William Blake, “Jerusalem”, and the Royal Wedding

Despite finding myself somewhat at variance with the British public mood today (although less so than my wife, currently cursing the fact that her beloved Radio 4 has been entirely given over to coverage of the wedding of William and Catherine Middleton), I have been amused by the amount of email alerts I have been receiving in recent days because of the inclusion of Blake’s “Jerusalem” in the order of service.

Thus, under the heading “Britain’s finest moment: The pomp and pageantry of the Royal Wedding in all its glory“, the Daily Mail reported this morning that “The hour and a half performance is set to include a range of ‘uplifting patriotic’ and ‘singalong’ numbers, such as Jerusalem as well as a Beatles medley.” Likewise, The Telegraph has a long piece on the Blake-Parry hymn with the amusing title “Music for a Sloane wedding (but none the worse for that)“. (Nor is this an entirely British – or, perhaps more accurately, English – phenomenon: various US publications such as The Washington Post and USA Today have carried articles on the royals’ choice of music.)

Damian Thompson’s Telegraph article is eminently readable, and offers a decent introduction to Parry’s music. Judging by the welter of posts to Twitter, it appears to have been a popular choice, most making observations along the line that “Jerusalem is a proper tune”, or “that hymn is epic!” My own favourite at the moment is comedian Dara O Brian’s summation that “Jerusalem is the Prod’s best choon.”

After the first performance of Parry’s hymn in 1916 at the Fight for Right movement in Queen’s Hall (it was not incorporated into Last Night of the Proms until 1953 – my thanks to Keri Davies for this correction, please see below), the hymn has frequently been used by royalists and English nationalists, particularly following Elgar’s more bombastic arrangement in 1922, but has also often been a favourite of the left, taken up the Jarrow marchers and the Suffragettes in the 1920s, as well as being adopted by the Labour party in the 1940s. (For a quick rundown of facts relating to the hymn, see “Ten things you should know about Jerusalem“.)

Today, however, I am currently playing a fairly regular “Jerusalem” game of my own: what would William Blake make of all this? This particular game is, of course, thoroughly anachronistic and utterly subjective. In some cases, such as its use by the British National Party, the result would, I think, be particularly easy to guess. At other extremes of his response, while it is harder to be sure how Blake would have responded to the use of “Jerusalem” I am fairly certain that he would have been pleased – Blake had little to say about sports outside of “The Ecchoing Green”, but I think he would have been proud to hear his words chosen as the anthem for the Commonwealth Games.

But a royal wedding? This is the writer who denounces George III as a “gloomy king” and tyrant in America a Prophecy, and ironically mocks Urizen’s proclamation of “One King, one God, one Law” in The [First] Book of Urizen. Blake’s writings are full of deprecations against kingship, a habit he shared with fellow republican Thomas Paine, for whom “the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise”. Similarly, although he denied in a letter to Thomas Butts in August 1803 that one word of sedition against the king had been spoken in his altercation with Scofield, it was not entirely surprising that Blake was singled out as the most likely radical in the the village of Felpham that year.

Before I make my own final choice, however, one unusual example of Blake’s royalist sentiment does need to be taken into account. In 1808, Blake published a dedication “To the Queen” as part of the edition of Blair’s The Grave issued by R.H. Cromek. Beginning with the rather beautiful lines, “The Door of Death is made of Gold, / That Mortal Eyes cannot behold”, the poem addresses Queen Charlotte as follows:

O Shepherdess of England’s Fold,
Behold this Gate of Pearl and Gold!
To dedicate to England’s Queen
The Visions that my Soul has seen,
And, by Her kind permission, bring
What I have borne on solemn Wing,
From the vast regions of the Grave,
Before Her Throne my Wings I wave;
Bowing before my Sov’reign’s Feet

Charlotte was, of course, the wife of the same George excoriated by Blake in his Lambeth Prophecies of the 1790s. Perhaps by 1808 Blake’s attitudes towards his sovereign had softened, tempered by the running stories of George III and in contrast to the harder heart of Shelley who could still denounce the “old, mad, blind, despised, and dying king” more than a decade later. Alternatively, perhaps Blake was simply eyeing a commercial opportunity, and was not averse to bowing and scraping this once if it helped him make some much desperately needed cash. Certainly Cromek viewed Blake’s verses as somewhat hypocritical and self-serving.

