May 1981: The English Beat Release WHA'PPEN?

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

British ska outfit The English Beat broke out in a big way with the band's 1980 debut, I Just Can't Stop It. Featuring hit UK singles including "Mirror in the Bathroom," "Hands Off...She's Mine," and a version of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles' Motown classic, "The Tears of a Clown," frenetic tempos combined with socially conscious lyrics propelled I Just Can't Stop It all the way to #3 on the UK Albums chart. In America, the LP made The English Beat underground and college rock sensations, with the record even making an impact on the Billboard 200, cracking the chart to reach #142.

When it came time to make album number two, the members of The English Beat were already primed for change, and dramatic change at that.

"That album was weird because the first album was really up and dancey, and then that album was more relaxed, and I don't know what people thought, but when it came out people were like, 'what's happened to The Beat?'," the band's late vocalist Ranking Roger revealed during a 2013 interview (Roger died from cancer in March 2019). "It's a lot like The Specials who came out with their first album all guns blazing, then the second album was more like muzak and Spanish music and we thought, 'hey up what's going on? It's modern cowboy music or something?' - but people still got into it, they still think of it as a classic... The idea was not to keep the same, but to keep changing and the second album Wha'ppen? was a lot more relaxed, but the melodies and the catchy hook lines were still there."

Another big influence on The English Beat's second album was America, which the band experienced on tour in support of I Just Can't Stop It. With the group listening to a wider range of music on the tour bus as well as gauging audience reactions onstage, there was one American in particular who left a considerable impression on The English Beat.

"We took some time off after touring with The Pretenders and starting jamming again," Roger recalled. "Within it all we’d been reading our fan club letters and we got this one from a lady in America saying I’ve tried to use your music for my keep-fit lessons, and it’s too fast. It was a lovely written letter, so we decided to tone it down a bit in the way that The Beat became what we call ‘one-drop’, where the rim shot and the snare hits at the same time and that’s the main emphasis. So we did 'Doors of your Heart' and 'Monkey Murders' and along with a few others, and that was the kind of style for that album in the end."

The English Beat launched the Wha'ppen? campaign in April 1981 with the release of lead single, "Drowning." The tune's relaxed and loping reggae tempo belied tense lyrics about a man succumbing to the stress and pressures of adult life. The song was another UK hit for the band, sauntering its way up to #22 on the UK Singles chart.

It was May 1981 when The English Beat released the Wha'ppen full-length album. Despite the wider variety in tempos and vibes, the LP was an undisputed British hit. Critics quickly took to the band's broader musical vision, and fans followed. The record charged up the charts, peaking at #3 on the UK Albums chart. Which, coincidentally, was the peak position I Just Can't Stop It achieved on the same chart.

"The second album was the most relaxed Beat album," Ranking Roger said of Wha'ppen in 2013. "Californians and surfers, people like that - that album was made for them."