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.
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.
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.
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”.