Blurring Blake

In August 1993, a federal judge sentenced the police officers who assaulted Rodney King to 30 months in prison after their earlier acquittal sparked riots in LA, Japan was experiencing its first non-LDP government since 1995, and in Britain the Conservative government under John Major was limping along after a surprise victory the previous year. Cool Britannia was nowhere to be seen, but one of the bands that was to define British culture for the rest of the decade had gathered at the Maison Rouge studios in Fulham, London to record a new album.

Blur’s previous album, Modern Life is Rubbish, had been a commercial failure and over the following weeks the band worked furiously, recording a large number of tracks, sixteen of which were to appear on Parklife, released in April 1994. The album debuted at number 1 and remained in the charts for some ninety weeks, establishing the band as kings of Britpop for the rest of the decade and inaugurating the mock-struggle for hearts and minds with Oasis that was a favourite topic of British media in the nineties.

One of the tracks recorded at Maison Rouge but not released on Parklife was a natty track, Magpie. With lyrics drawn from Blake’s A Poison Tree, it was included as a B-side on the first single from the album, Girls & Boys, which was released a month before Parklife itself. And so began Blur’s – or, more precisely perhaps, bassist Alex James’s – public love affair with Blake.

The track, easily deserving inclusion on the main album, is a perfect example of why the band was so popular in the mid-nineties. In 1994, however, Blake was probably still a little too quirky for the British public – but what happens next is illustrative of how his reputation changed in England’s green and pleasant land in a very short space of time.

The most important change was the huge retrospective of Blake’s art held at Tate Britain in 2000, but in the preceding couple of years Blake had become increasingly important after relative years of neglect. Millennium anxieties, perhaps, were better served by his prophetic vision than cool, ironic cynicism. Whatever the reason, Blakemania was on the increase and so James was one of several figures who decided to out publicly his interest in the artist, selecting the painting of Newton for comment in the Independent newspaper, October 2001:

I LOOKED at this and my immediate thoughts were: colourful, classical Greek figure, very nice. Then I looked again and thought, why is the figure in a fish tank? And what’s that geometry he’s doing? The figure is Newton, one of the great mathematicians in history. He worked out that everything is in motion and came up with his law of universal gravitation: what a feeling, the greatest sort of click moment!

I’m interested in religion but, unlike Blake, my faith is in science, the idea that we can measure the world. I didn’t realise at first that Blake is taking the piss out of science. He’s painted Newton at the bottom of the ocean and if you look closely you see that the body is more like maggot flesh than human muscle. The shape that Newton’s drawing is a piece of mathematics from the Ancient Greeks. By Blake’s day, mathematics was different – Gauss, for instance, was developing ideas of non-Euclidean geometries. So Blake could have drawn Newton doing something more sexy than fiddling with his compass. Essentially, he’s saying, “This man’s an idiot!”

James maintains a critical respect for Blake, admiring the picture but rejecting the artist’s view of the mathematician. Prior to this piece, James had also been involved with Keith Allen and Damien Hirst as part of Fat Les in the recording of England’s official song for the Euro 2000 football contest. Their version of Jerusalem coincided with a brief moment of hysteria around the hymn: Britain’s most popular tabloid, the Sun , announced “You have 31 days to learn these words for Euro 2000”, followed by an article on “10 Things You Didn’t Know About William Blake”. For Fat Les, as indeed for a number of other commentators in the media, the real issue was not just a football song but whether Jerusalem should replace God Save the Queen as the national anthem.

James went on to participate in an event marking the end of the Tate exhibition, Tygers of Wrath, where he performed alongside Simon Boswell, Jah Wobble, and Billy Bragg at the Criterion Theatre in Picadilly. Since then his interest in Blake appears to have diminished (or at least become more private). What is most significant for me about this slice of history, however, is the ways in which it indicates one transformation Blake’s reception. There are always artists, writers, musicians, and filmakers who are interested in Blake, but sometimes he emerges from networks of relatively private, low-key appreciation into much more clearly demonstrated public popularity. In this particular instance, when Britain had not yet tired of New Labour and Cool Britannia could be uttered (at least by some people) without the sense of being completely naff, it seemed to be particularly significant that British Blake was taken up by the public in the UK – more so even than now, I would argue, when more often than not it is English Blake who features in the media in this country. Blake, like Blur, may be part of James’s history now, but for a brief period he was the pre-eminent poet for the musician to connect with his own history.