Music Reviews
3:52 pm
Mon October 1, 2012

Out Of Industrial Wasteland, The English Beat Was Born

Originally published on Mon October 1, 2012 5:40 pm

In 1978, it seemed that every kid in Britain wanted to be in a punk band. But in Birmingham, that blighted industrial scar in the middle of the island, there wasn't much punk to be seen. The oasis was a club called Barbarella's, and that's where Dave Wakeling and Andy Cox hung out.

The two friends started writing songs together — and then, needing jobs, were recruited by a firm making solar panels on the Isle of Wight. There, they rehearsed with a group hoping to make some extra money, only to find out that it was going to be a Thin Lizzy tribute band. So Wakeling and Cox put a classified ad in the local paper for a bassist, and David Steele showed up with a bunch of his own songs under his arm. After a couple of rehearsals, Wakeling and Cox quit their jobs, Steele quit school, and they went to Birmingham to get serious. Steele got a job in a mental hospital, where they met a nurse whose best friend was dating a drummer, Everett Morton. The Beat was born.

Not everything they played was ska — which, ironically, was how Ranking Roger got into the band. I say ironically because he was a black punk, playing drums with another group, and his other trick was rapping, Jamaican-style, over punk tracks. After his band opened for The Beat, he started following them around and doing this live until they asked him to join.

The Beat was already multiracial, and with the addition of its next member it became multi-generational. Saxa, whose real name was Lionel Augustus Martin, was a fiftyish Jamaican saxophone player who'd played with a number of ska stars — and, he claimed, The Beatles — in his day. Now that the band was together, it was time to make a record. The British music industry thrives on novelty, and few groups were as novel as The Beat. Except that, not far away in Coventry, it turned out that there was already a whole scene of biracial ska-punk bands. Led by The Specials, and recording on their label Two-Tone, they made a sudden splash in the pop press, so The Beat headed up to Coventry to see if it could join the party. As it turned out, it was welcome, but it balked at signing a full contract with Two-Tone, preferring to just record one single.

Nine months after the band formed, it had a Top 10 hit at the end of 1979 with its reworking of the Smokey Robinson classic "Tears of a Clown." Hearing that The Beat hadn't signed any further obligations to Two-Tone, Arista Records approached the band, giving it its own label, Go-Feet, to work with. Right away, it started knocking out Top 10 singles.

This was followed quickly by a first album, I Just Can't Stop It, and by the realization that there was already a band called The Beat in America, fronted by a guy named Paul Collins. Lawyers went to work, and when the smoke cleared, there were two groups: The Paul Collins Beat and The English Beat. The latter toured relentlessly, and almost caught on in America, but a couple of the members weren't happy with not having time to write new material. This may account for why their second album — Wha'ppen? — wasn't quite the sensation its predecessor was, with fewer obvious hits on it, but more serious politics than before.

In the early '80s, the British press was all too eager to discard yesterday's band, and it paid scant attention to the third Beat album, Special Beat Service — which is a shame, because in many ways it was the group's best. But this was the album that broke The English Beat in America, where it toured successfully with a new lineup, including a piano player and a new saxophonist to replace Saxa, who had quit the road.

Touring, though, didn't make much money, and American success came too late. By the end of 1983, The English Beat was no more. Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger started a band called General Public, and Dave Steele and Andy Cox formed Fine Young Cannibals, which had a number of hits between 1985 and 1989. There have been a couple of English Beat revivals, with Dave Wakeling fronting an American version of the band and Ranking Roger a British one, but it's their four brief years together that we'll remember.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The year after punk appeared in Britain it gave birth to another musical tribe that was multiracial and often political. The Two-Tone Movement, as it came to be known, was centered in the industrial belt and its calling Card was ska, the Jamaican pre-reggae music that had been a fad a decade earlier. One of the best bands in this movement was The English Beat. And with Shout! Factory re-releasing just about everything they ever recorded, rock historian Ed Ward takes a look at their short but happy story.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HANDS OFF SHE'S MINE")

THE ENGLISH BEAT: (Singing) I told my friend I'd check for you. He told me that he liked you too. But then I saw him kissing you. I could've died when he said, hands off she's mine. Hands off she's mine. Hands all she's mine. Hands off she's mine. I want her all the time. Hands off she's mine. Hands off she's mine.

