Five discs cover The English Beat from wall-to-wall, but they're five good discs.
English Beat Story #1: My brother Alan, his friend Dean and I went to see them at the Masonic Temple in Toronto. The opening band sucked and we were all pissed off about it. I wanted to blow off the show and go to the Hotel Isabella, where John Otway was playing with Wild Willy Barrett, but Alan and Dean were more into ska than I was and they wanted to stay. I continued to bitch about the band - The Offs from San Francisco, I vaguely recall - and talked up Otway, but they weren't leaving. They finally conceded that if the Beat sucked, we'd move on. Then they opened with "Twist & Crawl" and we couldn't leave. The machine-like insistence of that bassline was all it took, and we danced the entire show. An hour and a half later and drenched in sweat, we hustled to our car and then went to see Otway, who was also brilliant.
English Beat Story #2: After the release of 1982's Special Beat Service, they played London, Ontario with R.E.M. opening. It was R.E.M.'s first time in Canada (they were strip-searched at the border), and the day of the show was the day Murmur was released. I was doing campus radio at the time and loved Chronic Town, so I arranged tickets and to do an interview with R.E.M. after the show. That night, I thought they were great, and the interview was great. Peter Buck and Mike Mills were record geeks like we were and after 20 minutes of actual interview, we shot the shit about bands we liked. Buck had a copy of The dB's Like This, which had yet to be released, and offered it to us if we wanted to hear it. We grabbed beers and went out to the parking lot to listen to the album in the car, then sat around talking about it until we realized that the bus we could see sitting with its lights on was likely the band waiting for its tape back. After all that, seeing whatever was left of the Beat's set sounded like weak tea, but decided whatthefuck and went in, and they were great. Again, the relentless intensity of their grooves and great hooks made it impossible to walk away, even when I wasn't in the mood for them.
The English Beat were never The Specials, punks who found distinction and principles in ska; and they weren't Madness, the frat house band for people hate frats. Ska gave them context and a starting place, but they found Steele by invoking The Flamin' Groovies in an ad. As Ranking Roger says in the liner notes for The Complete Beat box set (released yesterday), "In all reality, The Beat had no more than three pure ska songs."
From first notes in 1978 to Roger and singer Dave Wakeling's departure to form General Public in 1983, The Beat were a short-lived band, though they outlasted The Selecter and the original lineup of The Specials (Terry Hall left for Fun Boy Three in 1981). That means the band left behind a very manageable catalogue - three studio albums, a disc of dub tracks and extended mixes, and a disc's worth of Peel sessions.
I Just Can't Stop It still holds up remarkably, and the rhythm section of Dave Steele and Everett Morton remain surprising in the inventive groves they find in the ska/rock/punk/pop nexus. It's hard to know if the narcissism of "Mirror in the Bathroom" shaped my attitude toward Dave Wakeling or if it was the perfect match of song and talent, but I've always attributed a self-absorption to him that also shaped the band's version of "Tears of a Clown." Almost every track has a compelling tension that looks for points to explode, whether in the sing-along portion of "Stand Down Margaret" or the borderline automatic vocalizing of "Click Clack."
In the liner notes, they admit that they suffered from Second Album Disease on 1981's Wha'ppen? They were told by the label it was time to record and they didn't have much new material, and as much as I'd like to find a reason to counter conventional wisdom, I run out of reasons to keep listening after "Too Nice to Talk To," "I am Your Flag," "Get-a-Job" and their best reggae track, "Doors of Your Heart." Those tracks have the same tension, but the signs are there of a band in trouble as they toe the waters of calypso. It's not that they do it poorly, but the effort to find a new island sound is a sign of a band that doesn't didn't trust its strengths.
In 1982, the 2-Tone/British ska moment had passed and The English Beat had moved on to I.R.S. Records for the release of Special Beat Service. The cover said this isn't another pork-pie hat affair as it featured the band in suits and trenchcoats escorting a Middle Eastern dignitary across the airport tarmac, and the opener, "I Confess," furthered that with cocktail piano boosted from Joe Jackson's "Steppin' Out" and a surging David Steele bass line that, like most on the album, runs in front of the beat creating an awesome momentum. "Jeanette" nods to ska, but with an accordion that really invokes polka, and "Sole Salvation" two songs later opens with an R&B horn fanfare. The Beat adapted well to the changing tides, and one of the band's best tracks is the jangle-pop "Save It for Later." They hadn't turned their backs on reggae, nor had they lost the touch for the tight, ska-like track. "What's Your Best Thing" was a bonus track, and it would have been right at home on I Just Can't Stop It, but on Special Beat Service they effectively embraced all of their roots with a heavy dose of R&B. Unfortunately, it didn't change their fortunes and the internal strife was inescapable.
The two bonus discs are the news on the album, and both hold up. One features 15 12-inch and/or dub remixes - dance club-oriented versions that hold up well. They're padded by definition, but not in shameless or audience-abusive ways, and this is the disc I've enjoyed the most since getting the box. they're obviously fans of dub reggae so they do credible remixes, but they're aware of their place in the world so they don't overreach in the way that Martin Rushent did as he tried to create punk dub with Generation X and Altered Images, to name two.
The other presents The Beat's Peel Sessions and four songs live in Boston in 1982. The Peel tracks are fascinating because they present the band in the process of figuring out their songs. The meaningful pieces are all in place, but Wakeling particularly and the band in general are sorting out the tracks' moods. That often results in sterner, punkier performances that underscore the scene The Beat emerged from and the core principles that seem to wobble over the course of the band's short life.
In an interview taped to accompany the release of The Complete Beat, Wakeling links the band's bass and drums-driven sound to the seminal British electronic sound, bass & drums, and the live version of "Tears of a Clown" makes that claim seem less like an effort to claim enduring significance less forced than it might first sound. Steele plays so far up the neck that there's no conventional bass part, and when Morton plays a hyperactive pattern on the wood block to start "Twist and Crawl," the song's defined by a complex, high-speed rush of barely inflected interlocking rhythm patterns that we'd hear soon enough from electronic dance music.
That's not what The Beat were about, of course, and what The Complete Beat documents isn't their impact on music but how good they were for a brief time. It's the rare box that doesn't feel padded with clearly lesser material, and while there are repeated songs in different incarnations, there's nothing here that requires obsessive listeners to find them enjoyable. Track after track reminds you that you can't take them for granted.