Chime: Acid house as folk music

…’Chime’ started as a big riff from me playing this joyous Detroit-y chord progression that mirrored my mood — it was a sunny day and I was off to meet girls down the pub” – Paul Hartnoll, Orbital

Whenever Paul Hartnoll indulges in the memory of composing what Simon Reynolds called ‘the British ‘Strings Of Life’’, the same image emerges – a sun-tinged summer’s day, where everything feels just right. If we think of it as the British ‘Strings Of Life’, then it is worth thinking about its Britishness not as an incidental detail to where it was created, but what about Britain defines the sound of the song. Derrick May’s ‘Strings Of Life’, christened by Frankie Knuckles, connects with the American tradition of the dancefloor as an alternative spiritual space, for those from religious stock but barred from church membership on the grounds of their sexuality, where the combination of music, dancing, and drugs work towards a transcendent experience. ‘Chime’, on the other hand, takes some influences away from the dancefloor and closer to the ground usually claimed by folk music.

Bob Dylan was labelled as a Judas for talking folk electric. So what does that make you when you take folk electronic? Folktronica is well-established as a genre, even if it exists at the cross-section of artists experimenting along their own paths rather than being borne from a common location or identity group. Still, the aesthetic is vaguely definable, with a set of vaguely recognisable signifiers: the wonky guitar cut-ups of The Books, the dancefloor lullabies of Four Tet, or a more conceptual intersection of folk with technological environments, cf. Everyday Robots and Momus, a trailblazer in the field (pun intended), who sings about web coders and cassettes with the emotional resonance of seafaring heroes and battlefield roses.

‘Chime’ is folkic in a more abstract way. It is an amateur product, the result of a musician picking up an instrument without formal training and creating a sound on their own terms. A key feature of folk music is geographical specificity, and this seems to be a hole for such an interpretation to fall down: how can geographical specificity work with electronic dance music, powered by machines that have the same configuration in Germany, Japan, England, and Brazil? ‘Chime’ is a lesson as to how. No one would deny that local takes on house music have different sounds, but it would take a braver soul to argue that this new technology, instead of ripping up the rulebook with cybertechnic ideas, connects with older folk images, sounds, sensations, thoughts, reflections, and colours. It’s a particularly English type of cultural conservatism which might deter us from doing so.

The situation Paul Hartnoll was in while jamming ‘Chime’ is a scene which crops up repeatedly in British (or more specifically, English) art through the ages: a summer day drawing in, a particular interpretation of the pastoral mode which in music, drove Vaughan Williams and Delius at the beginning of the 20th century. It seems as if the unpredictable weather inherent to the UK ensures that such moments stick long in the memory and capture a large portion of our collective consciousness. Its place in literature is long-standing too; the titular ‘Chime’ recalls the opening of Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy Written In A Country Churchyard’. The feeling of seasons turning in, of golden ages dissolving, of the flower of youth wilting, of death approaching, all of it heralded by the ringing of a bell at the end of the day:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,

The plowman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,

   And all the air a solemn stillness holds,

Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,

       And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds…

The curfew bell, used in English towns since the Norman Conquest, is the initial aural impetus behind the poet’s ruminations on death and fame. There is also Keats’ ‘Ode To a Nightingale’:

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self

The bell here is the vehicle rather than the tenor of a simile, but its sound is still placed against the nightingale which ‘singest of summer’. For a more authentically ‘folk’ example, there’s a ballad called ‘The Old Church Bell’, taken from a collection of 19th century broadsides. It comes in differing versions – with a darker tinge on occasion, but this is one which encapsulates how the bells of ‘Chime’ and their association with coming down from a trip to the rational, real world is in the same vein as Romantic flights of fancy, with the bell as a sonic marker of that:  

Oh! A mournful sound has the old church bell,

That swings in the belfry old;

How many a sad and merry knell

Has he rung from his turret bold!

The old grey-beard, and the peasant boy

Have listen’d to his chime,

As he chang’d his note from death to joy,

With the clanging hours of time;

Tolling on, with mournful knell,

A warning voice has the Old Church Bell.

Oh! His voice is clear as he gaily peals,

On a happy bridal morn,

But it mournfully to the fun’ral steals,

Ere the fading day is gone;

Impartial he makes his summons ring,

Unlike the courtier’s plan,

For he’ll wail no louder the death of a King,

Than he would of a poor old man;

Tolling on, with solemn knell,

A mournful sound has the Old Church Bell.

