Saturday, January 15, 2011

"It's Nearly Africa" / XTC

Why?  Cuz it came up on my shuffle, that's why, and I was waltzing around chanting "Shake your bag of bones" and "Any day now" for hours.  Oh, how I wish I'd known about XTC back in 1982 when this came out, on an album cryptically entitled English Settlement.   I guess this polyrhythmic sport fell somewhere between the Talking Heads' baffling Fear of Music (I remember putting the needle down on "I Zimbra" in 1979 and wondering what David Byrne had been smoking) and the mainstream-ification of African influences with Paul Simon's Graceland in 1986.  I owned both of those records -- so where was XTC in my life in 1982?  Nowhere, I'm afraid.     

If I had know about English Settlement in 1982 -- just supposing -- I would have owned it on vinyl, would have set that thing on my turntable and patiently listened to the tracks in order, trying to make sense of the album as a whole.  (Not to mention that cover image of the White Horse, primitive as a cave drawing.)  I hope I'd have been struck by the LP's intricate mosaics of rhythm, whether African, Latin, or Olde Englyshe.  If I'd already been an XTC initiate, I would probably have worried that the band was drifting away from accessible pop, except for the glorious "Senses Working Overtime." But how could I have failed to be charmed by this track?

And I'm sure I'd have puzzled over Andy Partridge's lyrics, with their brooding apocalyptic message.  (Again, I think of the Talking Heads -- "This ain't no party, this ain't no disco, this ain't no foolin' around!")  At first he seems enamored of the tribal man, the noble savage -- "Chant your spirit free / Rush to meet truth like a dart" and, better yet, "That's not traffic roar / That's a leopard in your heart."  But later in the song, skepticism leaks through, as we see it's just a Westerner posing as an African, with the faintly ridiculous lines "Unplug your future plans / Finger-paint the sun on you."  

After all, it's nearly  Africa, not Africa he's singing about. As he continually looks over his shoulder, he frets about "false prophets" and "drug traffickers," "warboys" and "leeches."  "We're dancing with disaster," he warns in the chorus (at least I guess you'd call it a chorus, though traditional song structure seems beside the point.) In the last verse he gets more explicit, lamenting, "Our civilisation car is running wild, / Who did you give the wheel to? / The fat man driving us over the edge of the nearest cliff-face, / Is he the same God that I've seen you kneel to?" (Note: listen to XTC's most popular track on iTunes, "Dear God," for Andy Partridge's religious views.)

Though Africa is just a metaphor for a chaotic society, however, it's those cascading African polyrhythms that make this track so compelling.  Melody takes a back seat to that playful percussive beat, with discordant chanting vocals that have a comic wink to them. Just a touch of English whimsy, with an absurdist slant, to keep the satire light.  It's the same street Robyn Hitchcock lives on -- my cup of tea, in other words.

I guess it's no surprise that these guys didn't "cross the pond" successfully; I mean, if Squeeze didn't (yes, I am getting around to another Squeeze post soon!), how could the more oddball sound of XTC?  Too bad for me -- I could have used some music like this in the depths of the Eighties.  Still, I've found them now, and better late than never. 


Alex said...

And if you'd owned the vinyl, you would have had to make the decision of whether to go for the chopped-down single album released domestically by Geffen or the imported full double-album released by Virgin.

But you'd also get detailed credits for each track (including information about what kind of guitar and keyboards appeared on each track).

wendy said...

Holly, do you have an email addy you're willing to share? I constantly have stuff I want to mention to you that isn't related to the blogs - if you're OK with it, my email addy is on my blog.