That over the course of just five years and three albums The English Beat (or just The Beat, as they are called over in the UK, where they are apparently unfamiliar with Paul Collins’ outfit) established a legacy that remains nearly as vital today as when they formed in 1978 in Birmingham, England tells you something about the quality of those three records. As such, Shout! Factory’s recent five-disc set of the group’s body of work, The Complete Beat, is an appropriately handsome compendium. Containing all three of The Beat’s records with a few bonus tracks (i.e. B-sides) tacked on, a disc of extended and dub versions of select songs, and a disc containing Peel Sessions from 1979, 1980 and 1982, and four live tracks from a show in Boston in ’82, it leaves little to be desired.
“It was a really wonderful experience,” singer and guitarist Dave Wakeling told me when I spoke to him on the phone a couple weeks ago. “I found a lot of fellow travelers at Shout! Factory, who operate their company in a clean and responsible manner. It’s full of music fans. They’re working in the music industry because they love music, which was a pleasant change. A couple of them were longtime Beat fans and they knew what tracks had been hard to come by and already had done a lot of due diligence before we got involved. They came up with a proposed running order and track listings and which of three versions of the same thing was the best. That was an enormous help because if we had just been given a pile of tapes and told to sort it out ourselves, we’d still be bickering about the first CD now.”
Wakeling, who tours with a new line-up under The English Beat banner in the US, may be exaggerating to a degree, because the first CD is comprised of The Beat’s debut from 1980, I Just Can’t Stop It, and little else. (The version here is the one IRS released in the US, with “Tears of a Clown” and “Ranking Full Stop,” which didn’t appear on the UK edition.) This album is solid from start to finish. Most will be familiar with singles like “Mirror in the Bathroom,” “Hands Off... She’s Mine” and “Best Friend,” but album cuts like “Two Swords” and “Click Click” are every bit as strong. The record shows the band’s six members—Wakeling, toaster Ranking Roger, drummer Everett Morton, guitarist Andy Cox, bassist David Steele and their much older saxophonist known only as Saxa—to have already meshed their skills in a seamless amalgamation of reggae, punk, pop and R&B. In a song like “Whine & Grine/Stand Down Margaret,” such influences are infused with a potent amount of social/political commentary, which would remain an important attribute of The Beat’s best work.
“We were just singing about what everybody was talking about in every bar and at every bus stop,“ Wakeling said. “I liked to have a very happy, inviting musical bed and to use that to sing about some of the darker subjects, because no one is ever just happy or sad. We wanted to synthesize all the music that made us feel great and to use that as a background to sing about what was going on in the world.”
Such motifs were more prominent on the band’s next album, Wha’ppen?, which came out the following year. With a generally more swinging vibe than its predecessor, this record, which comprises the second disc, also featured lyrics like, “I ran into Northern Ireland. I ran into Afghanistan, dying to become a man,” (“I Am Your Flag”) and “Change the truth until it’s worth money” (“Cheated”). Still, it is the slow lovers’ groove of “Doors of Your Heart” that stands out here.
Wha’ppen? is augmented with a few B-sides (“Psychedelic Rockers,” “Hit It,” and “Which Side of the Bed?”), as is 1982’s Special Beat Service on the third disc (“What’s Your Best,” “March of the Swivel Heads,” “Cool Entertainer” and “A Go Talk (Tappy Luppy Dub)”), but the set isn’t loaded down with outtakes the way most boxes like this are. Wakeling says this is just a matter of the band weeding out weaker material before going into the studio.
“There weren’t many outtakes of anything. There was only one song that we found that we’d actually forgotten we ever recorded. It had been left after the first day. I don’t remember why, and listening to it now, it’s quite good. It would have needed a lot of overdubs. There were some instruments that hadn’t even been recorded.