He has seen the sire, and has seen the son

To the village church yard bend;

And the deep fond welcome shall still ring on,

Till time himself shall end,

And his loud old tongue, like a lonely bird,

Chimes with a sacred spell;

For the sweetest music earth e’er heard,

Must yield to the Old Church Bell.

Tolling on, with solemn knell,

A mournful sound has the Old Church Bell.

Look at the final lines of the last stanza – ‘For the sweetest music earth e’er heard,/Must yield to the Old Church Bell’. That is the thematic progression of Orbital’s ‘Chime’, summed up in verse in a 19th century broadside. The bell may be used to ring in weddings, but its sound always leads in a downwards direction, as all things must, towards the grave.

Deliberately obtuse comparisons with poetry are one thing, but conjecturing sensory experiences are quite another – still, that’s what I’m going to do. Church bells were used as samples in other tracks of the acid house era, though more so from chillout – the two best examples being 808 State’s ‘Pacific State’ and The Orb’s ‘A Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules From The Centre Of The Ultraworld’. Both songs are peppered with naturalistic samples like crickets, birds, and New Age, melismatic vocals. These might be mere signifiers in isolation, but the bells which tie those songs with ‘Chime’ imply at least a recognition of sounds which might be heard as the sun goes down or comes up on a rave, like chattering birds or insects. ‘Ultraworld’ and its parent album The Orb’s Adventures Beyond The Ultraworld are like an aural patchwork of an English midsummer’s day from dawn to twilight, as the album commences with a sample of John Waite intoning: “Over the past few years to the traditional sounds of an English summer, the droning of lawnmowers, the smack of leather on willow, has been added a new noise…”. In essence, the outdoor experience of the rave, and the accompanying MDMA’s shamanistic effect on making the user feel more connected with nature, contrive to give the music an added sensitivity to the sounds of the natural world which might accompany wandering back from a field, coming down, in the early hours of summer. Is it really too much to think that this is an addition to a long-standing English tradition? Was ecstasy not to acid house in the 1980s what opium was to Romantic verse in the early 19th century?

What’s more, English folk songs are usually irreverently anti-establishment: think of the Lincolnshire Poacher, who goes from serving his master to trapping hares on his land, or the Old Church Bell from earlier which chimed for both the ‘King’ and the ‘poor old man’. Raves were (and still are, though in greatly reduced numbers since the 1994 Criminal Justice Act) hosted on unclaimed or unused land, often with placards protesting for the right to freedom of assembly. Following the Second Summer of Love, the music scene and the squatting/hippie community combined with mutual interests, coming to a head at the Spiral Tribe-organised Castlemorton Common Festival. Spiral Tribe in particular drew on a medieval, folkic tradition for their parties, with sound systems that had ‘Circus’ in their name, drug sellers peddling their wares in what Simon Reynolds compared to a bazaar, and ‘terra-technic’ music. This music is not removed from folk because it’s made from machines, quite the opposite: the cheapness and availability of those machines emancipated musicians from needing lessons, a recording studio, producer, engineer – it could be made from the proverbial bedroom. ‘Chime’ was knocked up in a cupboard under the stairs which was converted to Paul Hartnoll’s studio space. As a sound and as a phenomenon in its infancy, acid house recaptured that sense of figuring tunes out, of getting to grips with tools needed to produce melodic, danceable sounds.

All of this is fine, but what about the actual song? ‘Chime’ kicks off with an insistent one-note ostinato which is so bright, it just feels solar. Very precise synthesised string hits are layered with delay which give it a lingering effect like the sun’s rays over the horizon, and it anchors the song like a pulse. The bass line palpitates with a bravery which marks Orbital out from their peers: the second bar of the bass pattern has brief entrances into higher notes, but tinged with pathos when it comes back down, recognising the inevitability of a sober end. The song is in the key of E Flat Major, which makes it suited to the big-arena-hands-in-the-air mode; a key Beethoven, Holst, and Richard Strauss knew was well suited to heroics when they employed it in the Eroica symphony, the ‘Jupiter’ suite of The Planets, and the tone poem ‘A Hero’s Life’ respectively. Those are big, boisterous pieces of nationhood and ‘Chime’ wears its cultural heritage on its sleeve as well.

