Although lumped in with the 2-Tone crowd upon emerging in 1979, the wonderful Beat (billed in America as the English Beat because of the Paul Collins group that was also using the name) released only one single on the label. Although, in retrospect, too divergent for its own good, the inter-racial Birmingham sextet was more versatile and had more vivid impulses than most of its skanking contemporaries.
Blasting out of the starting gate with the gripping (and, typically, lyrically oblique) “Mirror in the Bathroom,” I Just Can’t Stop It has its share of ska-influenced upbeats — a delightful rendering of the Motown classic “Tears of a Clown” (on the US release only) and patois-tinged toasting (“Rough Rider”) by Ranking Roger — but the band’s furious drive and pumping bass (“Click Click,” “Twist & Crawl”) relate more to the rock tradition. A recording of Andy Williams’ warm-bath ballad “Can’t Get Used to Losing You” is a nice gesture, regardless of the outcome. (The US release also includes another track not on the original British album.)
By Wha’ppen?, the Beat had mellowed out, preferring midtempo grooves drawn from various Third World cultures. Loping music, playful combinations of voices (Roger and lead singer/southpaw guitarist Dave Wakeling) and elder statesman Saxa’s effervescent sax almost obscure the songs’ depressing views of personal and social troubles (“Drowning,” “All Out to Get You,” “Cheated”). Although not out of character for the group, it’s the only one of their three albums that isn’t essential listening.
Special Beat Service, the band’s slickest offering, contains the stingingly remorseful “I Confess” (“Yes, I’ve ruined three lives and didn’t care ’til I found out that one of them was mine”) and Wakeling’s most enduring original, the affecting but ambiguous “Save It for Later” (which, for no evident reason beyond silliness, is rendered in the lyric sheet as “Save it fellator”). The polished music generates more light than heat, but lyrics — dwelling more on romantic than political problems — depict believably complex scenarios. Ranking Roger’s lighthearted showcases are isolated from the group’s main concerns, but the Beat remains a fine band committed to pan-cultural understanding.
There are three different versions of the farewell compilation What Is Beat?. The fourteen-track English album is a straight greatest-hits collection of the band’s most memorable work; early copies (and the cassette) added eight extended remixes. Although there’s a lot of overlap in material, the 13-song American release is altogether different — single sides, two live renditions (of the third album’s “Get a Job” and the debut’s Thatcher-attacking “Stand Down Margaret”), a couple of remixes, etc. Collect ’em all!
Following the Beat’s lamentable early dissolution, bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox assembled Fine Young Cannibals. Ranking Roger (Charlery) and Dave Wakeling stuck together to form General Public, a less-focused but equally productive outfit than the mothership. It’s hard to hear why the Beat had to die for General Public to live, but evidently the pair felt they needed to leave some people or some other career baggage behind. If it was an unequal artistic exchange, General Public nonetheless upheld the pair’s commitment to excellence that hallmarked the Beat.
Mick Jones of the Clash plays guest guitar on the first LP (although just where is impossible to peg from the credits or audible evidence); Aswad’s brass section and Gary Barnacle also pitch in. For their part, Wakeling and Roger craft passionate pop, packed with clever tempo shifts, in several styles: a happy Motown bounce (“Tenderness” and the romantic “Never You Done That”), textured drama (“General Public,” the political “Burning Bright”) and a bluebeat kick (“Where’s the Line”). On the negative side, GP engage in annoying verbal play on “Hot You’re Cool” and “As a Matter of Fact.” Some tracks go on too long and a few of the arrangements are overly busy, but those are small quibbles. All the Rage is a rich, mature album filled with intelligence and invention.
Hand to Mouth is a milder and less striking record. The well-rehearsed lineup of six (augmented by former Beat hornman Saxa, Gaspar Lawal and others) exudes an air of relaxed precision on an easygoing pop program of scant creative exertion. “Too Much or Nothing” is the best of an unexceptional collection; “Faults and All” and “Murder,” with snappy horn charts, echo the first album but don’t build on it. All in all, the music goes down smoothly enough, but without any lasting impression.
In 1987, with their partnership at an end, Roger and Wakeling each set out on solo careers. Adding semi-melodic singing to his vocal repertoire, Roger got so far as making Radical Departure, a socially conscious but duff album of pop and dance-rock originals, before succumbing to the oldies touring route with other 2-Tone veterans calling themselves Special Beat. (To be fair, Wakeling went on to do much the same thing, only under his own name.) Roger also co-produced and guested on The Hitting Line, a likable if uninspired imitation by the International Beat (unrelated to Beats International), a septet boasting the original band’s saxophonist (Saxa) and drummer (Everett Morton).