“But there were no embarrassments that we chose not to share. We’d go into the studio with the 12 songs we were going to record and we’d bash away until we got a decent version of each one of them. Most of the songs that didn’t make it, they got cut in the rehearsal. But with the exception of that one track, called ‘Motor Show,’ that we appear to have started and dropped for some reason... It may have just been that we’d already gotten 12 songs that we thought were great so there was no point doing it. I don’t remember why. We also found two songs on a radio session. The master had been clipped individually and then shared around the BBC offices. For some reason, these two songs never made it back to the tape vault. All we could find was a cassette version of the both of them. The cassette was more than 27 years old and the quality was quite poor. Shout! Factory spent some time in the mastering room trying to control the noise and bring out the instruments, but we listened to them after they had done the best job they could, and they were nowhere near the standard of the other tracks. Sadly, it was decided not to put them on at this point, but we continue our search at the BBC and in our masters from the UK and US. One was a splendid version of ‘Night & Day’ that we did in 1980, a reggae rendition. I sang it beautifully with a touch of Tim Buckley, who I was very fond of at the time, in the vocals. The other song was called ‘It Makes Me Rock,’ which was about catatonia not rock & roll. It’s kind of Taking Heads-ish, and we’d done a tour with Talking Heads, so maybe it rubbed off on us a bit. Those are the only three titles that we unearthed that aren’t on the boxset.”
Not that the set needs a lot of extras. Special Beat Service is another triumph, with the the lilting, soul-infused pop that Wakeling and Roger would favor in General Public after The Beat’s dissolution rising to the top on songs like “I Confess,” “Soul Salvation” and “End of the Party.” It also contains the band’s big hit, “Save It for Later,” on which Wakeling’s songwriting instincts were at their sharpest and Saxa’s wails over the song’s refrains. But the dub versions on disc four are no mere afterthoughts, but rather closer to the band’s original vision for the songs. “We’d do the album version of the song, our version of the song, but then the record company would want to edit out the bits that weren’t like what were on the radio, like Roger’s toasting part,” Wakeling revealed. “So a deal was struck where we allowed them to do 7-inch edits, but they paid for us to do our dub versions.”
Similarly, the Peel Sessions on disc five are a treasure trove for fans. It is these 19 cuts that may be the biggest attraction to diehards well-versed in The Beat discography. But more than anything, the set’s allure is that the songs remain as vital 30 years after the Two-Tone movement swept England and made inroads in America. Wakeling attributes this partially to producer Bob Sargeant, who worked on all three records.
“He was classically trained in terms of recording, especially from his time with the BBC. So if you were to use a piano, it needed to be a Steinway grand recorded as per BBC specs with rhythm microphones, etc. Same with everything else. We railed against it a bit because we wanted to use whatever the modern doodad was that everybody else was throwing on their albums. But he wouldn’t have it at all. If we wanted to have string sounds, which we did on “Save It for Later,” then we’d have to arrange for a string section from the Royal Philharmonic. That was how it was done. They even showed up in their black and whites. We told him how there were these synthesizers, but he just would not have it. So we gave in and let Bob have his way and thank God we did! The songs sound like they could have been recorded in any decade.”
While Wakeling is on tour with his version of The English Beat and Roger and Morton tour in the UK with another line-up, the set’s release naturally prompts the question of whether or not the original band will get back together.
“For the first 10 years after the band broke apart, all I could remember were the bad moments,” Wakeling recalled. “But 20 and 30 years on, all you remember are the wonderful moments. Our collective forgetfulness is quite a useful asset it turns out. However, we did remember what irritated us about each other as we went through the process (of overseeing the boxset). Everybody started acting very much like they did back in the day.
I think we could only get five members,” he continued. “Because towards the end of Fine Young Cannibals, Andy and David fell out quite seriously, and I don’t think that’s ever fully healed. They’ll never work together again. I’d do it in an instant to give people a chance to see us all together. I think it would be great fun. But in some ways it’s like asking the first five people you ever had sex with to have dinner together and expect everyone to get on. Still, I would do it and they all know that. Everybody has said that they would do it if the circumstances were right, but I think they know full well that the circumstance will never be right. It’s one of those beautiful British ways of saying ‘no.’”
Nonetheless, Wakeling says everyone in the band—all of whom gave input on the set—thinks highly of what they created together. “Whether we ended up in General Public or Fine Young Cannibals,” he said. “Every member of The Beat still has enormous pride in what we did.”