One Track Mind: The English Beat, "Save It For Later" (1982; 2012 reissue)

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Their name focused on rhythm, but short-changing the shooting-star early-1980s post-punkers English Beat as a ska band is to ignore their essential, still deeply interesting complexities.

The Complete Beat, a comprehensive forthcoming box set due July 10, 2012 from Shout! Factory, definitively explores their heady mixing of ska and punk with calypso, reggae, 2-tone toasting, Motown, 1960s garage rock, samba, dance hall, world beat, and synthesized pop to form a memorable burst of creativity that — while it couldn’t last — eventually became the basis for two other hitmaking groups in General Public and Fine Young Cannibals. Even today, the band tours in two separate units, one in the UK led by Ranking Roger and another (with dates continuing through July 29) in America fronted by Dave Wakeling.

Still, for a moment in time, the English Beat helped define the promise of a new decade for me — a period when the twin aesthetics of punk and DiY seemed to hail a new, rapidly broadening creative landscape. Much of that promise, of course, would become synthesized into the marketing machine of MTV, and the English Beat was simply too strange for that stylized corporate atmosphere: They issued three thrillingly experimental albums over just four years, and then they were gone.

Certainly their greatest stateside triumph remains “Save It For Later,” later regularly covered by Pete Townshend and the Who, as well as Pearl Jam. Appearing on the career-closing Special Beat Service (a polyglot first-ever Top 40 album-length explosion of skanky retro-reggae, Byrdsy guitar jangles, dub-infused Carribbean riddums and new wave cool), this minor hit may be as far afield as the English Beat had ever been from its original angsty punk roots.

At the same time, though, it says something profound about the English Beat that even their closest brush to a bonafide mainstream breakthrough continued to incorporate these bizarrely effective moments of creativity — from this sloshing-through-molasses beat to a crazy-odd instrumentation: Is that a viola? A honky-tonking saxophone? On MTV?

When the English Beat’s core members eventually reemerged in subsequent bands, much of that edgy sense of ingenuity and style had been drained out of things. Maybe it had to be, in order to complete those final few steps toward broad-based radio airplay. (Wakeling and Roger scored a Top 40 U.S. hit for General Public with 1984’s “Tenderness”; David Steele and Andy Cox went one better in 1988, collecting consecutive charttopping U.S. singles for Fine Young Cannibals with “She Drives Me Crazy” and “Good Thing.”)

Me, I’m glad we still have these earlier examples of fizzy weirdness.

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The 5-CD ‘Complete Beat Box’ includes all three remastered English Beat studio albums, with bonus tracks; two discs of largely unreleased bonus material — including sessions recorded for BBC Radio and John Peel, and 12-inch and dub versions of several key singles — plus a booklet of rare photos and new notes. Those looking for a more compact journey back into the English Beat’s catalog can pick up Shout! Factory’s one-disc compilation, also due on July 10, 2012, called ‘Keep the Beat: The Very Best of the English Beat.’

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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  • Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Saw English Beat open for the Clash once, at the Hollywood Palladium. It was a good showcase for the wide-ranging and “deeply interesting complexities” you mention. Definitely beyond ska or punk, made for vividly memorable performances from both groups.