Saturday, July 28, 2012


The Beat, as they were properly called in England, had to become The English Beat over here, as the named was already taken by another band.  While we didn't really have a grasp of the whole 2 Tone scene in the U.K. (The Specials, Madness, The Selector), there were breakthroughs, and certainly a decent following in the New Wave crowd.  The group came together in the late 70's, in a cultural stew that saw punk and reggae appealing to some of the same fans.  Ska and rocksteady had been staples of the British charts for years, so white and Jamaican young people had some common ground there as well.  The multicultural mix of these groups helped spawn a brand-new, very danceable and credible sound.  At the band's peak, it was on the road in North America with Talking Heads, The Police and R.E.M., but broke up before making it big with that class.

The legacy is four years and three albums, plus assorted singles, 12-inch mixes, and radio shows, all nicely packaged up in a 5-CD box for us here.  Each of the proper albums is given its own disc, with the single sides and b-sides added on.  There's a complete disc of just 12-inch mixes of the British hits, a necessity in the clubs back then.  The final disc is made up of three different BBC Peel sessions, plus four cuts from a live show in Boston.  There's no out-takes, demos or hidden gems, but none are needed either, nothing that will dilute the legacy. 

The debut, I Just Can't Stop It, is the home of the hits, college radio staples and still buzzing with excitement and pulsing with rhythm.  Twist And Crawl is announced by a booming bass groove that opened up the dance floor for alternative fans.  Then there was Mirror In The Bathroom, still a touchstone song 30 years later, self-obsession tackled in a brilliant lyric.  Debut single Tears Of A Clown is added to the disc (as it was on the original North American pressing), pointing out the strong connection Motown had to Britain, and an instant hit back in London.  The ability to move between the pop and the political was another of the album's strengths, as the group made one of the first (and best) anti-Thatcher statements, Stand Down Margaret.  They represented the real bright new tomorrow, if it was going to be possible, standing firm with Rock Against Racism, searching for a voice for agitating youth culture.  The album was full of stand-out tracks, including Best Friend, Hands Off..She's Mine, and the ultimate great cover version, the Andy Williams hit Can't Get Used To Losing You. 

The production was a key to the success, with veteran BBC engineer Bob Sargeant behind the board.  The echo on Saxa's sax, and the huge presence of the bass were the hallmarks, and no wonder the band stuck with him through their career.

Wha'ppen? was the difficult second album, as the group opened up their sound to more influences, other shades of reggae, even calypso, and slowed down the pace.  There weren't too many great hits, the best of their work having gone to the debut, but slow burners Doors Of Your Heart and Too Nice To Talk To are highlights.  In the ever-changing English pop world, 2 Tone had lost its place in the Top 10 by album three, 1982's Special Beat Service, but it's nearly as strong as the debut, and by this time the U.S. and especially Canada had opened up to the band.  The songs are more sophisticated, but retain the core sound of the group.  I Confess, Jeanette, and especially Save It For Later have deft lyrics and joyous melodies, plus lots of special touches, whether it's well-placed sax solos or thundering bottom-end.  But the separation of the two core strengths of the band was also on display, with the more Jamaican songs, Spar Wid Me and Ackee 1-2-3, distinct from the other material.

The changing tides of English pop moved way too quickly then, and the band split after Special Beat Service.  Literally split, with some forming General Public, and others Fine Young Cannibals.  Various reunions continue, and it's quite a good show I hear.  Well, with this many tremendous songs from just three albums, no wonder.

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