By Michelle Hosie
Special to the Sentinel
When the ska revival band The English Beat takes the stage at Academy Park Saturday night, you may find you enjoy them even more than you remember.
When word of the headliners for the fourth annual Spirit of the 80's fundraiser concert was released earlier this year, the all-volunteer organizing committee received positive feedback on social media with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Fans of The Beat (as they are known in their native England,) and those who understand terms like "third wave ska," "post-punk revivalists" and "toasting" often asked, "The English Beat? Like, the real English Beat?" They were thrilled to hear this would, in fact, be The English Beat, featuring founder and frontman Dave Wakeling.
For others, like myself, we really only remembered "Mirror in the Bathroom," which got a second life in the late '90s when John Cusack, playing a depressed hitman attending his 10-year high school reunion in "Grosse Pointe Blank," makes a key turn as the song plays in the background.
The soundtrack, produced by Joe Strummer of The Clash, includes this hit from The Beat's 1980 debut album, "I Just Can't Stop It." This is the song that introduced the band, and even the 2-tone ska music movement, to the U.S. (which some have credited as one of history's most persuasive music scenes).
The heavy influence of Jamaican reggae is clear in "Mirror" and showcases the band's foundational first wave ska influence more than later singles, which became popular on MTV (such as "Hands off ... She's mine," also featured in the 2004 film "50 First Dates").
I didn't know that two members of The Beat (including one from Big Audio Dynamite) went on to head up General Public, which included former members of Dexy's Midnight Runners and The Clash, while two others formed the Fine Young Cannibals. I hadn't realized that Madness and the Mighty, Mighty Bosstones were from subsequent waves of ska, or that those waves influenced Reel Big Fish, No Doubt, Sublime and The Toasters.
I had the opportunity to be reintroduced to The English Beat several months ago when they played a Buffalo venue. We were lucky enough to get tickets, though the concert had sold out in less than a week. The show was such a delight to attend. The banter between Dave Wakeling and King Schascha and the interaction with the audience made it feel more like a basement club show with guys from the neighborhood. Wakeling had the glint of a young musician in front of his receptive audience, rather than the look of a 30-year veteran of international tours.
The band members were, by all means, professional and the show was run like a well-oiled machine, but the conversations felt improvised rather than boiler-plated. It was clear Wakeling was doing what he truly loves to do. I would also dare to suspect he has not forgotten his blue-collar roots in working-class, industrial Birmingham, England, where he once took labor-intensive jobs such as construction.
Having grown up in the '70s United Kingdom amidst unemployment and social unrest, Wakeling wrote songs about everyday problems listeners could identify with. These kids and their folks were affected by the recession and had something to say about it. There was a punk element in the politically and socially charged lyrics - but without the hard-core sound of bands like The Sex Pistols.
Wakeling set his sometimes controversial social commentaries to melodic rifts with an uplifting beat that would make you want to dance. He has said, "It's happy and sad at the same time. It gave a more complete picture of my life and, as far as I can tell, other people's lives."
The Beat's message is socially conscious, but not angry or oppositional. After realizing worldwide commercial success, The Beat were able to do more than just sing about the issues that concerned them. They donated all the profits from their highly successful single "Stand Down Margaret" (as in Thatcher) to the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament. They also donated their music to the antinuclear cause with the benefit album "Life in The European Theatre."
"The World of Music and Dance" album focused on indigenous peoples' art. The Beat also lent their voices to The Special AKA's freedom cry "Free Nelson Mandela."
The English Beat continue to do what they love, coming to Lewiston amid a lengthy tour, both in the U.S. and across the pond. They're playing songs from the past and introducing some new ones from their new album, released this month and titled "Here We Go Love." It is the band's first studio album in more than 30 years.
The formula for the band's longevity seems apparent. Songs about the timeless things people care about: love, unity, inclusion and with smart and sometimes gritty lyrics. Music with an infectious rhythm and uplifting dance beat, steeped in guitar, bass, drums, keyboards and saxophone instead of trendy synthesizers. And a charming, optimistic front man who truly loves what he does.