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Review: The Beat, “I Just Can’t Stop It,” “Wha’ppen?” and “Special Beat Service” Expanded Editions

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When the members of The Beat had the opportunity to create their own record label, the six-piece unit (“Ranking” Roger Charlery on vocals and toasting, Dave Wakeling on vocals and guitar, Andy Cox on guitar, Everett Morton on drums, David Steele on bass and Lionel Augustus Martin a.k.a. Saxa on – what else? – saxophone!) chose “Go Feet Records” as its moniker.  Now, roughly 32 years after the band’s first album was released, it will still have your feet going in wild and unexpected directions.  I Just Can’t Stop It, and follow-ups Wha’ppen? (1981) and Special Beat Service (1982), have all just received deluxe 2-CD/1-DVD reissues from the U.K.’s Edsel label.  And although the esteemed Shout! Factory label has launched its own reissue program in the U.S. for the band under its American name of The English Beat, it can fairly be said that the Edsel series is, truly, definitive.  These titles generally follow the format of Edsel’s recent, highly-acclaimed Jesus and Mary Chain 2-CD/1-DVD sets, and are every bit as lavish and comprehensive.

This band of Brummies could only have been a product of its time, but the grooves of The Beat remain so relevant that competing U.S. and U.K. factions still tour today headed by Wakeling and Charlery, respectively.  Here, then, is the band at its most authentic.  The Beat’s sound fused the aggressive, often contentious energy of punk with the languid grooves of reggae and ska, and far from being an incongruous match, the stylistic melding worked.  The Beat has been grouped with other similarly-influenced 2 Tone ska revival bands like Madness, The Specials and The Selecter (the latter two of which were even name-checked on the original LP), but The Beat also drew on pop, Motown and R&B sounds.  Of course, as in any vibrant music scene, everybody was influencing everybody else, hence many of the same tendencies and inspirations are evident in music from artists ranging from Elvis Costello (who actually produced The Specials) to The Clash.

Most songs on I Just Can’t Stop It (Edsel EDSG 8016) are group compositions, and all show the stylistic diversity at hand.  Today, the album jars for its incisive, dark lyrics (a hallmark shared by Costello) juxtaposed with felicitous melodies, even more ripe for dancing in the extended mixes contained on the bonus discs.  Besides the desire to mix “the energy of punk and the groove of dub in a three-minute single,” The Beat made clear its mission statement to embrace the personal as well as the political.  It’s those songs emphasizing the latter that give the album much of its primal power.  Musically, the band takes a violent approach to the resolutely non-violent “Two Swords” (“I’ve never been one for the punch-ups/But look, I really hate them Nazis/A certain something starts to wind me up/How could I hate them oh so violently?”) and there’s no shying away from the edgy venom of “Twist and Crawl.” The English class system has long been a source of fascination and frustration for writers, artists and musicians, and the Beat made their views clear in “Big Shot” : “Yes, I’ve seen you go to work in your big car/Yes, you’re fat and can afford to be tasteless/You’re a big shot…”

1979 was the year of Margaret Thatcher’s ascendancy to the role of British Prime Minister, and The Beat couldn’t let that momentous occasion go unrecognized; with its prominent reggae beat, “Whine and Grine” morphs into the rather blunt “Stand Down, Margaret.” It makes the band’s feelings for the newly-appointed P.M. clear even as they preach “love and unity.”  It’s incredibly effective, and as lacking in subtlety as Elvis Costello’s “Tramp the Dirt Down,” Morrissey’s “Margaret on the Guillotine” or even Elton John and Lee Hall’s “Merry Christmas, Maggie Thatcher.”  Adding to the unsettling atmosphere is the unrestrained paranoia of “Mirror in the Bathroom” and the twitchy ferocity of “Click Click”: “Itchy finger, finger, trigger, trigger, click, click!”

Yet “Hands Off She’s Mine” (also issued as a single) revealed a pop sophistication and a keenly-structured song with killer saxophone solos, while The Beat brought a whole new dimension, and a sweetness, too, to the already-irresistible melody of Andy Williams’ “Can’t Get Used to Losing You.”   Saxa wails over the chill, almost bossa-nova groove of the Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman song, a hit for Williams on both sides of the Atlantic in 1963.  It’s one of the best tracks the band ever recorded and also one of the most unexpected.  The chiming guitars of the lyrically-pointed “Best Friend” (“I just found out the name of your best friend/You been talkin’ about yourself again/And no one seems to share your views”) even recall the mid-60s pop of bands such as The Byrds.  Indeed, there’s a great diversity of influences on I Just Can’t Stop It: “Rough Rider” and “Whine” came the songbook of Prince Buster, a ska and rocksteady pioneer.

What’s on the bonus disc?  And how about the other two reissues?  Click, click on the jump for more Beat!

