Monday, April 6, 2009

Save It For Later - The Story Behind Pete Townshend's Cover of A Classic By The Beat

The Beat's third album 'Special Beat Service' remains the most ambitious and diverse of the three records they released between 1980 and 1982. While both 'I Just Can't Stop It' and 'Whappen' stayed true to the band's manifesto of mixing politics with punky reggae and world beat sounds, by early 1982 things were changing and they were moving into the realm of personal politics with their third record.

While their 2-Tone brethren were quickly falling by the wayside and imploding, The Beat (and to a certain extent Madness), seemed prepared for the change in listeners tastes. While there were certainly internal issues within The Beat and some resistance from certain band members about their new direction, the band embarked on a musical journey that left their frenetic punky reggae and tropical sounds behind to embrace guitar driven pop music. While there were still flourishes of ska, reggae and Caribbean sounds, they now added touches of color rather than dominating the sound.

While the band was struggling to gain traction with their new sound in the UK, it was a very different story in the U.S. where the singles from 'Special Beat Service' slotted in nicely between Joe Jackson's 'Night & Day' album and the upbeat, horn driven pop of Haircut 100's 'Pelican West'. The Beat were part of the UK 'new wave' invasion and they suddenly had songs in the Top 40 of the U.S. charts. Two songs in particular resonated with American audiences -- 'Save It For Later' and 'I Confess' -- though they could not have been farther afield from what audiences and critics had come to expect from them.

These were not ska songs by any stretch of the imagination, but they were brilliant pop songs and soon took on a life of their own that established the band in the U.S. The videos for both songs were played widely on MTV and they soon entered the American music consciousness. In particular the song 'Save It For Later' sounded unlike anything else on American radio or on MTV. It seemed to connect with listeners in a way that earlier songs by the band had not. The song sounded like the love child of The Byrds and The Velvet Underground and included double entendre and innuendo that was novel for a song on the pop charts.

Dave Wakeling was once asked about the meaning of the song 'Save It For Later'. He replied, "I wrote it when I was a teenager. I wrote it before The Beat started. And 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. So it was like keep your advice to yourself. Save it - for later."

Despite the critical acclaim, it was too little, too late for The Beat, who broke up in July 1983 following a successful appearance at that summer's US Festival and right before an invitation to support David Bowie on the second leg of his 'Serious Moonlight' tour. However, like any great song, 'Save It For Later' soon took on a life of its own separate from the band. It was in the hands of Pete Townshend, that the song seemed to meet its destiny. Indeed, Townshend seemed to be the right artist at the right time in his career to sing the song as it was written to be sung.

According to the blog Locust Street, Townshend's decision to pull the plug on the Who in 1982 seemed to liberate him for a time. His solo records already had been stronger than Who LPs for at least a decade, and right before releasing the damp squib which was the 'Who's It's Hard', Townshend put out the weirdest thing he'd ever done, an album called 'All the Best Cowboys Have Chinese Eyes', filled with desultory songs about failure and age, all with rambling, sometimes unmoored lyrics. The finest track was "Slit Skirts," about how the singer and his woman no longer felt they could go out in their leather. "Can't pretend that growing old never hurts."

A few years later, Townshend was on stage at a charity gig in Brixton, and performed "Save it For Later," a recent hit from The Beat. Townshend sheared the song down to its skeleton, hanging the lyric on one repeated guitar figure. Singing in a harrowed but calm voice, Townshend lingers on the lyric's odd phrases infusing the line "your legs give way/you hit the ground" with weary resignation, and taking the lyric's silly sex joke and turning it into a vulnerable plea.

The song soon became a regular staple of Townshend's live set and he later released both studio and live versions of his rendition (the song has also been covered by Pearl Jam and 90's alt-rockers Harvey Danger). Below are the studio and live versions of Townshend's version of the song:

Amazingly, Townshend had trouble learning the odd guitar tuning for the song and unexpectedly called Wakeling up on the phone to have him walk him through it. The story of that call and the songs odd tuning are related below by Dave Wakeling during a radio interview a few years ago:

Below is a link to where you can listen to and purchase a copy of Pete Townshend's 'White City' album which contains his amazing version of 'Save It For Later':


Neil Chapman said...

Just listened to both the original and cover version. Pete definitely puts his characteristic punch into it. His guitar play and piano work is brilliant. In my opinion, few artists have such a unique kinetic energy that is both restrained and biting at the same time. Nice article.


My son bought me 'Deep End Live' one year, maybe it was for my birthday. He knew I liked Pete and just found the record somewhere and bought it for me, outta the blue. I hadn't even heard of the record before he bought it for me. When I started playing the Beat's version, a facebook friend mentioned the Townshend version. I told him that it seemed like I had heard it before but couldn't put my finger on where... I've got the record! Really a great cover. Original's pretty good too, huh?

Pete said...

Thanks for this article. Years ago I recall Townshend saying at that Brixton show that he would give a prize to whoever in the crowd could tell him what this song was about. That comment piqued by curiosity, which has not abated to this day. I've been writing about the Who in my own blog:
anyhow, thank again!

Sandy (Boggs) Kosarski said...

have always loved the English Beat version (bought the album when it was released while i was in college; still have and love it); just heard the Pete Townshend version today while watching "Love" on Netflix - excellent cover!

Anonymous said...

I've been a huge fan of this song and the album since the 80s. Also loved the Towshend cover and associated story as told by Wakeling. Thanks for the well written article.

Daurade said...

I love the original (saw it on MTV when I was starting to get into New Wave and punk) and only recently got on a jag of listening to it again. A really beautiful and off-kilter song. I only just discovered Townshend's cover version and have to agree with Neil that it's mix of both restraint and bite make it a powerful version. The original is rather joyous, the cover more towards melancholic anger. It's rare that a song that can work in quite disparate registers like that. Thanks for this article.