Blake’s Jerusalem: the hit parade

As I’ve been doing some work on Blake’s hymn Jerusalem for a while now, I thought I would record here some of the more unusual versions that have been released over the past few years. As with the post on William Blake’s music, this is a simple list with some comments on my part – and offered in no especial order. A few of them will resurface in podcasts with a more extended discussion.

  • Mark Stewart and the Mafia: My particular favourite, this version was released in 1982, combining samples of brass band/Last Night of the Proms renditions interleaved with the Mafia’s soothing dub and Stewart’s pained cackle as a Jeremiad for the nation. The most original version yet.
  • Test Dept: A close competitor after Stewart for me, this version was released on the album Pax Britannica in 1990, in time to coincide with the Poll Tax riots. The Blake-Parry hymn is broken in two and fused with the stentorian tones of Margaret Thatcher. You can hear my podcast on this version here.
  • Billy Bragg: Probably the version with which many listeners are most familiar, Bragg’s best version of Jerusalem is to be found on the album The Internationale, released at the same time as Test Dept’s. His voice, a piano, and probably the release which is closest in form and spirit to Parry’s original.
  • Soul Fire: A reggae rendition that was recorded in 2007, I know very little about this group, but their Jerusalem Dubwise version is one of the smoothest that you will ever hear.
  • Emerson, Lake and Palmer: At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, this is probably the most pompous release ever, which is a tough challenge ever since Elgar’s overblown arrangement in 1922. Included on the album Brain Salad Surgery, 1973, the fact that is for me almost unlistenable does not prevent it from being one of the most interesting versions.
  • Fat Les: The official song for Euro 2000, Jerusalem 2000 included a gay male voice choir singing along with Keith Allen, Alex James and Damien Hurst. The joke may have been funny for a nano-second, but the military-band percussion drummed up debates around what it meant to be English at the turn of the millennium.
  • Blake: Following on a theme from the latter, boy-band Blake offered the true-blue, Tory vision of England’s green and pleasant land on their debut album in 2007. I cannot listen to this except through gritted teeth, but it is an insight into the soul of middle England.
  • Gary Lucas: the “thinking man’s guitar hero” according to the New Yorker, Lucas performed with Captain Beefheart before forming his own band, Gods and Monsters, in 1989. His new album, Chase the Devil, due out in 2010 with Dean Bowman on vocals, certainly promises to offer a more thoughtful arrangement of Jerusalem than anything by boy-band Blake or Fat Les.
  • The Fall: The career of Mark E. Smith rises and, well, falls, but 1988’s I Am Kurious Oranj is a definite highlight. The Fall sing Jerusalem as something of a baggy monster, but Dog is Life/Jerusalem is far more compelling when rambled through by Smith than belted out with fake passion by many others.
  • Paul Robeson: When I hear Robeson’s deep, rich voice, I am willing to forget many sins committed against the Blake/Parry hymn; when I read about Robeson’s life, I realise that it is many of my own sins that are to be forgiven. Inspiring and beautiful, this was first released as a 7″ EP and then on the debut compilation Robeson in 1959.

Zoapod 1: Test Dept and Jerusalem (transcript)

Transcript of Zoamorphosis podcast. To listen to the full podcast click here.

1. Welcome to the first in a series of podcasts that will appear on The aim of these podcasts is to present short introductions to the various ways in which Blake has been used by artists, writers and musicians since his death in 1827, sometimes drawing on research I am doing, at other times reflections on aspects of Blake’s reception that have attracted my attention.

2. This first podcast will focus on one particular version of Blake’s most famous poem, the stanzas beginning “And did those feet” which is more commonly known as the hymn “Jerusalem”. Blake wrote his verses as part of the epic poem Milton sometime between 1804 and 1811, those words being set to music by Hubert Parry in 1916. Since that time, the hymn has often been invoked for political purposes, both by left and right, but one of the most extraordinary versions was issued by the industrial group Test Dept in 1990.

3. Pax Britannica, the album on which “Jerusalem” appears, was the seventh studio album released by Test Dept and is subtitled “An Oratorio in five movements”. Having formed in London in 1981, Test Dept quickly became part of an experimental industrial music scene that included groups across Britain and Europe such as Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Einstürzende Neubauten and Laibach.

4. Test Dept were overtly committed to music as political event, playing benefit gigs during the miners’ strike of 1984 as well as anti-nuclear events and demonstrations opposing the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act. On Pax Britannica Test Dept was accompanied by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Schola Cantorum, Edinburgh Orchestra, with a score provided by John Eacott and conducted by James Macmillan. Part of the soundtrack was performed as a live event at the “Second Coming” show in the St Rollox Railway Works in Glasgow, and live recordings were released the following year on the album Proven in Action.