The bonus disc includes both sides of the band’s 2 Tone single, “Tears of a Clown” b/w “Ranking Full Stop,” among its essential nuggets.  The former cleverly retained Smokey Robinson’s original riff and even some of the harmonies into a new, current and altogether urgent arrangement.  Then there are eight extended versions favored by the band, including a dub version of “Stand Down Margaret,” 12-inch versions of “Twist and Crawl” and “Hands Off…She’s Mine” and five remixes from the Mirror in the Bathroom EP.  Though there’s obviously much repetition of songs, the inclusion of these tracks is a major boon to collectors, and all offer more of The Beat to savor.  Then there are BBC radio sessions from The John Peel Show from October 24, 1979 (the influential DJ was a major benefactor for the band) and The Mike Read Show from January 17, 1980.  These performances are every bit the equal of the polished studio versions on the first disc.

Most excitingly, there is ample video footage of the band on the third disc, a DVD in NTSC format.  There are two Top of the Pops performances of “Tears of a Clown” and “Hands Off…She’s Mine” plus singles videos for “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Best Friend,” and bonus performances of “Alright Now” and “Hands Off.”

Wha’ppen? (Edsel EDSG 8017), the second of the three reissues, preserves the original 12-song U.K. album sequence on Disc 1.  For their sophomore outing, the members of The Beat and returning producer Bob Sargeant opted for a lower-key vibe but with equally sharp lyrics.  Album opener “Doors of Your Heart” again espouses the band’s message of “love and unity,” its pretty pop ceding to a proto-rap toasting interlude from Ranking Roger.  It sets the pop-reggae tone of the album, with much of the punk fire tamped down, at least in the sense of music and arrangement.  The lyrics were still incendiary and in touch with the political climate of the day.

The new, more mature sound is perhaps best expressed in the slow, dark and downbeat reggae of “Drowning” (“So in between the sleepless nights/You dream that you are winning fights/But then it happens, dreadful thing/A wave appears too big to swim/You’re drowning, you’re drowning…”).  The paranoid atmosphere of “Mirror in the Bathroom” is recalled on “All Out to Get You” while “Cheated,” “Get-a-Job” and the ironic “Dream House in N.Z.” offer more commentary on the socio-political state of affairs.  “Get-a-Job” is particularly biting in its depiction of a disenfranchised class of young people.  Saxa’s grooves can be alternately inviting and sinister as they weave through these tracks, and new flourishes such as steel drum and trumpet add color to the striking collection of songs.

The energetic, frenetically nervous A-side “Too Nice to Talk To” leads off the bonus material section on Disc 2, with its non-stop collision of bass, guitar and keyboards.  Its flip, “Psychedelic Rockers,” doesn’t offer much psychedelia or rock, but is another hypnotic track.  Both songs are also presented in their “Dubweiser” versions.  Another non-LP single, “Hit It” b/w “Which Side of the Bed…?” is included in original and epic, extended 12-inch forms.  A September 1980 John Peel broadcast rounds out the disc, and revisiting these radio performances in which the band cuts loose, it’s easy to see why the influential DJ believed so strongly in the band.  The DVD features not only videos and Top of the Pops performances, but songs and interview footage from the World in Action documentary about unemployed youngsters, a theme obviously close to The Beat’s heart.

The deluxe I Just Can’t Stop It and Wha’ppen? both allowed the original album to stand alone on one CD; Special Beat Service (Edsel EDSG 8018), however, is so packed that the bonus tracks have spilled onto the main disc!  The Beat’s final effort, it found the band distancing itself even further from its ska roots.  By the time of its release in 1982, synth-pop had taken a hold on the music scene, and though The Beat resisted its clarion call, the album nonetheless has a different identity from that of its predecessors.  It’s a brighter, largely up-tempo album, with a New Wave sheen, and it’s fleshed out with additional musicians on horns, keyboards, percussion and even accordion.  And on Special Beat Service, the personal trumps the political.

The album’s first track, “I Confess,” must have been a shock to the system for some listeners.  It starts with the sound of a tinkling piano, and incorporates a saxophone solo that’s in the realm of jazz, while Dave Wakeling emotively caresses lyrics about the end of a love affair.  It’s a jump forward in sophistication and maturity for The Beat’s songcraft as well as their art of arranging.  This newfound sound is most closely echoed in the even mellower ballad “End of the Party.”  With its lightly Latin flavor, it could have served as an epitaph for The Beat: “You know there’s never a next time/How come the feeling that it’s only just started/Pull back your cover, I could love you for all time/But do it now, you know there’s never a next time.”

Though the styles here are new, Special Beat Service shares with Wha’ppen? its great variety.  The Motown/R&B beat of “Sole Salvation” percolates, with echoing vocals and a honking saxophone, and the urgent, rocking “Sugar and Stress” persuasively blends guitars, keyboards and horns into its rhythmic whole. As if to prove that they hadn’t completely left their origins behind, The Beat tap into a reggae vein with the dialect-laden “Spar Wid Me” and “Pato and Roger a Go Talk.”