In general, I suspect that Blake is far from spinning in his grave today, though I would hope that my own projection of somewhat ironic amusement that this discarded and once-forgotten verse has become such an important piece of national iconography would not be too far from his own attitude. I have a suspicion that were he alive today as a young man, Blake would have been shaking his fist and throwing his shoe at the telly, but my guess as to the older man’s response is much less certain. With regard to his own words as part of Parry’s hymn it is true that – for better or for worse – there is very little else in the English musical canon that is seized upon by so many to represent the national mood.

http://youtu.be/BzBo1cjEmLA

What’s your opinion about Blake, “Jerusalem” and the Royal Wedding? Leave a comment below.

L. A. Woman, A City Yet a Woman: Blake, Jim Morrison, and Prophecy

Morrison, ‘An American Poet’, and ‘English Blake’ are popularly espoused as voices of their nations. Both saw themselves as prophets, claiming at least to comment on and at most to influence the political and cultural events surrounding them. As part of their prophetic personae, they both invented new lineages for themselves, mystically adopting chosen ancestors that would tie them tightly to the kind of historical and creative inheritance they wanted for themselves and their countries.

Morrison tells a powerful memory of childhood trauma in ‘Dawn’s Highway’, one of the poems he recorded on his last birthday (it was put to music by the surviving Doors on An American Prayer):

Me and my – ah – mother and father – and a grandmother and a grandfather – were driving through the desert, at dawn, and a truckload of Indian workers had either hit another car, or just – I don’t know what happened – but there were Indians scattered all over the highway, bleeding to death.
So the car pulls up and stops. That was the first time I tasted fear. I musta been about four – like a child is like a flower, his head is just floating in the breeze, man.
The reaction I get now thinking about it, looking back – is that the souls of the ghosts of those dead Indians… maybe one or two of ’em… were just running around freaking out, and just leaped into my soul. And they’re still in there.

Morrison’s personal mythology here is an attempt to attach himself to the shamanic traditions of native Americans, and also to opt for a more ‘authentic’ American identity than the one of oppressive white power that his biological lineage dictates (considering his father was an admiral in the US Navy, and very much involved in Vietnam).

In Milton, Blake describes becoming one with John Milton, Britain’s most imposing national poet:

The first I saw him in the Zenith as a falling star,
Descending perpendicular, swift as the swallow or swift;
And on my left foot falling on the tarsus enterd there;
But from my left foot a black cloud redounding spread over Europe
(Milton 15[17]:47-50)

Milton had used his writing talents to support the English Revolution (including defending the regicide), and suffered for holding to his beliefs in the Restoration. Blake is asserting radical political authority as well as literary prowess by identifying with Milton.

Blake’s possession by Milton apparently has wide repercussions (‘spread over Europe’ – like Morrison, Blake is writing in wartime). The most conspicuous appearance of Morrison’s recurring lines, ‘Indians scattered on dawn’s highway bleeding / Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile eggshell mind’, is in ‘Peace Frog’ on Morrison Hotel, a prophetic, apocalyptic song with its own specific geography: ‘Blood on the streets / in the town of New Haven’, where Morrison had become the first rock star to be arrested on stage (as Fong-Torres notes, p. 112). Like Blake, he takes elements from his own biography and mythologizes them on a global and cosmic scale. And like Blake he creates catalogues of places to illustrate the national reach of his prophecy: ‘Blood in the streets / of the town of Chicago’, ‘Blood stains the roofs / and the palm trees of Venice’, ‘The Bloody red sun / of phantastic L.A.’. In such a visionary city, he combines literal and figurative geography: ‘blood on the streets / runs a river of sadness’, and most remarkably, ‘The river runs red down / the legs of the city’, recalling Blake’s imagery of birth trauma and miscarriage (in Morrison’s notebook these verses were titled ‘Abortion Stories’, according to Jerry Hopkins in The Lizard King, p. 129). Compare also the ‘unborn living living dead’ of ‘The Unknown Soldier’, and

Catacombs
Nursery bones
Winter women
growing stones
Carrying babies
to the river

in ‘The Soft Parade’. However, the lines could also suggest loss of virginity (which has revolutionary force in the case of Orc and the Nameless Shadowy Female in the Preludium to America); or menstruation as the simultaneous potential of fertility and infertility, life and death; or indeed human sacrifice as practiced by women in Jerusalem. ‘Blood hath staind her fair side beneath her bosom’ (Jerusalem 67:43) in the extended narrative of the Daughters of Albion ‘drunk with blood’ (Jerusalem 68:12), while for Morrison the blood is also the woman’s as victim:

