Working for the rat race? You know you’re wasting your time. Working for the rat race? You’re no friend of mine!
Ah, how I love The Specials. They made urban British disconnection and the malaise of the barely employed sound like so much fun. Still, ‘Rat Race’ is an uncomfortable listen for me. ‘I’ve seen your qualifications, you’ve got a PhD / I’ve got one art O-level, it did nothing for me’, sings Terry Hall with the kind of hangdog sagacity only a twenty-one year old in a band could pull off. I chuckle every time I hear it, but then it fills me with dread. He’s bang on the money. I know my own research degree means bugger all in most circles – all that labour and self-doubt merely leads to more of the same. In academia, you’re only as good as your last article or book, and the way the profession is audited and assessed according to ‘output’ is brazen in adopting the rhetoric of the market. How naive I was to think that by choosing an academic path, I’d found a tranquil refuge from the tyranny of competition! For Terry and the boys, we’re part of the problem anyway. Establishment. Bourgeois. The sort of people who write about music instead of, you know, actually breaking their nails on a guitar string. I hold my uncalloused hands up – guilty as charged.
You might think that this was the tenor of their times, of course. Early 1980 – a depressed country, sludgy and sclerotic yet prone to outbreaks of spit and rage. The Specials had many targets . There were the architects who bequeathed a legacy of underlit crime-scenes in ‘Concrete Jungle’, and the youngsters who sprog ‘burden[s] on the welfare state’ in ‘Too much too young’; and most of all, there was the Thatcher government. The Specials face stiff competition for the title of most anti-Tory band ever (there’ll be a fair few others dotted about this blog, no doubt), but no artists better captured the almost comical despair of the early eighties. Despite being inseparable from its context, ‘Ghost Town’ never palls; the absolute peak of Britain’s short-lived but miraculous 2-Tone movement, it breaks your heart and splits your sides at the same time. I’m too young to remember 1981 (I was born in 1980), but it sounds as if Britain was one large fairground full of bad drugs and Clockwork Orange droogs, a dystopia of citizens forced into miserable leisure by a government determined to destroy their livelihoods. The hammer-horror organ rises, and you quite expect Mrs T to emerge from the coconut shies disguised as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Their version of Dylan’s ‘Maggie’s Farm’ is more unsettling still. It’s positively Orwellian: Terry Hall sounds like Boxer the workhorse giving up the ghost. Far better make an unholy racket than labour to put tax pounds in that woman’s pocket. Do they run a YTS in drum construction?
There were lots of songs about work or the lack thereof in the early 1980s. UB40 were obsessed by it. Of course, they got rich soon enough; they should have changed their name to Capital Gains around 1983. Meanwhile, ‘Wham Rap’ features George Michael’s most politically charged couplets: ‘I may not have a job, but I have a good time / With the boys that I meet ‘down on the line’’. No ‘Careless Whisper’, is it? But work isn’t always politically charged. It’s what we do day in day out, and for most people, it’s merely structured boredom. With the explosion of British guitar bands in the mid-2000s, we got some fine commentary on the rather prosaic subject of work-life balance. There was the Rakes’ ‘Work work work (Pub club sleep)’, whose title is self-explanatory, and special mention must go to The Young Knives’ ‘Weekends and bleak days’, with its immortal opening whinge, ‘Hot summer, what a bummer!’ But the greatest ode to the banality of the photocopy queue, the greatest paean to the desk tidy and the franking machine, is a song by Canadian one-hit wonders Martha and the Muffins. It’s probably playing in thousands of people’s heads right now.
‘Echo Beach’ is a contemporary of the Specials’ ‘Rat Race’, though it looks at wage slavery from the opposite end of the telescope. The woman in this song isn’t interested in anti-establishment social commentary. She’s more the type of person you might meet in the kitchen over lunch hour, spearing pasta salad from her Tupperware or showing you her holiday snaps. Martha Johnson circa 1980, with her bouncy hair and chequered earrings, fits the bill perfectly. Without her the song might have seemed ironic on first listen, a case of new wavers being arch about the nine-to-five masses, but when I watch old clips I really believe in them; it’s as if Martha was dreaming one day at her desk, imagining herself in a band, and hey presto, the Muffins materialised. She’s prone to these sorts of mental escapades anyway. As she confesses, she can’t help it; she’s a romantic fool. She spends most of her time distracted by thoughts of elsewhere.
Of course, she isn’t a fool at all, merely one of the many millions who live for the weekend and save up their meagre pay-checks for two weeks of summer bliss. The scenario is so familiar I’m astonished that nobody thought of its hitmaking potential before. Naturally, I’ve been there myself, and most people I know can readily identify with the lyrics. My Dad spent thirty odd years as assistant manager in a provincial branch of Barclays Bank. His caravan in the Yorkshire Dales was everything to him, a retreat from the public’s demands and the boss’s orders. Or take some of the people I met while doing holiday work at a solicitor’s office, the series of office juniors who occupied their downtime penning romantic novels on WH Smith feint-ruled jotters, or sat at reception dreaming of Corfu. These are people we all recognise. They are us. Martha is you and me.
The sound of the record, however, has little to do with the drudgery of the office and everything to do with 5pm on a Friday: that moment when you put your last item in the out-tray, gather your hat and gloves, and say cheerio to the cleaners as they come to do their shift. You’re dancing before you’ve even cleared the revolving doors. It’s all down to the Muffins’ super-tight playing; ‘Echo Beach’ is easily one of the most propulsive, exuberant pop songs of a limitlessly energetic era, a fantastic band performance in which the most minute cogs of the wheel produce tiny coruscating sparks. The looped, phased guitar that begins the fade-in (or is it a keyboard?) is the sun winking over the sands. Then the unmistakeably 1980 lead – trebly, skinny and flanged – followed by that busy bass and crisp, metronomic drumming, and finally the keyboards: it’s a song that lets you in on all its layers one by one, includes you generously in the discovery of freedom, takes your hand as it hurtles down the stairwell and out into the light. As if all this weren’t brilliant enough, you get a borderline crazy saxophone solo that is actually good. The early eighties were full of them, you know – thank Madness and Hazel O’Connor. And to think that this was their only hit in the UK. Sometimes it’s better to have the one corker than a trail of also-rans, particularly when the subject is so everyman. It suggests that we all get a crack of the whip – our Warholian five minutes – and that it’s quite possible to put your all into a perfect confection of hiccupy vocals and compulsive new-wave disco-ditty. The Muffins made other records, with ever-shifting line-ups, but ‘Echo Beach’ is their indelible statement. Wherever the eponymous bay is, I have a feeling that if you wrote its name in the sands, the tide would never wash it away.
There are lots of things I’d like to do to ‘Echo Beach’. I’d like to take an old-fashioned ghetto-blaster to the seaside and play Frisbee to it. I’d like to wear black and white and dance to it under bare lightbulbs. I’d like to pipe it round offices every summer solstice. It almost convinces me that work is worth it, that the boredom somehow licences the dreaming. Much as I love ‘Rat Race’, ‘Echo Beach’ is much the most subversive of songs about the daily grind; the grind becomes a twitch, the twitch a dance, and the dance the best weekend you’ll ever have.