The Beat were a major part of the British ska revivalist scene in the late 70s and early 80s, centred in Birmingham and Coventry. Along with The Specials, Selecter, and Madness (a London band), The Beat took many of its musical cues from Caribbean music, most notably the Jamaican ska of Desmond Dekker, Prince Buster, and others and infused it with the tense political edge that was common to the times.
The band was comprised of both black and white members, some being immigrants from the islands, a large number of whom had emigrated to Britain at the beginning of the 60s. Their saxophonist, aptly named “Saxa”, had played with both Dekker and Prince Buster in the 1960s, adding a certain level of authenticity to the band. The group mixed the spikiness of punk with the jubilant energy of ska, and created a sound that was both aggressive and celebratory in equal measure.
The band’s sound and the thrust of the whole scene came off as a sort of musical fist in the air to Thatcherism and to the racial intolerance that existed particularly violently in urban centres of the country at the time. The band covered Prince Buster’s “Whine and Grind” and fused it to their own song, “Stand Down Margaret” which was a not-so-subtle commentary on the current Prime Minister.
The scene as a whole was short-lived, but The Beat would make the biggest impact overseas of all of the bands that were a part of it, championed mainly by anglophile fans, alternative rock radio, and supporting appearances with the Police and the Pretenders, among others. Of course, they’d have to change their name to “The English Beat” Stateside, as there was already a band called the Beat as led by Paul Collins, formerly of power pop lost legends the Nerves. But as soon as they had begun to crack the States, internal tensions led the band to split in two. Lead vocalists Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger left to form their own group, General Public who would have a smash hit in their lead single “Tenderness” as taken from their 1984 album All the Rage. Bassist David Steele and guitarist Andy Cox formed Fine Young Cannibals with vocalist Roland Gift. FYC would have hits in ” Johnny Come Home”, a version of “Suspicious Minds” in 1985, and later their ubiquitous single “She Drives Me Crazy” in 1989.
The Beat would reform as an ongoing live act in 2005, without many of its original members, and is currently led by Ranking Roger and original Beat drummer Everett Morton. They remain to be a popular live band in Britain. Meanwhile, Dave Wakeling tours in his own “The English Beat”, based in the States, and also known to be an energetic live act.
“Mirror in the Bathroom” is one of my favourite songs by anyone, with an insistent bassline, and a sort of speed-fueled edge to it thanks to the prickly rhythm guitars and Wakeling’s rapid-fire vocal. And a saxophone has never sounded so menacing. The song is eminently danceable, defying you to stand still in fact. In essence, this song is the template of the band’s whole sound – the joyousness of Jamaican ska, with the anger and darkness of punk fused to it. It gives me the same rush now to hear it as it did when it came out!