The English Beat
The English Beat
The Beat, known as the English Beat in the United States to avoid confusion with the California pop group of the same name, was a prominent band in the ska revival movement in England in the early 1980s. Perhaps the most widely known and certainly the longest lived band associated with that movement, the Beat did not confine themselves to ska rhythms, but experimented with a variety of Latin and African beats and eventually incorporated more mainstream pop forms, such as the love ballad, into their repertoire.
Vocalist David Wakeling, guitarist Andy Cox, and classically trained bassist David Steele began playing a punk/rock mix in 1978. They were soon joined by Everett Morton, a West Indian who had drummed for Joan Armatrading. His addition of reggae and other Jamaican rhythms to the group’s style, as well as the band’s now biracial makeup, led to their identification as part of the ska revival.
As with other musical trends, such as the British Invasion in the mid-1960s, the ska revival borrowed heavily from black music, in this case, blue beat and reggae. Opposing the English skinhead movement, which endorsed racial intolerance, ska advocated racial unity. In the Village Voice Robert Christgau defined ska, sometimes referred to as 2-tone, as “left-liberal: an alternative to anarchistic punk rage and apocalyptic reggae mysticism that politicized power pop’s nostalgia for limits in a context at once biracial and specifically English.”
In March of 1979 the quartet played its first gig, opening for a punk group at a Birmingham club. Ranking Roger, the drummer for the headliner, began “toasting,” or chanting over the songs, during the Beat’s performance. The combination proved irresistible, and Ranking Roger joined as the group’s second vocalist.
The Jamaican saxophonist Saxa joined the Beat to record their first single, a remake of Smokey Robinson’s “Tears of a Clown.” Saxa’s experience, gained while playing with such renowned ska musicians as Prince Buster, Laurel Aitken, and Desmond Dekker, contributed to the instant success of the group’s debut record. In Britain the single rose to Number Six on the pop charts, which perhaps influenced Saxa’s decision to join the group permanently.
The group’s next two releases, “Hands Off... She’s Mine” and “Mirror in the Bathroom,” hit the Top Ten in the U.K. The Beat released them on their own newly formed label, Go Feet, which they used for all of their
For the Record…
Original members included Andy Cox (born January 25, 1956, in Birmingham, England), guitar; Everett Morton (born April 5, 1951, in St. Kitts, West Indies), drums; David Steele (born September 8, 1960, in Isle of Wight, England), bass; and David Wakeling (bom February 19, 1956, in Birmingham), guitar, vocals.
Later members included Wesley Magoogan (joined group, 1982), saxophone; Ranking Roger (born February 21, 1961, in Birmingham; joined group, 1979), vocals; Saxa (born c. 1930 in Jamaica; joined group, 1979), saxophone; and David “Blockhead” Wright (joined group, c. 1980), keyboards.
Band formed in Birmingham, England, 1978; debuted in Birmingham club, 1979; released debut single, “Tears of a Clown,” 2-Tone, 1979; founded label Go Feet and self-released I Just Can’t Stop It, 1980; toured U.S., 1980, opening for the Pretenders and headlining at clubs, including the Ritz, New York City, and Bookie’s, Detroit; opened for the Clash, Hollywood Palladium, 1982.
subsequent singles and albums. Their first album, I Just Can’t Stop It, came out in 1980 and quickly rose to Number Three in Britain.
I Just Can’t Stop It firmly entrenched the group’s identity as a ska band. Although the Beat relied on Jamaican rhythms and other island rhythm and blues techniques, they differed from other ska revivalists by raising the intensity of their music with punk. In Rolling Stone Milo Miles described their first album as “a rambunctious cluster of singles held together by tenor saxophonist Saxa’s winning, authoritative blowing and a rhythm section... that cared more about adventure than duplicating antique reggae.” The frenzied guitar in “Twist and Crawl” and the manic pace in “Click Click” set the tone for the album, where even the leisurely horns in “Tears of a Clown” were presented in a context of strain and tension. James Hunter in the Village Voice explained the appeal of this first album: “Two things made them winning beyond awesome technical accomplishment: their speed, which tended always to beat you across the room, and their heart—this great nervous band for the nervous world had feelings as insistent as its riffs.”
While the Beat’s debut album was soaring up the charts, the group was touring Europe. David “Blockhead” Wright accompanied them, eventually becoming a keyboardist for the group. In the fall of 1980 they began their first American tour, opening for the Pretenders and the Talking Heads. In 1981 the group released their second album, Wha’ppen, to enthusiastic reviews. While popular reaction in the United States was lukewarm, the album went to Number Two in Britain. The group still employed some reggae, but they also experimented on this album with a variety of beats, from Motown to steel band rhythms.
Unlike I Just Can’t Stop It, which was simply a collection of unrelated songs, Wha’ppen? was designed with each song as an integral part of the whole. Critics noted that the pacing of the album, with its building suspense, is less exuberant but more mature than that of I Just Can’t Stop It. According to Rolling Stone’s Miles, “Except in sheer pep,Wha’ppen? marks an advance for the English Beat: truly complex love-and-jealousy tales, politics that are more keenly defined.”
The group’s third album,Special Beat Service, was not the chartbuster in England that the group’s previous albums had been, although it was the group’s most popular in the United States. The album moved into more mainstream pop territory, which perhaps explains its success in the United States. Love songs and pop ballads set the album’s direction, although the Latin and African rhythms show the group’s continued interest in experimenting with a variety of beats.
Steele explained the group’s shift in musical direction to Musician: “It has changed in that we all had similar musical interests when we first started, mainly punk and reggae, but now everyone’s into totally different stuff. That’s why you get different music from track to track on the new LP, and you’ll probably get an even wider variety of differences on the next one. I still don’t think we have the proper mix. We’ve always been searching for the right sound, and I don’t think we’ve found it yet.”
The Beat’s search for a sound kept them alive longer than the other popular bands of the ska movement. Wakeling protested the group’s label as a ska band to Bill Holdship of Musician, “Ska is a specific beat, and we’ve only had two or three songs out of something like forty that used the ska beat.... I think we mainly got labeled ska because people saw blacks and whites together.” Wakeling, however, admits the group’s affinity with the movement: “It did say something very strong about racial unity.... Although I sometimes get annoyed when people complain that the third Beat LP isn’t a ska record, I still think it was an honor to have been involved with 2-tone.”
In 1982 poor health forced Saxa to retire. His replacement, saxophonist Wesley Magoogan, previously a member of Helen O’Connor’s band, earned Wakeling’s approval because of his discipline as a musician. However, Wakeling’s comment on Saxa’s retirement to Musician writer Bill Holdship proved prophetic: “[Saxa] was one of the cornerstones [of the band], and the idea of losing someone that important had us worried that the whole thing might fall apart.”
Special Beat Service was indeed the group’s final album. Yet the group’s exuberant mix of rhythms made them an important influence on the rock world in the 1980s. Early in the group’s career, Rolling Stone’s Miles predicted, “The English Beat have an instant legend aura about them, weaving an eccentric path between black and white, calculation and craziness.”
I Just Can’t Stop it, Go Feet, 1980.
Wha’ppen, Go Feet, 1981.
Special Beat Service, I.R.S., 1982.
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, edited by Jon Pareles and Patricia Romanowski, Rolling Stone Press/Summit Books, 1983.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Who’s New Wave in Music: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, 1976-1982, edited by David Bianco, Pierian Press, 1985.
Musician, February 1983.
Rolling Stone, October 1, 1981; March 17, 1983.
Village Voice, October 21, 1981; December 7, 1982.
—Susan Windisch Brown
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