I've already gone on record about The English Beat's debut album, I Just Can't Stop It, ensconced as it comfortably in The Parallax 100. It's an LP that I have no qualms about calling one of the great pop records of all time, right up there with The Beatles. This is a band that I grew up on in the eighties, with splinter groups like General Public, Fine Young Cannibals and the Ranking Roger solo records peppering my listening habits through the nineties well into the present day. Even when I was plumbing the depths of electronic music, subsisting on a strict diet of beats and beats alone, the 2 Men A Drum Machine And A Trumpet 12" (with that crucial Derrick May remix on the flip) was never far from the turntable.
Last Saturday found Sari and I cruising up the 5 as the sun settled on the horizon, a special English Beat mix (that I'd made earlier that week as a sort of primer) pulsing out the soundsystem, just the two of us heading up the coast to catch The Beat live at The Belly Up Tavern. On arrival in Solana Beach, just as dusk began to fall, we pulled into a Mexican joint down the street from the venue in order to hook up with Kayli and LeValley and grab a bite to eat.
A half hour later we walked through the doors of The Belly Up, where the opening DJ was spinning a selection of reggae cuts to nice up the dance. Tunes like Horace Andy's I Feel Good All Over and Dandy Livingstone's Rudy, A Message To You (foundational sixties ska later covered by The Specials) filled the room and made it clear that this was the perfect venue for this music.
The Belly Up is like some fantasy collision of all the best Pablo Cruise record sleeves and those gorgeous sets from Robert Altman's Popeye motion picture (speaking of Altman, the first show that I caught at The Belly Up was King Sunny Adé & His African Beats some years back). Neon lights illuminate the building's vaulted ceilings, exposed rafters stretch out rustic and warm over a loose assortment of rooms centered around the main stage. Put simply, it's like the nightclub in Club Paradise. We made our way through the main room, grabbing some drinks along the way, and found a spot more or less at the center of the room where we waited for the opening act to take the stage.
I hadn't yet heard Viernes 13 before the band began to play, but was instantly won over by their blazing ska moves that seemed to recall nothing so much as Sublime's Paddle Out shot through a Chicano prism (think Once Upon A Time In Mexico as much as Los Lobos), sounding like Byron Lee & The Dragonaires' Frankenstein Ska if it were played by The Plugz circa the Repo Man soundtrack. It was all incredibly vibey, and very L.A.
I ducked into the back where their people had set up a merchandise table and grabbed a shirt immediately — taking note of the CDs for sale — and threw it on over the shirt I was already wearing. Consider me a fan! I later grabbed both of their CDs on my way out — you don't want to have to keep track of media on the dancefloor — and the man was even nice enough to throw a split EP into the deal. I've been rocking all three this week. I couldn't find an image of the shirt I bought (there were three to choose from) anywhere on the net, so I snapped a picture here. I thought it was a really lovely design:
I'd like to return to this crew in the near future, once I've fully absorbed their records and lived with their music awhile, as I think they're truly on to something special here. In the meantime, Viernes 13 will be back in San Diego on Friday, May 29th, playing at The Hideout, so you know where I'll be. Don't sleep!
This show brought back memories of going to ska parties back in the late nineties, when a friend's older brother was in a band (the name of which escapes me at the moment). Our crew would be chilling in the back, fish out of water more in tune with breakbeats and 303s than the sort of sounds taking place on stage, but it was a lot of fun nonetheless. Come to think of it, another friend of mine was actually in that same band as well, and he was heavy into third wave ska and the swing revival. I remember one time we bonded over a mutual love for Artie Shaw, Duke Ellington and the OG Two-Tone bands.
Which brings us to The English Beat. Dave Wakeling is the only original member in the current touring lineup of the group (hasn't he lived in Southern California since the late nineties?), so I was curious how they would sound in the 21st century. Certain questions were running through my mind in the weeks leading up to the show. Who would be toasting Ranking Roger's parts? Would they play any General Public material? How would the new drummer handle Everett Morton's phenomenal work on the original records (the debut LP has some of my favorite drumming ever)? Would it all be too much to live up to?
After the MC hyped and teased the crowd for the better part of an hour, The Beat took the stage, opening with Rough Rider, and any doubts I may have had just drifted off into the ether on the back of its mellow, churning groove. This is one of my favorite moments from one of my favorite albums of all time, so hearing it live in good form was a bit of a rush. The band was tight and seemed to be having a blast while King Schascha strut his way around the stage, toasting on the mic in fine style.
Twist & Crawl was a definite highlight, submerging the club deep into the darkness after opening with some of the group's brightest numbers. New drummer Nucci Cantrell turned in solid work on the kit, even slipping into a breakbeat from time to time. The drumming wasn't quite as meticulous as Everett Morton's clockwork precision (the very foundation of the twisting rhythmic engine deep within the heart of The Beat), but it was no slouch either (and keep in mind that I'm comparing him to one of my favorite drummers of all time here), providing ample propulsion for the band's infectious loose-limbed riddims.
Needless to say, we danced like maniacs throughout the whole show. They even lit up the disco ball for I Confess and Too Nice To Talk To! I was surprised that they didn't play Doors Of Your Heart (in fact, nothing at all from Wha'ppen), but the songs from Special Beat Service were some of the biggest moments of the night. Save It For Later got a huge response from the crowd, while Ackee 1 2 3 might have been my favorite tune of the evening, its off-kilter (and seemingly sped-up) rhythms super fun to dance to (their label wasn't called Go-Feet for nothing)!
I'd somehow never noticed before that Soul Salvation seems to be the blueprint for large swathes of the Fine Young Cannibals sound. On the other hand, I've often wondered whether Steele and Cox were listening closely to Elvis Costello's Get Happy when mapping out their new group's trajectory. Maybe it's just the similar approach of new wave cats tackling Northern soul, who knows?
At any rate, the other group to come out of The English Beat's breakup, General Public, got checked not once but twice. Early on in the show, The Beat did a rendition of The Staple Singers' I'll Take You There, which was covered by the newly reformed (at the time) GP for the Threesome soundtrack. Later, toward the end of the show, the band broke into Tenderness to a rapturous response from the crowd.
Dave even took lead vocals for Ranking Full Stop, and I could have imagined this, but I thought I saw him shake his head when he sang my name is ranking full stop. That was funny. I almost wasn't expecting the band to play that one, but it came off really well... before they slipped seamlessly into Mirror In The Bathroom! It was a serious double-take moment and definitely the climax of the whole night as that deep, chugging bassline seemed to cause the whole room to sink into the floor, dancing figures etched in neon as the band played on and on.