When the piano kicks in, the piece develops the style which will govern it for its duration: six elements cutting and fading in and out, with the delay on the melodic parts creating phantom patterns as notes play over and across each other. It sounds denser and more complex than it is, which helps feed the sense that the song is the product of a community, one that it is greater than the sum of its parts. That is the political edge of such a new type of folk music: encouraging togetherness and love in post-industrial, Thatcherite Britain where freedom is defined by the rolling back of the state and the liberalisation of markets to allow, in theory, a class of worker-entrepreneurs to flourish. As we now know though, this competition chips away at qualities like solidarity and community. Acid house music and its associated gatherings were therefore a political act to reclaim those qualities, an act made more strident when hosted in a privately owned space, as most of the United Kingdom is.

After 7 minutes the one-note pulse engages in call-and-response with the ‘chime’ sample which gives the song its title. This is a confrontational back-and-forth, between (almost perversely, given the machinery involved) the sun symbol at the heart of the song, and the clock which, as the literary examples showed us, is the more measured, artificial way of measuring time rather than rising and setting with nature. The 303 elements, shifting in pitch to get higher and higher towards the end increasingly resemble birdsong – the muddy birdsong you might actually hear from a chaffinch or swallow in an English tree or hedgerow, instead of the steely chirruping in ‘Pacific State’. The battle is won at this point of the song, but the war is lost by the end as the song fades out the the synthesised bells looping.  The song is an ongoing battle against life, against death, against ‘business’ and rationality – it has a Romantic heart, and a folk body.


Wordsworth’s Apocalypse

1903 walter crane illustrated edition, courtesy of uni of minnesota

This is a version of Wordsworth’s ‘Ode’, illustrated by Walter Crane in 1903. Notice how the scene has been transformed into something that would not look out of place in Greek myth. Credit: University of Minnesota

A hallmark of criticism of William Wordsworth’s ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality Based Upon Recollections of Early Childhood’ has been thinking about the primordial light which the poet believes predates our existence to be an implementation of Platonic thought, whereby the world is divided into Forms, with a cleavage between the physical and the ideal. According to this line of thinking, the poet describes how during life the soul is a prisoner inside the body, only free before birth and after death. Certainly, Platonism should be considered as part of the overall intellectual background Wordsworth is working from, but the language is steeped in specific Biblical cadence and terminology too. In a note he gave to Isabella Fenwick in 1843, Wordsworth says the inspiration for the poem was his ‘brooding’ over the Biblical stories of Elijah and Enoch as a child, sympathising with their imminent connection to a transcendent state. The Old Testament contains figures like Elijah who are abruptly whisked up to heaven from Earth on a chariot of fire. Wordsworth’s ode on the other hand is like being kicked out of the chariot, with birth as a gradual descent to earth before finally being rooted out of idealism by ‘earthly freight’. The thinking may be Platonic, but the language is shared with the Elijah story, and willingly draws on its connotations in order to reverse its narrative momentum. Another Biblical source it overlaps with is the Olivet Discourse or the ‘Little Apocalypse’ from Matthew 24, also described in Mark 13. Yet the Biblical archetypes in this poem have not really been traced in sufficient detail, and Wordsworth’s invocation of Elijah has not been appropriate judged in the context of the Revolutionary Europe he was a part of.

Writing a poem with millennial undertones in 1802-4 is not unusual; the French Revolution was widely interpreted by popular preachers and writers like Joseph Priestley to be an indication of the coming millennium, whether it meant the end of the world or an overturn, necessitating a complete change in discourse. In the early years of the Revolution Wordsworth was quite radical – his friendship circle with Coleridge and others was spied upon (though quite ineptly) at Nether Stowey by James Walsh on grounds of perceived radicalism, he wrote an apology for the Revolution in a Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff, and ‘Descriptive Sketches’ features a prophecy of the spread of revolutionary fervour:

                                      Liberty must raise

Red on the hills her beacon’s far-seen blaze;

Must bid the tocsin ring from tower to tower!–

Nearer and nearer comes the trying hour!

Rejoice, brave Land, though pride’s perverted ire

Rouse hell’s own aid, and wrap thy fields in fire:

Lo, from the flames a great and glorious birth;

As if a new-made heaven were hailing a new earth!

–All cannot be: the promise is too fair

For creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air:

Yet not for this will sober reason frown

Upon that promise, nor the hope disown;

She knows that only from high aims ensue

Rich guerdons, and to them alone are due.

 Already here though is a sense of an inward turn; the disheartened change of tone at line 646 shows that Wordsworth cannot completely invest in the promise of an apocalypse, and shows a change in focus to ‘creatures doomed to breathe terrestrial air’ as the most important factor in his poetry.

