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”:

[music]

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”:

[music]

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.

[music]

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.

[music]

Zoapod 11: The Fall – Jerusalem (transcript)

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

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast 11, in which I’ll be looking at Mark E. Smith and The Fall, in particular that band’s version of “Jerusalem” which was included on the 1988 album, I Am Kurious Oranj.

2. The Fall were the favourite group of the late, great John Peel, who once described them as “always different… always the same”. Forming in 1976 in Manchester, The Fall have gone on to have an exceptionally long career, having released nearly thirty studio albums in the intervening period as they moved from punk through a variety of musical styles. In truth, the only really consistent factor during that time has been founder Mark E. Smith, who notoriously fires other members – often at random – to prevent them becoming complacent. (Stories abound of the macabre situations and excuses he finds to sack his entourage, for example on their wedding days or for eating a salad.)

3. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2008 to promote his book, Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith, journalist Nicholas Blincoe suggested that a better title would have been “contrarian” (“Mark E. Smith: Wonderful and Frightening”, April 26, 2008). It is Smith’s contrarian character that provides some insight into the minor, but surprisingly persistent, influence that Blake has played throughout his career. A profile for the NME in 1993 listed Blake as one of Smith’s heroes:

4. He [Blake] was a real workhorse for his time. I thought he was great, especially what he did and how he managed to do it for that period of history. He wrote “Jerusalem” and all his other stuff out himself but the thing is, he used to paint stuff behind the writing and then print it out on copper, totally the reverse of what he was meant to be doing. He’d do paintings with, like, a verse over it and then print it up himself. Amazing, really, when you think about it. I suppose my favourite work by him is “Ghost Of A Flea”… What a title! What I like about it is that it’s just like a really, really grotesque painting. I like something grotesque in an artist. (Ted Kessler, “Mark E. Smith: Heroes & Villains”, NME, December 11, 1993)

5. Along with Sergeant Brownhill (Smith’s grandfather) and the painter Pascal Legras, Blake was one of Smith’s heroes ranged against his villains: British television in the nineties, alternative comedians, and mature students (“There’s nothing worse than a half-educated man. Never forget that.”) Smith’s approach is studiedly slap-dash – there is, after all, nothing worse than a half-educated man, and Smith famously did not read his own “autobiography” which debunked stories about the lead singer of The Fall without providing alternative foundational myths. The interview draws attention to what is appealing to him about Blake: the artist’s work ethic and his talent for the grotesque. This casual appreciation, however, cannot completely cover what Richard Barrett has rightly identified as Smith’s auto-didactism, a tendency Barrett believes Smith shares with Blake and which has also been a strong tradition of British working class life (http://abandonyourtimidnotion.blogspot.com/2009/02/mark-e-smith-blake-and-auto-didactic.html).

6. While Blake crops up in interviews with and comments by Smith, his strongest influence is on “Dog is Life / Jerusalem”. Released on I Am Kurious Oranj (as well as a single), the album was written as the soundtrack to a ballet of the same name by Michael Clark & Company. Several reviewers of the time observed that this album came during one of The Fall’s more accessible periods, though the inclusion of the Blake-Parry hymn supposedly intended as a celebration of the accession of William of Orange has more than its fair share of sly obscurities, typical of Smith’s work.

[Music]

7. To adapt John Peel’s remark, this is something different, something the same – typical Fall, yet probably a surprise choice for most of their fans (whom Smith has always spent more time attempting to alienate rather than curry favour with). Jerusalem has the signature feel of a Fall track, the sense of always about to fall into chaos with Smith casually riffing Blake’s lyrics over a wonderfully tight bass. While Smith’s voice provides a distinctive feel to the track, it could almost be a conventional rendition until he launches into a beautifully bizarre and apparently meandering diatribe in the middle of the song.

[Music]

8. These lines – about an incident with a banana skin being the fault of the government – bear no apparent relation to Blake’s vision of Jerusalem. Why would a pratfall deserve a million quid? But of course, such a question is deliberately obtuse: a pratfall deserves nothing other than mockery, and Smith’s humour is self-knowing when he mocks the narrator of this diatribe as “a semi-artistic type person” who resolves to emigrate to Sweden or Poland where he will be “looked after properly of the government”. The contrast between him and this feckless scrounger becomes clear when Smith returns to Blake’s words.

[music]

9. Now the shambolic, comic voice has gone. Instead Smith is determined, assured, as he calls for his bow of burning gold. Smith has often been criticised by those on the left for his un-PC views which appear to flirt with right-wing tendencies, but it is probably more correct, as Barrett observes, to see this as a long tradition of attacks on welfarism that share a working-class distrust of state sponsored dependency. Smith himself played gigs in support of the unemployed, and once remarked that “the whole idea of civilization is to get everybody on the dole, surely”, but the irony of this comment does not disguise distrust of governments, both left and right, who had sought ever surer ways during the twentieth century to trickle down enough capital to ensure complacency on the part of a reliant populace. Handouts will never build Jerusalem.

10. Smith’s attitude is always tricky, and his deliberately provocative remarks, as well as his absurdist, often cruel, humour, are probably as far away from any vision of the divine image as it is possible to get. But this, of course, is to miss the point of this version of “Jerusalem”, which seeks to no more make a million pounds from slapstick than it does celebrate the radical Protestantism of William of Orange. Rather, what Smith takes from Blake is the artist-poet’s curmudgeonliness, his crankiness, what W. J. T. Mitchell once referred to as the “dangerous Blake” that we often neglect at our peril, the lunatic shouting in the street who may suddenly prophesy in clear and lucid tones, the contrarian who speaks in riddles so “That he who will not defend Truth, may be compelled to Defend a Lie, that he may be snared & caught & taken”.

