Here’s a clip of Birmingham second-wave ska merchants The Beat, or sometimes known as The English Beat depending on which continent you happen to be living on. It’s “Too Nice To Talk To”, a single released in 1980 between their debut record I Just Can’t Stop It and their follow-up by the next year, Wha’ppen?.
The naming convention of this band is rooted in some pretty well known lore by now. Paul Collins, formerly of the Nerves, had a band Stateside called the Beat. So, when the English Beat began to make an impact in North America, it was decided that they should put the “English” to their name, as it were, to avoid band (or was that brand?) confusion.
Collins’ band was a power pop band, as opposed to the punk and R&B-informed ska of his UK counterparts. But, on this song, that classic power pop convention is very well in place; the insecure, awkward narrator pining after a girl he can’t work up the nerve to go up and talk to. So, despite stylistic differences, The Beat knew what would resonate with popular audiences. It scored them a top ten showing on the UK singles chart.
But, despite the accessibility of the subject matter, there is a musical concoction to be found in this song that took some chances.
As is also pretty well documented by now, The Beat were associated with a scene of rivivalist bands who pulled from ’60s R&B, punk rock, and Caribbean music, including reggae, soca, dancehall, and ska. In many ways, these were musical forms that worked against each other as far as the way they are constructed, and presented. It wasn’t exactly the easiest road to take, stylistically speaking.
But, the Beat made these disparate strains of music work in a concoction that was arguably the most accessible as compared to their fellows who experimented with the same combinations of sounds. This was music that was always meant to be danced to, awkwardly spying your ideal object of affection who’s too nice to talk to across the floor, or dancing right up close to them.
This tune, for instance, may be a pure pop song as far as its subject matter. But, the Afrobeat-meets-disco sound, with a fidgety rhythm balanced against a scrappy back beat, makes it unique. It seemed that any ingredient was fair game with this band, possibly because each member brought his own influences into his respective parts, while also being well-schooled in the musical backgrounds and corresponding strengths of other players.
The band broke up in 1983, after three cool records that further expanded their palette of musical forms. General Public, Fine Young Cannibals, Big Audio Dynamite, Special Beat, and The International Beat all benefited from the writing and playing of original Beat members after that.
And the whole “which Beat do you mean?” thing continues to this day, with two versions of the band active on respective continents. Lead singer and guitarist Dave Wakeling fronts the Stateside “The English Beat”. You can catch up to Dave and friends here.
In the UK, original members Ranking Roger (vocals and percussion) and Everett Morton (drums), plus one-time General Public keyboardist Mickey Billingham, and Ranking, Jr (that’s Roger’s kid) all hold down the membership of the UK-based “The Beat”. You can follow their progress here. Also, if you want to get a feel for what this version of the band sounds like live, you can watch this full set of the Beat from Tramore Ska Festival from a couple of months ago.
For those of you in the UK, or for vinyl import junkies out there, here’s a celebratory edition of the band’s first record I Just Can’t Stop It that you can buy on the Interwebs.