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”:

[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]

Van Morrison – You Don’t Pull No Punches

Van Morrison’s “You Don’t Pull No Punches, But You Don’t Push The River” from the 1974 album Veedon Fleece – “Blake and the Eternals, standin’ with the Sisters of Mercy Looking for the Veedon Fleece”.

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.

Blakespotting: Death metal Blake

There is an amusing skit on Blake that has gone viral in the past few weeks on Twitter and elsewhere on the web entitled “Death Metal Lyric or William Blake Quote?” (thanks also to Mike Goode for drawing my attention to this). The premise of the piece is perfect in its simplicity: ten quotes, of which the reader must decide whether they were written by William Blake or a death metal group, and while “Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires” could perhaps have been written by Zyklon for their charming track Chaos Deathcult, the final line of that song, “Every man is therefore guilty of all the good he did”, feels as though it should be from Blake. (Actually, it’s a variation of  Voltaire’s “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do” – though I prefer the rewrite).

You can read the original posting at http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/lists/15petzold.html, which thus draws attention to the many appropriations of Blake by metal acts. As the first major poet in western literature to declare himself knowingly of the devil’s party (although Blake’s Christian diabolism is very different to the rather bland Satanism that became popular after the 1960s), it’s hardly surprising that he should have attracted so many metal followers. Eli Petzfold’s post simply follows a common feeling among music fans (goth and punk as well as metal) that the author of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell would have made a great lyricist for any number of bands that have always been at odds with the mainstream. To paraphrase:

The Giants who formed this world into its sensual existence and now seem to live in it in chains, are in truth the causes of its life & the sources of all activity, but the chains are the cunning of weak and tame minds which have power to resist energy, according to the proverb, the weak in courage is strong in cunning.
Thus one portion of being is Metal, the other Pop: to Pop it seems as if Metal was in his chains, but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.
But Metal would cease to be Metal unless Pop, as a sea, recieved the excess of his delights.
Some will say: ‘Is not God alone Metal?’ I answer: ‘Metal only Acts & Is, in existing beings or Men.’
These two classes of men are always upon earth, & they should be enemies; whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
Religion is an endeavour to reconcile the two.

Blake as a metal inspiration is a constant riff (only a month or so ago I came across an interview with Jason Kolkey, lead singer of Deus Absconditus, on Blake as an influence), but here I’ll just concentrate on three.

The first is one of the grand old men of British metal, Bruce Dickinson, most notably on his album The Chemical Wedding (1998), which not only features Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea as its cover but also has several title tracks directly drawn from Blake, including “Jerusalem”, “Book of Thel” and “The Gates of Urizen“. (You can also hear the Dickinson tracks on The Blake Disco.) Dickinson has always had a pomp-rock inclination towards literary appropriations (I remember interminable playings of Iron Maiden’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” while at school), and the Blake-inspired tracks are, “Jerusalem” aside, loose interpretations based on Blakean themes. It seems to work with “The Gates of Urizen”, but “Book of Thel” leaves me very cold. As evidence, I’ll present a few lines from Blake’s and Dickinson’s respective Thels side by side:

Blake Dickinson
The daughters of Mne Seraphim led round their sunny flocks.
All but the youngest; she in paleness sought the secret air.
To fade away like morning beauty from her mortal day:
Down by the river of Adona her soft voice is heard:
And thus her gentle lamentation falls like morning dew.
O life of this our spring! why fades the lotus of the water?
Why fade these children of the spring? born but to smile & fall.
Ah! Thel is like a watry bow. and like a parting cloud.
Like a reflection in a glass. like shadows in the water.
Like dreams of infants. like a smile upon an infants face,
Like the doves voice, like transient day, like music in the air;
Ah! gentle may I lay me down, and gentle rest my head.
And gentle sleep the sleep of death. and gentle hear the voice
Of him that walketh in the garden in the evening time.
The mark is on you now
The furnace sealed inside your head
Melting from the inside now
Waxy tears run down your face
The whore that never told her tale
Relives it every night with you
Far off stands the lamb and waits
For the wolf to come and end its life
Stand inside the temple as the book of Thel is opening
The priestess stands before you, offering her hand out, she’s rising
Come the dawning of the dead
In famine and in war
Now the harlot womb of death
Spits out its rotten core
Serpent on the altar now
Has wrapped itself around your spine
So you look into its mouth
And you kiss the pearly fangs divine
Happy that your end is swift

All I can say is I think Dickinson was using a very poorly edited copy of Blake’s works.

Much more impressive are the offerings of Ulver and Thelema, for somewhat different reasons. Ulver has, indeed, attracted a fair bit of attention in Blake circles.  A Norwegian trio (their name is Norwegian for “wolves”) in the early part of their career Ulver were associated black metal music but, since their first album release in 1993, have moved in more experimental directions. Influenced by Scandinavian folktales and poetry, in 1998 they changed direction with Themes from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. This really is quite an impressive concept album (and even the prog-rock connotations of that term are appropriate in terms of the ambition of this work). You can listen to some samples from Themes on the Zoamorphosis blog.

My current favourite, however, is Thelema – partly, I’m sure, because of that sense of having “discovered” something that as yet has not been widely circulated among Blakeans. Thelema is a progressive death metal/experimental band from Gomel, Belarus, that formed in 2003, and its current lineup consists of four members including Alex Sedin on vocals. As well as two demos, On Heavenly Fields (2003) and Divine Image (2007), the group has released one album inspired by Blake’s poetry, Fearful Symmetry (2008). This is much more than the usual Blake-ripoff, and actually demonstrates something quite unusual: like Ulver, members of Thelema appear actually to have read some of Blake’s poetry (“The Crystal Cabinet”, for example, is hardly one that appears regularly in death metal music), and progressive death metal itself is an interesting spin-off from the multifarious sub-genres of metal, incorporating elements of jazz and funk. You can hear Thelema on the Blake Disco.

Any other bands that deserve a mention? Please leave your comments below.