ED WARD, BYLINE: In 1978, it seemed that every kid in Britain wanted to be in a punk band. But in Birmingham, that blighted industrial scar in the middle of the island, there wasn't much punk to be seen. The oasis was a club called Barbarella's, and that's where Dave Wakeling and Andy Cox hung out.

The two friends started writing songs together and then, needing jobs, were recruited by a firm making solar panels on the Isle of Wight. There, they rehearsed with a group hoping to make some extra money, only to find out that it was going to be a Thin Lizzy tribute band. So they put a classified ad in the local paper for a bassist, and Dave Steele showed up with a bunch of his own songs under his arm. After a couple of rehearsals, Wakeling and Cox quit their jobs, Steele quit school, and they went to Birmingham to get serious. Steele got a job in a mental hospital and met a nurse whose best friend was dating a drummer, Everett Morton. The Beat was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEST FRIENDS")

BEAT: (Singing) I just found out the name of your best friend, you been talkin' about yourself again, and no one seems to share your views. Why doesn't everybody listen to you kid? how come you never really seem to get through, is it you? Talk about yourself again, you. Talk about yourself, always you, you, you. Talk about yourself again.

WARD: Not everything they played was ska, which ironically was how Ranking Roger got into the band. I say ironically because he was a black punk playing drums in a band whose other trick was rapping Jamaican style over punk tracks.

After his band opened for The Beat, he started following them around and doing this live until they asked him to join.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WARD: The Beat were already multiracial. With the addition of their next member, they became multigenerational. Saxa, whose real name was Lionel Augustus Martin, was a saxophone player who'd played with a number of ska stars - and, he claimed, the Beatles - in his day.

Now that the band was together, it was time to make a record. The British music industry thrives on novelty and few bands were as novel as The Beat, except that not far away in Coventry, it turned out that there was already a whole scene of biracial ska punk bands.

Led by the Specials, and recording on their label, Two-Tone, they made a sudden splash in the pop press, so The Beat headed up to Coventry to see if they could join the party. As it turned out, they were welcome, but they balked at signing a full contract with Two-Tone, preferring to just do one single.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEARS OF A CLOWN")

BEAT: Now if there's a smile on my face, it's only there trying to fool the public, but when it comes down to fooling you, now honey that's quite a different subject, but don't let my glad expression give you the wrong impression, really I'm sad, oh I'm sadder than sad, you're gone and I'm hurtin' so bad, like a clown I pretend to be glad. Now there's some sad things known to man, but ain't too much sadder than the tears of a clown, when there's no one around...

WARD: Nine months after the band formed, they had a top 10 hit at the end of 1979 with their reworking of the Smokey Robinson classic "Tears of a Clown." Hearing that the band hadn't signed any further obligations to Two-Tone, Arista Records approached them, giving them their own label, Go-Feet, to work with. Right away, they started knocking out top 10 singles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MIRROR IN THE BATHROOM")

BEAT: Mirror in the bathroom, please talk free, door is locked, just you and me. Can I take you to a restaurant that's got glass tables, you can watch yourself while you are eating. Mirror in the bathroom, I just can't stop it. Every Saturday you see me window shopping. Find no interest in the racks and shelves. Just ten thousand reflections of my own sweet self...

WARD: This was followed quickly by a first album, "I Just Can't Stop It," and by the realization that there was already a band called The Beat in America fronted by a guy named Paul Collins. Lawyers went to work and, when the smoke cleared, there were two bands, The Paul Collins Beat and The English Beat. The band toured relentlessly and almost caught on in America, but a couple of the members weren't happy with not having time to write new material. This may account for why their second album, "Wha'ppen?," wasn't quite the sensation the first album was, with fewer obvious hits on it, but more serious politics than before.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WARD: In the early '80s, the British press was all too eager to discard yesterday's band, and it paid scant attention to the third Beat album, "Special Beat Service," which is a shame, because in many ways it was the band's best.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WARD: But this was the album that broke the band in America, where they toured successfully with a new lineup, including a piano player and a new saxophonist to replace Saxa, who had quit the road.

Touring, though, didn't make much money and the American success came too late. By the end of 1983, the English Beat was no more. Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger started a band called General Public, and Dave Steele and Andy Cox formed Fine Young Cannibals, who had a number of hits between 1985 and 1989. There have been a couple of revivals, with Dave Wakeling fronting an American version of the band and Ranking Roger a British one, but it's their four brief years together that we'll remember the English Beat for.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in the South of France. The English Beat's catalog is being reissued this year by Shout Factory. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.