Blood! screams her brain
as they chop off her fingers
Blood will be born
in the birth of a Nation

These lyrics are juxtaposed with a parallel set dominated by the repeated line ‘She came’: female orgasm is apocalyptic and violent for Morrison as it is for Blake at the end of The Song of Los, where

The Grave shrieks with delight, & shakes
Her hollow womb, & clasps the solid stem:
Her bosom swells with wild desire:
And milk & blood & glandous wine
In rivers rush & shout & dance,
On mountain, dale and plain (7:35-40)

In ‘Peace Frog’, and more clearly in ‘L. A. Woman’, Morrison also creates ‘a City yet a Woman’ (Four Zoas, Night IX:223) as Blake does in the figure of Jerusalem, with a kind personification which perceives both simultaneously – ‘I see your hair is burning / Hills are filled with fire’ – and mixes both, blurring external and internal – ‘Drive through your suburbs / Into your blues’. (Note how personification is used toward social commentary: the suburbs are a direct route to depression.) They draw on a collective origin in Biblical prophecy, and partake of its depiction of Israel as a combination of innocent wife and abandoned harlot: ‘Are you a lucky little lady in the city of light? / Or just another lost angel’. Like Blake’s persecuted Jerusalem, ‘Never saw a woman so alone’. (Oothoon also, as rejected but righteous harlot / wife, and as ‘the soft soul of America’ (Visions of the Daughters of Albion 1:3), is a precursor of ‘L. A. Woman’.)

Both Blake and Morrison proceed from this kind of imagery to imagery of male power: as in Blake the call, ‘Awake! Awake Jerusalem! O lovely Emanation of Albion / Awake and overspread all Nations as in Ancient Time’ (Jerusalem 97:1) leads to the predominantly phallic imagery of Albion’s awakening and reuniting with the Zoas, Morrison also moves from the L. A. Woman to the combination of resurrection and erection in his anagram, ‘Mr. Mojo Risin / Got to keep on risin’ / Risin’, risin”. Morrison sings, ‘L. A. Woman, you’re my woman’, while for Blake Albion’s rising also is catalyzed by union with the feminine personification of nation: ‘England who is Brittannia’, who is also Jerusalem, ‘enterd Albions bosom rejoicing’ (Jerusalem 95:22, 32:28). Morrison once said, ‘Los Angeles is a city looking for a ritual to join its fragments, and the Doors are looking for a ritual also. A kind of electric wedding’ (quoted by Federica Pudva, p. 133), like the ones evoked by Blake at the end of Jerusalem, and in the title of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

In her essay on Morrison and Blake, Federica Pudva points out that ‘London was for Blake a real city and at the same time a spiritual and symbolic reality, part of a broad divine vision’ while in Morrison’s vision, Los Angeles was ‘the umbilicus of the world’ and a microcosm of fragmented modern society (p. 132-3, my translation). Morrison called Los Angeles a ‘”genetic blue-print” for the United States’ (Lizard King p. 301). In a poem, ‘The Guided Tour’, he writes,

“I am a guide to the labyrinth”
city is inside of body made manifest
meat organs & electrical
power plants (American Night p. 143)

reminiscent, in reverse, of Los searching ‘the interiors of Albions / Bosom’, which involves coming ‘down from Highgate thro Hackney & Holloway towards London’ (Jerusalem 45[31]:3-4,14). Though the alienated modern city in Morrison owes much to Baudelaire and, as William Cook examines in detail, T. S. Eliot, Pudva finds that Morrison’s flâneur-like observation of prostitution in the city in his poem The Lords – ‘a ring of death with sex at its centre’ – is rooted in Blake’s ‘midnight streets’ and ‘Harlot’s curse’ in ‘London’ (p. 127-8).

We might see Morrison grasping more than content in the Songs if we take ‘People are Strange’ as commenting on the contingent voice of Songs of Experience and playing with the use of persona it offers.

