By John wirt
September 13, 2012
In late 1970s England, a new sound emerged not from London, Liverpool or Manchester, but from the West Midlands cities of Coventry and Birmingham.
The hybrid music merged Jamaican ska and reggae with punk-rock energy. The Specials, formed in medieval Coventry, got noticed first. Not far behind, the English Beat, from working-class Birmingham, made its debut in early 1979.
In its original form, the English Beat was a short-lived but successful multi-ethnic, multi-generational sextet. The band released three studio albums, all of them collected in a five-disc box set, The Complete Beat, along with previously unreleased studio, radio and concert recordings.
The English Beat began with singer-guitarist Dave Wakeling and guitarist Andy Cox. The group’s classic lineup also featured bassist David Steele; vocalist-toaster Roger Ranking, a first-generation Brit whose parents had immigrated from St. Lucia in the Caribbean; 49-year-old saxophonist and native of Jamaica Lionel Augustus Martin, aka Saxa; and drummer Everett Morton, a native of St. Kitts in the Caribbean who was older and more musically experienced than Wakeling, Cox, Steele and Ranking, all lads in their teens and early 20s.
The English Beat got its first British hit with a remake of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Tears of a Clown.” The band experienced success in the U.S., too, especially with its third album, 1982’a Special Beat Service, and an infectiously bouncy hit single, “Save It for Later.”
The members of the English Beat own their master recordings, a fortunate development that helped make The Complete Beat possible. U.S. reissue label Shout! Factory, in cooperation with the band, is re-releasing the entire English Beat catalog this year, including the single-disc Keep the Beat: The Very Best of the English Beat and, coming Sept. 18, The English Beat Live at the US Festival, ’82 & ’83.
Obtaining the band’s masters was not easy, quick or cheap, longtime Los Angeles resident Wakeling said recently.
Choosing to laugh rather than weep about financial differences between the band and its former record label, Wakeling takes comfort in the English Beat’s present ability to reissue its music in a manner it can be proud of.
“I always had a sense that we weren’t being paid right,” Wakeling said. “And then we found out that, yes, we weren’t paid right. We’re still not gonna get paid right, but we can get our records out again. It’s a partial victory.”
Once the English Beat obtained ownership of its catalog, Wakeling realized the band could use some expertise in re-releasing it.
“In these last few years there was this sense of independence,” he said. “ ‘Yeah, we got our own stuff! Yeah, we can do it ourselves!’ But then you’re like, ‘I have no idea how to make a box set and absolutely no interest in learning, really.’ ”
Shout! Factory specializes in music, film and television reissues and compilations. It describes itself as a diversified entertainment company “devoted to producing, uncovering and revitalizing the very best in pop culture.”
Conveniently, the Shout! Factory offices are a 10-minute drive from Wakeling’s home.
“It was a great thrill to go to Shout! Factory, people who are keen on the music,” Wakeling said.
“They did the research, put things together with the eyes of a fan of our particular act. So there was a nice and quick turnaround of approvals from the band. That wasn’t always easy before because we’re spread out all over the world and have completely different opinions about everything and each other. But Shout! Factory managed to get the best out of everybody and the best out of box-loads of dusty old tapes that none of us had heard for years.”
Wakeling continues to tour with the English Beat in the states. Ranking, leading his version of the band, does the same in the United Kingdom. Ongoing international interest in the English Beat is more evidence of what a special group it is.
“It was a magical thing,” Wakeling said. “The first person who we met who played a particular instrument was the person who ended up playing that instrument in the group. There was something charmed about it and effortless. I remember me and Andy thinking, ‘Gosh, this is falling into place rather well, isn’t it?’
“A bit too well. For that reason we thought it might not last long. We also thought that, if it became really hard work, that would be a sign that we should pack it in. That’s kind of what we did.”
Following the English Beat’s breakup on July 4, 1983, its ex-members formed two more successful groups. Wakeling and Ranking led General Public. Cox and Steele formed Fine Young Cannibals with singer Roland Gift.
“We were quite proud of ourselves,” Wakeling said with characteristic humor, “feeling a bit smug about General Public having such a smashing success with ‘Tenderness.’ But then Fine Young Cannibals came out with ‘She Drives Me Crazy’ and went to No. 1 in 17 countries on the same Tuesday. That knocked us back on our heels a bit, at the time, but it’s easier to admit now.”