Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The English Beat: Saved Their Best Song For Later

Occasionally a British band will try to release their debut album in the United States, only to find out that some obscure American band is already using the same name. This is how Squeeze became U.K. Squeeze, how Suede became the London Suede, and how the Beat became the English Beat.

There wasn't much that was particularly English about the English Beat, however. Their first album, I Just Can't Stop It!, like the Specials' debut, is considered one of the defining Ska Revival albums. Also like the Specials' debut, I listened to it years ago and it passed through me like water. Again, it sounded well-intentioned but boring - just another bunch of English kids who didn't bring enough of a twist to their fandom. Witness the first single from the album, a cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles' "Tears of a Clown" (like Madness, the English Beat released their debut single on 2 Tone Records, but signed elsewhere afterwards). I can hear an interesting ska cover of "Tears of a Clown" somewhere in my head, but I don't think this is it. The novelty-ish aspect of the cover is reinforced by the guy in the background at the end of the song singing "Tears of a clon." Tears of a clon? Really, mon?

However, the band did have a great logo.

Also, their lead singer, Dave Wakeling, arguably had more marbles in his mouth than Paul Weller or Joe Strummer. But get him pontificating on the meaning of English Beat songs, and he's pretty entertaining. Here's an excerpt from his interview for the AV Club's "Set List" series, where he explains the inspiration for another popular hit from the debut album, "Mirror In The Bathroom":
The lyrics were written when I was working on a construction site. I’d had a couple of drinks the night before, and forgot to hang up my clothes to dry for the next day. It gets very wet on those construction sites, and it was the winter, so it was a snowy wet. I got into the bathroom and realized my clothes were all on the floor in a wet, sandy pile. So I hung them up and thought, “Well, if I steam them, at least I’ll be puttin’ ’em on warm.” I had a shower, and then I was shaving in the mirror, with the hangover and the wet clothes, and the thought of trying to break up frozen sand to put into the concrete machine was not that tasty. And I started talking to myself in the mirror, and said, “Dave, we don’t have to do this, mate. We don’t have to do this.” And in the mirror behind me, the door of the bathroom had a tiny little latch on it, and I said to myself, “The door’s locked. There’s only me and you. Just me and you here. We don’t have to do this.” And of course we did, because we needed money for Guinness that night. [Laughs.]

So on the motorbike we got, and skidded our way back to the construction site. And while I was on the bike, I was pondering it. “The door is locked, just you and me.” Had a nice feel to it. “Mirror In The bathroom.” That’s a great idea, but you can’t have a pop song called “Mirror In The Bathroom,” can you? That’s stupid. You’re meant to have pop songs called, “I Love You, Lady,” or something.

Still, I probably wouldn't have given the English Beat a second look until I heard "Save It For Later," a single from their third album, when it was included on the Pitchfork 500. By this time the band had more of a '60s R&B than a ska sound - well, it's more like a "if '60s R&B, ska, and the Byrds had a three-way, while 'Strawberry Fields Forever' watched" sound, but whatever, they're British. As with their earlier material, I didn't think much of it at first, but for some reason it grew on me.
Two dozen other dirty lovers
Must be a sucker for it
Cry, cry, but I don't need my mother
Just hold my hand while I come
To a decision on it

Sooner or later
Your legs give way, you hit the ground
Save it for later
Don't run away and let me down
Sooner or later
You hit the deck, you get found out
Save it for later
Don't run away and let me down
You let me down
Although only a minor hit in both the UK and US at the time, this song has become, unbeknownst to me, something of an '80s classic. Theories abound as to the song's meaning: Ned Raggett writes that it "remains one of the few pop songs about holding off on sex instead of taking the plunge," while others claim it's about oral sex. In the AV Club interview, however, Wakeling says something entirely different:
It started off as a dirty schoolboy joke. The phrase “save it for later” is meant to be “save it,” comma, “fellator.” As in, “Leave it as it is, cocksucker.” [Laughs.] But we didn’t have the term “cocksucker” in England at the time. We didn’t really learn that one ’til we came to America. So it wasn’t really a putdown, because we didn’t really use that term to put down people at the time, and I don’t think they do very much in England now, either. Anyways, that was the nature of the joke.

It was a song really about not knowing what to do, because you knew people looked at you as though you were a man, but you knew you didn’t know how to operate in a man’s world. You still were responding to things the same way as you always had as a boy. And it’s a scary thing, really, being scared of all the implications of your life and not knowing what else to do other than to try and bravely march forward into the dark regardless. It’s been hard to describe. People ask, “What’s that song about?” Well, it’s about nothing. It’s about not knowing anything. [Laughs.] Or feeling like you know nothing, and grasping in the dark for your place in the world, and trying to do it with a wry humor. It’s like your legs give way, and every time you try to stand up and pretend to be a man, the boy in you would flip over in front of everybody and you’re embarrassed again, y’know? Particularly I suppose as you try and learn how to deal with girls turning into women. They could say one thing and you’d go bright red, look at the floor and start shuffling around like you just got told off by your teacher at school.
Somehow, without picking up on any of that, I knew that the song was about something enigmatic and mysterious. A song doesn't always need to be "about" something to be about something, you know what I mean?

Besides, sometimes a single can just capture a "moment." And "Save It For Later" catches that great moment in '80s British pop where bands who started out in such a stylistically narrow scene finally began branching out and performing whatever kind of music they liked. I mean, why cover a Motown song in a ska style, when you can write your own Motown-style song and record it in a Motown style?

Above all, "Save It For Later" (and its accompanying video) just radiates this whole aura of cool. It's like a room full of intelligent people with great taste in everything. As those elegant strings swirl over the fade-out, I imagine dancing the night away on the banks of the Seine, cocktail in hand, marveling at the majesty of life. Work with me, here.

But alas, just as they might have been hitting a new peak, the English Beat broke up. Wakeling and fellow vocalist Ranking Roger went on to form General Public, while guitarist Andy Cox and bassist David Steele found another singer, came up with a ridiculous new band name, and had a couple of hits in 1989 that you might have heard somewhere.


Herr Zrbo said...

The English Beat are around in some form still. They played in San Jose about a year ago, we were actually outside of the venue and could hear the music through the walls. We kept making 'mirror in the bathroom' jokes because that's the only song of theirs I knew. That's all I got.

Little Earl said...

Well you've got a lot. Until recently, I didn't even know that much - despite the fact that I'd actually heard their first album years ago.

The currently touring line-up of the English Beat is basically Dave Wakeling and a bunch of random musicians who weren't original members. Apparently, now they're even touring with the American band who called themselves the Beat and forced them to change their name (led by Paul Collins). Hey, why not? From Wikipedia:

According to an October 2012 press release, Dave Wakeling stated, “Paul and I originally met back in '83 and have been in touch occasionally over the years, but recently we've been in closer Facebook contact, which led to this idea becoming a reality....Two beats, hearting as one!”