In reductivist short-hand, The English Beat are the Rolling Stones of second wave ska. Whereas colleagues The Specials could blend truly personal and compelling B&W movie lyrical vignettes with noir post-punk, the (English) Beat dug deeper into the bag of soul and funk for their seminal pre-reggae homages. Early on, they were just as tough in the anti-drug “Mirror In The Bathroom,” and on covers of great R&B songs like “Tears Of A Clown.” But soon the band could really mix it up, being the closest and earliest thing to multi-ethnic fusion the UK “new wave” scene had.
The English Beat are very underrated, but weren’t so by international fans and critics in the early 80s, even if many American listeners thought they were early MTV one-hit wonders with “Sooner Or Later” (a perfect pop song from a more ambitious third album Special Beat Service, from 1981). Though artistically capable of transcending their dole-punk 2 Tone origins by having Jamaican veteran sax player Saxa in the band, their way-ahead-of-the-curve “world beat” sophomore release “Wha’ppen?” mystified the pork-pie wearing yobs who adored the right tight skuffles from their debut (the ska collection-essential I Just Can’t Stop It). And Rankin’ Roger and Dave Wakeling were probably the most charming and charismatic front-men in 2 Tone, as many of the others came off scary and too-political.
Those glee club harmonies third wave ska bands nicked in the mid-90s? The more fluid textures of post-alternative groups in that period infusing the chugging rhythms with more improvisatory horns and power pop stylings? You can probably blame The English Beat for that. But their early work is as mod as The Specials, and the later full-screen experiments of their last two original LPs still sound hot, fresh, and ambitious even today.
Finishing up the last of the Bumbershoot Music Lounge performances is probably the most packed house so far. The English Beat, extra instruments, et al dominated the stage. Drums, keys, guitar, bass, sax, tambourine, and an acoustic guitar kept the melodies flowing and the energy up. Opening with “I’ll Take You There,” and jammed their way into “I Confess,” got the audience tapping their toes and clapping their hands.
Between each song, frontman Dave Wakeling entertained us with quips about each upcoming song, like clarifying that despite what you might think, “Mirror in the Bathroom is not about cocaine,or excercising political ideas about corporate sponsorship.. Antonee First, equipped with a tambourine asked us if we were in the mood for ska before they launched into “Save it for Later.” Suddenly we were in every John Huhes movie with “Tenderness,” and all the holdouts were up and dancing soon enough. “Mirror in the Bathroom,” The English Beat’s final song in the Music Lounge, was heavy-hitting and really kicked. If “Tenderness” played into our nostalgic bones, then “Mirror” ripped them clean out of our bodies.