For those of us old enough to remember the early 80’s, it was an era filled with many excellent bands that were brief in their existence but left a substantial influence behind them. The Beat, or as they were known in the US as The English Beat, was one of those bands. They fused pop, soul, reggae and punk into a delectable mix that, once encountered, was hard to forget. They produced only three studio albums, but each was loaded with unforgettable songs.
The Beat was founded in 1978 in Birmingham, England, then a microcosm of the pains the UK was encountering with exceptionally high unemployment and social upheaval. The Beat were major contributors to the so-called “Two Tone” Ska revival and came to renown with their clarion call hit single Stand Down Margaret. That song spoke to the dystopian existence of many during Margaret Thatcher’s Prime Ministry. By the time Special Beat Service was released in 1982, the band had become more nuanced about politics but just as potent in their songwriting and musical abilities.
Special Beat Service was recorded at Roundhouse Recording studios in London and was produced by Bob Sargeant with Ranking Rodger and Mike Hedges producing Pato and Rodger a go Talk. The band members at the time of the recording were Dave Wakeling on vocals and guitar, Ranking Rodger on vocals, Andy Cox on guitar, David Steele on bass, Everett Morton on drums and the legendary Saxa aka Lionel Augustus Martin on saxophone. In many ways, Saxa was the special ingredient that separated the Beat from numerous fusion reggae-influenced groups of the period; with Saxa, the band had an experienced legitimate Ska and Reggae performer. Saxa had played with Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker in the first wave of Ska.
The Beat had frequently toured the UK with another enduring Ska group, The Specials, and by the time of Special Beat Service, The Beat was making significant inroads into America. They had toured with other members from the IRS label, REM and The Police, along with other performers like David Bowie, The Clash, The Pretenders, and Talking Heads, all of which helped gain the band's popular momentum. “Special Beat Service” scored a commercial success, a difficult feat for the Ska/Reggae genre, with top forty chartings in the US by popular singles Save it for Later, and I Confess. The band at this time was in ascent in the US and decent in the UK. Some have suggested the waning popularity in the UK was due to their perceived walking away from their earlier heavy political themes. The band’s ascent in the US is also explained as due to the exposure from touring with respected performers and the maturing of the band’s topical songwriting. Sadly at a time when the future seemed bright, the band called it a day rather than carrying on; band member infighting and lessening enthusiasm for touring being the main causes.
“Special Beat Service” opens with the delightful I Confess which is loaded with alluring romanticism surrounded by an energy packed sonic. There is a special blending of horns, strings and a Joe Jackson inspired piano run that builds the drama while Wakeling does a stellar job on the vocals. The song is a confession to ruining a relationship through infidelity, inattention and self absorption. “I Confess I’ve ruined three lives…did not care until I found out that one of them was mine.” The tune is catchy but the theme is actually quiet tragic.
The song Jeanette comes crashing out of the gate with a beautiful accordion providing a wry French feel all married to an epic Ska beat. The great fun of the song was attempting to get all the lyrics correct that rhymed with “ette” ending words. The narrative is about a one night stand ensconced in the classic roll out of events, the come on, the conquest and the hasty departure, a kind of sexual in veni, vidi, vici. It quickly becomes clear that neither party is actually telling the truth about themselves. Additionally captured is the awkwardness after the encounter, “So we shared one last cigarette and swap false addresses.” The song itself transpires at a breakneck pace reflecting a band that could not contain their ebullience.
On Sorry it is clear that an argument is taking place with the usual back and forth and the girl is gaining the upper hand. Here the narrator is listing his many real and perceived shortcomings and the reasons he must say sorry, wrapping up with “and she’s trusting you completely, stupid, sorry.” The whole theme would seem to render itself to a ballad but the Beat instead delivers the situation in a light hearted conveyance. The horns and Ska treatment again provide great aural hooks that linger.
The beginning of Soul Salvation always reminds me of The Jam, that throbbing bass is exceptional. Here again on display is the eternal battle between men and women and how we both tend to misunderstand each other. The song pleads for a truce, "Let’s strike a brand new deal, that’s strong for a man, but has a woman’s understanding.” This age old drama between the sexes is brilliantly delivered, and Saxa’s solo is something to encounter. In the end the theme suggests that tolerance in any instance is the only thing that brings about soul salvation.
Spar Wid Me is wondrous traditional Reggae and Ska in all its glory. Ranking Rodger takes control of the vocal duties with an enthralling West Isles treatment. The song again pleads for tolerance; it is fun with an important purpose.
