English Beat The Complete Beat 4 CD set review
It’s all you ever dreamed of, Beat-wise. Shout Factory’s 5 CD set The Complete Beat covers the English Beat from their ’78 start to their ’83 finale, with all three albums plus Bonus Beat, a two-CD set that mixes live recordings from the ‘70s and ‘80s with 12”s and dub versions of Beat favorites.
Ska’s second coming in England in the late ‘70s got a twisted kick that its originators never saw coming. Mixing toasting, reggae, ska, soul and punk, the Beat rattled the cages of British teens in their hometown of Birmingham before conquering the world with their punky take on Jamaican riddims. “That was our notion,” says co-founder Dave Wakeling, “reggae with a chunky edge, a punky reggae party.”
At the time, punk was divided into two camps. “There was kind of an OI stream, that was just mindless, just mad at everything,” Wakeling says. “And then there was another side of it that was more artsy and literate, and wanted to talk about revolution, but in terms of exuberance.” The Beat took the artsy, exuberant side of punk, mating it with reggae for a new genre originally dubbed skinhead ska. The skinhead tag fell away by the time the music had come to the US, and what the Beat was doing was just called ska.
The band’s cred was boosted with the addition of Lionel Augustus Martin, affection ally known as Saxa, whose resume included stints with ska superstars Prince Buster and the Ska Busters and Desmond Dekker and the Aces.
It was protest music you could dance to. “Stand Down Margaret” was a call for then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to abandon her post because of her reluctance to impose sanctions against governments who still practiced apartheid. “You tell me how it can work in this all white law,” the Beat asks of Thatcher. “What a short, sharp lesson, what a third world war.”
The band wasn’t just paying lip service to racial issues. They were an integrated band from the beginning, with black toaster Ranking Roger up front, black drummer Everett Morton backing them and Jamaica native Saxa blowing in the background. “It came out as an organic expression, but there was a political statement,” Wakeling says. “By the time we got to America, it was almost like if it was a sociology treatise with some backbeat going on in the background.”
But the Beat wasn’t all politics. There was plenty of room to dance with their music. The Beat preferred the unfettered variety of dance floor exhibitionism, encouraging celebrants to express themselves with tunes like “Twist and Crawl,” and “Ackee 123,” a rattly , raucous ska celebration made to chug rum to and gyrate under a tropical moon.
Although the Beat’s best known for tunes like “Mirror In The Bathroom,” “Stand Down Margaret,” and “Ranking Full Stop,” there are plenty of treasures in the last album Special Beat Service. Try on “Cool Entertainer” for a virtually undecipherable exercise in deep dish ska so laid back it collapses on itself in the end. Or check out the surf/ Ska blend on “Sole Salvation.”
And the Beat goes on. Wakeling, who has lived in California since ’87 and now resides in Malibu, still tours with a version of the Beat. If you skipped the Beat this time around, this boxed set is enough to keep you hopping until the next go-round. This is one Beat that never runs out of time, or goes out of style.
The Complete Beat
The English Beat
July 10 2012
By Grant Britt