James Gillray - Presages of the Millennium, produced in 1792, shows many of the contemporary fears of what the Revolution indicated. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum

James Gillray – Presages of the Millennium, produced in 1792, shows many of the contemporary fears of what the Revolution indicated. Credit: Fitzwilliam Museum

The promise of revolution is completed via an interrogation of the self, not through external activities. This extract shows how militarism is introduced to the poem as an abrupt discursive shift, with the poet unwilling to combine his idealistic idea of freedom originating from the human heart with a more totemic shift in freedom achieved by violent ends, which connects the violence of the Revolution with the suddenness of Elijah’s elevation. The Revolution promises the phoenix-like ‘flames’ and ‘new-made heaven’ which greeted Elijah, but Wordsworth grounds the reality of ‘terrestrial air’ too firmly to allow transcendental escape to be a possibility, and starts to discuss the vagaries of the individual.

Elijah and the figures described in the Olivet Discourse fit quite easily into a narrative of the Revolution – those whose actions during it allow them to be transported to the new, transcendental state, leaving behind their peers who were incapable of doing so, or to interpret it from the other end of the spectrum, teleporting the virtuous away from the apocalyptic excesses of the Revolution. Even by 1798 Wordsworth’s partner Coleridge was comparing the events of the Revolution with the wind, fire and earthquake experienced by Elijah on Horeb in a letter to his brother, writing just as he and the Wordsworths were about to embark to Germany:

Of the French Revolution I can give my thoughts most adequately in the words of Scripture: “A great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; and after the earthquake afire; and the Lord was not in the fire” and now (believing that no calamities are permitted but as the means of good) I wrap my face in my mantle and wait, with a subdued and patient thought, expecting to hear ” the still small voice” which is of God.

In this particular letter the identification with Elijah is a move away from Revolution, and the same letter details an important turn in Coleridge’s thinking, as he decides to abandon ‘consideration of immediate causes’  which are ‘infinitely complex and uncertain’, preferring to

elevate the imagination and set the affections in right tune by the beauty of the inanimate impregnated as with a living soul by the presence of life

One should always be wary of linking Coleridge and Wordsworth too closely together, but in this case the former provides the most adequate summary of their poetry’s inward turn following the excesses of the Revolution, appealing to the potential of the human heart rather than impelling a contingent audience, ready to make revolution a reality. Thus, with the two men in such close company, it is not unforeseeable to think that Wordsworth may have absorbed something of the Elijah story, not to mention that he probably had a very good knowledge of it himself anyway. Compared to Coleridge, Wordsworth is much less willing to describe an orthodox Christian God, so while Coleridge is lifted up, Wordsworth comes down in the ‘Ode’. Coleridge’s identification with Elijah is a wish to ride out the worst of the Revolution and become a prophet who can detune from such excesses and follow the moral instruction of God. Wordsworth’s thematic and linguistic similarity with the tale is a reconfiguration of such escapist impulses, asking whether humanity actually is something we should celebrate, rather than wish to depart from. Moreover, Wordsworth does not wait for the imminence of an interventionist God that confirms who is elect and who is reprobate, but affirms a common human heart which ensures his religion is always more muted than Coleridge’s.

In the best tradition of Biblical typology, many aspects of Elijah’s ascent are mirrored in the Olivet Discourse, and hence its influence should also be considered upon Wordsworth’s poem.

Took this from the website of esteemed eschatologist Don K. Preston. He used this picture of Revelation to illuminate the Olivet Discourse, showing its most common typological interpretation.

Took this from the website of esteemed eschatologist Don K. Preston. He used this picture of Revelation to illuminate the Olivet Discourse, showing its most common typological interpretation.

Jesus’ speech begins with the prophecy of a temple being destroyed, symbolic of abandoning earthly walls and fetters when the Second Coming arrives. Yet in Wordsworth the emphasis is upon life as a gradual realisation of the walls coming in, of the physicality of the ‘prison-house’ or ‘humorous stage’. In the Fenwick Notes to the poem Wordsworth describes the collapse of a childhood ‘abyss of idealism’, whereby one loses the sensation of feeling inextricably connected to the matter of all things. Freedom is something we lose, not something granted to us in miraculous salvation. With such a narrative in place, revolution and apocalypse is not what we’re waiting for; such manifestations at best maintain the tactility of life on earth.

