Sunday, December 30, 2012

Duff Review: The English Beat "Live at the US Festival '82 and '83"

Shout! Factory
CD and DVD

(Review by Steve Shafer)

In a period of endlessly recycled nostalgia for decades past (I admit to enthusiastically wallowing in some of it myself)--which fuels the greedy repackaging of "greatest hits" collections and reissuing of remastered/enhanced/expanded hit albums--it's an unexpected pleasure to be in the position to review a bona fide new release from one of the more brilliant groups of the New Wave/2 Tone era, The English Beat. After listening to The Beat's Live at the US Festival '82 and '83 CD and viewing the DVD, one is kind of astonished as to why it has taken three decades (!) for this to emerge from the vaults, as it would have made one hell of a follow-up to The Beat's singles/rarities (in America, at least) compilation What is Beat?, issued in 1983 after the band's demise.

Live at the US Festival documents The Beat's two performances (before what must have been some of the most massive audiences they had ever played for) at Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak's incredible, but money-losing music festivals held in San Bernardino, CA in 1982 (Labor Day weekend with 425,000 in attendanceand 1983 (Memorial Day weekend with 670,000 fans)--click here to read a great piece from the Orange County Register about it all. Each festival featured a mind-blowing roster of early 80s New Wave acts (in addition to some very mainstream rock, metal, and country groups): Gang of Four, The Ramones, Oingo Boingo, The B-52s, The Police, The Cars, The Clash (who sparred verbally and physically with Van Halen behind the scenes and demanded that some of the festival proceeds be donated to charity after learning that Van Halen was being paid $1 million for their appearance), Divinyls, INXS, Talking Heads, Wall of Voodoo, A Flock of Seagulls, Men at Work, Stray Cats, U2, Missing Persons, and The Pretenders (only The Beat and Oingo Boingo played both US Festival dates)!

If it wasn't printed on the tray card, you'd be hard-pressed to sort out on the CD where the 1982 concert ends and the following year's begins (it's a combination of the two, as there was considerable overlap in The Beat's '82 and '83 set lists). The Beat's two performances fit together practically seamlessly--which confirms the fact that they were an extraordinarily talented and consistent great live act (pity that the sound isn't better; the vocals are pitched high in the mix and the recording makes the rhythm section seem distant and muddy--a crime, since Everett Morton, Andy Cox, and David Steele were some of the best in the business and always made the band sound so full and crisp on their studio albums). It's also worth pointing out that both concerts were performed under less than ideal circumstances in triple-digit heat (the band sure looks drenched on the DVD). But The Beat played with unflagging energy, precision, and passion (check out the supercharged "Twist and Crawl," "Two Swords," and "Hands Off She's Mine").

The CD and both sets on the DVD are loaded with tracks from Special Beat Service (they sound fantastic here--particularly "Sugar and Stress," "I Confess," and "Spar with Me"), which was just about to be released in America when The Beat performed at the 1982 US Festival, and supplemented with choice cuts from I Just Can't Stop It. I would like to have heard more material from my favorite Beat album, Wha'ppen? (apart from "Doors of Your Heart" and "Get-a-Job"), but that record never seemed to find the same toehold in college/modern rock radio that their other two did (so, I suppose The Beat were justified in mainly sticking to the fan hits!).

The Live at the US Festival DVD captures both the '82 and '83 Beat performances in their entirety (with the exception of two songs that were lost at the beginning of the 1982 show, due to damage to the masters). In addition to the historical value of documenting The Beat in action in front of hundreds of thousands of fans, it's fascinating to see the contrast between the band members and the Americans. While the members of The Beat look cool and stylish (for the early 1980s), shots of the fans and stage crew reveal the males of the species stuck in the fashion trends of the late 1970s (looking like extras from "CHiPs"): cut-off jeans shorts, no shirts, handle-bar mustaches and shaggy hair, and trucker baseball hats (most of the women seem to be in the timeless combination of bikini tops and shorts). An ugly time for men in America, but an amusing one from our vantage point.

A big surprise found in the video is that original Beat saxophonist Saxa--who had retired from touring with the band after recording Special Beat Service--joined The Beat for their 1983 concert (he must have heard how incredible the 1982 festival was and wanted in on the follow-up one!). So, the songs in the later half of the CD feature both Saxa (in what looks like his outfit from the cover of Wha'ppen?) and Wesley Magoogan; their rich and silky dueling saxophones sound particularly sweet on "Tears of a Clown," "Get-A-Job/Stand Down Margaret," and "Jackpot."

Some other minor quibbles (apart from the larger issue of the less-than-optimal sound mix) with this release are the skimpy liner notes (some context regarding the band's history would have been helpful: The Beat was finding success at the US at this point, while their fortunes in the UK were diminishing--and the band's split into General Public and Fine Young Cannibals wasn't too far off) and that not all of the band members are featured on the cover (no Everett Morton, Saxa, Dave Blockhead, and Wesley Magoogan--the latter two appeared on Special Beat Service and fleshed out the band's sound on stage for SBS-era touring). Certainly not fatal mistakes, but the devil's in the details, right?

Live at the US Festival will probably be most appreciated by hardcore English Beat fans (especially those who only know the band from their studio recordings and never had the chance to see the original band live), but anyone who picks up this CD/DVD will be rewarded with some of the best music and live performances the Beat had to offer.

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