The rupture caused, or at least symbolised, by punk rock not only persuaded a thousand kids that they could be musicians without conservatory educations, but it also cleared space for styles and genres which had not previously troubled the mainstream to break through in their own rights or, in some cases, in thrilling new combinations.
The Beat formed in Birmingham in 1978 and, in the words of their angle-cheeked frontman Dave Wakeling, combined reggae drums, pop guitar and punk bass, all finished off by the warm vocal interplay between toaster Ranking Roger and Wakeling himself. They weren’t alone in blending such apparently disparate influences and although The Specials seemed to retain the hipster vote (baffingly to my ears) and Madness went on to become bona fide pop alchemists, The Beat were at least equal to both over their brief five-year, three-album career.
‘I Just Can’t Stop It’ is their 1980 debut, featuring the restless, spiky pulse of ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’, the irresistible rushing reggae of ‘Hands Off… She’s Mine’ and ‘Best Friend’, which takes their saxophone strut and strays deliciously into what I guess would later be called indie pop territory, to be populated by Orange Juice (contemporaries of The Beat) and Lloyd Cole and the Commotions.
‘Best Friend’ was my favourite song for about six months in the late 90s when ‘BPM: The Best of the Beat’ was released. I’m increasingly drawn back to the music that I absorbed via the radio as a child. I assumed it would always be there, and most of it is still lodged somewhere in my head. When I started to buy my own records I looked forward relentlessly, leaving the likes of The Beat along with XTC, The Associates, Elvis Costello, The Jam, Joe Jackson, The Police, Ian Dury and the Blockheads almost completely unexplored, beyond the Top 40 singles which remain firmly embedded. It’s only recently that i’ve begun to go back and collect albums by some of these artists and, in some cases, it has felt like unearthing beautiful hidden treasure.
The Beat went on to tour the US with REM as support. I recall hearing Michael Stipe bracket them with Gang of Four and Wire as influences on his early records and, listening to ‘I Just Can’t Stop It’, it’s possible to hear murmurs of the chiming, restless guitar sound which would come from Athens, Georgia over the next few years. When the Beat stopped, Wakeling and Ranking Roger became General Public, whilst Dave Steele and Andy Cox formed Fine Young Cannibals. The Beat have reformed in various competing combinations over the last decade or so, both here and in the US where they were known as The English Beat and where they have, even more confusingly, gone on to share a bill with the US outfit who had the name The Beat before them.
Regardless of what they’re up to now, those first few records were as sharp as pop gets, and they deserve to be held in the highest company.
Tom Listened: This was splendid! As Rob says, it’s a little bewildering that nowadays The Specials should be just so lauded and The Beat never get a mention. Listening back to The Specials, I have to concede that whilst they have a few killer tunes (and Ghost Town is one of those perfect songs that don’t some along all that often) their song-writing just doesn’t seem as consistently high quality as The Beat on I Just Can’t Stop It. Reminiscent of all sorts (it’s so long ago that I can’t remember many specifics although I was reminded of Costello’s Get Happy on quite a few occasions as the record played) yet very much with its own sound, this was a real treat. Cheers Rob, made up for your last offering!
Nick listened: Tenuous linkage at best, Mitchell. This was great though, so I’ll let you off. I’ve never knowingly heard The Beat before, though I’ve heard of them plenty, and while I think The Specials are unnecessarily derided here (the debut is great!), I can see why you’d prefer The Beat.
Graham listened: What a treat! Rob managed to remind me of a band which, at the time, I always thought deserved far more credit for their work. Just as sharp and spiky as I remembered.