The English Beat, Fistful of Trojans at the Governor Hindmarsh, Adelaide
It was an unusual night. First, I was comp’ed quite unexpectedly and had no time to do any research on the current state of play on The Beat (as I still think of them).
Slightly giddy after a long day concentrating old and fragile papers (don’t ask), I found myself examining many things in considerable detail.
People, f’rinstance. We all kind of make our own fantasy of what we’re really like, and try to live it. Sometimes someone comes along and, unbidden, flings open the French windows and lets a bit of air and light in.
21 May 2014
Funny how we look back on 30 years or more with a daft, rose-tinted gleam in the eye. I walked into the Gov and peered about. Recognised a few old-stagers and … gulp … one or two of the old skinhead crowd. But … they all looked half-way human. And then I recalled that the worst of the ‘old skinhead crowd’ would probably be either still in jail or in the Army or plotting the overthrow of the Third Empire with stolen RPGs or something equally socially endearing. Don’t get me started on the memories of disgorged Holden-loads of skins (some clutching bats but no balls) trashing arty parties with considerable vim, accusing any young male not possessing a scarred, bald head as ‘soft’, ‘southern’ or a ‘poofta’, before yanking out their already-engorged member and flapping it about as if it was a sausage looking for batter pudding.
As I say, all this in the blink of an eye and nothing had happened yet.
Dear me. I gather the Fistfuls are rather well known in the ska underground, and have a penchant for lugging bands to town that they like. I must commend them on this practice before we go further. This sort of thing deserves rewards. The Fistfuls themselves are squished onto the front quarter of the stage, rather cutting down their ability to dance about in a nutty fashion. The heroes of the hour as far as I was concerned was the rhythm section who kept a rolling, jolly beat in a rather joyous manner, firm and lighthearted.
The singer you can’t miss, partly because he seems to have been hived off of Buster Bloodvessel, and partly because not only can the bugger sing, he has a cracking technique to boot. ‘Cover versions’ I guess, but most crowds wouldn’t know that because the stuff they’re playing is hardly mainstream or, I gather, ‘alternative radio’ fodder. All the musicians played damn well, slotting into each other very tidily, and the crowd were genteely bopping a bit far back from the stage. No-one likes to stand out. I could only fault a few moments in a show which frankly caused the old heartstrings to soar and tweek, the legs to shake and the booty to make an ass of itself.
During the Fistys I noticed a rather self-conscious lass edging forward. She seemed determined, and alone, and there was something in her I couldn’t fathom - the rest of the crowd’s vibe was pretty good-natured and anticipatory.
So to the Beat. As I suspected, although around the time the Brummagem band started getting international attention, there was another band with the same name, from the US. They came to a simple agreement - when each play overseas, they call themselves ‘the American Beat’ and ‘the English Beat’. Simple.
Way back when the two tone scene boinked up (78 or 79 I can’t recall which), I liked the Specials, loved The Selecter, didn’t mind Madness and then… I heard the Beat’s first lp. Which was a cracker. All these bands sounded very different, but the Beat sounded more desperate, feral, dangerous. There were some really strange scenes in England in that period, weird how bands can be utterly isolated in such a crowded country.
The Beat’s rhythms, tones, lyrics were not just contagious, there was an urgency to them which none of the other ska-esque bands had (Selecter had a scary intensity). The number of orrible violent skins at the Madness gig here was something to behold, one cowardly lump of lard armed with a heavy metal-headed cane (a la A Clockwork Orange) laying into two pugilists copulating it out on the floor while the band danced on. What’s that Viz cartoon? ‘A Pint and a Fight, a Great British Night Out?’
Now? I still love The Selecter (who are touring later this year), and the Beat, don’t mind the Specials and there’s a couple of Madness songs I’m fond of. The new rude ska rebellion didn’t stop with these bands, of course, with bands of a similar ilk forming all over the world. But it never really crossed over into the mainstream, not in any ‘here to stay’ form.
The Beat’s second LP was very good, though not like the first, and their last was criminally under-promoted (one of the singles dealt rather forthrightly with masturbation) and is one of those forgotten gems. Dave and Roger formed a band called General Public (with some great songs) but I suspect that might not have ended well. Roger now runs the other Beat band. Interestingly, The English Beat are set to play gigs on the Beat’s live turf - England - very shortly. They’ll either call a truce or duke it out for the now-much-smaller audience.
Somewhere along the line - I won’t pretend to claim to have followed the ups and downs of the ska scene - the Beat split up. There are now two English bands: The Beat and the English Beat. This is by no means unusual - think The Sweet, the Bay City Rollers, the Supremes… What usually happens these days is that one band handle one chunk of territory, one band handles another.
Go to http://www.thebeatofficial.com and http://englishbeat.net , if you don’t believe me. One band is run by Dave Wakeling, one apparently by Ranking Roger (god help you if you have a Fuddish lisp). The band we saw tonight was Wakeling’s, who have been hammering around the US for several years now, and this is the English Beat’s second visit to Adelaide. So there are T-shirts at the merch stall, but no CDs. Their box set sold out very quickly.
The band walked out without a set list and pounded straight into "Rough Rider." Matt Morris did a fantastic job with his sax, hopping and dancing around the stage, never upstaging, always playing to the crowd. Mr Epkins kept a powerful beat, working extremely well with the bassist, Larry Young, and they never looked like straying. Andy Cox, who formed The Beat with Wakeling, handled the other guitar duties. A young chap called Kevin handled the keyboards (an essential part of any ska outfit). The Gov’s stage looked pretty crowded.
