This was written by The English Beat singer and guitarist Dave Wakeling. He told us the story of the song: "I was working in construction at the time, and it was the winter. I had forgotten to hang my jeans up to dry overnight, so when I got into the bathroom to shower up, I noticed my jeans were still on the floor, soaking wet, covered in sand. So I hung them up thinking well, it's probably best to have them steaming hot and wet. I went to shave, and it was snowing, and I really, really didn't want to go. So I started talking to myself in the mirror as I was shaving up. And it was weird, because I looked deeper in the mirror, and I could see the little caption on the door behind, and I said to myself, Look, David, there's just me and you in here. The door's locked. We don't have to go to work. Of course we did. Got on the motorbike, and I just started pondering as I skated my way to the construction site on this motorbike. And that's how it started. It was thinking about how self-involvement turns into narcissism and how narcissism turns into isolation, and then how isolation turns into self-involvement again, and how what a vicious cycle that can become. So then I just started thinking about different situations where people would ostensibly look like they were doing something, but in fact they were checking their own reflection out. And you'd see it perhaps on Saturday afternoon with people window shopping, half the time they're actually just looking at their own reflection. Then this restaurant opened, and it was a big deal at the time because it had glass tables, and I was like, oh, you can watch yourself."
This song is often misinterpreted to be about cocaine, which is often consumed on mirrors brought into bathrooms. The song actually has nothing to do with drugs, as Wakeling explains: "In America in the early '80s, everybody gave me knowing winks and said, 'Oh, I know what that one's about, then, Dave.' And it wasn't that mirror in the bathroom at all, it was the one on the wall, and not the one on your knee. And oddly, songs can become sort of strangely prophetic, though. But certainly at the time of writing, nobody had any money or any access to cocaine... until after the song was out."
Unlike artists like Bruce Springsteen who never had a job that wasn't related to music, Wakeling did lots of real work before becoming a full time musician. He liked working construction because it was a "neck-down" job, enabling him to devote his mind to concerns like songwriting.
The same mirror played a part in another track on I Just Can't Stop It
. Says Wakeling: "In the song 'Best Friend
,' I'm actually singing it to myself in the same mirror that 'Mirror In The Bathroom' was written in. It was actually my sister's bathroom in Birmingham. But I kept that mirror for a long time, eventually lost it."
The English Beat's record label wanted to release this as their first single - and keep the publishing rights for 5 years. Not a good arrangement for the band, as Wakeling explains: "We said, 'We'll do 'Tears Of A Clown
' then.' Because that always goes down great. And you can tell the fellows at Chrysalis they can argue with Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson about whose song it is. And so we just insisted, and as luck would have it, our song came out in October, and by December 6 it was #6 in the charts, and it was the runaway dance party hit of the Christmas of '79. It was on every jukebox and every turntable for every Christmas party. So I think it probably worked out really well, because I don't know if 'Mirror In The Bathroom' would have been that cheery as a Christmas single. A British song about isolation and narcissism that will morph into a song about cocaine in the bathroom, you know?" (Read the full Dave Wakeling interview
This was one of the first big singles of the early '80s UK Ska revival. This genré borrowed heavily from the Reggae rhythms of Jamaica. The premier band in the movement was The Specials, and this song lifted The English Beat to that same level.
This sounds nothing like the group's later MTV hits in the US. The raw Ska influence of the band is much more evident here than on their later singles.
This was the first digitally-recorded single released in the UK.