Matthew 24: 16-19 emphasises the importance of abandoning worldly goods when the apocalypse arrives, and while Wordsworth would probably agree with rejecting materialism, his concentration on the ‘meanest flower’ shows another departure of his from the Bible, as he is so dedicated to the miracles of the everyday, especially those tokened by nature. Wordsworth’s idea of redemption comes about after a communion with the common elements of the world that surround him, not through a mystical revelation that pierces through all earthly matter. This is why line 25 is so important, as ‘trumpets’ harmonise the cataracts with the angelic trumpets that are harbringers of the apocalypse in the Book of Revelation. But in the context of the poem, they announce the May-morning festival which Wordsworth is re-joining, unable to join in the spirit of the occasion in the same manner as the children, but able to take an uplifting moral from observing them, remembering his own enjoyment of it and satisfied that it will continue in the future. They are not a sign of the end, but a sign of another start.

The May-morning festival is not only disjunctive because it has pagan origins, but because it is annual. It is a festival whose celebration returns consistently and predictably, yet as has been shown thus far the language overlaps with the prediction of the most totemic event possible – the Second Coming, or the end of history. This shows both Wordsworth’s optimism in a common human spirit, passing on through generations (rather than thinking about his own salvation, which as Coleridge showed, could manifest itself in terms of how to navigate a Revolutionary Europe), as well as a promotion of the miraculous nature of ‘regular’ life. To wit, his depictions of the Old Cumberland Beggar, the Discharged Soldier (in fact, nearly all of the people he encounters in the autobiographical Prelude), and the old man in ‘Animal Tranquillity and Decay’ are deeply linked to descriptions of pilgrims, but their destination is not as important as the journey, and their continued existence.  At this point in his career Wordsworth is not interested in creating a narrative arc towards an inscribed end point as Coleridge hinted at. He prefers to take the framework of such events and concentrate on the human interactions that happen amidst them.

One of the central passages in the Olivet Discourse is the fig tree analogy, used to indicate omens that the apocalypse is arriving. A symbolic parallel arrives jarringly in line 52 of Wordsworth’s poem, confirming the potency of the tree within the poem as it arrives with an abrupt change of pace. Once again the emphasis changes from harbingers of things to come in favour of things that have passed away – Wordsworth’s tree is a rooted constant in his life, one which he knows he perceived differently as a child and is confronted with it as an adult knowing the perceptual shift he has undergone since then. Wordsworth’s symbols are brought forward from subjective memory, not implemented ab extra.

Looking at Matthew 24: 36 in closer detail can elaborate this lack of faith in omens – whereas the Bible indicates that foreknowledge of the Apocalypse is only in the hands of God, the overarching structure of Wordsworth’s poem, and indeed in nearly all of his great works, is that revelation is a self-driven phenomenon, one that is only accountable to an individual, the experiences they have gone through, and the memories they have formed. The Bible tells us that ‘knoweth no man’ when Judgement will arrive. Wordsworth tells us the opposite; it is only the deeply ingrained experiences which only we know and remember which validate our existence.

Looking at the Ode through the lens of Biblical passages and millennialism facilitates greater consideration of the context of the Europe that Wordsworth inhabited, with a real sense that seismic historical changes were taking place, perhaps even the end of history. Written after the early promise of the Revolution had ebbed away into tyranny and military aggression, Wordsworth turns even further inward, to reinterpret the discourse of apocalypse and end times into a more humanistic renewal, not engaging with external portents but instead bringing forward memories and engagement with nature in order to achieve this. As with much Romantic verse, the emphasis on seemingly trivial subject matter is in fact a demonstration of how Wordsworth is keenly engaged with his political and historical context – but one has to work voraciously in order to trace it. The feeling of imminent historical changes can sometimes be met from the bottom-up, by concentrating on the very verisimilitude of human existence.

 Postscript, or, what’s the point?

 This is something new for me, but I think it’s a helpful exercise. I don’t think art should ever be judged by its immediate political relevance, but I’m going to add these little codas to some of my pieces from now on in order to give some personal ideas as to how and why the preceding essay is at all relevant to the time we live in.

