There are some elementary laws that seem to govern rock 'n' roll. For example, rock 'n' roll groups never die, the members just form new groups. Secondly, that yahoo with the whistle will always sit behind you, while the seven-foot dancing fool will always be in front of you. And, of course, concert T-shirts cost around 20 bucks and no one will ever believe you were there if you don't buy one. Finally, the bathroom is always out of order.
Law No. 1 is germane this week because two of the best ska dance bands ever--the English Beat and the Specials--are coming together as a single band, brand-new for the '90s, the Special Beat. The new band features, among others, vocalist Neville Staples from the Specials and Ranking Roger, former Beat front man. Also joining the band for the West Coast dates will be the Beat's other lead singer, David Wakeling.
And the band is doing it without any help from its friends. The Special Beat has no record, no record company, no music videos, no hits, no concert T-shirts, but a 35-date concert tour including a Monday night dance-a-thon at the venerable Ventura Theatre.
"We're hoping to get an American label interested," said Staples in a recent telephone interview. "We're financing the tour ourselves, so we couldn't afford to bring the Beat's old sax player, Saxa, but if we get a record deal we will next time. So far, the tour has been brilliant."
And Staples has been pleased with the crowds, so far, which he said have been very good--not great, but good. "All of our old fans were there plus a lot of new ones who I think were too young to come and see us back in the early '80s," he said.
The band will be performing the biggies from both groups--which hit their strides in the early '80s, then broke up. The English Beat was a headlining act, playing often in Southern California, including a memorable performance at the first US Festival in 1982. Musical proof that the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, the Beat mutated into General Public, a band featuring both Roger and Wakeling. The rhythm section from the Beat fared best, forming Fine Young Cannibals, which, so far, has made lots of money. The Specials went on to become Fun Boy Three then the Specials AKA, both garnering critical acclaim, but not a lot of money.
None of the later incarnations came close to rivaling the breakneck ya-gotta-dance ska music of the original bands. Ska music is infectious to any and all feet within a 12-block radius--it could make a statue of a guy yawning at the opera get up and dance.
"Ska music is basically Jamaican with a chop-chop downbeat," Staples said. "Reggae music evolved from ska music--reggae just slowed down the beat. We put life back into ska by upping the tempo of the original ska stuff. People like Prince Buster in the '50s were the first ska artists to make an impression in England."
There is a considerable Jamaican population in England, said Staples, who is from Coventry and grew up listening to ska music. "When the Specials started in 1977, I was a deejay," he said. "Then I started going to their rehearsals, then their gigs, helping with the gear and stuff. Then I became their mixer guy. One night they were opening for the Clash, and I was deejaying with a mike and the crowd loved it, and I got onstage." Working with Roger was something he wanted for a long time, Staples said, but Roger always seemed too busy.
"But then last year, at a UB40 show, Roger and I got on stage and really hit it off, and now, here we are. I've always loved performing. I'm a maniac on stage," Staples said.
Get those dancing shoes ready--they'll be getting a serious workout, even before the Special Beat takes the stage. Opening will be the Oingo Boingo spinoff band, Food For Feet, plus the best reggae/rock band in Ventura, the Lion I's.
"We just love meeting new people," Staples said. "We're proof that black guys and white guys can get along just fine. People just sing along, and of course, dance. We just have a good time and make people happy. What could be better?"