There was less than 3 years between the release of “Anarchy In The UK” & the first single by the Specials ,”Gangsters”, in July 1979 but at the time it did seem that there was a shift in style & fashion by British pop kids. Two Tone was Punk’s little brother. The D.I.Y. ethos of forming a band & even a record company with your mates, the revival of the 3 minute heroes making classic singles, opened the doors for these young, pork pie hatted, ska-loving bands to charge through. Two Tone’s combination of punk energy & retro-skinhead style caught on big time. The Specials, between 1979 & 1981 had 7 Top 10 records. An inter-racial group, their anti-racism & socially conscious lyrics set a positive agenda in those early years of Thatcherism. Madness, a support on the Specials’ first tour, had 253 hit singles in the UK. (Ah Google it yourself, I’m busy).
Madness were London boys but Two Tone was largely of provincial origin. The Specials were based in Coventry as were the Selector. Up the road in Birmingham UB 40 were learning how to play reggae, former hairdresser & punk Kevin Rowlands searched for some young soul rebels & Two Tone’s Buzzcocks to the Specials Clash were ready for the charts with a blazing debut LP.
The Beat (I refuse to call them the English Beat) nailed the whine and indeed the grine with 2 Prince Buster covers on “I Just Can’t Stop It”. Drummer Everett Morton was not only bang on the ska & the reggae but dragged the young white boys along in an often frenetic & exhilarating rush. Saxa, a 50 year old reggae veteran, already knew how it went. “Hands Off She’s Mine”, “Mirror In The Bathroom” & “Best Friend” were all top notch & sparkling pop songs. The self-explanatory “Stand Down Margaret” nailed their colours to our mast, a fine political statement. “Mirror” is the soundtrack to the great bit of martial nonsense in “Grosse Pointe Blank” between John Cusack (“Lone gunman. Get it ? That’s the whole point !”) & Benny “The Jet” Urquidez. The whole LP still sounds fresh & young & terrific.
So, the world was their lobster & “Too Nice To Talk To” hit the Top 10 before the release of the 2nd LP “Wh’appen” in 1981.The record was more mature, a little calmer, Ranking Roger stepped forward, there was more variety in the sound & there was still some anger in the lyrics. “Wh’appen” is a good record. But “Too Nice” was to be their last big hit until an Andy Williams cover was re-released 3 years later. I guess that the Two Toners wanted some more fast ska while pop fans wanted the adolescent angst of “Hands Off” & most wanted it to be kept simple.
The 3rd LP came the next year & I bought it as soon as. “Special Beat Service” was, I think, made with an eye on the US market & it was their most successful there. The reggae tracks are a little short on roots but there are 3 very good singles on there. This track may be the Beat’s finest 3 minutes.
“Save It For Later” is a smart romp of a New Wave pop song. Possibly too smart.When Pete Townshend wanted to cover the song he had to call singer Dave Wakeling to ask him for the chord sequence. “I Confess” & “Jeanette” (substitute Ronette…great rhyme) were similar mid-tempo potential hits. I played this record a lot, I like intelligent classy pop songs. It made the desired impression in the USA, the sleeve is surprisingly referenced in an early George Pelecanos novel (the Nick Stefanos years). However, saying that any band has just 3 LPs in them, the Beat did not go on.
Wakeling & Roger formed General Public & for a time it seemed that they were onto something. The jaunty “Tenderness” got heard & the band were a good night out. I spent an evening in the company of the pair (friends of friends) & they were very nice, unassuming guys. It was thought that Dave was the talent of the Beat. He was the lead singer, the face & probably the lyricist. However General Public made their 3 records and met with diminishing returns. It was the other 2, bassist David Steele & guitarist Andy Cox, the 2 who did the twist & crawl at the back who had been watching & learning. In 1989 their LP “The Raw & the Cooked” as two-thirds of the Fine Young Cannibals did very well for them indeed.
After the break up of the Beat a collection of the hits, “What is Beat ?” was released. The cassette (Ha !) came with a full LP of 12″ mixes & dub versions of the reggae tracks. It is a fine listen, showing the strength of the songwriting. Tracks like “Doors Of Your Heart” & “Psychedelic Rockers” may have not met with commercial success but they sounded & still sound good to me. Top 3 bands from Birmingham ? We got the Beat and 2 more.