Discography box sets generally don’t have an audience. An example of this would be the recent set from the Smiths. Its price tag is so high that only die hard fans would be willing to pay for it, but it contains all previously released material that those same fans should already own. This is why The Complete Beat, a moderately priced five-disc set compiling all three of the English Beat’s classic ’80s ska records and supplementing them with a generous heaping of B-sides, live takes and rarities, is such a perfect collection, simply because it actually should appeal to new and old fans alike without breaking the bank.
While the English Beat proved to be hugely influential with their blend of ska and soul, they had a surprisingly brief run of just five years. Still, their three studio albums, I Just Can’t Stop It, Wha’ppen? and Special Beat Service are all genre classics. Ska has proven itself a worthy combination with punk, but the Beat took it to a more melodic, soulful place just as well. They could almost be considered a long lost Motown act, something perhaps best exemplified by their cover of “Tears of a Clown” by Smoky Robinson & the Miracles, from the U.S. version of I Can’t Stop It. Spread across these three albums are infectious, grooving hits. Based on these first three discs alone, Complete Beat is essential listening.
That the two discs of additional content are essential as well makes for a nice bonus. Disc Four collections extended dub mixes, and in order to fully appreciate them, you need to play through the proper albums first. Dub reggae itself can get pretty jammed out, so the disc isn’t surprising in that regard, but comparing these edits with their proper LP counterparts certainly is so. The English Beat’s songs were fairly tightly arranged pop confections, rarely going beyond the three-and-a-half-minute mark. So hearing these songs explore their space more is quite the revelation. While some edits maintain the band’s pop edge (“Hit It,” “Stand Down Margaret”), it’s the jammier cuts that really stand out (“Which Side of the Bed?”). This disc offers a context for the English Beat I’ve never really considered, but it’s certainly a welcome one.
Closing out the set is a collection of two live sets. It consists mostly of a Peel Session from March 1982, so it sounds pretty awesome quality wise and packs the band’s choicest cuts (“Mirror in the Bathroom,” “Tears of a Clown”). The last few tracks were recorded later that year, in November at Boston’s Opera House, and the quality dips a little bit. They sound a little more ruddy and cavernous, making the live disc the closest thing to a weak link in the set.
Still, there’s about four hours worth of music leading up to that, so a few bum tracks at the end isn’t exactly a deal breaker. Complete Beat collects the band’s best work, throws in a few surprises and manages to keep the price low. Right now it’s retailing around the $35 range, which is a real deal in stereo given its contents.