“The Beat”, along with “Pump It Up”, is the most self-consciously “New Wave” — and resultantly, timeworn — song on This Year’s Model. The vocal melody isn’t quite up to Costello’s standards, and every one of his Attractions are unusually restrained on this cut. The song shifts back and forth between the minor-key chorus and major-key verses, and its lack of catchiness or much in terms of structural variety render it somewhat monotonous.
But it doesn’t matter too much, because nearly all of “The Beat’s” magic lies in its glorious, impressionistic lyrics; everything else seems like sort of an afterthought. Costello’s questionable attitude towards women and relationships that has come to characterize this early part of his career is brusquely summarized in a single line of this song: “I don’t wanna be a lover / I just wanna be your victim”. At the time, this specific lyric earned him a slew of idolators and a degree of notoriety in the music press, and it’s easy to see why. At its best, it’s a mantra for countless like-minded masochists whose pathological self-loathing drive them into toxic relationships (and at its worse it’s cheap and sensationalist).
But let’s start from the beginning. As it’s been stated elsewhere, the song’s opening line “We’re all going on a summer holiday” is directly borrowed from the Shadows song “Summer Holiday”, and that the following line “Vigilantes coming out to follow me” is most likely a snide subversion of Cliff Richard’s wholesome reputation (as well as an implication of Costello’s own paranoia). The other individual in the song appears to be somebody who the narrator is afraid (or unable) to enter into a relationship with — it’s a desire so intense that it enshrouds the two potential lovers, it’s clear that the appetite is reciprocated by the addressee, but for whatever inexplicable reason Elvis is incapable of making any sort of move. His disguise of impassivity only ends up further repelling the girl he’s secretly (very) interested in (“Well, if you only knew the things you do to me / I’d do anything to confuse the enemy / There’s only one thing wrong with you befriending me / Take it easy, I think you’re bending me”).
The “See your friends . . .” section of the chorus is an obvious quotation, both lyrically and melodically, of the Kinks’ song “See My Friends”. Costello constantly attempts to justify his fear of making a move to himself and his object of desire by pointing to their friends’ dysfunctional and profitless relationships (“See your friends in the state they’re in / See your friends getting under their skin / See your friends getting taken in”, and the second time: “See your friends walking down the street / See your friends never quite complete / See your friends getting under their feet”).
Costello’s self-pity reaches an uncomfortable apogee during the final verse, where he admits to being an unsatisfactory lover, anyway: the lines “Oh, I don’t want to disease you / But I’m not good with machinery / Oh, I don’t wanna freeze you” are a reference to contraception and represent the narrator’s quagmire on a microcosmic level. “Stop looking at the scenery / I keep thinking about your mother” could again be interpreted a reference to Costello’s sexual ineptness and neuroses or his inability to maintain his crush’s attention outside of the bedroom, and consequent frustration (perhaps he imagines he’s talking to her mother so he doesn’t get nervous during conversation, or perhaps he imagines he’s making love to her mother instead of her so the sex lasts longer). In the depressing final line of the last verse (“Did you think you were the only one waiting for a call?”), Costello acknowledges the mutual attraction and his fear of being the first one to do anything about it. There’s never closure of any variety, and Costello misses his window of opportunity. When Costello “sees her friends” in public now, they slight him (“See your friends treat me like a stranger”).
Frantic live versions of “The Beat” appear on both of Costello’s live albums from this period, Live at the El Mocambo and Live at Hollywood High. Both versions are faster than the studio recording (which is per usual with Elvis) but are otherwise faithful. On the first few spins, it’s easy to underestimate “The Beat”. Musically, it’s sort of unmemorable. But an analysis of the lyrics reveal a portrait of Costello at his most vulnerable and neurotic, as a grown adult incapable of effectively talking to the girls he likes.