Music: Rap and the world raps with you

OK, the Beastie Boys have cleaned up their act. Got religion. Opened shops. But they'll always be a punk band at heart. By Fiona Sturges

TIME WAS when the Beastie Boys spent the duration of their live shows with their hands down their trousers. These days the only thing to get into their trousers, in public at least, is their shirts, neatly tucked in with not a thread out of place.

Such was the outrageousness of Beasties' gigs in the mid-Eighties - hydraulic penises, scantily clad dancing girls and gratuitously frothing beers all featured regularly - that Middle England threw its hands up in horror and banned them from our shores.

Thirteen years on, Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D have dispensed with such adolescent preoccupations. Rhymes advocating world peace have now replaced the riot-inducing sentiments of old. Ad-Rock aka Adam Yauch has embraced Buddhism, Mike Diamond has started his own line in clothing and the band have started their own highly successful record label, Grand Royal. It's probably only a matter of time before a Beastie Boys pension plan is up and running.

But even with their squeaky-clean spiritual and commercial status, the New York trio have lost none of their sparkle. Performing in the round in a Rotterdam aircraft hangar-cum- leisure centre, they found themselves precariously balanced on a revolving stage in front of several thousand dope-smoking Dutch fans. Clearly nonplussed by his surroundings, Mike D muttered into his microphone until drowned out by the syncopated thud of "The Move". Beset by "technical difficulties", the instrumentals were fuzzily incoherent at first and their scratchy vocals were rendered as distant squeaks. But after some frantic knob-twiddling from the sound man and profuse apologies, the Boys finally ignited the atmosphere as they revisited the funk-and-punk-inspired days of their 1992 album Check Your Head.

Dressed in matching shirts and trousers that you would normally associate with supermarket shelf-stackers, the trio rolled around the circular stage like kindergarten kids. As they scrolled through "The Move", "Pass the Mic" and "Time for Livin'", the crowd sang along with them word-perfect - no mean feat considering the complexity of the Beasties' lyrics.

The threesome's quick-fire rapping certainly belied their years, retaining the peculiar helium-breathing quality that first seared our eardrums in their Licensed to Ill days. A series of shambolic kung-fu moves also reaffirmed the fact that these astute entrepreneurs are not yet ready to relinquish their comic-book personas, even with the onset of middle age.

But the Beasties' grown-up moments proved equally compelling as they seamlessly slipped into easy-listening mode, staring into the middle distance like veteran session musicians and imbuing the warehouse surroundings with the warmth of a late-night jazz lounge. The crowd responded accordingly, sitting down and lighting up giant spliffs.

It is the Beastie Boys' championing of a multitude of supposedly conflicting musical styles that has ensured not only longevity but a musical credibility that is rarely afforded to rap acts. One minute they are a riotous punk band cruelly sending up obesity in "Heart Attack Man", the next a cogent jazz-funk outfit complete with double bass, Hammond organ and a sizeable percussion section. Imagine the UK Subs doing a cover version of Miles Davis's "Footprints".

Even their hip-hop has kept up with the times, coming equipped with enough hyperbole to maintain their street cred but performed with a precision that puts their gangsta-addled contemporaries to shame. Fleshed out by mercifully sparing scratching, some seductive Latin samples and muscular rhythms, their beery anthems still seemed ahead of their time.

But it was the sporadic outbursts of hardcore that told us where their true allegiances lay. As the strobes flashed, the audience pogoed and Ad-Rock turned his lungs inside out during "Tough Guy", the Beasties revealed themselves to be the consummate punk band. Such delightfully violent outbursts made it all the more difficult to picture the band as spokesmen for world peace.

The Beastie Boys play the SECC, Glasgow on Monday; Manchester Evening News Arena, Tues; the NEC, Birmingham, Wed; and Wembley Arena, London, Fri and Saturday 8 May

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