Zoapod 10: His Dark Materials – Blake and Pullman (transcript)

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

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast 10, which is an introduction to some of the Blakean motifs included in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. The three books, Northern Lights (The Golden Compass in the US), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, were published between 1995 and 2000 to critical acclaim, The Amber Spyglass having won the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year prize while The Golden Compass was made into a film in 2007.

2. Pullman has long had an interest in Blake, having become President of the Blake Society in 2004, and he has written extensively about the Romantic poet and engraver. Regarding His Dark Materials, Pullman makes explicit its link to Blake in the acknowledgements to The Amber Spyglass, where he writes that although he has “stolen ideas from nearly every book I have ever read”, three debts are to be acknowledged above all others: Heinrich von Kleist’s On the Marionette Theatre, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, and “the works of William Blake”. Blake’s poetry is also frequently cited in the headings to the chapters of The Amber Spyglass. Before discussing some of the ways in which Blake appears in those works, it is worth noting that while von Kleist and Milton provide a central text that influences Pullman, with Blake it is the complete corpus. Nor should this be restricted to the poetry, as he encountered Blake’s paintings shortly after leaving Oxford University, which were to affect him greatly.

3. The influence of Milton is immediately self-evident to any reader of His Dark Materials who has a working knowledge of Paradise Lost, the trilogy reworking the rebellion of Satan and the Fall from a sceptical perspective. Trying to pin down Blake’s role, however, is a more subtle affair. The most obvious starting point is Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which provides his infamous re-reading of Milton:

4. Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling.
And being restraind it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.
The history of this is written in Paradise Lost. & the Governor or Reason is calld Messiah.
And the original Archangel or possessor of the command of the heavenly host, is calld the Devil or Satan and his children are calld Sin & Death
But in the Book of Job Miltons Messiah is calld Satan.
For this history has been adopted by both parties
It indeed appeard to Reason as if Desire was cast out. but the Devils account is, that the Messiah fell. & formed a heaven of what he stole from the Abyss…
Note. The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it (E34-5) 

5. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in 2002, Pullman remarked that “Blake said Milton was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it. I am of the Devil’s party and know it”, and his assault on religious dogma throughout the novels – which has drawn considerable criticism in the United States in particular – is clearly a diabolical re-reading of the role of churches in human oppression that echoes the infernal spirit of Blake’s classic text. At the end of The Amber Spyglass, the transcendental system that sustains the church of mystery is imploded when the rebel angel, Baruch, is revealed to have once been a man and the Authority, known as Yahweh, El and the Almighty, is shown as a frail old man who was himself created and cannot survive eternally – yet whose death bring him peace. At the end of the trilogy, the Kingdom of Heaven is reconstituted as a Republic (drawing also on the ideas of the seventeenth century Digger, Gerard Winstanley), giving emphasis to another of Pullman’s guiding principles that has its origins in Blake, the notion that “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Mans”.

6. The diabolical reading of Paradise Lost is the clearest and most sustained example of Blake’s influence, but I would like to concentrate now on two others: Lyra Belacqua and Dust, both also being significant in Pullman’s forthcoming novel, The Book of Dust. Lyra’s first name is adapted from Lyca, who appears in the Songs of Experience poems, “The Little Girl Lost” and “The Little Girl Found”:

7. Frowning frowning night, 
O’er this desart bright,
Let thy moon arise, 
While I close my eyes.  

Sleeping Lyca lay; 
While the beasts of prey, 
Come from caverns deep,
View’d the maid asleep 

8. The first four of these lines from “The Little Girl Lost” are cited at the beginning of Chapter 13 of The Amber Spyglass, and Pullman took this poem and its companion as the source for the opening chapter in that novel, in which Mrs Coulter keeps Lyra in a cave in the Himalayas. What Pullman seems to take from Lyca is the sense of bravery, even rebelliousness, and innocence within a world of experience, so that in Blake’s poem Lyca is unharmed by the beasts of prey, while in Pullman’s novels Lyra is able to move safely among the dangers that she encounters, inspiring those she meets to help her in her struggles.

9. As well as the character of Lyra, the mysterious Dust that permeates the trilogy owes much to Blake. In the novels, Dust is an elementary particle, a dark matter that is conscious and attracted to individuals. The Church, believing it to be a manifestation of original sin, attempts foolishly to destroy its connection to humans, not realising that it is the very material that bestows consciousness itself. The sources of Dust are manifold – the Book of Genesis, Buddhism and quantum physics, but Blake also has an important role to play in the development of this motif. At a lecture to the Blake Society in 2005, Pullman presented a series of seven axioms describing the Republic of Heaven, each of which ended with a citation from Blake. Susan Matthews quotes the first of these in a 2007 essay on Blake and Pullman:

10. The physical world, this matter of which are made, is amorous by nature. Matter rejoices in matter, and each atom of it falls in love with other atoms and delights to join up with them to form complex and even more delightful structures: “and shew you all alive This world, where every particle of dust breathes forth its joy.”

