Ska revivalists The Beat were formed in Handsworth (a racially mixed area of Birmingham immortalised by reggae band Steel Pulse with their Handsworth Revolution album) in 1978 in the aftermath of punk. Early pub gigs garnered a devoted following, but also a reputation for privileging musicianship over soul.
This was remedied by the recruitment of black rapper Ranking Roger and a 60-something Jamaican saxophonist known simply as Saxa, who had once worked with Ska legend Prince Buster. They added a much-needed element of fun.
The band’s first break came in 1979, when Jerry Dammers of The Specials signed them to his 2 Tone label. Dammers had been attracted by their pumped-up Bluebeat sound, but also by their stridently anti-racist politics – always an essential ingredient in the lyrics.
Now The Beat were label mates with not only The Specials but also Madness, The Selecter, and other very hip names, and were firmly associated with the burgeoning Ska Revival, a movement devoted to putting danceability back into ‘alternative’ pop.
Their first single, a cover of Smokey Robinson‘s Tears Of A Clown, went into the UK Top 10, and overnight turned the band into Top of the Pops favourites: the mix of Wakeling’s cool demeanour and the frantic energy of Ranking Roger would become a familiar sight on the programme in years to come.
The band now had some clout within the music industry and parted company with 2 Tone soon afterwards. They came to an arrangement with corporate giants Arista to form their own subsidiary label, Go Feet, over which they would have complete artistic control – a way of both making money and staying ‘indie’, something that 2 Tone had already achieved by becoming part of Chrysalis.
The singles released on the label in 1980 were incredibly successful, and included three upbeat Top 10 hits – Hands Off . . . She’s Mine, Mirror In The Bathroom and Too Nice To Talk To.
Politics was still an important element. Benefit gigs for CND and organisations for the unemployed confirmed the band’s radical lefty credentials – there was never any question that they would attract the same kind of National Front following as the unfortunate Madness.
Their main vinyl contribution to the cause was the magnificent Stand Down Margaret, a practical bit of advice to the (then) Prime Minister (“I see no joy, I see only sorrow/I see no chance of your bright new tomorrow”), which became something of an anthem among Britain’s politically aware youth.
The debut album, I Just Can’t Stop It (1980), contained many of the hits, plus two excellent cover versions: Prince Buster‘s Rough Rider, plus the less obvious Can’t Get Used To Losing You, originally a hit for none other than Andy Williams. One of the finest pop LPs of the 1980’s, it went to #3. But it was also the high spot for the band.
By the end of 1980, the ska boom was losing its original punk edge, and the bands associated with it were testing new directions. Madness became more orientated towards the kids market with their ‘nutty sound’, while The Specials experimented with darker soundscapes inspired by Dammers’ interest in film themes.
The Beat chose to try out a new reggae-influenced approach. Things slowed down a great deal on the second album, Wha’ppen (1981), a huge disappointment, with lyrics expressing paranoia and despair in place of the old anger. It nevertheless climbed to #3 and spawned the Top 30 single Drowning/All Out To Get You.
Live, the band emphasised instrumental passages, and especially the saxophone breaks, though the ever-more-doddery Saxa retired in 1982, to be replaced by Wesley Magoogan. Guitarist Cox had also developed into a very individual player, though his rubber-legged dancing technique was an unsettling sight. Ranking Roger, meanwhile, looked increasingly lost.
By now, things were clearly on the slide for the band, and as the hits dried up, they decided to try to break America, where they toured as The English Beat, to avoid confusion with the US powerpop band fronted by Paul Collins.
They never achieved their goal, and the third and final album, Special Beat Service, was barren as far as hit singles were concerned, but nevertheless went Top 30.
Ironically, 1983 saw the band’s biggest chart hit in the form of a remix of Can’t Get Used To Losing You, from the first album, which went to #3. But it was all too late, and Wakeling quit soon afterwards. He and Ranking Roger went on to form General Public, while Cox and Steele regrouped as Fine Young Cannibals.
The Beat will probably be remembered as ‘the third’ 1980s ska band after Madness and The Specials, but to anyone who can recall the heady days of 250,000-strong CND marches, and sore-throated choruses of Stand Down Margaret, their music will always have a special resonance.
Members of the band had often collaborated on stage with The Specials and in the early 1990s, Roger joined members of The Specials to form a new band called Special Beat, which toured and released two live albums.
‘Ranking’ Roger Charlery