top of page
  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Hard to Beat" lives up to its name

It's a shame most Americans don't know this dance-inducing indie/garage gem.

I really love writing every day like this. It's a great creative outlet for me; I get to talk about music all I want, and I can do it without fear of my friends wanting to rip my head off because I won't shut up about a song.

Today's Senior Year Soundtrack addition is definitely one of those songs I wouldn't shut up about, because I simply can't believe it's virtually unknown here in the United States, despite it being the indie rock gem it is. Sure, Hard-Fi's 2005 single "Hard to Beat" may have gotten decent radio time for a short period here — as indicated by its #34 Alternative Airplay peak — but I haven't heard it once on 2000s or alt-rock radio myself, and I doubt anyone else here has in the past decade. I guess we should make up for lost time by listening to it now:

Much of Hard-Fi's debut album Stars of CCTV straddles the line between indie rock and the 2000s garage revival, a fusion leads to a plethora of danceable, hook-driven bangers. "Hard to Beat" was the third single from the album, and the one which was most successful in their native UK, where it peaked at number nine.

While the track opens with Steve Kemp's backbeat and Ross Phillips' guitar chords, and those by themselves are plenty danceable, they aren't what carries the instrumental backing to me. No, that distinction belongs to Kai Stephens' bass line, which comes in at the start of the fifth bar. It's a simple line, mostly playing the root of each chord, but its overdriven fullness gives it a power that takes up the whole low end of the song. It's not sludgy, but it's just heavy enough to not be overpowering. In both the verses and choruses, the bass fills out the sonic landscape while also providing direction and gluing everything else together.

When frontman Richard Archer begins to sing, I can't help but remember how I came to know about "Hard to Beat" in the first place. Perhaps surprisingly, my finding of the track started in the realm of house music. Archer is the uncredited male vocalist on Axwell Λ Ingrosso's track "Thinking About You," a long-awaited production which finally saw a release in 2016 (the superior Festival Mix is linked here). One time while listening, I became curious about who Archer was, and I thus discovered Hard-Fi and this song, along with a remix... by none other than Axwell. It's clear that the seed for their collaboration on "Thinking About You" had been planted in the "Hard to Beat" remix, which at times exceeded the original in its popularity. I find these sorts of connections and paths to songs and collaborations fascinating, especially when they cross genres and can be retraced by listeners.

The lyrics are straightforward, as Archer narrates an infatuation with a female he's been seeing around the area, which soon turns into a hookup... and maybe something more beyond that, depending on how you hear the other lyrics. More than the words, though, Archer's vocals stand out to me because he doesn't hide his accent. While my knowledge of accents isn't strong enough to know he's from Staines-upon-Thames in Surrey just by listening, I was instantly able to tell he's British, and he embraces his identity and origin as he sings. I hear this maintaining of accents more commonly in rock, especially in garage and punk, and I always find it adds extra character to a track.

There's one more thing that really completes "Hard to Beat," and you might have to focus a little bit to listen to it. In the pre-choruses and choruses, a high-pitched synth with the same rhythm as the guitar chords gradually rises. This synth is easily the element furthest in the background in the entire track, but its high pitch means it's able to cut through the instruments below it. The riser yields a continual increase in energy, which helps propel the pre-chorus into the chorus, and which also keeps the chorus moving forward and constantly evolving. One gripe I have with a lot of modern productions is that once they get to the chorus and start it, they don't really build within the chorus itself. While the chorus isn't the main building-up section, it's not a time to get complacent — especially in a rock tune, it's the most energetic part, so it should be kept moving by something that continues to develop it. The riser does exactly that, and that's why I find it to be the most important element of the entire song. Go back and listen to the song again, and I bet you'll hear the riser and the impact it has.

It's clear that Hard-Fi and co-producer Wolsey White knew what they wanted out of the track, because on top of just being a real solid indie rock number, it does the little things well that the casual listener may not catch, but enrich the track and elevate the experience of listening it into something constantly dynamic and conducive to dancing. I just wish I knew about it sooner, because it's one of my favorite rock songs of the 21st century thus far.


bottom of page