11. As Matthews remarks, this quotation from the Preludium to Europe, which is also the heading for chapter 34 of The Amber Spyglass, “stresses the constantly joyful quality of the material world” and emphasises the bodily nature of Blake, who considered the separation of body and soul as the grounding error of the Church which had allowed it to create so effectively the mind-forg’d manacles of mystery.

Zoapod 9: Blake’s Poems – Holy Thursday (Transcript)

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

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 9, which follows from the last one in taking two more of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience, in this case the two “Holy Thursday” poems. The parallel, contrary visions that Blake offered on many themes and motifs in each of these two books, Innocence and Experience is, of course, well known, and this podcast will explore that contrast in two of his best known lyrics.

2. In the early eighteenth century, a tradition began in which charity school children would attend a special service, this event being held at St Paul’s Cathedral between 1782 and 1871. As [Stanley] Gardner points out, these children were not destitute, nor rescued from “the lowest order of poverty”, but rather came from families of the “deserving poor”, and during the century as many of six thousand of them would attend a thanksgiving service which although it did take place on a Thursday, was never on Holy Thursday during Easter week or Ascension Thursday as is often asserted. The services provided an opportunity to educate these children under the auspices of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, but the event was, according to Gardner, more of a festival than a strictly disciplined procession.

3. Having witnessed one of these earliest festivals at St Paul’s, Blake was inspired to write one of his most famous lyrics:

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green

Grey headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

4. While the couplets of this poem are familiar from a great deal of eighteenth century verse, Blake’s long, fourteener lines are unusual for the period, being more typical of Elizabethan poetry. They add to a stately rhythm, slowing and making the pace of the poem gentler and, as Gardner observes, Blake avoids any satirical intent in this poem. Although David Fairer has written, in relation to this particular poem, that “Blake’s texts lose their innocence more easily than most”, and [Andrew] Lincoln feels that “the exuberant tone of the poem is to some extent modified by a sense of anticlimax”, it is a mistake to assume that Blake is here being sarcastic about the “wise guardians” watching over the “flowers of London town”. That the final moral appears somewhat self-evident, even sentimental, to modern, experienced eyes does not mean that it was not heartfelt on the part of Blake who appears to have responded to this event with great devotion and humility, lavishing considerable care and attention on the more than usually elaborate border to the poem.

5. In the poem “Holy Thursday” included in Songs of Experience, Blake moves from a particular occasion in a specific setting to a general accusation against his contemporary society:

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reduced to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns.
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

6. The condemnation of the extremes of wealth and poverty is powerfully made, and it is clear that Blake’s remonstrance against the hypocrisy of his day is as deeply felt as his joy at seeing the children’s service at St Paul’s. Yet in some ways the moral of the final stanza is as bland as that in the final line of the poem from Innocence, and in some ways may even be false and superficial – sunshine and rainfall are, by themselves, no guarantee of protection for poverty. Lincoln, it seems to me, is correct in drawing attention to the suspicion with which we should view the narrator of the poem: while the insistent rhythm of the song may emphasise its moral outrage, the speaker is unwilling to recognise any vitality or joy in his subjects, instead retreating “into generalization, and an emotional hardening, that offers little prospect of escape from the human coldness it condemns.”

Zoapod 8: Blake’s Poems – London

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

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis Podcast 8. Continuing the irregular series looking at William Blake’s poetry, this podcast will focus on one of his most popular lyrics, “London”, from Songs of Experience.

2. Published in 1794, “London” has become one of Blake’s best-known and most widely-anthologised poems. The simplicity of the ballad form, an extremely popular type of poetic format, is used by Blake to deliver an intensely powerful critique of his contemporary society, one in which sophisticated condemnation of political, religious and sexual mores is presented with remarkable brevity and compression. My own reading of Blake’s Song, is very conventional in terms of following critics such as E. P. Thompson (Witness Against the Beast, 1993) and Edward Larrissy (William Blake, 1988), seeing the poem as one of social critique. Harold Bloom’s comment in David Erdman’s edition of Blake’s Complete Poetry & Prose, which sees the poem as operating as a response to the tradition of biblical prophecy, seems rather obscure to me – something rather typical of Bloom’s criticism.

3. I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infants cry of fear,
In every voice: in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

4. A heavily corrected copy of this poem exists in Blake’s Notebook, offering considerable insight into the gestation that “London” underwent. Probably the most famous line from the poem, its reference to the “mind-forg’d manacles”, was originally written by Blake as “german forged links”. The original scans more regularly as iambic verse than his more famous amendment (with “forged” being pronounced on the second syllable), and drew attention, as Thompson observed, to the billeting of Hessian troops in London in the early 1790s in response to fear at social unrest in the capital, as well as the German origins of the Hanoverian dynasty and George III. The modification to “mind-forg’d manacles” forces the reader to slow down slightly with the spondee “mind-forg’d”, and the abstraction of oppression away from a particular incident and situation has led various critics to see in Blake’s phrase a powerful and effective illumination of the effects of ideology.

5. Another change that the poem underwent from Notebook to publication was the modification of “dirty Thames” in the second line to “charter’d”, repeating the word from the first line. Paine, writing in the first part of The Rights of Man (1792), denounced charters as a post-Norman trick to bribe the populace into submission: “William the Conqueror and his descendants parcelled out the country in this manner, and bribed some parts of it by what they call charters to hold the other parts of it the better subjected to their will. This is the reason why so many of those charters abound in Cornwall; the people were averse to the Government established at the Conquest, and the towns were garrisoned and bribed to enslave the country. All the old charters are the badges of this conquest, and it is from this source that the capriciousness of election arises.” The use of the word charter in “London” is literal in the first line, but metaphorical in the second, placing even the free movement of the natural world under the restriction of government.

