The English Beat - Biography
To the rest of the world, this Birmingham, England-based band is known simply as the Beat. In the US, that name was already claimed by Paul Collins of the Nerves (both Beats formed in 1978). And so we know them in the States as the English Beat. Only three albums came from the five-year career of this six-piece band. The first one made them stars in the UK as hit after hit cemented their reputation as top-notch ska/punk players. The second one was short on punk energy, but full of enough biting lyrics and well-written songs to make up for it. Still, record-buyers in England saw this new direction as more of an exercise in inadequacy than in maturity. The third and final album left the band's admirable chart run in the UK noticeably scarred. In the US, however, melodic songs like “Save it For Later” were big hits. The band's subsequent, sudden demise was the result of a betrayal by its two vocalists. It was a breakup that has since resulted in “reunited” versions of the band (they sometimes feature only one original member), a failed reunion attempt on VH1, and the formation of Fine Young Cannibals. The Beat will live on, however, not as partially reunited reproductions of itself, but as a band that, along with Madness and the Specials, once rang in the ska revival.
The band began as a four-piece featuring Dave Wakeling (vocals, guitar), Andy Cox (guitar), David Steele (bass), and Everett Morton (drums). The local club scene warmed to the band quickly, and their membership grew to six with the addition of two musicians who would greatly shape their sound and image. First in was Ranking Roger (real name Roger Charley), a vocalist skilled in a style known as toasting, which involves talking or rapping over the music much like a deejay in a club. A saxophonist named Saxa (real name Lionel Martin) followed closely behind. Saxa had played with Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker, Jamaican heavyweights of ska and reggae, respectively. Saxa was 50 years old upon his initiation in the Beat.
The pub popularity of the Beat got them a deal with Jeffrey Dammers' 2-Tone Records, a label that Dammers founded in Coventry. At the end of 1979, the group already scored their first hit with their first single, a cover of Smokey Robinson's “Tears of a Clown.” The song broke into the top ten on the UK charts. After that, the Beat formed a record label of their own, Go-Feet, and entered the new decade with an arsenal of first-rate material that would earn them several charting positions in 1980. One of their biggest hits, “Mirror in the Bathroom” had a high danceabilty quotient that was underscored by an acrimonious lyrical investigation of vanity (“Can I take you to a restaurant that's got glass tables/you can watch yourself while you are eating”). Another early single, “Best Friend” was also a song about self-obsession. Neither of these two singles featured Roger's toasting. Later, the lyrics went from personal to overtly political with “Stand Down Margaret,” which references Margaret Thatcher, not a popular figure with young English bands.
The Beat's debut full-length, I Just Can't Stop It, was released on Go-Feet/Sire in October of 1980. Past singles were present here, including “Mirror in the Bathroom,” “Hands Off She's Mine,” “Best Friend,” and a dub version of “Stand Down Margaret.” With the inclusion of those songs, the LP felt like something of a greatest hits package. The strength of this music landed the Beat, or the English Beat, on the US charts, where they peaked at 142. In England, they had a much easier time, peaking on the charts at number 3 and remaining somewhere on that list for all of 8 months. The band's sound was nothing novel at that point. English and American audiences alike had already been dealt healthy doses of ska via Madness and the Specials. Both of those bands had released their debut albums in 1979 and are credited with leading the ska revival. The Beat, however, gave this form of music an added shot of credibility by upping the artistry and bringing in other musical influences. Over the next two years, those other influences would take center stage while the punk elements, which made the group's sound so immediate, would take a backseat.
For their second act, the Beat took a more reggae-inspired approach to songwriting, and if the songs weren't inspired by reggae, they certainly didn't take their cues from punk. According to many accounts, the Beat had seemingly softened. The first two singles to emerge from the new brood, “Drowning,” and “All Out to Get You,” put an abrupt end to the group's easy time on the charts. Both songs performed only adequately, barely reaching the top 25 in the UK. By June of 1981, second album Wha'ppen? (Go-Feet/Sire) was out in the UK as well as the US. Since it reached number 3 in the UK, fans obviously weren't deterred from buying it by the two less-than fiery singles. Their success in the US actually improved, as they reached number 126 on the Billboard 200. Still, the title of the LP (shorthand for “what happened?”) was fitting. This was not the same group that sang “Mirror in the Bathroom.” There was an urgency missing from the recordings, if not from the lyrics, which were still scathing reviews of modern culture.
After that, the Beat's popularity in England continued its nosedive. Of course, they remained a successful touring band, but their third album, Special Beat Service (1982, Go-Feet/Sire), didn't do them any favors in the UK chart department. “Save it For Later,” possibly one of the group's greatest singles, broke the top 50 there, but barely, while “I Confess,” certainly a step forward in their songwriting, failed to reach the charts at all. This album really, even more than its predecessor, begged the question, “What happened?” What happened in the UK to make the Beat so second-rate? And perhaps more pressingly, what happened in the US to make the English Beat so suddenly beloved? Remarkably enough, while the UK's indifference toward the Beat resulted in not even one top 40 hit and an album that did not reach the top 20, the US was listening more intently than ever before. Special Beat Service reached number 39 there, a notable jump from their record of 126, while two singles, “I Confess” and “Save it for Later/Sole Salvation,” heated up the club play charts.
A fourth album in 1983 would have probably achieved some very interesting results. With a fourth LP, the Beat would have either won back their status in the UK as effortless hit-makers, or not. Maybe the US would warm to them even more, or maybe the terrific response to Special Beat Service was a complete fluke. The questions remain unanswered, as a fourth album was never released. Following SBS, Saxa went into a well-earned retirement and quit the band. His replacement was Wesley Magoogan, who would tour with the band in their final road trip. He also played on their very last single, a cover of Andy Williams' “I Can't Get Used to Losing You.” After that single went to number 3 on the UK charts in 1983, giving them the biggest hit of their career, members of the band received phone calls from their accountant, who had strange news for them. Wakeling and Roger had left the group to form a new band without a word to their bandmates. The Beat was no more.
Wakeling and Ranking Roger got started on their new project right away. Carrying on in the poppier sound that the Beat was heading towards, the duo started the General Public, releasing a pair of LPs throughout the 80's before splitting up. They then released solo albums before coming back together in 1995. Steele and Cox, meanwhile, who were taken aback by the decisions of their band's two vocalists, decided to try something new themselves. After auditioning more than 500 vocalists, they decided to track down Roland Gift, a singer whose band once played with the Beat. This trio became the Fine Young Cannibals.
Since then, the Beat have reunited, sort of. In 2003, everyone but Cox and Steele was present for a small reunion tour. Roger's son, Ranking Junior, was treated as an official member in those shows. In 2004, the Beat were the subject of an episode of VH1's Bands Reunited. The episode unsuccessfully attempted to reunite all six original members of the band. Apparently, and confusingly, two different lineups exist today, both calling themselves the Beat. As of 2009, Wakeling fronts the English Beat in the States, while Roger, Ranking Junior, Morton, and keyboardist Mickey Billingham have retained the Beat moniker for live performances in the UK.