Most of us were too busy bopping gently to notice the determined lady at the front of the stage. She seemed more affected by Wakeling than the music, interrupting and getting his attention at every break between songs. Being a showman, at first he listened, thinking there was something he could blend with the show; only about fifty or so people saw what was going on so I’ll try and explain, because it sent a very sour note to us.
First, most performers who started out in the music revolution of the late '70s who are still going with a career of sorts, are either hopelessly unprofessional, or firmly in control. Dave’s the latter. Everything must be bang-on perfect, more or less down to the last detail. There are other bands who are more obsessive (the Hoodoo Gurus have everything gaffa-marked on the stage), but that’s neither here nor there. The thing is, this woman is full of it, and would’ve annoyed a saint. He kissed her once in 1981, we learn. Could she have another? Afterwards, maybe. On with the show. But she’s a constant irritant. There’s a show to do and she’s interrupting the flow. All the time. A big distraction. Dave tries to laugh it off each time. The bouncers haven’t figured it out. She’s banging on the mike stand to get Dave’s attention. Which is damn annoying. He mentions it, and the bouncers still don’t react. It’s not a violent crowd (all the Australian skins here tonight have grown up a bit and there’s no sparking aggro), nor is there an impossible crush down there.
The whole point of the English Beat is to have a good time and spread the love. The chap who introduced me to the Beat so many years ago heard a great story how these younger brothers of blokes who were into the Beat years ago, who live in some inaccessible paddock in northern England, had never seen the band and were never likely to. So they asked Wakeling if he could bring the band up for them - they couldn’t afford much, like, but… and Wakeling agreed. Everyone says he’s a nice bloke, Dave. So it’s a shock when Dave reacts not like a showman, but like the Brummy git he is (and I am, incidentally) and tells her to fuck off. And then spends the next few intervals belittling her in front of the crowd. Now, as I say, she’s obviously in an odd mood. And she’s on the wrong side of the wrong age and no model. So she’s totally devastated. And humiliated. And she starts to get angry.
Finally, about two-thirds through the set Dave says something on the QT to a bouncer who scurries over and whispers to the woman, who, finally crushed it seems, turns and walks away.
A crack in the chirpy chappy armour, I think. But she comes back a bit later, straight to the front, eyes still on Dave. Regardless. But this time she keeps quiet.
When, towards the end, one lass gets up on stage to wiggle around, no-one on the stage minds, though me and the folk around me turn to look at each other in astonishment. She’s younger and slimmer. And a couple more get up, one helped up by the band. Same thing. Wiggle-wiggle-wiggle! as Devo might say.
The troubled woman tries to scramble up onto the corner of the stage leading to the dressing room but is gently but firmly eased away. She’s on her own. I didn’t see anyone with her at any time. I felt sorry for her, guilty that she’d copped such humiliation, annoyed with Dave (who should’ve spoken to the bouncers earlier and just ignored her since the majority of the crowd wouldn’t have heard her).
There’s nothing wrong with the endless parade of bands touring on the back of the ‘remember us?’ nostalgia market; in a way it serves as a reminder of the bar which younger bands really do have to come up to. The Beat are really only going to be remembered in this country by a certain slice of the active scene back then, plus the younger folk into the long-lived ska scene. The English Beat played a lot from the first two lps - Twist and Crawl came early, while Hands Off She’s Mine and Can't Get Used To Losing You were stand-outs for me as they seemed to jar with the rest of the set; Two Swords (‘I know it was wrong but I couldn’t help myself’, Dave says. He’s talking about throwing a half-brick at ‘a nazi’ on the street - a skinhead to you and me - and he didn’t miss. Yeah, Birmingham, I don’t miss the place); Stand Down Margaret (‘Rest in pieces, Iron Lady!’ Dave yells as the song finishes, which seems unnecessarily bitter after all this time, especially for someone who apparently is touring because he wants to spread the love).
Dave announces that the band will be back next year (audience cheers) and ‘we’ve got a brand new album with some smashing songs’. The band finally close with Ranking Full Stop and a cracking Mirror in the Bathroom after an hour and a half’s sweaty performance. There was no encore (early curfew I expect), although the audience clearly didn’t feel like they needed one.
What were they like? asked the chap who introduced me to the band all those decades (fuck) ago.
Well, I said, they were really slick. The sound was very … (I hunted for the word) … sweet…
That’s not right, he said.
Well, I said, there were only a few of the originals on stage, so they were effectively covering the songs to some extent.
What, like a cover band? he asked.
Well, sort of. I mean they were really good, and everyone was happy, but to me they felt like a cabaret act. I mean, you can’t always be desperate and feral, and once you find the train station it’s wrong to expect people to be always looking for the fucking thing.
True, he said.
At that point we both recalled that Dave Wakeling now lives in California, which makes it handy for touring the USA. Big audience there. Hmmm.
I’ll be seeing them next year, partly to see if that woman turns up with a few biker friends to deck Wakeling, and partly to hear the new songs.
I didn’t notice any old skins copulating or brawling on the floor, nor did I spot that sack of shit with the metal-topped cane. Maybe they had other things to do.
Spread the love. Hmmmm…