By Bret Yates
Some weeks ago I mentioned here, offhand, that I expected to hate the new “Spider-Man: Homecoming” movie, which was turned out to be totally wrong; I saw it, and I enjoyed it more than any other comic book movie of recent years.
For me, that’s a fairly low bar, but I admired how vividly director Jon Watts exploited the previously untapped comedic and dramatic possibilities of his protagonist’s teenage life. For his insecure, slightly frantic Peter Parker, fighting crime is exciting, but it’s also one more extracurricular in a demanding high school career, and he’s astoundingly bad at it, proceeding not with an intuitive “Spidey sense” but with blundering boyishness. This “Spider-Man” regards all the stressors of John Hughes’s adolescent world and then uses the fantastical component of its story only to up the ante, while ultimately rejecting, after some internal tension, the glossy draw of the Avengers’ grander but less intimate universe.
Since I usually hate superheroes, I was initially resistant, but the moment where I fully gave in, finally, was the sequence in which Aunt May helps Peter get ready for the school dance, and the soundtrack plays “Save It for Later” by the English Beat, a song that perfectly encapsulates the wistfully poppy soul of 1980s teen cinema. The English Beat (known in England, naturally, as The Beat) was a new wave ska band that released three albums in the early 80s before breaking up, and I’m not sure I’ve ever deliberately listened to any of their music except for the aforementioned single, which, for me, is probably tied with the 1988 hip-hop anthem “Top Billin’” by Audio Two as the best song by a musical group of which I’m otherwise wholly ignorant.
Upbeat, yet with underlying sensitivity, “Save It for Later” is mesmerizingly catchy, but because it’s not a product of one of the iconic bands of the 20th century, it’s not often rated by rock critics among the all-time greatest pop hits. It doesn’t feel timeless, its saxophone pretty definitively placing it within some shameful cultural moment of the Reagan era; you can imagine Rob Lowe’s character from “St. Elmo’s Fire” performing the part. But who cares? Greil Marcus wrote a whole book about Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”—“Save It for Later” deserves at least one whole column making its case.
The song’s spare lyrics are mysterious, but the chorus goes like this: “Sooner or later, / Your legs give way; you hit the ground. / Save it for later. / Don’t run away and let me down. / Sooner or later, / You’ll hit the deck; you’ll get found out. / Save it for later. / Don’t run away and let me down.”
In a 2012 interview with the A.V. Club, the Beat’s guitarist Dave Wakeling explained that the song was a mixed-up, innuendo-laced rumination on growing up as a boy: “It was a song really about not knowing what to do, because you knew people looked at you as though you were a man, but you knew you didn’t know how to operate in a man’s world. You still were responding to things the same way as you always had as a boy. And it’s a scary thing, really, being scared of all the implications of your life and not knowing what else to do other than to try and bravely march forward into the dark regardless.”
One part that seems clear is that the “you” of the lyrics is really an “I”—the singer is addressing himself (alternately boosting himself up and tearing himself down), not a lover or ex. Even the “just hold my hand” line feels more like an internal plea for comfort than a genuine request of another person. There’s no explicit reference to adolescence in any of the lines, but you can tell where it’s coming from—the pubescent immaturity is present in the outsized bleakness of its worldview (“black air and seven seas all rotten through”) and the nervous energy that underlies the tune’s superficial cheer.
Wakeling noted that he came up with the chords for “Save It for Later” following a tuning mistake on his guitar that gave him “all Ds and As: DADAAD, from the thickest string to the top string. It just sounded so hypnotic. I would play it for hour upon hour on this metal guitar. It would just be ringing, and I’d go a thousand miles away, and all these words and lyrics and images would start to pop into my head.”
One of the song’s biggest fans was The Who’s Pete Townshend, who played it on his 1986 concert album “Deep End Live!” and recorded a long-unreleased studio version for his 1985 LP “White City: A Novel.” The live cover is wispy and tender, but the studio version is even more moving. It’s bigger and more forceful and even has a hint of an angry snarl, but the vulnerability embedded in the music comes through only more powerfully for it, and it was used to startling effect in the finale of first season of the Netflix show “Love.” We’re adults now, but the same teenage terrors are all still there.
According to the 2016 book “Pearl Jam FAQ,” Pearl Jam has covered “Save It for Later” 107 times in concert. Harvey Danger (of “Flagpole Sitta” fame) also did a sparkly, forgettable rendition for the “200 Cigarettes” soundtrack in 1999.
“Spider-Man: Homecoming” wasn’t the first major motion picture soundtrack to include the original “Save It for Later,” which previously appeared in “Kingpin” (1996) and “Hot Tub Time Machine” (2010), both formidable films in their own right. And although it never showed up in any of the John Hughes movies whose emotional subtext it so perfectly articulated, Hughes, fittingly, was a fan of Wakeling’s work: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” memorably used the Beat’s “March of the Swivelheads,” and after the group’s breakup—whereupon two of its members went on to found the Fine Young Cannibals—Wakeling wrote the title song for Hughes’s “She’s Having a Baby (1988).