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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Interview with Jah Wobble and Tyger, Tyger

A great interview with Jah Wobble from the time of his release of The Inspiration of William Blake as well as a performance of “Tyger, Tyger”. Poor sound quality, unfortunately, but definitely worth listening to. You can also listen to a podcast about Jah Wobble’s album on Zoamorphosis.com.

Go to the next video from the William Blake Jukebox:

William Blake Jukebox is a collection of videos available on YouTube related to William Blake. View them all at http://www.youtube.com/user/WilliamBlakeJukebox.

Blakean Music

While the appearances of Blake in cinema are relatively rare (see previous Zoamorphosis posts on William Blake and Film and Cannibalising Blake), the subject of William Blake and music is an extremely rich one.

From the early twentieth century onwards Blake has been an incredible inspiration to a vast number of composers and groups. Plenty of these will be returned to in future posts, but this represents a Top 10 – in no particular order – of some of the figures who have engaged most fruitfully with Blake.

  • Hubert Parry: While there had been some musical interest in Blake’s verse prior to Parry, it was his setting of the lines from Milton to music in “Jerusalem” that established Blake’s poetry in the minds of many. Parry himself encouraged its adoption as the anthem of the Women’s Suffrage League, although it was Elgar’s arrangement in 1922 that made it a work of nationalist jingoism.
  • Benjamin Britten: Britten worked with Blake’s poetry several times, such as in Serenade, A Charm of Lullabies, and, most significantly, Songs and Proverbs of William Blake. The final version is usually reckoned one of his most sombre pieces.
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams: Williams was commissioned to compose music for the 1958 film, The Vision of William Blake and, after his death, recordings were released as Ten Blake Songs, demonstrating Williams’s harmony stripped to its essential features.
  • Virgil Thompson: Just before Williams began work on his film score, Virgil Thompson created a marvellous series of arrangements based on Blake’s poetry called Five Songs from William Blake, using several of the Songs of Innocence and of Experience as the basis of his collection.
  • William Bolcom: Blakes Songs, this time all of them, were also the source of inspiration for Bolcom, who completed his setting of them to music in 1984, and a 2005 recording won three Grammy Awards, including Best Classical Album.
  • Dmitri Smirnov: Smirnov, born in Minsk, has been resident in Britain since 1991, apparently because it allows him to feel closer to Blake, the source for many of his compositions, including an opera, Tiriel, a ballet, Blake’s Pictures, and the beautiful The Lamentations of Thel.
  • Mike Westbrook: Crossing over from classical to other musical forms, Mike Westbrook has engaged several times with Blake’s works, most notably in his score for Adrian Mitchell’s 1971 play, Tyger. A letter collection, Glad Day, has been performed several times since.
  • Jah Wobble: Wobble may have made his name with post-punk bands such as P.I.L., but he was also always willing to entertain the divine visions of another Londoner, most notably on the album The Inspiration of William Blake, which includes selections of Auguries of Innocence and Tyger, Tyger, mixed in with Wobble’s own original compositions.
  • Ulver: Last but by no means least, the Norwegian progressive/metal band Ulver (whose name means “Wolves”) produced one of the most original albums ever to have been influenced by Blake in the form of Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. It stumped their fans at the time, but has been a stalwart favourite of many Blakeans ever since.
  • The William Blakes: The most recent ones here, the William Blakes are a Danish pop and rock band, whose music doesn’t especially reference Blake (for example on the album “Wayne Coyne”), but whose name is testimony to the impact of the Romantic artist and poet as still remaining some cachet for any young bands who want to indicate a certain rebellious vision.

This list barely scratches the surface of Blake’s reception in music, and I have not myself even fully begun to explore the range of composers – classical and popular – who occasionally dip in and out of Blake’s verse. However, this list above provides a good starting point for anyone seeking for some of the more substantial fruits of his inspiration.