A humorous side is even on display.  “Jeanette” is a bit like a rhyming exercise, but with some nifty imagery about “Jeanette, the substitute Ronette” who’s “dangerous, she’s like dynamite.”  (As any Ronette should be!)  “Ackee 1-2-3” is a brassy, calypso-flavored trifle, upbeat and soaring, with what sounds like a children’s chorus, of all things!  But the album’s most enduring song is unquestionably “Save It For Later.”  With its enticing pop hook and a return to jangly, Byrds-esque guitars, the production of “Save It” pulls out all of the stops, even subtly integrating baroque strings.  It introduced much-dissected lyrics that Dave Wakeling has confirmed were “written around a sniggering schoolboy joke: ‘Save it for later = save it, fellator!’”  This hasn’t kept the cheeky tune from being much-covered over the years; it also remains a frequent presence in films.  Special Beat Service made for a bittersweet finale for The Beat, and it’s not difficult to wonder what the band would have created next, but at least the group went out on a high note.

No less than 27 bonus tracks fill out Disc 1 and all of Disc 2 of this overflowing set.  Non-LP singles “What’s Your Best Thing” (in both original and dub versions) and “Cool Entertainer” (credited to Ranking Roger) have been included along with “March of the Swivel Heads,” an instrumental single of Special Beat Service’s “Rotating Head” immortalized in the 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  “Swivel Heads,” too, is presented in long and short versions, as is “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” which was revisited and remixed in 1983.  There is a five-song set from London’s now-demolished Hammersmith Palais, as recorded by the BBC and issued on singles, as well as six songs from John Peel’s March 29, 1982 BBC broadcast.  “Save It for Later” is stripped-down in the Peel rendition, but retains its power.  The soulful Peel performance of “Sole Salvation” must have positively popped out of radio speakers at the time.  There’s also a laid-back cover of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” from The David Jensen Show the following month.  The standard was also covered by The Beat’s contemporaries and Edsel labelmates, Everything but the Girl, just a couple of months later!

The packed DVD presents videos of “Save It For Later” and “I Confess” along with two different Top of the Pops performances from May 1983 of “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” with Wakeling looking quite natty in his tuxedo the second time around!  Then there’s the odd pairing of “Save It” and “Stand Down Margaret,” both from ott on March 27, 1982, and finally, three lively songs from The Beat’s January 1983 concert at Gateshead International Stadium (supporting The Police) as broadcast on The Tube.  Also from The Tube, there’s a short interview with Dave and Roger conducted by Jools Holland of Squeeze and Later fame.  Roger even explains “toasting” to Holland!

These reissues, coordinated by Val Jennings with an assist from Phil Penman, could very well be the last word on The Beat’s legacy.  The lengthy booklets contained with each title offer full lyrics for every song plus plenty of photographs, label art and memorabilia.  2Tone artist Rhoda Dakar of The Bodysnatchers supplies essays which put the albums in historical perspective, both from a musical and political standpoint.  There’s ample information about the world events that shaped The Beat, including the backdrop of the Falklands War.  Phil Kinrade has crisply remastered each title, and his new mastering is shared by the U.S. reissues on Shout! Factory.  For those keeping score, the American release of The Complete Beat box has four tracks not on the Edsel reissues: live performances from Boston, 1982, of “Best Friend,” “Tears of a Clown,” “Twist and Crawl” and “Get-A-Job / Stand Down Margaret.”  The three Edsel reissues, combined, boast some 20 tracks not available from Shout!, plus all of the invaluable DVD material. Shout! is also issuing a single-disc compilation and a live album in addition to the box set.

The Beat broke up in 1983, but its members still found virtue in unity.  Wakeling and Ranking Roger formed General Public, while Cox and Steele teamed with vocalist Roland Gift as Fine Young Cannibals. In 2003, Wakeling, Charlery, Morton and Saxa performed at the Royal Albert Hall for a sold-out, one-off gig, but since then the band has toured with Wakeling leading The English Beat and Ranking Roger in charge of The Beat.  One thing goes for certain, though.  Thanks to Edsel’s all-inclusive reissues, you just can’t stop The Beat.

Written by Joe Marchese

July 10, 2012 at 10:18

Posted in Reissues, Reviews, The Beat, The English Beat

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3 Responses

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  1. Joe: Great review of a truly great band. I already have these Edsel reissues and they’re excellent. You’d be hard pressed to find a weak song on any of their 3 albums. (And why “Hit It!” wasn’t a huge hit is completely beyond me). I’ve been fortunate enough to see the (Dave Wakeling led) English Beat twice and he still gives off the same energy as he did back in the Beat’s heyday. Dave has recently talked about his desire to put together a “Motown style Review” featuring the Beat, FYC and General Public. Whether he can get Andy and David (and Roland) to ever agree to this is doubtful (in my opinion) but he still has the drive!

    Bob O.

    July 10, 2012 at 11:19

  2. I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying these reissues. Such great songs and the video extras are a real treat. Your site was instrumental in deciding to get the Edsel reissues as opposed to the Shout Factory box set. Thanks so much!


    July 17, 2012 at 16:25

  3. Has anyone on this site noted the incredible difference in the mastering of the Edsel reissues, and the Shout Factory Complete Beat set, when compared to the Existing U.S. 1999 Rhino reissues. The difference is very notable. The Rhino 1999 sound much, much better, with fuller bass, for one thing.


    February 16, 2013 at 23:06

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