Americans have preferred not to mix their politics with rock since the early '70s, but their British counterparts insist upon it. The English Beat go one step further, using rock (in all the forms accessible to them) as a forum in which to work out social and political confusion. Like "I Just Can't Stop It," their first LP, "Wha'ppen?" employs ska, bluebeat and a sort of rockabilly reggae as a means of asking questions best answered by the listener, if the listener cares to stop dancing long enough to think about them. If the group seems critically overrated in this country, it's because their music offers such a welcome alternative to the flabby, big-bucks homogeneity that reflects America's current musical and political apathy. The Beat would rather address unemployment, racial strife and other social ills, and spend a lot less money in the studio while they're at it. "Wha'ppen?" is less bouncy than its predecessor, though, which seems appropriate in light of the events that have transpired in England over the last eight months. To their credit, they don't confine the subject matter geographically: One of the English Beat's greatest assets is the conviction that Brixton (or Watts) can be anywhere. "The Doors of Your Heart" has a ska- smooth surface and a Sixties-style saxophone by Saxa, but underneath the gloss, Ranking Roger rubs some pretty deep dub a la Linton Kwesi Johnson: This one your unity rocker, lord Stick him in your living room And turn off the light eh Bet you wouldn't know if he was black or white Say what's the use in fighting? "Monkey Murders" uses a quasi-zydeco, La Bomba-esque sax riff that was successfully ignored stateside when David Lindley tried it last summer. How anyone can fail to be moved by such basic rock licks is beyond me, but perhaps the English Beat's lyrics ("At the center, no one warns you/When that moment might turn the corner") can cut through some dead, danceless skin. Meanwhile, the Beat moves on, getting almost jazzy on "I Am Your Flag," sounding like Elvis (C) on songs like "Cheated" and "Dream Home in New Zealand." All throughout, the group spins questions, observations, worries right into the dance mix. Even dire warnings, such as this one from "Get-a-Job": There's a training course where Boys and girls of real ambition Start a new job in a factory Where they're making ammunition The uninitiated may liken the English Beat to English ska revivalists such as the Specials, since the group is half black, half white and stresses West-Indian-meets-new- wave rhythmic patterns. That's a mistake. The Beat is a coffee and cream organization, but for reasons of balance rather than show. No one style or philosophy consistently carries the day, and though it's packed with ideology, you won't find much didacticism on "Wha'ppen?" -- an even tougher balance to maintain. If you missed "I Just Can't Stop It," which offered the sly "Mirror in the Bathroom" and the natty "Hands Off -- She's Mine," "Wha'ppen?" is still a fine introduction to an outstanding group, both for dancing and for thinking. Those of us who still think of rock as a social/political forum -- as well as a reason to dance -- have been waiting for just such a band as the English Beat. Some worry that, unless the Beat stake out some airwave territory pretty soon, they might disappear altogether. Not me: Even in the corporate levels of rock, there are still more of Us than there are of Them.
THE ALBUM -- The English Beat, "Wha'ppen?" Sire/Arista import (SRK 3567).
THE SHOW -- Saturday at 8 at the Ontario.