Song of the Day: Authors and Literature in Music (Day Seven).

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”.

Song of the Day: Authors and Literature in Music (Day Five).

Child’s Christmas in Wales, the opening song on John Cale’s 1973 album Paris 1919, takes its title from Dylan Thomas’ 1952 prose work A Child’s Christmas in Wales.  Whilst Child’s Christmas in Wales takes some inspiration from Thomas’ work of the same name, evoking the same wide-eyed wonder of a young child at a time of festivities, the song gives more than a passing nod to another Dylan Thomas work, the poem The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait (1946).

Musically, Paris 1919 is to John Cale’s canon as The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) was to theirs and strongly influenced by producer Chris Thomas’ recent experiences working with Procol Harum on their Live: In Concert With the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (1972).  Set amongst the  lushly orchestrated backdrop, the lyrics of the album are arguably Cale’s most impressive but confusing work to date. Child’s Christmas in Wales stirs a similar feeling to the Dylan Thomas work of the same name, one of magic and joy in the company of family and friends at that time of year with lines such as “With mistletoe and candle green” and “good neighbours were we all” but the songs setting, aboard a ship (“Ten murdered oranges bled on board ship”), shows the influence of The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait. The most obvious lyrical reference to The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait is in the lines “Too late to wait, the long legged bait Tripped uselessly around”.  The main character of Thomas’ poem is a fisherman who uses a girl as bait.  The fish violate the girl and she dies:  “A girl alive with hooks through her lips, All the fishes were rayed in blood”.  Note here the similarities between the line in Cale’s Child’s Christmas in Wales to the line in Thomas’ The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait. Other similarities include the references to cattle in both Cale’s work and Thomas’ work.  For example, in The Ballad of the Long Legged Bait, after various miracles and strange things happening, notably the disappearance of the sea, the fisherman sees “the bulls of Biscay and their calves” and “The cattle graze on the covered foam”.  These references to cattle and the replacement of one environment for another are mirrored in Cale’s Child’s Christmas in Wales in the line “The cattle graze uprightly seducing the door”.  Cattle are also mentioned in the second track of the album, Hanky Panky Nohow in the rather baffling lyric, “There’s a law for everything and for Elephants that sing to keep the cows that agriculture won’t allow”.

With Child’s Christmas in Wales, John Cale uses the influence of Dylan Thomas as a springboard to the set the scene for the evident themes of the sea, travel and war on Paris 1919.  The penultimate verse of Child’s Christmas in Wales (“Sebastopol Adrianapolis, The prayers of all combined, Take down the flags of ownership, The walls are falling down”) can be read in three ways.  Firstly, the walls falling down could be a reference to the magical occurrence where one setting is replaced by another in Thomas’ The Long Legged Bait.  Secondly, the lines could refer to the submission of the long legged bait with the flags representing the girl yielding to the narrator’s advances and the walls falling down representing her defenses tumbling.  Thirdly, it could be a war reference, with the flags of ownership representing either the countries at war and the walls falling down representing invasion and the assuming of control.  Just as Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales finds Thomas reminiscing about childhood Christmases, we could see the narrator of Cale’s Child’s Christmas in Wales as a soldier aboard a ship over the Christmas period reminiscing about childhood Christmases at home.

“Sebastopol” refers to the southernmost suburb of Pontypool, Torfaen, South Wales, named in honour of the Crimean city of Sevastopol (also known as Sebastopol) which was taken during the Crimean War (1853 – 1856) during The Siege of Sevastopol (1854 – 1855).  Adrianapolis is the old name for Edime, Turkey, the site of The Battle of Adrianople (378), fought by the Roman Army and Gothic rebels and the Siege of Adrianople during the First Balkan War (1912 -23).

Other places name checked on the album are Transvaal (The Endless Plain of Fortune); Andalucia (Andalucia, which also includes references to Agriculture with the character of Farmer John); Paris; Japan (Paris 1919); Chipping Sodbury (Graham Greene); Dunkirk; Dundee; Berlin; Norway (Half Past France); Antarctica and Barbary (Antarctica Starts Here).  All of these locations are also important in wars, battles and exploration.  They are as follows: The Second Punic War in 218 to 201BC and the Spanish Civil War in 1936 – 1939 (Andalusia); The First and Second Barbary Wars in 1801 to 1805 and 1815 respectively (Barbary.  The Barbary Wars were fought between the United States and the Barbary States, Northwest Africa after US President Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the high tributes demanded by the Barbary States and because they were seizing American merchant ships and enslaving the crews for high ransoms. The First Barbary War was the first military conflict authorised by Congress that the US fought on foreign land and seas); The Vincennes South Sea Surveying exploration which travelled to Antarctica (1839) (The Vincennes was the first US warship to circumnavigate the globe); The Crimean War in 1853 to 1856 (Sebastopol, as previously mentioned); The First and Second Boer Wars in 1880 to 1881 and 1899 to 1902 respectively (Transvaal); The Russo-Turkish War in 1877 to 1878 (Berlin, the site of the Berlin Peace Treaty in 1878, during which Bismarck’s decision to split Bulgaria would start a war in the Balkans 34 years later and would eventually lead to the First World War); The First World War in 1914 to 1918 and Second World War in 1939 to 1945 (Japan, which in alliance with Entente Powers played an important role in securing the sea lanes in the South Pacific and Indian Oceans against the Imperial German Navy during the First World War.  The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 led to the USA’s entry into the Second World War; Berlin was the site of the Battle of Berlin in the Second World War, which led to the suicide of Adolf Hitler; Norway, which was neutral during the First World War but subject to extensive espionage from both sides in the conflict.  Norway was occupied by German in the Second World War.  Both Britain and Germany had strategic interest in denying the other access to Norway; Dunkirk was the site of a naval air station which operated seaplanes during the First World War and later the site of the Battle of Dunkirk in 1940, ending the Phoney War and kick starting France and Britain’s major involvement in the Second World War; and Dundee, a major shipbuilding location during the First and Second World Wars).  The Paris of 1919 from which the album and it’s title song takes its name was the site of 1919 Paris Peace Conference, six months where President Woodrow Johnson, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George and French Premier Georges Clemenceau met to shape a lasting peace and redrew the borders of the modern world.

