The Specials introduced me to the second wave of ska when I saw the British band perform "Gangsters" and "Too Much, Too Young" on Saturday Night Live on April 19, 1980.
Madness, The Selecter and The Bodysnatchers came on my radar soon afterward, but it was another British band to emerge from the Two-Tone movement that I first managed to see live. The English Beat (it was just called The Beat in its homeland) had just released its third and final album by the time I caught it on April 12, 1983. A band I'd never heard of called R.E.M. opened for The Beat and released Murmur the next day. I became an R.E.M. fan that night, but I was at the University of Western Ontario's Alumni Hall in London, Ont. to see The English Beat.
The group's I Just Can't Stop It debut album was an instant blast of freshness when it came out in 1980, blending ska, rock steady, punk and pop to create a joyful and energetic combination that forced you to move your feet from beginning to end. While a cover of Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" became a British hit and sped-up versions of Prince Buster's "Rough Rider" and "Whine & Grine" and The Pioneers' "Jackpot" showed that singer/guitarist Dave Wakeling, guitarist Andy Cox, bassist David Steele, drummer Everett Morton, vocalist Ranking Roger and saxophonist Saxa were clever interpreters, the 10 other songs on the LP showed that The English Beat was much more than that.
"Mirror In The Bathroom" got you dancing right from the start and songs including "Twist & Crawl," "Ranking Full Stop" and "Best Friend" kept the momentum going throughout. The multi-racial group also showed its social conscience and unhappiness with what was going on in England at the time with "Stand Down Margaret," which urged prime minister Margaret Thatcher to resign.
It wasn't long before I was sporting a T-shirt with the group's "Beat Girl" logo and looking forward to album two, 1981's Wha'ppen. But The English Beat veered off course from the first album and added samba, calypso and other elements to the mix. I liked it -- especially "Doors of Your Heart" and "Get-A-Job" -- but found it more reserved. Wha'ppen lacked the immediacy of the first album and, in retrospect, I therefore didn't give it as much time and attention as I probably should have.
Wha'ppen set the stage for The English Beat's last record, 1982's Special Beat Service, which added smoother soul to the mix in places, added more keyboards and made a bigger impact in North America. "I Confess" had a great sensual groove, "Ackee 1 2 3" had a tropical sound, the more reggae-based "Pato and Roger A Go Talk" featured toasting, while "Jeanette," "Sole Salvation," "Spar Wid Me" and "Save It For Later" were all standouts.
I've been revisiting the English Beat catalogue recently since Shout! Factory has packaged and remastered the three albums (with bonus tracks) and two other CDs in a box set titled The Complete Beat. "Tears of a Clown" and "Ranking Full Stop" weren't included on the original United Kingdom version of I Just Can't Stop It, but were once the North American edition was. Likewise, "Too Nice To Talk To" wasn't included on either version of Wha'ppen but is one of the highlights of the reissue.
"Psychedelic Rockers" is the best of the bonus tracks on Wha'ppen, beating out "Hit It" and "Which Side of the Bed?" for that distinction. "What's Your Best Thing," "March Of The Swivel Heads" (an instrumental version of "Rotating Heads"), "Cool Entertainer" (which sounds a little like "Spar Wid Me") and "A Go Talk" (a version of "Pato And Roger A Go Talk" that drags on too long) are Special Beat Service's bonus tracks.
The two-disc Bonus Beat addition includes 15 12-inch and dub versions of The English Beat songs on the first, and who wouldn't want to hear extended renditions of "Hands Off … She's Mine," "Doors of Your Heart," "Save It For Later" or "Jeanette?" The second CD features sessions recorded for legendary British DJ John Peel in 1979, 1980 and 1982 and four songs captured at the Boston Opera House in 1982. The live performances present a good cross-section of repertoire and give you an idea of what The English Beat sounded like 30 years ago.
I've since seen Wakeling's version of The English Beat several times, I usually talk to him after shows and I interviewed him in 2009, so my fondness for this music hasn't waned. And though I've returned to I Just Can't Stop It more than the other two albums over the years, The Complete Beat is a good reminder of just how good this band was before its members went their separate ways to form General Public (Wakeling and Roger) and Fine Young Cannibals (Steele and Cox) and earn more commercial success.
The package is augmented by a booklet featuring photos and an essay by Alex Ogg, which makes it even more attractive -- especially to folks like me who didn't own any English Beat on CD.