character, especially in this genre, then it's the trombone. As the crowds of Fred Perry-donned revellers mingled, it was a pleasure to watch Josh and his fellow 'Brass-tifarians' fill the space with such prowess.

Towards the end of their set they were joined by female vocalist Allana Goldsmith who sang Daylight and a cover of Dawn Penn's You Don't Love Me. Although amazingly soulful, her voice unfortunately didn't quite suit the style here and it failed to hit the mark for me compared to their instrumental numbers. I applaud them for wanting to explore some newer territory, but in this instance it didn't quite gel. That being said, these guys are definitely ones to watch and were one of highlights of the night's proceedings.

The rudeboy chants had already begun and the crowd found their voice as Monkey Man by The Specials kicked in over the PA. A sociable gathering with a keen agenda - it was skankin' time!

The now infamous Studio 'Bottleneck' had begun as Wakeling stepped into the spotlight. Flanked by the animated Matt Morrish on saxophone, they ripped straight into a rousing version of Rough Rider, followed swiftly by the tune that had started it all for him back in 1978, their cover of Smokey Robinson's Tears Of A Clown.

Although kicking off with a relatively good pace, unfortunately it lacked punch, and wasn't helped by the Studio's uncanny knack of making everything sound terrible. With all the best intentions, Wakeling struggled through a very muddy Twist and Crawl and it appeared the years had finally caught up as he battled to keep pace, even with his own lyrics.

It was like everything had been shifted down to a 'lounge' pace, probably to assist Wakeling in actually making it through the subsequent 90 minute set time. But it really did them no favours as the hungry crowd never really broke a sweat. The distinctive blunted kick that made this genre so unique just didn't fire and it ended up sounding more rock than ska. Classic tunes Click Click and I Confess ended up drifting, mere shadows of their former selves. Even Stand Down Margaret ended up sounding as insipid as a Tory policy.

There was a couple of General Public in the mix (the offshoot collaborative project of Wakeling and Charlery), including their dreadful version of the Staple Singers' I'll Take You There. That pretty much sealed the deal for me. Even though its bassline was originally made famous by the Harry J Allstars' rudeboy anthem Liquidator, that song has never warranted a full ska cover and its inclusion here just reinforced the mediocrity.

However, there was the occasional spark. The inclusion of Lee Perry's Children Crying during the breakdown of Too Nice To Talk To was a great touch, and a relatively upbeat version of Sole Salvation finally pulled the crowd back into things. But by that stage the damage had already been done. Even a hearty rendition ofRankin Full Stop did little to break the monotony as without Charlery's swagger it never really got out of second gear.

Finally things were put to rest with Mirror In The Bathroom, which incidentally wasn't even given the honour of an encore. Probably the only time the bassist moved all night, but even this couldn't save them. Gone was that driving bassline, that stark energy. In fact, it could have been The Studio's terrible acoustics but ironically it sounded more like they were playing 'from' the bathroom.

With no encore to speak of, the lights came up on a bewildered crowd who, by the looks, were left wanting. I am sure Wakeling and company have done enough to secure themselves another spot here in the coming years, but for me there is actually a fine line between being reminded of one's youth, and being reminded of one's age.