[Auckland, New Zealand-based writer Keith Shackleton, an occasional contributor to Buzz Bands LA, is a native of the U.K. who was around for The Beat – known as The English Beat in the U.S. – and all the other music he discusses in this essay:]
By Keith Shackleton
Late-’70s British post-punk music can be characterized by serried trenchcoat-clad ranks of young men poking desultorily at synthesisers or scratching out wiry mutant guitar scribbles, played out against a background of economic uncertainty, an energy crisis and a winter of discontent. There was grim determination, but precious little joy, in their baleful experimentation: grey music for grey times. The musical direction of a group of scenesters from the English Midlands, however, was a little more black and white.
2-Tone (both record label and cultural influence) had a style and sensibility culled from the ’60s Mod movement. Its musical protagonists fused early soul music and Jamaican ska, delivered with all the energy of the preceding punk period and not a little of its political cut and thrust, and The Beat (as I know them – across the pond, they are The English Beat) were probably the best equipped to succeed.
The Specials, driven by the keyboards of label instigator Jerry Dammers and fronted by the Hall/Golding/Staples triumvirate, were a mighty presence at the forefront of this second wave of ska, and lovable Londoners Madness were headed for cheeky-chappy chartdom as soon as their debut single – an homage to ska legend Prince Buster – was pressed. But The Beat had it all: a photogenic multiracial line up, popular appeal, sound politics and instrumental and vocal dexterity. The band provide the firmest foundation possible for frontmen Dave Wakeling and “Ranking Roger” Charlery: Andy Cox’s twitching guitar and the light touch of David Steele’s bass, propelled by the effortless polyrhythms of Everett Morton. Add elder statesman Lionel Augustus ‘Saxa’ Martin to the mix: The Beat were a prodigious lineup.
There’s not an ounce of fat on the just-about-perfect debut long player: “I Just Can’t Stop It” (1980) contains seven skittish originals, a good-natured lope through Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” and tips its hat to Prince Buster (twice) and reggae trio The Pioneers. Covering new ground, sophomore effort “Wha’ppen?” (1981) lands plenty of smart middleweight punches with “Doors Of Your Heart” a standout, but never quite delivers a knockout blow.
At first listen, the same could be said of the band’s final statement “Special Beat Service” (1982), but stay with it – this mature, thoughtful collection runs deep and contains some pure pop gems. Outward looking, accentuated by the cover: Saxa as African potentate surrounded by security detail and retinue cross an runway underneath a vintage Vickers VC10 jet. Abroad, the increasing breadth and scope of band’s work was well-received and promised much, with “I Confess” and “Save It For Later” pushing the upper reaches of Billboard. At home, however, chart placings were on the wane, and the band’s creative core moved in different directions. Wakeling formed General Public with the Clash’s Mick Jones, Cox and Steele enjoying great success with actor/singer Roland Gift as Fine Young Cannibals.
The Beat’s songs are still toured today. Ranking Roger has a U.K. lineup, but California resident Wakeling is most active, currently on an extended jaunt through North America with seven dates in Australia and New Zealand.
July 10th saw the release of a wallet-emptying box set called “The Complete Beat” on Shout! Factory, including all three studio albums with bonus material, a disc of dub versions and rarities, plus John Peel show sessions and late-period live tracks. Fan favorites are present and correct in the five-CD set – a pell-mell dash through The Miracles’ “Tears Of A Clown” in session for John Peel, the extended politico-dub of “Stand Down Margaret,” and three versions of the classic “Which Side Of The Bed,” formerly hidden away on the B-side of “Hit It,” among them.
The box set title is no misnomer: It catalogs the legacy of a great British band. There’s a distillation “Keep the Beat: The Very Best of the English Beat” out too, but if you’re a fan like me, spring for the big box if you can – there’s much more to The Beat than can be contained on a single disc.
||| Live: The English Beat plays July 29 at the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa. They also play Sept. 28 at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano and Sept. 29 at Saint Rocke in Hermosa Beach.
Photo by Bryan Kremkau