Am I Early? XTC, “Earn Enough For Us” (1986)

Guest at the door

You can’t always assume you’ll be welcome if you arrive earlier than expected. In music, at least, there are some generally good ways to grab your audience by showing up early, some of which have been discussed on this site: coming in slightly early on a vocal (Aretha Franklin) or instrumental solo (B. B. King), syncopation (Suddenly, Tammy!), changing meters within a polyrhythm (Jethro Tull), surprise-starting a measure before the preceding measure ends (Beck).

XTC do the surprise-start a number of times in the songs on Skylarking, like at 0:46, 1:30, and 2:10 in “Earn Enough For Us.”

But there’s also a more radical early arrival in “Earn Enough.” If you contemplate the ringing musical strength of its suspiciously anthemic verses, you, too, may conclude that they’re not verses at all, they’re choruses; and the parts that come after the choruses are iterations not of a chorus but of a bridge. This means that the normal pop song structure has been advanced by one whole component: the chorus arrives so early there’s no time for a verse. It’s like a sonnet starting with a rhyming couplet.

If you doubt, I would point out certain respects in which the first part of “Earn Enough” isn’t like a verse:

(1) the words falling so squarely on the beats, march-like;

(2) the long notes at the beginning of the second, fourth, sixth, and eighth measures;

(3) the unusual third chord used in the fourth measure, strongly marking the halfway point of the compact cycle;

(4) the strong closing feeling in the seventh measure, announcing the end of the cycle, with

(a) the dominant major-fifth chord, and

(b) the melodic figure going up and back down from the highest note yet (“earn“), an octave above the tonic note (thus an anticipation of the tonic note)–leading oh-so-convincingly to

(5) in the eighth measure, the single, simple, final event of the tonic note on the tonic chord (“us“).

1    I’ve been praying all the
2    week through
3    At home, at work and on the
4    bus
5    I’ve been praying I can
6    keep you
7    And to earn enough for
8    us

But what does it mean to be so early with the chorus? Is it an aggression? A charming impetuosity? A feint of faux-naiveté about songwriting? (Naw!)

Whatever it is, it may cause us to question our expectation of a verse. What are verses for, anyway? On the plane of lyrics, we usually need the verses to lay out the situations that the choruses make decisive comment on. “Earn Enough” can make sense without this setup because it’s slotted in at the anticipation-of-marriage moment in Skylarking‘s life-cycle pageant. Taken by itself, it can just shoulder aside the preparatory narration because the situation is so archetypal. Let’s let the song go straight to it.

Normally it would be risky to eliminate a song’s verse because the chorus gets much of its effect from contrast with the verse. The chorus is comparatively beat-reinforcing, compact, lush, loud–you’re arriving there at the song’s heart, where blood is pumped to all the other parts. A song that’s only chorus would be intolerably repetitive (imagine if “She Loves You,” which famously starts with its chorus, only ever repeated that). “Earn Enough” goes right up to the line of too much chorus but has enough variety, thanks to its pseudo-bridge, to get away with it.

But to return to the question: what would you say it means that “Earn Enough” starts so strong and never offers the contrast of verselike sections? I say it’s a calling card: when it comes to delivering the best pop-rock hooks, XTC says, we’re as great as The Beatles.

Can you think of other songs that are deviant in this way? I thought of:
The Rolling Stones, “Time Is On My Side”
Stevie Wonder, “I Was Made To Love Her”
The Stone Poneys, “Different Drum”
Green Day, “Know Your Enemy” (someone else thought of this)

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock, Rock Aesthetics, Ways of Starting and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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