For his part, Wakeling whipped out the sprightly title track to the 1988 John Hughes film She’s Having a Baby and then turned to an activist career in Greenpeace while dithering with a solo album for three years. In 1991, he finally released No Warning (originally announced in 1989 as The Happiest Man in the World; even sardonics have their bad days). The lack of musician credits, the presence of canned drumming, the prevalence of piano and the liner-note references to “additional recording and mixing by” all suggest an inorganic creative process, and the record — despite typical intelligence, perspective, sensitivity, politics and a shot of soul — is drowsy and dull. (Even “Sex With You” is a snore.) But it does lead off with a wry and winning anti-materialist tract, “I Want More,” which is a worthy companion to “Save It for Later.”
That might have been all she wrote, record-wise, had Roger and Wakeling not been coaxed into a one-off reunion (“I’ll Take You There,” the Staple Singers number they covered for the Threesome soundtrack) in ’94. They assembled a band, enlisted Saxa and Mick Jones, and cut General Public’s belated but worth-the-wait third album, the modern and lively Rub It Better. “Never get nowhere on the fence / Maybe we all need something we can push against,” sings Wakeling in the leadoff “It Must Be Tough” — and that may explain a lot here. (While it promises to, the ambiguously aimed “Friends Again” sure doesn’t.) Under Jerry Harrison’s vibrant production, the reinvigorated rockers collaboratively unload a thrilling and powerfully positive rush of contemporary rock, dancehall, hip-hop, soul, pop and politics. Their skills and divergent cultural interests mix and mate with rewarding results. Even Roger’s “Rainy Days,” which starts with inclement weather and somehow reaches the abolition of apartheid, is giddily upbeat. Not all the tracks land squarely: Roger’s autobiographical “Punk,” which calls the ’70s movement “original boombastic,” is just a silly novelty, while the citations of Kurt Cobain and Morrissey in the crotchety “Blowhard” are self-defeating. A bouncy cover of Van Morrison’s “Warm Love” is pointless. But the ones that do succeed (“It Must Be Tough,” “Rainy Days,” “Big Bed,” “It’s Weird,” “Never Not Alone”) arrive like a gift from a partnership that once seemed gone for good.
Though formed by two of the lower profile members of the Beat, Fine Young Cannibals ultimately proved to be a far greater commercial success. With fine young vocalist Roland Gift as its calling card, Fine Young Cannibals approaches modern R&B and soul from a number of fresh rock perspectives. Gift’s Motownish, richly emotional vocals ignite originals like “Johnny Come Home” and “Don’t Ask Me to Choose,” as well as a rousing cover of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”
Following album number one, the band turned to film projects. Gift played prominent dramatic roles in 1987’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid and 1989’s Scandal; the entire band contributed an annoying misinterpretation of the Buzzcocks’ “Ever Fallen in Love” (later included on the band’s second album) to Something Wild. At one point, while Gift enjoyed his moment as a movie star, Steele and Cox whipped up a high-tech danceable side project called 2 Men a Drum Machine & a Trumpet, releasing a 1988 IRS 12-inch, “Tired of Getting Pushed Around.”
Opening with the distinctive drum/guitar intro of “She Drives Me Crazy,” The Raw & the Cooked plucked FYC out of the alternative trenches and sent the trio spiralling up the charts. Another crafty salad of pseudo-Motown soul and contemporary dance rock, the album topped the charts, sold more than three million copies and got a Grammy nomination. Although the songs are structurally solid and melodically appealing, the arrangements are diabolical, favoring monotonous grooves, with a relentless synthesized drum thwack and robotic guitar scrubbing. Add in the fatigue factor of Gift’s mannered Prince-ly falsetto, and The Raw & the Cooked starts to grate well before the second song starts. The delightful ’60s jump of “Good Thing” and the swoony ’50s swing of “Tell Me What” provide respite from the album’s tick-tock tempos, but “Ever Fallen in Love” ends it in on a headache.
No doubt moved by FYC’s success and the trio’s sluggardly production pace, IRS whacked together a remix album with two versions each of “She Drives Me Crazy,” “I’m Not the Man I Used to Be” and “I’m Not Satisfied” as well as danceable overhauls of “Good Thing,” “Johnny Come Home” and others. The Raw & the Remix offers significant variations on the original tracks, with added raps (by Monie Love on “She Drives Me Crazy”) and major stylistic adjustments (Nellee Hooper and Jazzie B put the Soul II Soul stamp on “I’m Not the Man I Used to Be,” while Smith & Mighty do a dub dissection on another). The CD and cassette add two more, including a “Mayhem Rhythm Remix” of 2 Men’s “Tired of Getting Pushed Around.”
A handy audio digest, The Beat Goes On gathers up some (not enough) highlights of the Beat’s small oeuvre and follows its members’ subsequent ventures: the first incarnation of General Public, Fine Young Cannibals, International Beat, Special Beat (with an otherwise unreleased Prince Buster cover) and the solo records.
Classic Masters is a reasonable 12-track General Public compilation. Finest is an adequate 14-track Cannibals collection.