by Joshua Kraus
It was ‘80s night at The Bell House on Friday. The reformation of The English Beat, a kickstarter of early British two-tone punk, lured a boisterous crowd of former Brat Pack enthusiasts and anti-Reagan rebels —all grown up now and thirsty for nostalgia. I was attending a high school reunion for the class of Rasta-fury and nuclear disarmament, and although The Beat took the stage an hour late, my companions didn’t seem to mind in the least.
We were greeted by the U.S. version of The English Beat, which I'm told contains more sodium and twice the firepower. Commanding the stage was lead singer and guitarist Dave Wakeling, this iteration of The Beat’s only original member. The group’s history doesn’t read so much like a breakup as an expansion: With many of The Beat's members branching off to form new acts (Fine Young Cannibals, General Public), and partnering with other musical heavyweights (Mick Jones), The Beat formed a traceable family tree of the third-wave ska heyday. Though occasionally skipped over in the history of rock, The Beat is a Cretaceous-period mosquito; if you went back in time and stepped on them, today's musical landscape would not be the same.
The set was a fiery 15-course meal of rocksteady stompers and careening ska punk. The Beat's dedicated Toaster rallied the crowd with Jamaican-tinged raps about Brooklyn while Wakeling tuned up and wiped the sweat from his brow. Songs like “I Confess” and “Save It for Later,” with their breezy hooks and bouncy percussion, had heads bobbing with every upstroke. The car-chase tempos of “Ranking Full Stop” and “Best Friend” turned this crowd of 40-somethings into a Civil War re-enactment of their frenzied glory days.
I soon found myself in a tangle of middle-aged attempts at skanking, and suddenly, I was the old man in his rocking chair, out of touch with a musical zeitgeist that resonated so meaningfully with this audience. While many rock stars lose their gusto as the years pile up, Wakeling—a beaming, beer-swigging ball of charisma—marshaled with the crowd like he was hosting a party. He had a story for each song, and though his thick Birmingham accent didn't translate as well as his music, his energetic banter met uproarious cheers every time.
Saxophone tore through the ballroom to bursts of applause, and galloping bass lines made it impossible to control your feet. The rude-boy catcalls of “Two Swords” revived The Beat's youthful indignation, when strangling the neck of your guitar was as satisfying as punching a wall. Yet in his fifties, all smiles and theatrics, Wakeling's performance was a wink at the rebelliousness that used to define him. The songs are still his, but the anger has past.
"Here's a jolly good song about throwing bricks at Nazis," Wakeling exclaimed before launching into "Two Swords.” In 2012, The Beat isn't calling for revolution—they’re simply having fun now that the war is over. And isn’t that the goal? We can't all stay young and angry forever.