Zoapod 13: Jah Wobble Presents The Inspiration of William Blake (transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast 13. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 13, which will take a look at the 1996 album by Jah Wobble, The Inspiration of William Blake. Jah Wobble, born John Joseph Wardle, first came to the attention of a wider public when he joined John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd as bass player in 1978. Although he left after only two years, the combination of post-punk and dub music was to have an important influence on Wobble’s subsequent career.

2. After a period as an underground train driver, that career was revived with the 1989 release of Without Judgement, and Wobble engaged in a number of projects, becoming quite prolific from the mid-90s onwards, experimenting with a number of cultural influences including Chinese music and English folk songs. It is that willingness to experiment that makes The Inspiration of William Blake much less an unusual choice than it may first appear. Taking his cue from that other Londoner (Wobble was born in Whitechapel in the East End), Wobble is clearly attracted by the combination of antinomian politics, metropolitan nous and visionary experience. As he writes in his commentary on Blake’s The Good and Evil Angels which prefaces the lyrics to The Inspiration of William Blake, Wobble is attracted to the earlier artist’s contrary vision:

3. Blake demonstrates the perfect balance between heaven and earth, good and evil, man and woman, yin and yang; two archetypal forces moving against each other and yet in harmony. Both are separate yet contain each other. Neither can live without the other and therefore, nor could human life. Both inform one another as they move into each other, unconscious into conscious and back again. What would light be without dark, and when all is dark where is wisdom?

4. The thirteen tracks of Inspiration were recorded at 30 Hertz Studios and The Chapel, Wobble working with Jackie Liebezeit on drums, Justin Adams on guitar, Neville Murray on percussion, and a number of other musicians throughout the album. Wobble mixes relatively straight adaptations of Blake’s poems – primarily from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, but also The Marriage of Heaven and Hell and Auguries of Innocence – with tracks that take Blake more loosely as their inspiration, such as “Bananas” and “The Kings of Asia”. Here, I’ll look briefly at a selection of the tracks, beginning with the second on the album, “Lonely London”:

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5. Leibezeit’s and Murray’s percussion on the track creates a wonderful feel to this vision of London, reminiscent of Samba or perhaps even the Burundi drumming that Malcolm McLaren impishly poached from Adam and the Ants to promote his 1980s new wave group, Bow Wow Wow. After the multicultural, exotic London marked in the vibrant opening to the track, the mood shifts strongly as Wobble’s sinister voice recites Blake’s “London” and lines from the Proverbs of Hell over Mark Feda’s synthesised atmospheres. After the gentle (and, unfortunately, slightly tedious) voice of childhood in the first track, “Songs of Innocence”, Wobble is much more effective as the voice of the devil. However, lest we become too tempted by such diabolism, the following song, “Bananas”, offers a delightfully light, nonsensical and rhythmic dance track.

6. The dub strain evident throughout the album is used to particularly impressive effect on “Tyger Tyger”:

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7. The lyrics of this track are pretty much straight Blake, but Wobble’s musical interpretation is one of the boldest and most original ever to be released. This Tyger is a jaunty beast of the jungle, one confident enough to declaim in a Cockney accent against a calypso chorus. The answer to Wobble’s ever-so slightly adapted question, “Did he who make the lamb really make thee”, cannot be anything other than yes, but this is a creator laid back and poised in a laconic universe in which tigers are a portion of eternity too great for the eye of man to see. This is, quite rightly, the track from Inspiration that is most widely known.

8. The last track to be considered here, and also the last track of the album, “Auguries of Innocence”, lacks the easy familiarity of “Tyger Tyger” but is a resounding and remarkable climax to the album.

