[2 July 2012]
“Itchy finger (FINGER!) trigger (TRIGGER!) click click… clickclickCLICK!” (“Click Click”)
For the span of its short career, the Beat was a model of consistency. In three years the band fired off three studio albums, 12 songs per album, a big handful of pop hits, and then in 1982 they broke apart—faster faster faster faster STOP. Well, not exactly “stop”. The band still tours in twin configurations: singer and toaster Ranking Roger carries the torch through Europe, while singer and principal songwriter Dave Wakeling leads the English Beat across America. “Though nothing special occurred… the audience went home sweaty and happy,” said a St. Louis radio station after one recent nostalgia show in the Blueberry Hill Duck Room.
“It’s not a joke, it’s cards on the table time.” (“I Confess”)
In America they were known as the English Beat from the start. Though they released only one single on the 2 Tone label, the band belonged to the same British ska revival that gave us the Specials, Madness, black and white checkerboard patterns, and that little “Rude Boy” button Prince wore on the cover of Controversy. The Beat stood apart, though, thanks mostly to Wakeling’s first-rate songwriting. He was a sharp observer and turner of phrases in the Elvis Costello mold, and he wrote to his band’s particular strengths as precisely as Pete Townshend did for the Who. Two new compilations, the five-disc box set The Complete Beat and the 16-track Keep the Beat: The Very Best of the English Beat, document the Beat’s career transformation. They started off a ska band with pop instincts, and ended up a pop band with reggae cred.
“I think quite a lot of my own point of view; is that all I have that’s in common with you?” (“Too Nice To Talk To”)
Wakeling’s great subject was self-absorption, both his own and other people’s. Many of the band’s hits—“Too Nice to Talk To”, “Twist & Crawl”, “Best Friend”, and the great “Mirror in the Bathroom”—burrow into the topic with a mix of disgust and celebration. They were drawn to reggae for its sounds: dubby darkness, cavernous reverb, and especially echoes. Not just studio effects, these echoes were written into the songs. In a stripped-down 1979 Peel Session take on “Mirror”, everything echoes: David Steele’s evil pulsing bassline, Roger and Wakeling’s vocal interplay, and Wakeling’s line “ten thousand reflections of my own sweet self self self self self…” That echo you hear is Wakeling’s husky voice—and your voice, everybody’s voice—bouncing off the mirror in the bathroom, caroming off the walls in search of purpose and returning to its owner’s ears none the wiser. (I always envision the iconic poster image from Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.) Especially once they added the reverb-drenched sax lines of sax player Saxa, “Mirror” was the sound of claustrophobic horror. And you could skank to it.
“In the long run even he’s your brudda, said even though the kid’s a Nazi…” (“Two Swords”)
The Beat didn’t just make scary sociopathic monologues, though. Their echo was also the echo of companionship, of a biracial duet leading a packed Boston club in a very polite demand that the British Prime Minister stand down. Onstage, in press photos, and in songs like “Ackee 1 2 3” and “Doors of Your Heart”, the Beat embodied an ideal of joy and bonhomie. And they pulled off some gorgeous musical effects: Roger toasting over the authoritative riddims of Steele and drummer Everett Morton; the entire band, including two rhythm guitars, locking into grooves like a highlife group; Roger, Wakeling, and Saxa harmonizing while trumpets and calypso percussion brightened their sound. The Beat could echo the drones of isolation or the shouts of community, sometimes both at once, and that complexity has propelled their music far beyond the 2 Tone scene.
“You’re fat and can afford to be tasteless.” (“Big Shot”)
Despite its girth, Shout! Factory’s The Complete Beat isn’t really complete. UK label Edsel has also reissued the three albums separately with a panoply of remixes, live tunes, and Top of the Pops videos not on this box set. But Complete still gives you three Peel Sessions, a mini-concert, and some fine dubs and 12” mixes along with the original albums. I Just Can’t Stop It kicked off the Beat’s career with hits and skanks all mixed up, racing from “Mirror” to the closing “Jackpot”, flagging only during their inexplicably popular cover of Doc Pomus’s “Can’t Get Used to Losing You”. Wha’ppen doubles down on both reggae and singer-songwriter wank, hitting a woozy high with “Drowning” before sinking into the Costello rip “Dream Home in NZ”, an obligatory British class observation. (Don’t British people get tired of writing those?) It’s still a good album, though, and Special Beat Service is even better. It’s the great flowering of the Beat’s sound, with Dave Blockhead’s piano sprouting up all over the place. Ace reggae tunes (“Spar Wid Me”) contrast with pretty pop songs, a strategy that allows the Beat to indulge in both without exhausting the appeal of either. You can tell they’re having fun—“Save It For Later” might be the loveliest dirty joke of the ‘80s.
“So we shared one last cigarette and swapped false addresses.” (“Jeanette”)
Keep the Beat is fine as career overviews go, but it’s not as much fun as the ‘83 hodgepodge What Is Beat?, which cost me four bucks on vinyl. Keep the Beat’s only unexpected inclusion is the rapid-fire rhymefest “Jeanette”. Really, if you like this band at all, you should just pony up for the box set, or at least for the studio albums. The Beat packed their records full of lively surprises that don’t translate to a workmanlike CD overview. They made some of the most sophisticated singles of the ‘80s, but they never lost their taste for novelty, grooves, or the sublime echoes of reggae. At least, not until they moved on to other things, General Public and Fine Young Cannibals and neverending hits tours. But that’s a different story. What’s that, Ranking Roger?
“I said STOP! I’m dead.” (“Ranking Full Stop”)