The odd pairing at the State Theatre on Friday, October 12—two-tone legends The English Beat and power popsters the Paul Collins Beat—presented me with a chilling sartorial dilemma. Should I show up in full rude boy regalia, complete with pork pie hat and checked socks, or should I arrive wearing a white jacket with black shirt, just like the ones Paul’s wearing on his 1979 debut album, The Beat? I struggled until I realized I don’t own any of these items of apparel, and finally settled for a Piggly Wiggly t-shirt and a pair of blue jeans, the only items of clothing I own that don’t need a wash.
The English Beat needs no introduction. In the early eighties the Birmingham, England band led a ska revival along with the likes of The Specials, Selecter, and Madness, one that combined elements of ska, pop, punk, and mod. Paul Collins, on the other hand, is unfamiliar to most human beings, because his brand of pure power pop never made a dent—such being the unfairness of human endeavors—in the pop charts. After a brief stint in the Nerves, the band that brought us “Hanging on the Telephone,” and an even briefer hiatus in the Breakaways (along with Peter Case, also of the Nerves) Collins went solo and released two albums, after which CBS-Columbia dropped him from their roster. The Paul Collins Beat reemerged in the 1990s, and has been playing to audiences ever since.
At the State Theater, Collins—leading a crack band from Australia, of all places—played a brief but impassioned opening set that featured short and furious bursts of power pop that was all about girls, girls, girls. The highlight being “Rock’n’Roll Girl,” a song so infectious the CDC should have been contacted.
Another highlight was the anthemic “The Kids Are the Same,” a youthful song of defiance against arithmetic. The band didn’t see fit to do my own personal favorites—“Give Me the Drugs,” a politically incorrect ode to the pleasures of substance abuse, or “U.S.A.,”a high-speed paean to traveling the greatness of our great land–but that was okay. They opened with “I Don’t Fit In,” an anthem to teenage alienation, kicked ass with “Walking Out on Love,” blazed their way through “Let Me Into Your Life,” and even did a version—much better than the Nerves or Blondie takes—of “Hanging on the Telephone.”
After the Paul Collins Beat departed the stage, the crowd took to the floor and prepared to dance to the English Beat. But what English Beat was this? Only Dave Wakeling remains from the orginal crew, and presumably Ranking Roger and the rest of the boys are picking up unemployment checks in Birmingham. (Not true: Ranking Roger leads a crew called the Beat in England, along with his son and original English Beat member Everett Morton, while original saxophonist Saxa has retired to Birmingham.) Wakeling’s new band—for truth in advertising, it should probably be called the Dave Wakeling Band—includes Rhythmm Epkins on drums, Wayne Lothian on bass, Antonee First Class as toaster, Matt Morrish on sax, and Kevin Lum on keyboards.
They opened with “Rough Rider,” a hard-bitten slice of pure ska that lacked the grit of the original. The sound was muted, but the crowd didn’t seem to care. The band followed “Rough Rider” with “Tears of a Clown,” their upbeat take on the Smokey Robinson classic, and it bounced along just the way it did when it opened their career way back in 1980. “Are you ready to do some skankin’?” asked Antonee First Class, and the crowd crowed in affirmation, after which the band did “Hands of She’s Mine,” the subject of which is self-explanatory.
The band got better as they went along—“Twist and Crawl,” another slice of pure ska, was certainly skanking, and followed it shortly thereafter with “Click Click,” a high-energy blast of punk about suicide by handgun that made my night. It was followed by “Save It for Later,” the English Beat’s most famous tune and one of the catchiest slices of pure pop ever recorded. Other highlights included “Whine and Grine/Stand Down Margaret,” a Prince Buster original that segues into a celebratory ode to the retirement of Margaret Thatcher and “Two Swords,” another personal favorite. “This one’s a bit punky,” said Wakeling, before launching into a furiously fast song attacking the English Nazi youth that Two-Tone set out to oppose with, as Antonee First Class put it, “peace, love, and unity.”
Then something tragically untoward happened. The band delivered up a pair of General Public songs—god I hate General Public, Wakeling’s successor band to the English Beat—including the poppish “Never You Done That” and the treacly and unforgivable “Tenderness,” a song that was the bane of my inebriated MTV years. The crowd sang along deliriously, obviously deranged, while I bristled at my position at the front of the stage. What place did such abominations have in an English Beat show, I ask you? Is there no justice? No peace, love, and unity?
Fortunately the English Beat followed them with “Ranking Full Stop,” an odd choice, considering that Ranking Roger is no longer around. But it’s still a perfect example of full-bore ska, and the band continued on that note with “Mirror in the Bathroom,” one of the strangest songs the English Beat ever recorded but also one of the catchiest.
And with that the show ended, and the band shook hands with the audience members in the front row, and good will abounded all around. Say what you will about Wakeling—I have never trusted his more croonish tendencies—he’s a good will ambassador and supporter of good causes, a good stage raconteur, and a happy presence in the world of rock.
May he prosper, and may the English Beat continue to make audiences dance the whole world over.
Photos: Julia Lofstrand Photography