The English Beat: “Sugar and Stress”
At the beginning of the ’80s, I first started discovering what at the time was being grouped together as “New Wave,” the alternative music of the early ’80s (although I also seem to recall that this was being called more generally “New Music”…a term that included both the more synth-y bands as well as the punk bands and punk-related artists). I seem to recall my interest beginning with artists that were cracking the Top 40 at the end of the ’70s, like The Talking Heads, The Police, and Blondie. Every Sunday for at least a couple of years starting when I was about 11 or 12, I would hang out by the radio in my bedroom and listen to the Top 40 countdown with Casey Kasem, writing down all the songs as they came up and then comparing them to the songs on the next week’s countdown. I began hearing songs like “Roxanne” and “Psycho Killer” and finding them completely refreshing in what was otherwise then a disco–post-disco music world.
It was in this way that I gradually became a big fan of New Music…and one of the bands that I liked most in those years was the English Beat. The biggest band of the ska movement that included the Specials and Madness (and a number of other bands, like the Selecter and Bad Manners, that were very popular in England but never broke quite as big in America), the Beat’s mix of ska, soul, Motown, and pop was fast and furious, incredibly catchy, and completely intoxicating. 1982’s Special Beat Service, their third (and, as it turned out, final) album was one of the records at that time that I played over and over again, along with the Police and R.E.M.’s Chronic Town, and just couldn’t get enough of. I remember days in high school when I couldn’t wait to get home and put the album on — there were so many great new sounds to absorb.
I love every song on Special Beat Service, but one of the best of those is “Sugar and Stress,” a song that owes as much to the Clash (borrowing the riff from “Lost in the Supermarket”) as it does to Motown. Bopping along disguised as an upbeat, danceable song, the lyrics actually speak about how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. It’s not all that different a message than the one that Harry Nilsson put across in the recently featured “Driving Along,” but this time it’s not cars that are dividing us, but rather society’s self-absorbed need to get ahead at the cost of others. The “sugar and stress” of the title appears to be a metaphor — relating overconsumption and self-interest and the problems this causes for the less fortunate in the world to diabetes: high blood-sugar levels caused by overeating and the havoc this wreaks on the body. It’s a very lightly used metaphor in the context of the song, but the point is taken, giving you something to think about while giving your feet something to move to (and that’s a combination found in nearly every song by the English Beat).