6. After a period of enthusiasm in Paris following the fall of the Bastille, tensions increased throughout the 1790s, especially following the execution of Louis XVI and the Terror of 1793. Fear of revolution in Britain led the government of William Pitt to a loyalist reaction, first felt in Scotland as a series of sensational trials for seditious libel which took place in 1793, the results of which were draconian sentences against Thomas Muir and Thomas Palmer. In 1794, as members of the London Corresponding Society called for an English Convention, Pitt suspended Habeus Corpus and ordered the arrest of its leading members, as well as those of the Society for Constitutional Information. Thomas Paine had already fled the country at the end of 1793, and although the three men finally brought to trial were acquitted, there could be no doubt that Britain was a dangerous place for anyone with radical sympathies.

7. These are the events alluded to in the third stanza of “London”, in which soldiers’ blood stains the walls of palaces (almost certainly a direct reference to the events of August 1792 when a mob stormed the Tuileries and massacred the Swiss Guard defending the royal family). Amid this political storm, the hypocrisy and degradation of the poor is also dealt with by invoking the conditions of children chimney sweepers, the subject of two other poems in Blake’s Songs, as well as child prostitution in the final stanza. Stanley Gardner (The Tyger, The Lamb and the Terrible Desart, 1998) observes that in Lambeth a group of “noblemen and gentlemen” had converted the old Hercules Inn into the Female Orphan Asylum “to save girls between the age of nine and twelve from ‘the guilt of prostitution’.” The lives of these so-called “chicken prostitutes” was brutal and fatal, with many not surviving into their twenties as they suffered from violence and those sexual diseases such as syphilis that blasted substantial sections of the metropolitan population.

8. Within four, short quatrains, Blake delivers one of the most savage visions of the city ever written, and for this reason alone it is unsurprising that the poem has become so well-known. To read it is to experience the shock of an explosion among the familiar platitudes and hypocrisies of church, priest and king. Yet there may be something even more subtle going on here. Larrissy is correct to point out that it is a misconception – even if a common one – to assume that the voice of the narrator is that of Blake’s. The speaker in “London” marks those all around him: the word “mark” here functions in different ways – as a unit of currency (an old term used to refer to 8 ounces of gold or silver), as a blemish or sign, and as the verb “to mark”, as in to identify or characterise something or someone. The narrator, then, sees these marks and he sees them everywhere: “And mark in every face I meet \ Marks of weakness, marks of woe.”

9. These spots and stains of weakness and woe are inscribed on these faces by the weight of capitalism and power that emphasise the poverty of those who live in London, but Larrissy draws attention to the fact that it is also the speaker who is marking these faces – observing and characterising them as weak, woeful. That this voice of experience is potent should not blind us to the fact that it is also a single vision: there is no alternative, no innocence, in “London”, and in a scene of such potential violence and depravity it is not hard to see why. And yet, as with Terry Eagleton’s criticisms of Theodore Adorno’s concept of ideology, this is to give the powerful too much power, to assume rather defeatedly that there is no alternative. Sometimes such single, purposeful vision is necessary, to clarify and explain the social conditions in which we find ourselves, but for the possibility of something better, the voice of experience must also be matched by that of innocence, the belief that things can be changed.

Zoapod 7: Dreams Unlimited – J. G. Ballard and Blake (Transcript)

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1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast 7. This podcast will concentrate on an author who has actually been a longer (though not as deep) influence on my own life and thought, J. G. Ballard, who died in April 2009. I first began reading Ballard’s science fiction when I was thirteen, around the same time that I first really started to become interested in Surrealism. Although my interest in both was slightly displaced by a love for the Romantics (which I had tried – and failed – to read around the same time), both Ballard and Surrealism were in many ways a primer for my own love of Blake’s writing and art.

2. Ballard’s own fascination with Surrealism influenced his speculative novels, whether those set in almost familiar locales in near future settings, such as Vermilion Sands or The Drowned World, or impossible dreamscapes such as The Crystal World and The Unlimited Dream Company (as well, of course, as absurdist contemporary dramas, of which Crash and Cocaine Nights are the most famous examples). It is in The Unlimited Dream Company (1979) that Ballard comes closest to Blake’s vision of London, having as it does a central character called Blake and loosely following the unfolding lines of Milton a Poem.

3. In Blake’s Milton, the poem begins with Milton unhappy though in heaven who, upon hearing the song of a bard about the struggles between Satan as one of the self-righteous and his brothers Palamabron and Rintrah, leaves Paradise to reclaim the lost female part of himself that he abandoned to enter this restrictive Eden. There he encounters both Blake and the projected, eternal form of Blake, the Prophet Los, and also Satan who he realises is his own shadow. In Ballard’s novel, there is no bardic prophecy in heaven: rather Blake is a psychologically disturbed young man working in a London airport who steals a Cessna airplane and crashes it in Shepperton, the suburb where Ballard lived for most of his adult life. Before providing these details, The Unlimited Dream Company opens with a sacred and profane, mundane and exotic description of the streets that owes much both to the beautiful nightmares of the Surrealists and Blake’s visionary psychogeography of London:

4. Soon there will be too many deserted towns for them to count. Along the Thames valley, all over Europe and the Americas, spreading outwards across Asia and Africa, ten thousand similar suburbs will empty as people gather to make their first man-powered flights. (UDC 9-10).