People are strange
When you’re a stranger
Faces look ugly
When you’re alone

emphasizes the kind of interior realities which may contribute to the compulsion of the speaker in ‘London’ to ‘mark in every face I meet / Marks of weakness, marks of woe’. ‘Women seem wicked / When you’re unwanted’ distils the combination of blame and pity in the ‘Harlot’s curse’ seen as infecting the city and blighting both birth and marriage with death. ‘Faces come out of the rain / When you’re strange’ is like the fragmentation of faces and voices without bodies in ‘London’, and ‘Streets are uneven / When you’re down’ is a direct statement on psychogeography. If the song was inspired by an enlightening Laurel Canyon sunrise, as Robby Krieger narrates (in Fong-Torres 95-6), then it is located (or projected) on Morrison’s home territory as ‘London’ is on Blake’s.

secondary sources:

Cook, William. ‘Jim Morrison: A “Serious Poet”?’ Literary Kicks: Opinions, Observations and Research. 12 July 2003. http://www.litkicks.com/JamesDouglasMorrison

Fong-Torres, Ben, and the Doors. The Doors. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

Hopkins, Jerry. The Lizard King: The Essential Jim Morrison. Revised and Updated. London: Plexus, 2006.

Pudva, Federica. ‘The Devil’s Party: Jim Morrison e William Blake’ Anglistica Pisana 2:1 (2005) 119-37.

Ten things you should know about Jerusalem

Once again Blake’s “Jerusalem” is in the news. While the famous hymn is incredibly popular at weddings in particular, it appears that so many ministers are banning it that the Church of England has issued new guidelines stating that it is neither too nationalistic nor too militaristic. This is one that returns every so often, and for the past couple of decades the Church has had a problem with “Jerusalem” – something that is not entirely surprising considering Blake’s own attitude to organised religion and, unfortunately, the hymn’s occasional but pernicious associations with the far right.

While the nation debates (once again) whether it is suitable for banns or only to be banned, here are ten things about the poem to help you make up your own mind:

  1. The stanzas beginning “And did those feet…” were, as is widely known, originally published as part of a Preface to Blake’s epic poem Milton. During his lifetime Blake only printed four copies of this poem – but the Preface only appears in two of the three copies published in 1811 and was omitted in the version from 1818. While it may have become his most famous poem, Blake apparently had other ideas.
  2. The feet in question are widely assumed to be those of Christ, drawing on a legend that Joseph of Arimathea brought him to this country. William of Malmesbury, writing in the twelfth century, was the first to suggest that Joseph was sent as an apostle to the British Isles, and this snowballed into the mythology that he had previously brought the young Jesus with him while trading. It is worth pointing out that while Blake (in Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion in particular) does seem to have thought this at the very least a useful starting point for his own mythology, in his lyric he questions rather than states whether Jesus came here.
  3. The phrase “Chariot of fire” is taken from 2 Kings 6:17 where God protects Elisha from the Syrians: “And Elisha prayed, and said, LORD, I pray thee, open his eyes, that he may see. And the LORD opened the eyes of the young man; and he saw: and, behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire round about Elisha.” Interestingly, when the King of Israel seeks to destroy the Syrians, Elisha replies: “Thou shalt not smite them: wouldest thou smite those whom thou hast taken captive with thy sword and with thy bow? set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink, and go to their master.” (22)
  4. There is a possibility that the “dark Satanic Mills” were inspired by the Albion Flour Mill which employed a steam engine built by James Watt and burnt down in 1791. Milton, however, is full of imagery of mills, as when the Bard who sings the song that opens the epic poem describes how “the Starry Mills of Satan / Are built beneath the Earth” which are used to grind down the souls of Albion’s children.
  5. While Sir Hubert Parry famously set Blake’s words to music in 1916, this version is rarely heard. In 1922, Edward Elgar scored Parry’s simpler melody for orchestra, providing it with a much grander and ostentatious sweep and it is this version that is heard at Last Night of the Proms and elsewhere.
  6. “Jerusalem” was adopted by the National Association of Women’s Institutes in 1924, having been sung by Suffragettes during the 1920s. In the same year as Parry’s composition, Bertrand Russell, a member of the Fabian Society invoked Blake’s vision when describing opposition to conscription during World War I, leading to its popular acceptance by the Labour Party alongside the Red Flag, a campaign slogan of the 1945 election being that Labour would “build a new Jerusalem”.
  7. The hymn seems to have been particularly popular during the 1960s, appearing in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Privilege (1967) and If… (1968), where the tensions between Blake’s revolutionary attitudes and the hymn’s adoption as an anthem of the establishment made it de rigueur as a motif for any director concerned to explore the limitations of a little Englander mindset.
  8. At the other end of the political spectrum, the British National Party has made a concerted effort to adopt “Jerusalem” as its own since 2000, when Nick Griffin sang it alongside former members of the Ku Klux Klan and the American Friends of the BNP in Arlington, Virginia. After being charged with incitement to racial hatred in 2005, Griffin led BNP supporters in a rendition of the hymn outside a magistrates court in Leeds.
  9. The CofE’s current problems with ministers banning “Jerusalem” is nothing new: in 1996 the Church of Scotland elected to have it removed from its hymnals because of the content of Blake’s words, and in the same year Canon Donald Gray, chaplain to the Queen, refused to allow it to be sung at a memorial service in St Margaret’s.
  10. In sport, it was adopted as the anthem of the England cricket team after 2004 and is to be used by Team England in the Commonwealth Games from 2010 onwards. Its history as a football song has been somewhat trickier: Fat Les recorded it as the team anthem for the Euro 2000 games, but England’s poor performance and rioting by English fans at Charleroi tarnished its associations.

