In my youth, such as it was, I frequented (for which read: practically lived at) the law school’s semi-underground bar, Domus Legis, at which my brother, and later a dear friend, were successively bar managers. I think what I miss most about those days, apart from the utter freedom to pursue a program of drunken debauchery on an epic scale, is the music. They had these kick-ass band monitors strapped to the wall, and the tunes blasted all night long, with my little clique having a lot to do with what got blasted. It was audio nirvana. Of all our favourite albums, we maintained that there were only a few that you could play from beginning to end and enjoy every minute, even if you weren’t drunk, among them Exile on Main Street, Who’s Next, and the record from which today’s offering is extracted, Special Beat Service by the English Beat.
Actually, that should be, simply, “The Beat”. They had to change their name for the American market to avoid confusion with another band of the same name that nobody remembers anymore.
The Beat was probably the finest band to grow out of the Ska Revival movement, producing such offbeat, rather spooky, yet compulsively rhythmic gems as Mirror in the Bathroom and Twist and Crawl, before releasing Special Beat Service (a play on the Special Boat Service, an elite British special forces unit unknown to the North American audience). This turned out to be their swan song, and what a way to bow out. I think all of us could still sing the songs by heart, especially Sugar and Stress, Rotating Head, End of the Party, I Confess, and Save it for Later, my own, and I think just about everybody’s, favourite.
The Beat had a knack, surprisingly, for witty and acerbic lyrics, full of humour and wry observations, sometimes tinged with just a touch of bitterness. From Sugar and Stress:
We know where our hearts are, right behind our wallets
Yes and that’s where they’re staying
or this, from I Confess:
Just out of spite,
I confess I’ve ruined three lives
Now don’t sleep so tight
‘Cause I did not care till I found out that one of them was mine
End of the Party:
Strength is not the same as anger
Put the taste back into hunger
Searching the box
Looking for what?
I love you, I love you not?
…all while bopping along at such an infectious pace that you tended to miss what they were really about. Save it for Later was like that; it had the propulsive rhythm, the horns and strings going, lead vocalist David Wakeling in fine form, the lot, and rarely is a song so immediately appealing from the very first chords, chords that sounded special, somehow, which we didn’t realize were the product of a unique tuning of the guitar, to DADAAD, it says here in Wikipedia. You could dance to it all right – hell, you practically had to dance to it – while perhaps never noticing that its theme was all doubt, sadness, and angst.
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’ll hit the deck, you’ll get found out
Save it for later, don’t run away and let me down, you let me down
It’s a song about realizing that you’re growing up fast, and have a whole heap of painful life choices to make, oh so very soon. Wakeling wrote it when he was still a teenager, and explained it this way:
… it was about turning from a teenager to someone in their 20s, and realizing that the effortless promise for your teenage years was not necessarily going to show that life was so simple as you started to grow up. So it was about being lost, about not really knowing your role in the world, trying to find your place in the world. So, you couldn’t find your own way in the world, and you’d have all sorts of people telling you this, that, and the other, and advising you, and it didn’t actually seem like they knew any better.
It’s easy, from where we older ones stand today, to lose sight of how dreadful it felt, wondering what you were going to make of yourself, and whether you were up for it, whatever it was – or destined, sooner or later, to fall flat on your face. Were you going to be OK out there in the great wide world? How were you even supposed to behave out there, to please whoever it was you were going to have to please? Would you be discovered for the imposter you figured yourself to be? Would there be anybody to lean on while you tried to figure it out? The urge to stave off the dire possibilities of adulthood, just for a while, was overwhelming.
These were sentiments that a 22 year old kid about to graduate with an Arts degree, and possessing no particular skills prized by the marketplace, could readily identify, though at the time we didn’t so much understand it as feel it. It’s the general anxiety of the thing, and the overt fear of failure and loneliness. That’s what resonated, almost subconsciously.
Today, nothing else transports me so thoroughly back to that time and place, and all those feelings, almost equal parts joyous and awful.
A few years later, after I’d moved to Toronto, The Who hit town on one of their revival tours, and of course I had to go see them. In what amounted to an intermission, Pete Townshend walked on stage all by himself, acoustic in hand, and played a few numbers solo, as he likes to do, stripping the raucous ones down to their cores and re-imagining them in the process. I was utterly in his thrall when he began to finger-pluck the opening notes to that song that was beyond familiar. There was a group called The Beat, he said, and they did a song I always loved a lot. Pete knows all about the melancholy underpinnings of superficially upbeat numbers. It’s practically his specialty, and boy, was it evident that he perfectly understood Save it For Later.
Imagine that, me and one of the musicians I admire the most, simpatico.
This is Pete’s version, which he introduces by telling the story of being mystified by the song’s chords, eventually growing so frustrated trying to reproduce them that he simply rang Wakeling up out of the blue and asked him what the hell the tuning was. Of course; it was something he’d nicked from the Velvet Underground.