The English Beat Hit Somerville
Over the years living in Somerville, I’ve found that one of my favorite things to do in the early evening is to stroll around Davis Square and window-shop what’s going on at venues like the Somerville Theatre or Johnny D’s. After all, we’ve seen the likes of U2 and Bruce Springsteen at the former, while big names like Rickie Lee Jones and great jazz artists like John Abercrombie regularly play the latter.
So it was a pleasant surprise to see that one of my favorite bands from my youth are reunited and visiting to the town where I live: Namely, the English Beat are playing Johnny D’s on Wednesday, Sept. 7.
Surely any ’80s music fan knows the songs “Save It for Later” and “Mirror in the Bathroom,” but for those who don’t remember, this ensemble managed to mesh ska, edgy new wave, and pop into sublime three- and four-minute songs. Of course they were way bigger in their native U.K. (where they were known as just The Beat), but here in college towns nationwide, they were perhaps one of the most beloved bands of all time. Unfortunately, they ended up being too unwieldy a group. Vocalists Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger formed General Public, for which you know the song “Tenderness”. Guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele formed Fine Young Cannibals of “She Drives Me Crazy” fame. Perhaps there was just too much talent in that band for it to stay together.
For one, my favorite memory was when the English Beat was one of the most popular bands in my hometown of New Haven, and the band sold out Woolsey Hall at Yale. (Some lesser-known band from Georgia called R.E.M. was the opener.) Total fangirls, my sister Liz and her friends found the band members and hung out with them as they walked around the Elm City streets. The group was apparently friendly and welcoming, though there was an awkward moment when lead singer Dave Wakeling cheekily hit on them. Presumably he didn’t know they were still in high school, not that they would have owned up to that, of course. My sister lived on this story for years.
Anyway, the band: Imagine punk attitude, reggae toasting, Smokey Robinson covers, dreamy Caribbean sounds, soulful sax by Desmond Dekker’s former horn man, and watertight songwriting, and then imagine the sum exceeding these admirable parts. This band only recorded three albums — I Just Can’t Stop It, Wha’ppen?, and Special Beat Service. If you don’t already have them, they’re all cheap, so just buy them already. Skip the endless greatest hits repackagings, as there have too many great deep cuts on the original albums.
So, yay, they’re all back together now, yes? No, not quite, and actually not in the least. In fact, there are two competing Beats: The US-based English Beat led by Wakeling with a new band, while Ranking Roger tours with original drummer Everett Morton in the genuinely English-based version of the Beat — again with new members, including Ranking Roger’s son — and that’s about it.
Of course, when I found this out I was a little bit disappointed. It’s strange to see a seminal band in your young life go the way of doo-wop bands, where only one person on stage is an original member. It’s even stranger when you think about it more and realize you don’t care all that much. At the very least, it’ll be some of my favorite songs of all time, sung by the guy who sang them way back when. If my sister didn’t live in Indiana now, I’m sure she’d go with me.