The Beat goes on
Darkness was spreading across England. It was 1979, and the empire was definitively dead. The formerly mighty nation’s influence had waned worldwide. At home, factories were shuttered. Angry skinheads were on the march. The end seemed nigh.
What emerged from the industrial Midlands that very year was, therefore, surpassingly strange. It was a new kind of music that fused the insistent energy of punk rock with the resilience and joyousness of ska. It was the sound of pure, hot and holy exuberance, and it emanated from, of all places, Birmingham, England.
They were called the Beat, and they stormed the land, catapulted by a big fat bass line and a delirious bounce. The band had barely formed when their sound spread throughout the world with a string of hits – including the manically inventive “Mirror in the Bathroom” and a remake of “Tears of a Clown” – that would remain influential 30 years later. The Beat’s very first gig was on the day of the Three Mile Island disaster in the United States, and they were aptly introduced that night as “the hottest thing since the Pennsylvania meltdown.”
They were black and white kids from working class Birmingham at the forefront of a sound called “2-tone.” As rock critic Robert Christgau wrote, 2-tone was “an alternative to anarchistic punk rage and apocalyptic reggae mysticism that politicized power pop’s nostalgia for limits in a context at once biracial and specifically English.”
The Beat (or the English Beat, as they became known in the U.S.) was a fairly new thing in the world: an unadulterated dance band with political import. The Beat was actually credited with helping calm racial tensions in England, transforming at least some of the skinhead movement into a more racially inclusive dance party.
“A lot of them were being pressed into sort of right wing violent extremist groups, so it was a perfect social antidote,” said the Beat’s lead singer Dave Wakeling in an interview this week. “Because it’s very difficult to be in a crowd of people kind of dressed in similar styles and dancing the same steps on Saturday night and then go and start a race war on a Monday. So just by example, without having to make it a huge political debate or polemic, what it did was diffuse the situation. Which was very nice; it was helpful.”
Wakeling, whose new iteration of the English Beat plays Brixton on New Year’s Eve, said the band developed its sound somewhat by happenstance.
“We started at house parties in the late ‘70s, because there weren’t very many clubs for punks and Rastas and that sort of thing – everybody would get banned from the clubs, so the house parties developed,” he said. “We had a deejay in one corner playing reggae dubs, and another deejay in another corner playing punk singles and soul singles….If you played all punk, it would go crazy for about an hour, but then the dance floor would die off. And if you played reggae, people would just lean against the walls knocking their heads. But if you mixed it up, the combination of the two…just combined like bread and cheese, you know?”
The original lineup of the band was six members, half white and half black, and there was absolutely no forethought involved in this. The Beat was a natural byproduct of Birmingham, which because of its industrial nature was a place where races mingled on assembly lines (and consequently pubs). The band itself was somewhat astonished when their racial makeup was so frequently noted upon.
“Coming from the industrial midlands of England, a lot of race prejudice had already been worked out on car factory lines and stuff like that the previous decade, and so it was a little more integrated than the rest of the country – a sort of forced, industrial integration,” Wakeling said. “However, it meant that people were a bit more social with each other, and there was quite a lot bars you could go to where black and white people drank together quite happily, and some of those bars had music in them. So it wasn’t the weirdest thing in our world to see black and white musicians playing instruments together. But even the first time we went to London, people were commenting on it. They liked it – ‘Oh, that’s cool, isn’t it? Black geezers and white geezers together…’ Then we got to New York and the first set of interviews was as if were releasing this fucking sociology book with like a CD in the back.”
But beyond any racial or political or cultural characteristics, what made the English Beat a phenomenon was pretty simple: their beats and Wakeling’s superb craftsmanship as a songwriter. As critic James Hunter noted in the Village Voice, “Two things made them winning beyond awesome technical accomplishment: their speed, which tended always to beat you across the room, and their heart — this great nervous band for the nervous world had feelings as insistent as its riffs.”
It wasn’t really ska, and it wasn’t really punk: it was broader, incorporating African highlife, Latin rhythms, classic Motown, and even a little of the creepy textured jangle of the Velvet Underground.
“I was just always blown away by the perfect three minute pop single that could just capture your imagination and transform you in moments, leaving you feeling really different from before you heard it,” Wakeling said.
The other thing that set them apart was they were killer musicians, including guitarist Andy Cox, classically trained bassist David Steele, West Indian drummer Everett Morton, Jamaican saxophonist Saxa and “toaster” Ranking Roger (the band would later split into two bands, with Wakeling and Roger forming General Public and Steele and Cox forming the Fine Young Cannibals). Wakeling was (and is) an unorthodox guitarist, a left-hander who’d been given a right-handed guitar at the age of 12 and developed a unique, percussive style that is at the heart of the Beat’s sound.
His Vox Teardrop guitar is, in fact, now in the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame.
“I’d learned to play it upside down and never changed and had to make up my own chords with two fingers and stuff like this, so getting the guitar in the Hall of Fame was a bit like not doing your homework but still acing your quiz, you know?” Wakeling said. “Which I used to think were my most satisfactory days at school anyway.”
The original band was never intended to last long – Wakeling said they had a pact that they wouldn’t stretch things out beyond the natural impetus – but over the course of three records they left a lasting imprint. Such songs as “Mirror in the Bathroom” “Twist and Crawl” and “I Confess” are a permanent part of the pop canon. Like his Motown heroes, Wakeling perfected the art of the three minute single. Take “Mirror in the Bathroom” which manages to slip in sly commentary into a perfectly concocted pop song:
“Mirror in the bathroom/please talk free/the 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 the shelves/just ten thousand reflections/of my own sweet self, self, self…”
Wakeling said the song came to him one morning when he was dreading going to work.
“I worked on a construction site,” he said. “I’d been drinking the night before. It was snowing. And I had to get there on a motorbike. And I’d forgotten to hang by clothes up to dry. So I hung them up on a coat hanger in a shower in this bathroom, so at least I can warm them up and make them hot before I put them on. And I was just standing there having a shave in the mirror and talking to myself about not wanting to go to work with a hangover on a motorbike. And I could see over my left shoulder the little door catch and I said to myself, ‘Come on, the door is locked it’s just you and me in here. We don’t have to do this.’ Of course we did, because we needed drink money. So it started to become a poem in my head not only about self obsession but more about how that self obsession is the actual thing that does isolate you from other people…So it ended up being a song about self obsession and the social isolation that brings about, all set to a happy skippy dance beat.”
Thirty years later, Wakeling’s songs are still making people dance. He has 18 new songs and a new band which is road-testing the music for a new record. And he is still happily befuddled at the impact his music continues to have.
“It’s the very oddest thing in the world because most of the songs are about political turmoil or broken love affairs or nervous breakdowns, and everyone leaves the room two-and-a-half hours later soaking wet, smiling, saying ‘I haven’t had as good a night like this in years.’ It’s bizarre. So when strangers on airplane ask me what I do for a living, I say, ‘I make people happy.’”