Rotating Head was a deep track that gained little attention until the instrumental part was used in the movie, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” in 1986. The track was re monikered The March of the Swivelheads and for those of us familiar with the track it was a sweet moment in the movie when the song was used. The track’s initial purpose on the album was to convey the concept of Special Beat Service. a reference to the American Secret Service. A better lyric to describe “on edge” espionage would be hard to find, “Living on tip toes waiting for the next step, the wages of death what a life for the swivel head”. The original song supported the album cover with secret service agents and James Bond clones galore. The song had a slightly sinister driving feeling of intensity. The horns with Saxa’s solo make for a very special outing. The song in a few notes brings the 80’s back in Technicolor.
The second half of the album begins with Save it for Later the song that won me to The Beat cause. It is a jaunty hook laden track. There is an inspired blending of guitar riff, horns and strings that make it a special song. The theme was the narrator’s attempt to take in all that the world has to offer and facing the fact that it all goes by so fast. I always adored the suggestion that we all get to the point in handling life where it seems all you can do is throw up you hands, “I don’t know how I’m meant to act will all of you lot some times I don’t try.” Additional the song made the point that having someone to just hold your hand through the world’s madness enables you to endure. It was a perfect radio friendly selection.
She’s Going is a song about spousal abuse, but that only becomes apparent when you examine the lyrics carefully. In the lyric the abused woman is scared to leave but realizes nothing will change if she stays except she may end up dead. She questions if her abuser/husband would really miss her at all when she goes but knows as he tries to talk her around that all his apologies are far too late. The chorus is a back and forth between the woman and her thoughts and man with his sorry apologies she has heard before. In the end the narrator of the tales cuts in with the wry lyric, “I think your too late she’s gone.” For the difficulty of the lyrical theme the accompaniment is quite contradictory with a fast paced reggae treatment. In the end it is a fantastic head faking song.
Pato and Roger a go Talk goes hand in hand with Spar Wid Me and is another fantastic slice of life West Indie toasting song. It is a blast to sing along and Ranking Rodger does a brilliant job.
From the heavily reggae feel of “Pato and Roger a go Talk” the accelerator gets slammed down with Sugar and Stress a manic song that is a total earworm. It is so addictive it should carry a warning. The sonic was a perfect marriage of 80’s New Wave with Ska and features a spectacular guitar riff. This selection is probably the most political on the album that for the most part avoided direct attacks like those found on prior Beat releases. The lyrics explain the theme, “The world is upside down, the right’s and wrong’s don’t get much wronger, …we know where our hearts are, right behind our wallets.” The song ends with the statement, “I can’t hang on for much longer.” Once again the confrontational topic is camouflaged with a bright and brash accompaniment.
The End of the Party has always been an absolute favorite for me on the album. The narrative follows a guy who totally messes up his chances in a relationship because he can’t bring himself to commit. He thinks he can talk his way back to where it all went wrong. As the song unspools he finally realizes there is no going back. The harmonization on the vocal is really special and there is another” don’t miss” sax solo. This track is as close to a ballad as any on the release. Emotionally is has great impact and Wakeling really delivers on the vocals.
The final track, Ackee,1,2,3 is a delightful sunlit farewell to the release. The song is loaded with pragmatic philosophical advice or home truths take your pick. This all takes place over a rollicking and endearing accompaniment. It takes on bias and cruel judgments with the joyous refrain, “Look we’re all the same it’s only a game.” The horns swing and the guitars bring the song home as the last sounds of a dog barking bring this phenomenal song and album to an end.
Special Beat Service set up The Beat for a great run at commercial success. It won numerous new adherents in the US to only have the band decide to call it a day. It was tragic that the band ended but what was left was an impressive collection of songs that span from their debut to this splendid release. Today if you listen closely you can still hear some of the then trailblazing treatments the Beat proffered utilized by a number of current bands. Many of the band members of the Beat went on to make more great music. Wakeling and Ranking Rodger would go on to additional success with their next effort, General Public and Andy Cox and David Steele would form Fine Young Cannibals also striking popular gold. Unfortunately the likelihood of a reunion is slim with Cox and Steele both now somewhat forsworn enemies who refuse to be in the same room together. Currently Ranking Rodger and his son do perform live with a version of the Beat.
The Beat like a kind of quicksilver was one of a kind and so promising. There are any number of compilations and re-issues out there in the music market, but Special Beat Service is by far their greatest musical effort. I highly recommend getting acquainted with this winning release.