After much deliberation, I’ve decided to analyze the semiotic structures of This Heat’s “Makeshift Swahili,” track eight of their second, and final, album Deceit (Rough Trade, 1981).
In assessing the shared cultural encyclopedia from which this track draws, one can access contextual meanings through both the synchronic and diachronic dimensions (Irvine 3). Synchronically, “Makeshift Swahili” arrives at the tail-end of British postpunk, following the death of Ian Curtis and the failure of Gang of Four to achieve mainstream recognition, and preceding the rise of MTV and New Pop (Calvert). Admittedly, postpunk is a fairly nebulous genre, encapsulating a variety of different bands that pushed the boundaries of the minimalist, three-chord progressions of early punk music to include influences from other genres and experimentations with form. This Heat’s placement far on the experimental end of this genre further complicates the problem of categorization. However, “Makeshift Swahili” exhibits some common tendencies of punk/postpunk, including aggressive vocals, treble-heavy guitar tones, and staccato strumming (think Gang of Four). In addition, the song elicits comparisons with prog rock—it’s clear that a fair amount of composition went into each of the song’s three sections, and the electronic organ that becomes prominent in the second section connects it pretty thoroughly to the prog rock sound. These clashing sound stacks of postpunk and prog rock enable “generative possibilities for variation and combination” (“Popular Music” 3)—in other words, they provide the ability for This Heat not to create something entirely new, but to remix already existing generic conventions in such a way as to add value and develop the possibility for future pathways in the meaning network (“Remix” 12).
From a diachronic perspective, “Makeshift Swahili” breaks down the conventions of Western pop music and sets the stage for succeeding genres (industrial, post-hardcore, and noise-rock). In contrast to the typical verse-chorus-bridge structuring of most pop music, “Makeshift Swahili” has three distinct yet equal parts, none of which are repeated (as in a chorus) or unique from the rest of the song (as in a bridge). The first section features drones/feedback, discordant and off-key (but not arhythmic) guitar riffs, a steadily increasing drum presence, an uncharacteristically smooth bass line, and screamed vocals. There is then an abrupt transition to the second section, which is significantly more melodic: the organ synths kick in, the vocals are no longer screamed but sung, everything is in time and seemingly in key. The third section is a muffled and more discordant version of the first. Here, the tempo accelerates dramatically, the staccato guitar work falls out of rhythm (or at least traditional notions of rhythm), and the screaming of discernible words turns into unintelligible yelling. It’s as if the song self-destructs into the drone from which it began.
In addition to the discordant and arhythmic elements, this three-part structure challenges conventional notions of musical normalcy through the inclusion of the second section. Although the second section conforms to most Western musical standards in terms of timing and harmony (when I took music theory in high school, music was defined as harmony plus rhythm), it is (for me, at least) the most jarring part of the song. In this way, This Heat invert the polarized receptions of music and noise by making the most conventional section of the song seem the most strange or unsettling.
What comes after all this? The Cold War paranoia over seemingly imminent nuclear apocalypse that pervades the entire album suggests the band might not have expected much to follow this release. Nevertheless, the sound appears to have strongly influenced later incarnations of alternative and experimental music. The screaming leads the way to post-hardcore, the synths appear to foreshadow industrial music, and the inclusion of discordant sounds within a piece that still retains structure (albeit a somewhat unusual one) lays the foundations for noise-rock. In this way, “Makeshift Swahili” draws on the past, recombines previously existing elements, and develops the potential for a future response, as in Bakhtin’s dialogism.
Calvert, John. http://thequietus.com/articles/06379-this-heat-deceit-anniversary
Irvine, Martin. “Popular Music as Meaning System.”
Irvine, Martin. “Remix and the Dialogic Engine of Culture: A Model for Generative Combinatoriality.”