These lines echo those in Milton, where Ololon says:

5. Where once the Cherubs of Jerusalem spread to Lambeths Vale
Milcahs Pillars shine from Harrow to Hampstead where Hoglah
On Highgates heights magnificent Weaves over trembling Thames
To Shooters Hill and thence to Blackheath the dark Woof! Loud
Loud roll the Weights & Spindles over the whole Earth let down
On all sides round to the Four Quarters of the World, eastward on
Europe to Euphrates & Hindu, to Nile & back in Clouds
Of Death across the Atlantic to America North & South (35.10-17, E135)

6. In Milton, this scene depicts the spread of the druidic death cult across the world, Blake’s code for organised religion and materialist philosophy of his day. Ballard’s infestation of the world is more ambivalent, a return to a rampant, chaotic, psychotically gorgeous proliferation of jewelled nature. Before this can happen, however, his protagonist realises that he cannot leave Shepperton, cannot cross the wasteland that lies between the suburb and London. Attempting to prove his domination, he indulges a sick dream within the city, engorging himself in magical, illusory masculinity that gains power by rape and dreams of rampant fecundity, literally absorbing the inhabitants of the town as he attempts to gain the strength to fly away from the mundane highways and shopping centres.

7. For a time it almost appears that Ballard wishes us to indulge his antihero’s sickness, so compelling is the vivid life-in-death that supplants the monochrome existence of Shepperton’s ordinary inhabitants. He is Luvah-Orc bursting out as a pagan deity, a mixture of Aztec god and Charles Manson. Blake believes that if only he can absorb enough energy he will be able to fly:

8. Alone now in the sky, I moved in huge strides across the air. I had become an archangelic being of enormous power, at last strong enough to make my escape… I needed their young bodies and spirits to give me strength. They would play forever within me, running across the dark meadows of my heart. (UDC 160, 163)

9. For all this apparent energy, however, this superhuman strength, Blake becomes less able to leave than ever. Only slowly he realises that his sadism and violence is not the energy of release, but instead binds him to this hell that continues to sicken him even as it burns more brightly with his own infernal colours. Submitting to the desires of his libido to overturn the repressive super-ego that had beaten him into a poverty of existence in daily life, his apparent sovereignty merely exchanges one master for another. It is only when he recognises his own guilt that he is able to confront and forgive the demon that prevents him leaving this inferno, the skeleton of the dead pilot that lies in the Thames. This struggle echoes that of Milton at the end of the original poem:

10. Satan! my Spectre! I know my power thee to annihilate
And be a greater in thy place, & be thy Tabernacle
A covering for thee to do thy will, till one greater comes
And smites me as I smote thee & becomes my covering.
Such are the Laws of thy false Heavns! but Laws of Eternity
Are not such: know thou: I come to Self Annihilation …
Thy purpose & the purpose of thy Priests & of thy Churches
Is to impress on men the fear of death; to teach
Trembling & fear, terror, constriction; abject selfishness
Mine is to teach Men to despise death & to go on
In fearless majesty annihilating Self, laughing to scorn
Thy Laws & terrors[.] (38.29-42, E139)

11. In The Unlimited Dream Company, Blake is dead, and the corpse he confronts is his own. Unable to cast off the remnants of his former life, clinging to desires of selfhood that have only brought him woe, Ballard’s Blake is a re-reading and transformative salvation of William Blake, having him descend to Shepperton to cast off his own religious righteousness in the same way that the Romantic poet had rewritten the works, philosophy and theology of John Milton.

Zoapod 6: Mark Stewart and the Mafia – Blake’s Jerusalem (Transcript)

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.

[music]

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.

[music]

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.

[music]

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.

Zoapod 5: Blake’s Poems – The Divine Image (Transcript)

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

1. Welcome to Zoamorphosis podcast five, Blake’s Poems – The Divine Image. In this podcast I shall be doing something different, looking at one of Blake’s poems in some detail rather than concentrating on how Blake’s works have been taken up by subsequent artists. In the first of this (irregular series), I shall be looking at a lyric first published in 1789 as one of the Songs of Innocence, his poem “The Divine Image”.

2. Songs of Innocence was one of Blake’s first books to be printed using a technique that has since become known as illuminated printing, a technique that allowed Blake to combine text and image in the innovative fashion for which he has become best known as an artist. In 1789, this work consisted of thirty-one plates, and Blake produced sixteen or seventeen impressions of the collection during that year. He continued to issue copies of Songs of Innocence over the following years, printing it as a separate book even after he had combined the poems of Innocence into an edition that included Songs of Experience in 1794.

3. As Andrew Lincoln observes in the William Blake Trust/Tate Gallery version of the poems (London, 1991), Songs of Innocence was originally produced to take advantage of the rapidly expanding market for children’s books that existed in the late eighteenth century. Such books were often illustrated with engravings or woodcuts, but Blake’s own production methods went far beyond conventional printing methods. Likewise, while he used many apparently familiar motifs of children’s literature in his poems and illustrations, such as shepherds, the mother watching her baby, or children at play, the aim and tone of the Songs was radically different, sometimes deceptively so as in a poem such as “The Divine Image”:

4. To Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
All pray in their distress:
And to these virtues of delight
Return their thankfulness.

For Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is God our father dear:
And Mercy Pity Peace and Love,
Is Man his child and care.

