Great Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s was an extremely polarized society. Upon its election Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party government had instituted a deliberate policy of isolating and attacking those it deemed to be its enemies. It was pretty much open season on everyone from trade unionists to minorities. While it was never official government policy to target immigrants like it was to break the coal miner’s union, when unemployment started to escalate and the poor and working class began to suffer, scapegoats were needed and visible minorities were an easy target. The National Front, a British neo-Nazi political party, took advantage of the hard times to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment. The result was increasingly violent altercations between their followers and the large South East Asian and Jamaican populations in London, which cumulated in race riots that were running battles between both sides and the police.
This was the backdrop against which a new type of music was born. Ska and reggae had come to Britain along with calypso with the post World War ll wave of Jamaican immigration, but they had never really spread beyond their native communities. That all began to change in 1970s with the emergence of reggae stars like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff who garnered mainstream attention in England. While bands like The Clash incorporated reggae into their sound, others were attracted to the higher tempo sound of ska. Bands like The Specials, Madness, and UB40 blended ska and reggae with punk to create a high energy, somewhat politicalized, dance music. However it was a group from Birmingham, the second largest city in England after London, which had been really badly hit by Thatcher’s policies, who really caught lightning in a bottle and created a perfect marriage of ska, R&B, pop, and punk.
The Beat, or The English Beat, as they were known in North America, only released three albums. (The original band broke up in 1983 and have recently reformed as two separate bands, The Beat in England and The English Beat in the U.S., hence the two web sites) While they may have not been around for very long, they blazed through popular music like a comet. Infectious, intelligent, fun, and exciting, their music had people on both sides of the ocean dancing. A review published around the time of their first album, I Just Can’t Stop It, called them the perfect antidote to the riots plaguing England at the time. Just set The Beat down between the two factions and start them playing and people will have to stop fighting as their bodies will force them to start dancing the reviewer implied. If you didn’t have the opportunity to experience The Beat the first time around, or if you’re old vinyl has been worn out by repeated playings, you’re in luck, for on July 10, 2012, Shout Factory is releasing the box set The Complete Beat.
Not only does it contain all three original releases (I Just Can’t Stop It, Wh’appen, and Special Beat Service) remastered and with extra tracks, you’ll also receive two bonus discs. The fourth disc of the set collects together all the extended remixes, 12-inch singles, and dub versions of songs that they released during the course of their career. Dub is, of course, short for over dubbing and was a widely used technique in Jamaican dance halls for years. The original song is taken, and then overdubbed with effects usually with the intent of extending the track and giving it a funkier groove. To be honest when I had heard some of these tracks when they were originally released I found the idea of overdubbing The Beat somewhat redundant as they were already a great dance band. However, that being said, their overdubs do have the added bonus of being more than just simple remixes with a new rhythm track.
Vocalist and “toaster” (another term from the Jamaican dance hall lexicon equivalent to American rap) Rankin’ Roger adds new “toasts” to quite a few of the tracks and he’s always a treat to listen to. His soliloquies seem positively innocent compared to what you hear on the average rap record, but they’re inventive, intelligent, and fun. They usually involved taking the main lyric line and extemporizing, genuinely adding a new dimension to any song that he worked on.
The fifth disc is comprised of versions of their songs recorded for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s (BBC) renowned “John Peel” show. Some of the most famous bands in British pop from the ’70s and ’80s have had their music released under The John Peel Sessions imprint. Recorded live in BBC’s studios for radio broadcast, they are rawer and more immediate than the versions which appear on a band’s releases and give the listener a better idea of how they would sound live. With a band like The Beat, while studio versions are great, it’s only live when they’re all feeding off each other’s energy that one really begins to appreciate what made them so special. The inclusion of the Peel recordings in this set gives listeners an inkling as to what that experience would have been like. Having seen them twice in concert back in the early 1980s, I know nothing can capture that magic, not even a live recording, but these John Peel Session recordings come close.
The last four songs on this disc are taken from their 1982 North American tour during their Boston gig in November of that year. If you thought the studio version of “Twist and Crawl” on Just Can’t Stop It was high energy, wait until you hear what they uncork live. It also contains the never recorded combination of their song “Get A Job” and “Stand Down Margaret,” their plea for Margaret Thatcher to do everyone a favour and resign. Originally paired with “Whine & Grine,” “Margaret” takes on an even bigger bite when combined with “Get A Job”. Remember this was the government that did its best to destroy Britain’s industrial base for the sole purpose of putting union members who voted against them out of work and then proceeded to say the poor only had themselves to blame and anybody who really wanted to could “Get A Job”.
Maybe a song like “Stand Down Margaret” is dated (however, it still remains the one and only song I’ve ever seen develop into a full scale sing along while the audience is dancing itself silly) but listening to The Beat itself will never get stale. While there were other talented ska bands like The Specials, The Beat were something special. They fused the best of R&B, soul, punk, reggae, and ska into a sound that was unique to them. Listen to their cover of the old Motown hit “Tears Of A Clown” and you’ll hear what I mean. What was once sort of a catchy, but basically insipid pop tune, has been turned into something with meat on its bones. Tighter, tougher, and with twice the energy of the original it, like all their music, makes you want to throw your body around in ways you never thought possible.
In the years since The Beat broke up we’ve seen the rise of various different types of dance music. Yet for about six years or so a band existed who created music that inspired thousands of people to forget about whatever else was going on in their lives for hours on end and dance like there was no tomorrow. Their music might not have been as political as The Clash’s or as cerebral as the Talking Heads, but The Beat – or The English Beat if you prefer – were in some ways just as important. For even today they remind us that music doesn’t have to have a message or be selling anything to have a positive impact. They were a reminder that life can and should be a celebration, and all during a time when things were looking really quite ugly. If you think about it, that’s a message the world could stand to hear more often. The songs in this collection might be thirty years old, but they still have the same impact they did when first recorded.
For those who aren’t sure if they want to invest in the box set The Complete Beat Shout Factory is also releasing a fifteen song greatest hits disc, Keep The Beat: The Very Best Of The English Beat on July 10, 2012. They are also offering a special incentive for ordering the box set directly from their web site as they will throw in the never before released CD/DVD recording of the Beat’s appearance at The U.S. Festival in 1982 and a signed booklet with every purchase. I’ve no idea of the DVD’s quality, but I remember the U.S. Festival was televised by the music networks of the day, so it will probably be the television feed which means it will at least have been professionally shot. But the chance to see them perform live even on tape is something not to be missed. However, no matter which recording you choose to buy, you’ll soon discover there was and is no other band like The Beat.