Wednesday, June 27, 2007

“She’s Going” / The English Beat

Though the Specials were the first late-70s ska band that stole my heart, I had to love the English Beat as well – not to mention General Public and Fine Young Cannibals, the two excellent bands they split into after three brilliant, inventive albums (when you’ve got that much talent in one group, why not spread it around a bit?). Their sound was funky, urban, hectic, and ineffably finger-popping cool. I dug it.

This 1982 song’s a perfect example of that sweet amalgam of reggae, r&b, soul, jazz, and punk that made this ska renaissance so delightful. The beat, of course, has its roots in reggae, though it skitters along much faster; that emotive lead vocal is soulful indeed, and the way the voices trade back and forth is classic r&b call-and-response. And then there’s the plaintive sax and the tooting horns dancing in and out -- jazz pure and simple.

The song’s a lot darker than you’d think at first from its bouncy upbeat energy, though – that’s where the punk kinship shows up. It’s a Tortured Relationship Song with so many twists and shadows I can’t really tell what’s going on. The first time around I thought it was just a break-up, but the more I listened, the more ominous lines came to light. The best I can make out is that it’s a murder-suicide – “So next time she meet him / They'll both be in heaven”; “she'd rather die than live to behave so badly”; “just watch the spirit slipping out of her hand.” No wonder they say halfway through the song, “I guess you thought it was an ordinary row. / Well you were wrong. / Just take a look at her now.” Yikes.

All of which gives the chorus an especially grim irony: “She's leaving, / Too late to take her home./ She's going, / Too late to tell her you love her. / She's freezing, / Rather be dead than alone. / She's going, / I think you're too late she's gone.” Phrases we throw around so lightly – “I’d rather die that do that” – take on a ghastly double meaning.

Thanks to that snappy ska beat, every line is stuffed to bursting with words, firing at you so rat-a-tat fast, it’s hard to sort it all out. It’s never clear who loves whom, who wants to leave whom, who would miss whom, only that there’s a shipload of misery swirling around. Actually, most of the English Beat’s songs sound similarly disoriented, I’ve noticed – maybe it says something about the working-class Birmingham milieu they came from. When you’re in the middle of certain edgy social scenes, you really can’t tell up from down, wrong from right, black from white, love from hate. You have to be a cool cat indeed to land on your feet.

But that beat, that beat – it’s way too intoxicating to resist. The voices pop in and out like horns themselves, tripping along on the rhythm, and I feel almost guilty, enjoying this song as much as I do. Ah, well, it’s a bleak world, all right – might as well dance, brother.

She's Going sample

1 comment:

Julie said...

I was lucky enough to see them play live last fall. They've still got it.