THE BEAT (THE ENGLISH BEAT) — Wha'ppen? (review)

THE BEAT (THE ENGLISH BEAT) — Wha'ppen? album cover Album · 1981 · Dub/Ska/Reggae Buy this album from MMA partners
4.5/5 ·
The Beat’s (English Beat in the US) first album, “I Just Can’t Stop It”, was a high energy ska punk barn burner infused with politically savvy lyrics, and it was a huge success in England and all around the entire world. Conventional wisdom would dictate that they should keep the same formula for their follow up album, but instead The Beat decided to challenge themselves, and their followers, by changing course for their follow up, “Wha’ppen”. The Caribbean rhythms from drummer Everrette Morton were still there, but instead of just high speed ska, The Beat delved into a wide variety of additional ‘riddims’ including dub, calypso and various hybrids that were their own creation. Likewise, their lyrics delved more into personal relationships and a certain malaise where disappointment in relations intersect with political concerns creating a more somber mood. Critics were quick to pan this album claiming The Beat had lost their way, but the band had not lost any creativity or integrity with this second opus as repeat listens reveal an interesting mix of island rhythms and art pop ambitions. The art pop leanings were no accident as band leaders Dave Wakeling and Ranking Roger were just as much into David Bowie as they were into the Skatalites.

Yes, “Wha’ppen” is not the exuberant dance fest of their first outing, but as a deeper listening experience, in many ways it is the better album, critics be damned. If I may indulge a bit here, I had just lost a girlfriend when this album came out and it became the perfect soundtrack as I came to terms with the fact that it was indeed all over. I wonder what the guys in The Beat were going through that pushed them in this direction, possibly similar failed partnerships, disillusionment with musical stardom, restless youth back home dealing with terminal unemployment and the growing menace of a possible nuclear war. All of these concerns come together in the lyrics in which personal troubles combine with political apprehension in ways that make it hard to separate the two.

It may sound like this album is just one big downer, but it is not. The song writing is excellent and the syncopated Jamaican rhythms celebrate life no matter what the obstacle. I think many critics missed the boat on this one, its definitely not a repeat of the first album, but it is one of the best art pop albums of the 80s, easily challenging the best work by Bowie, Prince or The Police during this same time period.
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