For Mercy has a human heart
Pity, a human face:
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.

Then every man of every clime,
That prays in his distress,
Prays to the human form divine
Love Mercy Pity Peace.

And all must love the human form,
In heathen, turk or jew.
Where Mercy, Love & Pity dwell,
There God is dwelling too

5. At first reading, this poem may seem very familiar from generations of Christian verse, its pronouncement that God is love seeming no different to those hymns such as Charles Wesley’s “Stupendous love of God most high!”, first published in 1780. However, as Lincoln and others have pointed out, the difference between Blake’s poem and the hymns of his contemporaries is clearest when considering the following lines from Isaac Watts’s “Praise for the Gospel”:

6. Lord, I ascribe it to thy Grace
And not to Chance, as others do,
That I was born of Christian Race,
And not a Heathen, or a Jew. (Cited in Lincoln, p.159)

7. Watts published his Divine and Moral Songs in 1720, and many of the hymns promise justice and retribution for those who fail to follow the message of God’s word. “Praise for the Gospel” ends with the promise that Gentiles and Jews will “in judgement rise” against the speaker if he does not keep God’s law. In “The Divine Image”, by contrast, there is no mention of God’s anger or retribution (just or otherwise), only the constant refrain that God is mercy, pity, peace and love. Over the years, when I have taught this poem, plenty of listeners have tended to assume that it is rather saccharine in its nature – too sweet, literally too good to be true – but this is a failure to see just how radical Blake’s message is within the song.

8. Lincoln believes that Blake’s hymn asserts that all religions have the same emotional basis, but also that all religions are essentially Christian. There is no reason to doubt that Blake may have believed this, but the poem does not state this quite as clearly as Lincoln does – it ascribes, rather, the simple belief that God is Mercy, Pity, Peace and Love, nothing more than this, and it is easy to see how this Song could be adapted by certain types (though by no means all) of Muslim, Hindu, Pagan or various other creeds. In All Religions are One (1788), Blake had written that “The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nations different reception of the Poetic Genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy.” (E1) In contrast to the vast majority of Christian assumptions, there is no innate superiority of Christianity in this view: it is but the one response of one group of people to the divine that Blake believed intrinsic to the human condition.

9. And this is where Blake’s poem reveals its radicalism. God is not something separate to man, but revealed entirely within and through man: it is the human face and human heart which demonstrates to us the reality of divinity. Rather than a metaphysical presence behind this world, we encounter God whenever we experience (or, indeed, demonstrate) the virtues of mercy, pity, peace and love. While these are familiar Christian virtues, their choice is significant: it would be very easy to conceive a God based on righteousness, or obedience, but these are far from Blake’s conception of the human form divine. In his later works, particularly the epic poems Milton and Jerusalem, Blake was to identify this tendency to self-righteousness as the Moral Law, and to ascribe it as a spiritual condition closer to Satan than to Christ.

10. This raises another important point about the poem: in many respects, it deals less with belief and more with practice. Religion is not the doctrine that we profess to follow, but the actions that we perform. As many scholars working in Blake studies have observed, Blake’s actual religion in terms of a clear-cut denomination is hard to pin down. His parents were probably non-specific Nonconformists (although recent research suggests that while his mother came from a Moravian background, which so influenced the young John Wesley, his father may have been more traditionally Anglican than previously thought). Certainly, a brief flirtation with the doctrines of Emanuel Swedenborg aside, Blake himself never expressed particularly strong inclinations to one sect or another. To seek exactitude on this matter is completely to miss the point: Christianity, or indeed any religion, is not following one creed over another, defining oneself against what one is not, but to practice simple virtues to all. With this thought, Blake is able to express the most radical vision of the poem in the final stanza, expressing universal communality with all mankind, whether they live Christians, Jews, Muslims or even have no professed belief in God. It is not what men say that they believe that is important, but what they do.

11. The illumination for “The Divine Image” shows groups of figures, some praying, others walking, standing or reclining, amidst fronds that rise and swirl about the text. In some, particularly early copies, these fronds are coloured green, clearly plants shooting up in the flow of life. In some later copies, however, these forms are painted red, and look more like flames or the fires of divine energy that lick around the words and figures. E. D. Hirsch suggested that an angel in the image is carrying bread and wine, but an important point to make is that if we are to distinguish between humans and angels in this illustration, that distinction is not immediately self-evident: all we, the reader of the poem, are presented with is the human form living amidst these rising forms of vernal or fiery life, and whatever we see Blake’s hope must be that we respond with love, mercy, pity, peace.

Zoapod 4: Tiger Caged (transcript)

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

1. “The Tyger” is undoubtedly one of the most famous and most loved of Blake’s poems, fragments of which have reverberated through popular culture for at least a century. The phrases “fearful symmetry” and “burning bright” alone, for example, are the titles of more than a dozen books and stories, while “Tiger, Tiger” is the name of anything from coffee bars and restaurants to karaoke booths and retailers of Buddhist charms and pendants. The appropriation of the Blake brand is, of course, frequently little more than opportunistic marketing as inconsequential as the Charles Dickens pubs found around the world from London to Melbourne, or William Shakespeare gift shops, but such Tyger-related paraphernalia is only one of the most evident signs of the diffusion of this much-anthologised poem throughout popular culture.