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5. “Jerusalem”, as part of Movement I, is one of the most astonishing versions of the Parry-Blake hymn for a very simple reason. While the opening two verses appear little more than a particularly bombastic rendition of the Elgar arrangement, a crescendo after the line “Among these dark Satanic mills?” announces a radical break in the music. Now the heavy percussion becomes more dominant, and Blake’s words are replaced by the voice of Margaret Thatcher, lines from a speech delivered to the Conservative Party Conference in October 1989.

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6. Delivered at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool, on October 13, the theme of Thatcher’s speech as recorded in the archive of the Margaret Thatcher Foundation was “The Triumph of Freedom”. Dealing with the failure of eastern bloc socialism that was becoming evident everywhere in 1989, Margaret Thatcher contrasted those flaws with a decade of Conservative triumphs in the economy, healthcare, choice and the environment. With the Berlin Wall about to crumble and the tenth anniversary of her election as Prime Minister, it appeared self-evident to Thatcher that the triumph of freedom was synonymous with the victories of the Conservatives, the election of whom in 1979, she declared, was one of the immediate causes of the decline of communism.

7. The transformations across Europe which led to the fall of the Soviet bloc appeared in many ways an endorsement of the policies pursued by Thatcher and other western leaders. In truth, its rapid collapse was also immensely destabilising and the Prime Minister herself was running into difficulties, central to these being the Community Charge: against evident unpopularity facing its introduction into England and Wales in April 1990, Thatcher decided to champion it personally, leading to the formation of a number of Anti Poll Tax Unions which organised protests and demonstrations, the largest of which took place in London on March 31 where more than 200,000 protestors attended and violent rioting and clashes with the police occurred.

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8. The threat of widespread unrest was only dispersed by the resignation of Thatcher after a leadership contest in November 1990. Although the Conservatives actually increased their vote in Scotland in 1992, the implementation of the Charge there a year earlier as an experiment had consolidated the view of the party as more interested in England than the rest of the Union, making mainstream demands for devolution inevitable and a mockery of the Prime Minister’s remarks that “Britain needs us”.

9. This is the background to the version of “Jerusalem” included on Pax Britannica. The album had actually been in planning for some time, but when recording began at the Cava Sound Workshops in Glasgow in the winter of 1989-90, the political situation in Britain and Europe had become much more volatile. The decision to record with Scottish orchestras itself became more significant as opposition to the Poll Tax had begun with its introduction in Scotland, adding emphasis to the album’s critique of Tory imperialism within Britain.

10. This was not the only use of the Blake-Parry hymn in such circumstances: in May 1990, Billy Bragg released his album The Internationale which included a version of “Jerusalem” as one of several songs attacking the government of the day. The comparison between the Bragg and Test Dept versions is revealing: Bragg’s is one of the simplest ever to have been recorded, consisting of his voice accompanied by a piano and perhaps the closest to Parry’s original arrangement.

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11. The version of “Jerusalem” by Test Dept, by contrast, is an overblown and bombastic treatment of the Elgar arrangement that is most familiar to listeners from Last Night of the Proms, allowing no restraint whatsoever in its deployment of orchestral and choral effects. Without the sample of Margaret Thatcher’s speech, it would be no more than a particularly aggressive rendition of English patriotism. Yet of, course, that single intervention is what transforms the Blake-Parry hymn into a grotesque and particularly fascinating spectacle. Test Dept break the back of “Jerusalem”, split it into two parts so that the embedded nationalism of that hymn, accumulated over decades and intensified in many quarters of British society during the 1980s, is parodied by Thatcher’s triumphalism.

12. Billy Bragg’s aim had been (and continues to be) to recuperate “Jerusalem” as a song of the left. Test Dept’s ambition, by contrast, was to exacerbate the hymn’s totalitarian qualities, committing an act of violence to make explicit the repressive tendencies of the authorities. The combination of the first two verses of “Jerusalem” and the extracts of the Prime Minister’s speech may be read in several ways: it is possible that Blake’s text serves as an implicit contradiction of Margaret Thatcher’s words, a rebuke to her singular vision of post-imperial glory; alternatively, both work in parallel, buttressed by the swagger of Elgar’s arrangement so that the jingoism implicit in “Jerusalem” is made explicit by the Thatcher speech.

13. As the Prime Minister became increasingly unpopular, her moment of triumph a high-point of hubris before the coming fall, so any lingering beauty in the hymn becomes unbearable, splintered by an interruption that for the typical audience of Test Dept at the time would have provoked intensely forceful reactions. In their version of the hymn, the rhetoric of power of the state is symbolically assumed and extravagantly celebrated – taken at face value so that it cannot be ignored and, through ironic deprecation, be allowed to continue. By recasting “Jerusalem” as a nationalist hymn, there is no saving grace in hoping for salvation via an alternative (national) socialism. The atrocity is made manifest, defined as error the more clearly to be accepted or rejected.