Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.
1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 6. Unsurprisingly, considering its status as one of the most popular of Blake’s poems, the lines “And did those feet in ancient times”, more commonly known as “Jerusalem”, have inspired a huge number of versions. If that by Test Dept, the subject of my first podcast, is probably the most astonishing in its effect, the strangest – and in many ways most wonderful – is that produced by Mark Stewart and the Mafia in 1982.
2. Mark Stewart started his musical career with a post-punk band, the Pop Group, which formed in Bristol in 1978. After critical success but commercial failure, the Pop Group split in 1981 and Stewart began to collaborate with members working for the record label On-U Sound Records as Mark Stewart and the Mafia, specialising in a dub style that owed as much to punk and new wave as it did to more traditional artists such as Lee “Scratch” Perry. As well as working as a solo artist, Stewart has also made records with a variety of others since the 1980s, including Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, Massive Attack, and Primal Scream. With such a lineage, it was inevitable that his rendition of the famous Blake/Parry hymn would be extremely unconventional.
3. “Jerusalem”, a double-A side single with “Liberty City” (and available now on the 2005 compilation, Kiss the Future), was Stewart’s second release after leaving the Pop Group. Dave Furgess (reviewing the 1985 album, As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade on Julian Cope’s Headheritage site [http://www.headheritage.co.uk/unsung/review/316]) describes Stewart as “one of the true giants of contemporary music”, being one of the main figures who virtually reinvented dub music. Many of the features of Stewart’s dub style, especially the stripped down drum and bass reggae backing and his beautifully discordant, pained vocals, feature on “Jerusalem”, which also mixes in ironic samples in a fashion that is exceptional on Stewart’s early work at least. After a sparse, extended introduction, the distant, distorted voice is a sharp blade, a sarcastic slice through the roar of jubilant crowds.
4. Several features of this version of “Jerusalem” stand out. Once the listener is acclimatised to Stewart’s voice, the immediate recognition for anyone familiar with the hymn must be that he reverses Blake’s stanzas: each of the verses is sung or played in reverse order, creating a sense of England’s green and pleasant land turned upside down. His shriek at the end of that initial verse also introduces another element that is continued throughout the song, the segue into one of several samples that are scattered amidst it, bones of the carcase of the hymn’s twentieth century history and drawn from more familiar settings such as Last Night of the Proms and brass bands that marched up and down the country to its strains for more than half a century.
5. The effect of these samples is fascinating, in that not only does Stewart’s detached, heavily edited voice indicate his distance from all their implications of familiar nationalism, but the two main sources of his samples themselves offer a mental fight for the song’s very DNA. Last Night of the Proms, of course, is most familiar to many listeners, and it is easy to imagine Stewart’s sneer of disgust as he spits out Blake’s words in the face of the rousing imperial values of Elgar’s bombastic arrangement of Parry’s original, simpler hymn. Yet it is hard not to listen to those brass bands without a pang of almost perverse nostalgia, which I am sure was not part of the singer’s intention when he recorded this song. Even in the mid-80s there was something more than a little kitsch about such obtuse wind instruments, that were most definitely an object of mockery for anyone interested in music in the period after punk rock. At the time, however, they at least had some immediate and vivid connection to a tradition – however invented – that linked workers in Britain to the collieries and manufacturies that were the backbone of England’s dark Satanic mills. Within two years of Stewart recording “Jerusalem”, the full-scale Thatcherite assault on that class was to begin in earnest and now, nearly thirty years later, they have no more connection to any vibrant past than Scottish kilts or Morris dancing. Perhaps Stewart did take sides, but in the early eighties it must have seemed to him that there was a plague on both of these houses, locked in a corporeal rather than mental war – a war in which one side most definitely lost.
6. The lack of warmth in Stewart’s voice, the absence of traditional pride and empathy, creates a distance which gives this particular version of “Jerusalem” its continuing power to shock. This is a statement of nation, but it is a Jeremiad, a warning of the disasters to come and a lamentation of the sordid state, prophesying its downfall in wickedness. Stewart as sarcastic seer divines a Britain rotten and yet through his thin, reedy voice comes flashes of strength. The desire to build Jerusalem ends with an agonised screech, but the demand to “Bring me my bow of burning gold” and declaration that he “will not cease from mental fight” are uttered with fierce determination.
7. If this sounds too grim, the hymn is not without a delightful humour, as when a keyboard, imitating a xylophone or glockenspiel, tinkles out the second verse of the Blake/Parry hymn.
8. An added significance here is that the first and second verse are implicit throughout the song, indicated to the listener by instrumental samples. Stewart only sings the final two stanzas, and one immediate effect of this is to dechristianise the poem: we are no longer concerned with Christ’s putative visit to Britain. Instead, Stewart focuses entirely on the images of combat and building that constituted the conclusion of the poem. Towards the end of his own song, his words disintegrate into almost inchoate phrases, fragments of Blake’s original that function as a dissonant counterpoint to the original forceful and determined invocations, aware perhaps of the coming wars that would reshape Britain over the following decade, and that if his was a voice of prophecy then, as such, it must be without honour in its own country.