2. Nor has the popularity of “The Tyger” been solely a twentieth-century phenomenon, as with so much of the reception of Blake’s works. It was one of the few poems to have made some impression on the poet’s contemporaries during his lifetime, being reprinted in Benjamin Heath Malkin’s A Father’s Memoirs (1806), translated by Henry Crabb Robinson for the Vaterländisches Museum (1811) and then appearing in Alan Cunningham’s biography of the artist shortly after Blake’s death; Charles Lamb thought it “glorious” (BR 394) and Dorothy and William Wordsworth copied the poem and several other of Blake’s songs into a commonplace book, although William Beckford made a note in his copy of Malkin that the lines of Blake’s verse were stolen “from the walls of bedlam” (BR 571), while Coleridge’s final judgement was “I am perplexed – and have no opinion.” (Stranger from Paradise, p.353)

3. Perplexity, as G. E. Bentley, Jr. notes, has been a common reaction to this apparently simple poem, one so straightforward in its metre and diction at least that it is more often included in collections of children’s verse such as the Oxford Book of Poetry for Children than adult anthologies. Of critical reception, not a little has focussed on the incongruities between the forceful, even sublime, text and the rather domestic example of Panthera tigris included in the illustration to this Song of Experience, looking for all the world like a stuffed toy.

4. However, in this podcast I wish to concentrate on one particular poem that not only overtly displays the influence of Blake’s poem, but also uses it to create something of power in its own right, John Cotton’s “Tiger Caged”:

5. The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage. 

The sun shines through cage bars
On his barred coat the sun,
His tiger sun,
Shines through. 

He does not look
At those who look at him.
They are without
The cage he treads within. 

From what the bars divide
The side you are depends.
Each has his bars,
His limits and his ends. 

The tiger treads his cage.
400 lbs of muscle, bone
And thwarted purpose rage. 

6. John Cotton was born in 1925 in London and published his first collection of poems, Old Movies and Other Poems, in 1971, followed by Kilroy Was Here in 1975, with other collections appearing in the 1980s when he retired from teaching. He also founded the magazine Priapus with Ted Walker in the 1960s, and was active in various organisations, such as the National Poetry Society, until his death in 2003. “Tiger Caged” was published in the at times inspirational, at times infuriating, anthology Children of Albion: Poetry of the “Underground” in Britain, edited by Michael Horovitz in 1969.

7. The echoes of Blake’s poem extend beyond the mere title. The repetition of first and last verse is, of course, similar to “The Tyger”, but Cotton’s skill is to evoke Blake’s tyger without simply replicating it, either verbally or thematically. Thus, for example, the line “And thwarted purpose rage” evokes the roaring of Rintrah in The Argument to The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, where “the just man rages in the wilds” (E33), The Argument also beginning and closing with duplicate lines: “Rintrah roars & shakes his fires in the burdend air; / Hungry clouds swag on the deep” (E33). “Bars” and “limits” are, of course, by no means exclusively Blakean words, but as common tropes throughout his poetry express the desire for liberty, as in the following lines from the epic, Milton:

8.  Seek not thy heavenly father then beyond the skies: 
There Chaos dwells & ancient Night & Og & Anak old: 
For every human heart has gates of brass & bars of adamant,  
Which few dare unbar because dread Og & Anak guard the gates
Terrific!  (20.32-6, E114) 

9. In Cotton’s poem, the bars are Urizenic – restrictions that impose bounds upon the tiger and thwart his purpose. In contrast to the apparent or at least potential energy of Blake’s tyger unbound, Cotton’s tiger is constrained not merely by the bars of his cage, but also those of his body, stripes of light and dark on his skin that, one imagines, ripple with rage as he treads his cage. The condensed physicality of the tiger is indicated powerfully in the single line, “400 lbs of muscle, bone”, a specificity of mass combined with an economical material anatomy that beautifully emphasises a conservation of power with the omission of the conjunction one would typically expect, preserving also the regular iambic metre that it adapts from Blake’s verse (interrupted only by the spondee “Shines through”). The rhythmic and rhyming structure of Cotton’s verse also appears to embody the “fearful symmetry” of the former: rhymes, or more accurately repetitions and pararhymes, become oppressive, replicating the cage in which the tiger finds himself.

10. Despite the many similarities of Blake’s tyger and Cotton’s tiger caged, then, Cotton’s beast is no mere re-iteration of Blake’s: both are associated with violent imagery, but in Blake’s poem the potential energy of the creature he describes has been condensed at its birth and now breaks free of all bonds that the narrator doubts even mortal hand or eye could frame, while Cotton’s tiger is freeborn but now imprisoned within the cage that mocks not only him but the limited ends and ambitions of the spectators without. For Blake, as recognised for example in Taverner’s setting of “The Tyger”, there is at least the possibility of a divine marriage, but in Cotton’s poem the viewer is divorced from the subject of the gaze, able to recognise the sun that illuminates the bars of his skin but barred out from the energy of the tiger sun that shines from within.

Zoapod 3: The Secret Domain – Coil and Blake (Transcript)

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

1. Love’s Secret Domain (L.S.D.), released in 1991, was the third album by the group Coil and one which made manifest their interest in Blake, most overtly in the title track but also as an exposition of Blakean energy in various forms throughout the album.