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9. Wobble’s dramatic – even melodramatic – declamation of Blake’s couplets embellishes the powerful lines of the Auguries over an extraordinary soundscape. Again, Wobble’s Cockney voice is confident, proud, defiant and also sympathetic, immensely flexible as it performs Blake’s verse. It is a fallacy, of course – though, I am sure one that also occurred to Wobble himself – but listening to his melodic speech one is tempted to believe this would be as Blake would sound were he to speak those words. The musical textures that interweave the lyrics are hypnotic, intricate, sometimes soothing, sometimes menacing, creating a sense of space and time beyond words that intimates the eternity and infinity with which Blake begins one of his most popular poems. Perhaps what is even more astonishing is the fact that, by the end of the track, that wonderful music disappears and we are left where Wobble himself must have begun, with the words and inspiration of William Blake.

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The left hand path – William Blake and Austin Osman Spare

On May 15, 1956, Austin Osman Spare passed away in obscurity in London. Spare was an artist and occultist, born at Snowhill in 1886 and the son of a London policeman. His early success as an artist (exhibiting at the Royal Academy at 16) led to artistic and editorial contributions to Form: A Quarterly of the Arts (1916-7 and 1921-2) as well as The Golden Hind (1922-4). He worked as an official war artist during the First World War, but was always intrigued by more idiosyncratic occult practices, publishing his own books such as The Book of Pleasure (Self-Love) (1909-13) and The Focus of Life: The Mutterings of Aâos (1921).

Spare is often referred to as one of the originators of Chaos magic and, during the late twentieth century, was influential on artists such as Genesis P. Orridge and the occult avant-garde group Coil. There was a time when I found myself rather obsessed with Spare’s art and writing, particularly as it appears so close to Blake’s in some respects (though very far from it in others), but it was unfortunate that Spare’s art didn’t really develop throughout his life. By the 1950s, he continued to remain something of the decadent Edwardian artist he had started out as – meanwhile Cubism, Surrealism, Expressionism and many other artistic movements had passed him by, only touching his work occasionally.

Nonetheless, as a self-publishing artist based in London and interested in esoteric themes, the similarities between Spare and Blake were noted during Spare’s lifetime, as in a review of a solo exhibition in 1927 which remarked that although the later artist did not directly imitate Blake, the viewer “might be reminded of Blake’s extremely matter-of-fact provisions of pictorial machinery for the promptings of an unconscious mind at least as rich as his own.” Spare’s own comments on Blake were ambivalent, however, and although he claimed to have lived before as an Englishman who had been born around 1750, “he vehemently denied any suggestions that he might have been William Blake, whose work he greatly admired and with which his own has sometimes been compared.” (Cited in Kenneth Grant, Images and Oracles of Austin Osman Spare, p.16)

Spare’s earliest art was influenced as much by decadence and art nouveau, particuarly the work of Aubrey Beardsley, as much as by Blake, and he was drawn to esoteric movements and figures such as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Aleister Crowley. Crowley observed, in typical pompous manner, that “[my] disciple has learnt much from The Book of the Law; for the rest he has drawn from The Book of Lies and William Blake, also Nietzsche and the Tao Teh King.” (Cited in Grant, p.8)

Probably the strongest connection between Spare and Blake lies in the former’s creation of a personal mythology, which he sometimes referred to as “witchcraft”, that saw godhead as an emanation of inner psychic energy expressed in art. The Focus of Life in particular seems to draw a great deal from The Four Zoas (which had been made available to Spare via W. B. Yeats’s edition of Blake’s poetry), and which begins:

True wisdom cannot be expressed by articulate sounds…
Confined within the limits of rationalism; no guess has yet answered.
O Zos, thou art fallen into the involuntary accident of birth and rebirth into the incarnating ideas of women. (Spare, The Focus of Life, p.7)

There are important differences between Spare and Blake, not least the fact that the former saw his spiritual ideas as a product of witchcraft and occult practices, while the latter believed that Christianity was the basis of his visions. Likewise, whereas Blake’s later poetry seeks annihilation of the self, Spare is always concerned to find fulfilment of that self. While some of these differences were fundamental, however, and recognised as such by Spare, others were more apparent and superficial (both artists rejected conventional notions of selfhood, for example), and certainly Spare’s understanding of Blake was much more profound – and hence much more ambivalent – than Crowley’s.