History by The Verve, from the band’s second album A Northern Soul (1995) finds lyricist Richard Ashcroft using William Blake’s London from Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) as a major influence, it is thought, to help convey his feelings regarding his break up with girlfriend Sarah Carpenter, following revelations that his girlfriend of six years had been having an affair with Verve roadie Andy Burke. This is thought to be reflected in the lines “And one and one is two, But three is company”. Ashcroft has denied that History is about the breakup of his relationship but a cursory glance at some of the lyrics elsewhere on A Northern Soul would suggest that this is an album about somebody who has given up on love. In the album’s title track, Ashcroft sings, “I don’t believe in love and devotion” and in So It Goes, he sings “I don’t believe that love is free”. Whereas their previous album A Storm in Heaven (1992) could be seen as their Songs of Innocence, A Northern Soul is The Verve’s Songs of Experience. As Ashcroft sings on the album’s title track, “This is a tale of a northern soul, looking to find his way back home”. A Northern Soul is Ashcroft’s lyrical attempt to find his way back from an event that has happened. On History, Ashcroft’s feelings towards love are at their most bitter and finds the newly experienced writer wanting to share his experiences: “I’ve got to tell you my tale, Of how I loved and how I failed”. The song took on a whole new poignancy when it was released as a single following the band’s first abrupt break up.
The opening lyrics of The Verve’s History are adapted from the first two stanzas of William Blake’s London. London reads:
I wander through each chartered street,
Near where the chartered Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet,
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forged manacles I hear…
In The Verve’s History, Ashcroft sings:
I wander lonely streets
Behind where the old Thames does flow
And in every face I meet
Reminds me of what I have for
In every man, in every hand
In every kiss, you understand
That living is for other men
I hope you too will understand
In every child, in every eye
In every sky, above my head
Just as Blake manages to tap into the sadness of the Londoners he writes about, so does Ashcroft, ably assisted by History’s impressive string arrangement which rises and falls at exactly the right moments throughout the song. As the song unfolds, Ashcroft’s Blakean view whilst wandering the London streets gives way to the singer thinking about his own life and about what he has run from (“Reminds me of what I have run for”), whether there is any hope of reconciliation (“Maybe we could find a room, Where we could see what we should do”) and whether hope is all he has (“The bed ain’t made but it’s filled full of hope, I’ve got skin full of dope”).
The Verve would be heavily influenced by William Blake again on the later song Love Is Noise from the album Forth (2008). This time, the source of lyrical inspiration comes from Blake’s And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time, more commonly known as Jerusalem (1804). In And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time, Blake writes “And did those feet in ancient time, Walk on England’s mountains green?” In the lyrics of Love Is Noise, Ashcroft adapts Blake’s lines to ask “Do those feet in modern times, Walk of soles that are made in China?” In Love Is Noise, Ashcroft also substitutes the “dark satanic mills” of And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time for “Bright prosaic malls”.
In an interview with Steve Lamacq for the BBC upon the release of Love Is Noise and its parent album, Forth, Richard Ashcroft said:
“Really, you know, lyrically in a way … the first few line is a kind of re-make of Jerusalem by William Blake. Rather than will those feet in ancient times, it’s the feet in modern times. It’s ‘bright prosaic malls’ instead of ‘dark satanic mills’ and again, I think it goes back to that internal struggle of my own, you know, that search for the love and it’s what we’re all searching for, I think. That internal battle is the battle that I will always have lyrically perhaps or with my songs. It’s about my own internal battle”.
Therefore, we could see History and Love Is Noise as a modern day retellings of Blake’s London and And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time, respectively. Does that then make Richard Ashcroft the modern day William Blake? When asked about the influence of William Blake on his work by Tom Lanham for Music Saves in 1997, Ashcroft said:
“The last couple of centuries, we could’ve gone a completely different way, that’s why William Blake turned me on so much, because at a time when people discovered gravity, he was having his visions, off in his room writing and painting. But if we’d gone a different road a hundred years ago, we wouldn’t have phones, we wouldn’t have computers. If I wanted to speak to you in America, we’d know about it and I’d fuckin’ SPEAK to you in America, but in my head. And if we needed to heal, we’d heal … And flying? Sure, why not? But let’s face it, for anyone who’s creating art, this is a pretty chaotic, insane time to be making music. It’s like Life’s An Ocean from our second album, A Northen Soul: “Imagined the future, I woke up with a scream, I was buying some feelings from the vending machine”.