2. Coil formed in 1982, one of its core members, Peter Christopherson, having previously been involved with the industrial group Throbbing Gristle. Both he and fellow member John Balance also contributed to Psychic TV in the early eighties, and much of the work of Coil only makes sense in the context of their associations with Genesis P. Orridge, the founder of both Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, as well as the performance duo Coum Transmissions and the cult Thee Temple of Psychick Youth (T.O.P.Y). Orridge provides a nexus in the secret history of one strand of counter-cultural movements of this period – a history that is secret not because it is oppressed or hidden from the public gaze but rather, as with Poe’s purloined letter, lies in full view if one only knows where to look.

3. Orridge, who changed his name from Neil Megson in 1971, developed an interest in magic after meeting William Burroughs and Brion Gysin in the early seventies, initially channelling such interest into performance art with Cosey Fanni Tutti (Christine Newby) as part of Coum Transmissions. Developing a deliberately confrontational style, most notoriously demonstrated in the Prostitution exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1976, following which they were denounced as ‘wreckers of civilisation’ by the then Arts Minister, Harold Lever, Coum mutated into Throbbing Gristle which, through its own label Industrial Records, pioneered industrial music and continued the antagonistic approach of Coum, incorporating pornography and Nazi-style propaganda into performances and releases. These, including D.o.A: The Third and Final Report (1978) and 20 Jazz Funk Greats (1979), were deliberately intended to be as uncomfortable listening as possible, and the destructive, nihilistic decomposition of TG’s activities inevitably resulted in the group splitting in 1981 – although not so nihilistic that the group was unable to reform in 2004.

4. The dark and disturbing influences of TG were particularly evident on Coil’s first releases, a single track 12 inch called How to Destroy Angels (1984) and the (slightly) more conventional album, Scatology (1984). How to Destroy Angels included a B side that varied with multiple pressings, sometimes containing music, sometimes noise, sometimes a blank face; Scatology and the follow up, Horse Rotorvator (1986) both dealt with often violent queer themes, as with ‘The Sewage Worker’s Birthday Party’ and ‘Ostia (The Death of Pasolini)’, that reflected their involvement in a queer scene increasingly ravaged by AIDS and homophobia, combined with sensibilities and configurations (‘The Golden Section’ and ‘Solar Lodge’) that drew heavily on the occult practices of figures and groups such as Aleister Crowley, Austin Osman Spare and the Ordo Templi Orientis – all of which had a role to play in the work of Psychic TV and T.O.P.Y.

5. This bare skeleton is hardly an “immense earthmoving device from the collective jawbones”, a Horse Rotorvator that will give any sense of Coil’s activities and, more importantly here, their relation to Blake. It forms merely a few brush strokes in a sketch that draws attention to an alchemical process by which Blake, once adopted, would be adapted and would, in turn, adapt the music of Coil.

6. Separated by a period of five years, there is an incredible transformation that takes place between Horse Rotorvator and Love’s Secret Domain, in which Blake has an important part to play. A similar transformation had taken place in Orridge’s work as he moved from Throbbing Gristle to Psychic TV: the harsh, alienating sounds of D.o.A and other early releases had been replaced by acid house and trance, most notably with the appearance of Psychic TV’s Towards Thee Infinite Beat in 1990, one year before Love’s Secret Domain, and Coil’s own album was re-mastered by Thighpaulsandra, who brought with him a lighter style evident in his work with the solo artist Julian Cope and the group Spiritualized.

7. While much of L.S.D. demonstrates a similar acid house style to Towards Thee Infinite Beat, the title track displays altogether darker influences closer in some respects to Coil’s earlier work.

[music ]

8. The song mixes together elements of Blake’s “The Sick Rose” with Roy Orbison’s song, “In Dreams”, which almost certainly is included here because of its appearance in David Lynch’s 1986 film, Blue Velvet. In that movie, it is used as a disturbing backdrop to the psychotic machinations of Frank Booth (played by Dennis Hopper). John Balance’s menacing vocals on the Coil track particularly transform the listener’s perception of the Orbison song, mutating it from a plaintive and soft lament into an obsessive paean to perverse love.

[music]

9. Behind Coil’s lyrics also lie references to Yeats’s mystical “A Vision” and Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, with more sinister evocations of Aleister Crowley’s sexual magic with Rose Kelly, one product of which was his notorious The Book of the Law and its edict “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”. Yet if Balance’s vocals alone can distort and make decadent Orbison’s words, manifesting as mania the fixations that underlie the 1963 original, it is the final verse, invoking Blake’s invisible worm as the corroding passion of desire, that fixes this mutation.

[music]

10. Blake’s original illustration to “The Sick Rose”, depicting female forms prostrate on a dying flower, in many ways helps orient at least my reading of what is an ambivalent text. The image elicits the reader’s sympathy, while the words in isolation could be interpreted as a disturbing celebration of rapacious energy. It is this sado-masochistic force that informs Coil’s rendition: this song is not a lament for the madness of love but the lust for its intoxication. If the allusion to Crowley and Rose Kelly is laid to one side, and bearing in mind the homosexual themes of their earlier work, it is possible to view “Love’s Secret Domain” as a fiercely erotic trace of perverse, queer desire.

11. In an interview with the magazine Mondo 2000, Christopherson said that he believed that Coil had been travelling the “same mystical paths as Blake”, and both he and Balance believed that the entire album was inspired by a Blakean energy. Their reading of this text to me seems a perversion of Blake, just as it is a perversion of the Roy Orbison song. That does not at all prevent it from being one of my favourite, Blake-inspired tracks, for the contrarian spirit that provokes it does, surely, follow the same paths as that author who perverted Satan into Messiah in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

The full Coil track (from YouTube):