40 Years Later: Revisiting The English Beat’s Mix Minded ‘Wha’appen’

As if hinting to prospective listeners via the interrogatory in its title, The English Beat proffered some markedly different sounds on its sophomore LP compared to its debut. But the novel elements are in addition to, not instead of, those that dominated their first album. Once again working with Bob Sargent as producer, the band mixed in more authentic reggae in with the ska/rock-steady and pop, all in addition to maintaining the punk inflections of the Two-Tone movement also championed by The Specials and The Selecter. 

Ratifying the independence that led the Beat to secure their own record label deal, the multi-racial ensemble forged a seamless whole that transcended glib categorization, an achievement-based as much in its non-conformist attitude as its eclectic execution.

To be sure, there remained the dance-inflected likes of “All Out to Get You” and “Too Nice to Talk To” (added to the original eleven tracks on CD editions) that dominated I Just Can’t Stop It. And there was little loss of the topicality that makes songs like “I Am Your Flag” so thought-provoking, even some forty years later; the relevance of such tunes may actually have increased in the interim, thanks in part to the sly sense of humor that comes so naturally to the titular leader and chief songwriter Dave Wakeling (his co-founder of the group, Ranking Roger, passed away in 2019).

Yet more decidedly reggae-influenced tunes such as “Door of Your Heart” appear right alongside those declarations of philosophy and politics, underscored by the no less assertive bass and drums of David Steele and Everett Morton, respectively. It’s no small feat to maintain a measure of continuity while varying multiple varied tempos including “Over And Over and “French Toast (Soleil Trop Chaud)”  but the Beat–so known in their native England to preclude conflict with Paul Collins’ band of the same name—managed to do so in such a way that the whole of Wha’ppen is much greater than the sum of its parts.

Subtle instrumental touches like the trumpet on “Walk Away” add the timbre to the group’s sound in much the same way as the steel drums on “Dream Home In NZ.” Dub effects and toasting of Ranking Roger render tracks like “Cheated” and or “Drowning” every bit as colorful as the front cover graphic. Through it all, especially on “Monkey Murders,” the Beat adheres to a cheeky posture that informs the band’s playing and singing as well as the original material. Yet, on the closer of “The Limits We Set,” the unit is as self-aware in its own way as it was on the purposeful conclusion of the prior record “Jackpot.”

Wha’ppen was is superior to its predecessor due to its diversification, and with four decades retrospect, it’s fairly simple to discern just how inferior was its relatively homogeneous successor. Special Beat Service lacks the witty, literate personality of either of its predecessors and not just because of the diminished role of the man with the horn, Saxa (his bird-like trills highlighted the most quirky elements of the ensemble). The relatively conventional nature of “Save It For Later” and “I Confess,” led directly to the group’s greatest commercial successes, but The English Beat splintered in 1983 nonetheless. 

In keeping with all its other idiosyncrasies, personnel initially morphed into two separate entities, General Public and Fine Young Cannibals, both of which garnered some modicum of acclaim. Eventually, the various personalities coalesced into a pair of essentially similar Beat groups led by the two frontmen from the original lineup (the Wakeling-led unit of which has toured American to no small acclaim in recent years, in addition to releasing a brand-new studio album in 2018, Here We Go Love). Such an unorthodox arrangement is particularly fitting for an ensemble that forty years ago espoused cultural community and proffered a record as a practical template for its enlightened outlook.


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One Response

  1. Dude! The two founding members are Wakeling and Andy Cox, not
    Ranking Roger. Also, Andy and David Steele usually wrote the music, and Dave Wakeling wrote the lyrics, so it wasn’t like he was writing alone.

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