Thursday, March 24, 2011

March 24: The English Beat, "Mirror In The Bathroom"

Artist: The English Beat
Song: "Mirror In The Bathroom"
Album: I Just Can't Stop It
Year: 1980

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Though it had many side-effects across the globe in the years that followed, the way in which the "punk explosion" of 1977 re-shaped music in England was nothing short of revolutionary.  The fact that so many bands suddenly brought a similar edge to their music was a sign of how well the punk ethos fit with society at the time, and yet this musical direction was interpreted in a number of different ways.  In fact, one can directly tie the rise of punk rock with the re-emergence of the ska sound a few years later, and though it went largely unnoticed in the U.S., this wave of ska revival was perhaps the finest to date.  However, while bands like The Specials and Madness had already released seminal records, it was not until 1980 when the "two tone" sound began to cross the ocean, and this was largely due to The English Beat.  The band was without question one of the most important and influential groups of the ska revival of this era, and following a handful of well received singles, the group released their seminal 1980 full length, I Just Can't Stop It.  Bursting with energy and a unique take on the "new" ska sound, there is perhaps no other album from the era that has retained its power as completely as this album.  While most of the bands' biggest hits are on this record, few can compare to the sound and impact that can be found within The English Beat's monumental 1980 song, "Mirror In The Bathroom."

The entire core of "Mirror In The Bathroom" sets itself with the opening notes of the song, as the bassline from David Steele is without question one of the most memorable in all of music history.  The deep, winding groove that it instantly sets manages to completely capture the listener, and this element of the song is able to have just as much impact even after three decades of existence.  The way in which the bass locks into rhythm with drummer Everett Morton is nothing short of perfect, and there is a completely unique cadence that the two are able to inject into the song.  It is this element that quickly sets "Mirror In The Bathroom" aside from any similar music, as the rhythm section maintains an amazing amount of tension throughout the song, whilst also giving "Mirror In The Bathroom" an irresistible dance feel.  Yet while this duo is certainly the core of the appeal of the song, it is the way in which The English Beat is able to infuse so many other sounds and feelings that truly makes this song such a magnificent musical achievement.  Perhaps the most notable element outside of the rhythm section is the saxophone that seems to jump in and out of the song with an uncanny sense of the feel of the song.  Truth be told, this is in fact former Prince Buster and Desmond Dekker horn legend, Saxa, and his presence alone gives the band all the "street cred" they could need.  Yet it is also the perfectly toned, almost slinky guitar work from Andy Cox that complete the sound, and there are few songs from anywhere in history that have a similar somewhat dark groove as one finds on "Mirror In The Bathroom."

While some may argue that it takes a bit of a "back seat" to the brilliant musical arrangement, one cannot overlook the importance and unique perfection that can be found within the vocals of Dave Wakeling and "toaster," Ranking Roger.  Though the latter of the two is not as present here as on most of the other songs of The English Beat, Wakeling delivers one of the finest performances of his career, and the almost "spacey" feel that can be found in his vocals is yet another way in which the song stands far apart from its peers.  Within Wakeling's singing, there is a tone which one can hear all across pop music from the 1980's, and it is likely due to this element, along with the fantastic musical arrangement, that enabled "Mirror In The Bathroom" to find a wider audience.  However, one cannot deny the fact that the rather un-subtle and suggestive lyrics of the song did not have something to do with its notoriety, and it is within the lyrics that the darker mood of the song becomes far more apparent.  The nervous, almost unhinged tone that comes forth in the lyrics manages to perfectly match the tension and mental instability suggested by the lyrics, as lines like, "...cures you whisper make no sense, drift gently into mental illness..." perfectly highlight the paranoia from this blunt exploration of cocaine addiction.  Though this approach to the subject is a bit taboo, it in no way detracts from the overall impact of the song, and few performers have delivered as perfect a feeling as Dave Wakeling does on "Mirror In The Bathroom."

Strangely enough, while "Mirror In The Bathroom" was a respectable commercial hit for The English Beat, many of the following generation are more familiar with the cover of the song that was released by U.S. rockers, Fifi in the mid-1990's.  However, one can also argue that this version helped to introduce The English Beat to an entirely new audience, as there is no question that the original recording is still just as captivating and powerful today as it was when it was first released.  This longevity is largely due to the fact that, even across the world of ska, "Mirror In The Bathroom" stands alone, as the nervous, dark feeling it conveys is rather uncommon within the style.  In fact, the balance that The English Beat is able to achieve between the irresistible danceable sound and this almost desperate tone is second to none, and one can hear the wide-ranging influence of this approach throughout many other pop hits of the decade that followed.  Furthermore, it is songs like "Mirror In The Bathroom" that provide a clear link between the punk revolution of the late 1970's, and the post-punk sound that emerged in its aftermath.  While bands like Joy Division took the ethos and stayed more on the punk side, it is groups like The English Beat that retained the sentiment, but infused it into an entirely new style.  Truth be told, one would be hard pressed to find a more original or engaging song from any point in music history, and the fact that the dark groove remains just as hypnotic serves as a testament to the sheer musical brilliance that can be found within The English Beat's classic single, "Mirror In The Bathroom."

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