Elsewhere on Paris 1919, John Cale also references Shakespeare in the wonderful Bolan-esque stomp of Macbeth, employing both the characters of Macbeth and Banquo (“Banquo’s been and gone, He’s seen it all before”).  Although a welcome addition to Paris 1919, Macbeth seems oddly out of place lyrically.  Graham Greene is later name checked on the slightly whimsical sounding track, Graham Greene.  Graham Greene fits in with the war theme on Paris 1919.  During his life, Greene travelled around the world to remote places.  His travels led him to being recruited into MI6 by his sister Elisabeth, who worked for the organisation, and he was posted to Sierra Leone during the Second World War.   This fits neatly in with the theme of espionage on the album.  The mention of “Chipping and Sodbury” in the song Graham Greene could refer to Chipping Sodbury being a staging post for men preparing to go to France during the First World War.  Chipping Sodbury could also be mentioned because it was the location of an emergency hospital during the Second World War.  If we were to take the latter as the meaning for the use of these place names, it would be coherent with the lines “Welcome back to chipping and sodbury, You can have a second chance”.  Far from actually being anything to do with Graham Greene, the song may actually be about a wounded soldier in hospital who despite being injured is enjoying the grandeur of the hospital compared to the conditions he has lived in during the war.  The character in the song may be fantasising about “drinking tea with Graham Greene” and “making small talk with the Queen”.  Just as Dylan Thomas wrote about his past as a boy or as a young man, Cale also looks back to the past but expands this nostalgic view to encompass other themes such as war, travel, espionage to produce a piece of writing which, if looked at closely, reads like a potted history of war told through a collection of short stories.

I have tried to work out the meaning of the lyrics on Paris 1919 for years and just when I think I am coming close, I flail and submit like the Long Legged Bait, such is the majesty and mystique of Cale’s writing.  On Paris 1919, which the influence of Dylan Thomas resonates through themes such as the sea and lost innocence in Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas is merely a springboard of inspiration for an album which despite its overall accessibility could be John Cale’s most lyrically audacious and complex work, filled with multi-layered songs with multifaceted meanings.  Child’s Christmas in Wales is a stunning opener to an equally stunning album that enthrals, enraptures and captures the listener on each play.  It is obvious why Cale chose to position Child’s Christmas in Wales as the first track of the album:  This album is a voyage, one of depth and complexity, a concept album that is more than the sum of its parts and one in which John Cale proves that his writing should be equally as revered as that of Dylan Thomas.

Song Of The Day: Authors and Literature in Music (Day Three).

“Not Savior from on High deliver, No trust have we in prince or peer, But in our strong arm to deliver”. -Brendan Behan, Borstal Boy

Burn It Down, the incendiary opening track to the band’s magnificent and visionary 1980 debut album, Searching For The Young Soul Rebels started out life as Dance Stance, the band’s debut single from the previous year.  Reworked and revitalised for the debut album, the song now featured an opening of Kevin Rowland searching (perhaps for ‘the young soul rebels’) on his radio.  Through the static and fuzz laid a collage of snippets from songs from the last decade such as Holidays In The Sun by The Sex Pistols, Rat Race by The Specials and Smoke On The Water by Deep Purple followed by the battle cry of “Oh, for God’s sake burn it down!”

Following the inflammatory opening denouncing the music scene of the last decade and a call to arms to forget what went before and just as Kevin Rowland states on the album’s closing track, There There My Dear, “welcome the new soul vision”, Rowland taps into his Irish-Catholic roots by making reference to an array of Irish playwrights and writers and tells of the ignorance towards the Irish.   In total, Burn It Down references 14 Irish literary figures: Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, Eugene O’Neil, Edna O’Brien, Lawrence Stern, Sean Kavanaugh, Sean McCann, Benedict Keilly, Jimmy Hiney, Frank O’Connor and Catherine Rhine.  Rowland told The Guardian in 1980:

“I was sick of hearing anti-Irish prejudice all the time from really thick people and the lyrics just spilled out of me.  I had this biography of Brendan Behan and on the back it said: ‘Some say Behan has the potency of Oscar Wilde …’ and listed all these other great writers:  Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw and so on.  I’d heard of them – that was all – but thought: ‘I’ll put them in!’  I don’t think I was ever claiming to have actually read them.  I was saying:  ‘If Irish people are so thick, how come they’ve produced all these great writers”.

The lyrical attack against ignorance towards Irish people by name checking the greats of Irish literature was complimented by the album sleeve featuring a Belfast Catholic boy carrying his belongings after moving from his home during The Troubles, a time in which this ill feeling was more apparent than ever.  The band’s image of the time, that of the New York docker, could be seen to reflect the immigration of the Irish to America, where most of the band’s soul influence derived from.  Incidentally, Brendan Behan, the influence of whom kick-started the writing of Burn It Down, famously lived in New York’s Chelsea Hotel in the early 1960’s.   The band’s Irish influence was taken one step further with the sound and image adopted on the band’s second album, Too-Rye-Ay (1982).  As Kevin Rowland explained in the BBC’s Young Guns Go For It documentary, “I had a need in me to find a way to say, ‘I’m Irish and I’m not shit’”.