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Sometime around 1978, revelation struck in Birmingham. During that period, Dave Wakeling, Andy Cox and David Steele had a nascent, nameless band in their U.K. hometown. As active participants in their local scene, they orchestrated house parties with two DJs—one spinning punk, another reggae. "If you played all punk, the place would go nuts for about an hour, and then everybody disappeared to have a rest. If you played all reggae, by the end of an hour, everybody was just leaning against the walls, nodding their heads gently," Wakeling remembers. "But if you mixed it up and played one of this, one of that, the dance floor stayed packed all night." After observing this phenomenon once, Cox turned to Wakeling and asked, "But what if you were to get elements of both DJs into the same three-minute pop song? What would you have then?"
They answered that question by forming the Beat, an amalgam of island soul and fiery, four-chord power. The group's potpourri of genres represented some of the best of second-wave/2 Tone ska, which was itself an English response to the sounds of 1960s Jamaica. Before coming across the pond, they were marketed to U.S. audiences as the English Beat—mostly for legal reasons, but also to avoid confusion with an American band with the same name. Musically, Wakeling's goal was to combine "the joyous love-of-life sound from the rhythm section of Toots and the Maytals" with "the urban angst of the Velvet Underground." Lyrically, he wanted to fuse the Monkees and John Lennon. "Under the catchiness of pop," Wakeling says, "you could actually end up being quite subversive by talking about what everybody was talking about at every bus stop and in every pub but was still at that point not what you were meant to be singing about in pop music."
Over the Beat's original five-year existence, they achieved significant commercial success at home and abroad, building their discography with gems such as "Save It for Later," "Mirror In the Bathroom" and "Twist and Crawl." They were also among the vanguard bands of the 2 Tone scene, which was rooted in advocating equality between blacks and whites. (Several bands, including the Beat, had members of both races.)
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Fights often broke out at the group's shows since the scene was full of young, testosterone-loaded men. To combat this, the band commissioned a female complement to the 2 Tone mascot designed by Walt Jabsco. The black-and-white charicature of a man in a black suit, white shirt, black tie, pork pie hat, white socks and black loafers was given to Hunt Emerson, who created the "Beat Girl"—a young, slender, skirt-and-sweater-clad woman whose hips were always bent in a dancing motion. This measure, combined with lyrics delving into sexuality and romance, led to the ladies attending the band's concerts, too, calming the men in the process.
Other songs by Wakeling discussed paranoia, vanity, insanity and haphazardness, sentiments that became key factors in the Beat's messy break-up. Drugs, arguments and the group's strategy of having no strategy ripped the band apart by 1983. In the aftermath, Wakeling and fellow Beat member Ranking Roger formed General Public, while Steele and Cox created '80s pop-rock classics as Fine Young Cannibals. In 2003, most of the Beat's original lineup reunited, which led to the band existing in two forms: The Beat are based in the U.K., while the Los Angeles-based Wakeling oversees the English Beat stateside. A box set titled The Complete Beat teams unreleased material from record-label archives with the Beat's three studio albums.
Looking back on his band's salad days, Wakeling doesn't take long to recall his favorite moments. He loved touring with the Clash in 1982, and he fondly remembers receiving compliments from musical heroes such as David Bowie, Robert Plant, Pete Townshend and Elvis Costello (often in the form of cover versions of his band's songs). But there's a recurring image that has always haunted him: the nightly scene in which he'd go from thousands of screaming fans to a hotel room, his ears ringing, blood pumping and body shivering with excitement, with his thoughts as his only companion. "I would say that having been in a pop group has been the greatest part of my working life, but it's also given me the opportunity to learn more about my own dark side than I ever anticipated," Wakeling says with a chuckle. "It's been a terrific way to find out about myself, including all the stuff I'm not particularly fond of."
This article appeared in print as "The Beat Goes On: Ska legends the English Beat keep putting feet and minds to work."