Blakespotting: Filming Jerusalem (via Facebook)

Occasionally there is a quirky project involving Blake that catches my eye, and this summer could bring a couple of potentially interesting filmic gems (or, at least, intriguing oddities) that both take their inspiration from Blake’s “Jerusalem”.

The first of these, and one to which I shall definitely return should it see the light of day, is a digital short starring Ray Winstone as William Blake. Directed by Ryan Andrews, Winstone was in Cardiff in May filming for the project. My (unfortunate) scepticism is that this is not the first time that Winstone has become involved in recording Blake’s life: the 2007 Sam Taylor Wood biopic, for which Winstone was slated to write the script, never appeared – Billy Nuts the Poet losing out to John Lennon for her 2009 movie Nowhere Boy.

Winstone would – in my opinion – make a decent, if somewhat idiosyncratic, Blake. Sexy Beast showed that he was more than capable of playing against type and there’s not much danger of Jerusalem (Andrews’s film) going all “nil by mouth”. Indeed, rather than proving himself the notorious daddy, the piece will be set in period costume and – as Andrews was selected from a shortlist of winners for the entry and the scope of this project is much less ambitious than Wood’s film, it may very well see a final release.

The second project, more recently announced, alternates in my opinion between being bonkers and a marvellous idea (which is a territory I hugely enjoy exploring). Paul McDonahue from Salford is looking to film a no-budget picture, also called Jerusalem, over the coming weeks and, to keep down costs, has been recruiting via Facebook – from where I take his following description of the movie:

An AWOL army soldier, disillusioned with the war, england and the government, arrives in the english countryside after the train he is travelling home on breaks down. Stranded there, he journeys cross country to the next train station meeting various characters and facing many social issues along the way all the while being pursued by the mysterious policeman as he tries to make his way home through England’s green and pleasant land.

Jerusalem, unsurprisingly, won’t have any stars but McDonahue said in a recent interview with the Salford Star that he will be working with a number of experienced actors such as John May (who has appeared in a number of small budget films as well as Channel 5 and BBC programmes). This is the sort of project that would have been impossible to see a few years ago, but I’m sure it will make it online if the director’s dedication to recruiting is anything to go by (one of my favourite posts to his group: “Hiya my names olivia ellis and my dream is to become an Actress if you need one let me know.”)

I’m unsure how much of McDonahue’s desire to deliver a “hard-hitting” message to the government will strike its mark, but I admire his brio and determination. Reminds me of someone else in the first decades of the nineteenth century, struggling in obscurity in London producing an epic poem of the state of Albion which the more famous (and ultimately doomed) artist Thomas Griffiths Wainewright described half-affectionately, half-mockingly as “a tremendous piece of ordance, an eighty-eight pounder”. Barely a dozen people read Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion during Blake’s lifetime, but more remember him now than a fashionable artist whose only claim to fame in the twentieth century is that he was transported for forgery and poisoning – and that he knew William Blake.

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.

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”.

Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – Jerusalem

Extract from Tony Richardson’s remarkable The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), based on the Allan Silitoe play and starring Tom Courtenay. In this scene, the boys at a borstal school sing “Jerusalem” while one of their members is punished by the warders.

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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.

George Bean Group – Jerusalem

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.

“Jerusalem” from Peter Watkin’s 1967 film, Privilege, performed by the George Bean Group. In the movie, Paul Jones plays Steven Shorter, a pop star whose career is manipulated to launch a new form of religious nationalism. Genuinely strange.

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.