 Any student of history will tell you that disillusionment with Revolution is predictable, but given how drastically bad the situation in the Middle East and North Africa has become following the ‘Arab Spring’, I feel sick to my stomach. That these world events should be presided over by Barack Obama, the world’s first hipster head of state, only adds another twist of the knife. Any chance of idealism has been completely exposed by the nuances of geopolitics and reaction by fundamentalist believers. I watched, with some close friends, events unfold in Tahrir Square in 2011 from some school computers, thinking: wow. We were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but perhaps this is it, the first global news event that we have been old enough to appreciate, that might indicate a new dawn for the world. Events since have proven that thinking in such Cold War binaries is no longer possible. In that respect, Wordsworth’s scrabbling attempt to find something to hold on to following the disintegration of a Revolution in his own time presents us with a good model to go back to the drawing board and reconsider how we interact with the world. Wordsworth is a man who has seen how grand narratives of history and the best will in the world can implode.




The influence of Keats on The Smiths’ ‘This Charming Man’

The Smiths – This Charming Man

Punctured bicycle
on a hillside desolate
will Nature make a man of me yet?

When in this charming car
this charming man

Why pamper life’s complexities
when the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat?

I would go out tonight
but I haven’t got a stitch to wear
this man said “It’s gruesome
that someone so handsome should care”

A jumped-up pantry boy
who never knew his place
he said “return the rings”
he knows so much about these things
he knows so much about these things

I would go out tonight
but I haven’t got a stitch to wear
this man said “It’s gruesome
that someone so handsome should care”

This charming man
this charming man

A jumped-up pantry boy
who never knew his place
he said “return the ring”
he knows so much about these things
he knows so much about these things
he knows so much about these things

John Keats – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
Alone and palely loitering?
The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms,
So haggard and so woe-begone?
The squirrel’s granary is full,
And the harvest’s done.

I see a lily on thy brow,
With anguish moist and fever-dew,
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.

I met a lady in the meads,
Full beautiful—a faery’s child,
Her hair was long, her foot was light,
And her eyes were wild.

I made a garland for her head,
And bracelets too, and fragrant zone;
She looked at me as she did love,
And made sweet moan

I set her on my pacing steed,
And nothing else saw all day long,
For sidelong would she bend, and sing
A faery’s song.

She found me roots of relish sweet,
And honey wild, and manna-dew,
And sure in language strange she said—
‘I love thee true’.

She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.

And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.

I saw pale kings and princes too,
Pale warriors, death-pale were they all;
They cried—‘La Belle Dame sans Merci
Hath thee in thrall!’

I saw their starved lips in the gloam,
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
On the cold hill’s side.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
Though the sedge is withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.

The Morrissey – Keats relationship goes beyond the name-check in ‘Cemetry Gates’. The Smiths’ most famous single, ‘This Charming Man’ is structurally and conceptually influenced by Keats’ classic ballad ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, as the former’s ‘hillside desolate’ harmonises with Keats’ ‘cold hill-side’

Arthur Hughes - La Belle Dame Sans Merci

Arthur Hughes – La Belle Dame Sans Merci

I hasten to add at this juncture that this piece is in no way concerned with what Morrissey’s place is, if any, in the canon of English writers, or indeed whether song lyrics can truly be considered as poetry. Those are debates which have been discussed in greater depth elsewhere. I am focused on giving a close analysis on one of the finest pop songs this country has ever produced, and elaborating upon it with the assistance of a poem which is suggestive of being inspirational to Morrissey, but which has not been picked up in any articles I have read.

What happens when you search for the archaic words in This Charming Man in Google's Ngram viewer.

What happens when you search for the archaic words in This Charming Man in Google’s Ngram viewer.

Although the narrative of the lyrics is of a young man (possibly) being picked up in a car, Morrissey deliberately employs archaic language, which helps ground the song in the lexis of 19th century literature. The language is not just generically ‘old-fashioned’ but associated with a particular period of English social history, as Google’s Ngram viewer demonstrates. My inspiration for writing this was the connotations of the deeply poetic phrase ‘hillside desolate’, and as well as this, the phrase ‘pantry boy’ (borrowed from the play Sleuth) which portray the narrator as an indentured servant within a Victorian household. Moreover the adjectives – charming, handsome, gruesome – in turn portray the titular figure as a graceful aristocrat whom the narrator feels he exists in an inferior station to. Keats’ knight-at-arms is by definition aristocratic, but the dream sequence still places him as inferior to another group, in this case the spectre of ‘kings’ and ‘princes’. Moreover, the questing subtext of the poem, which I will discuss in more detail later, means that the knight still needs to prove himself.

Google’s statistical information shows Morrissey using language to form a kinship with Keats’ period, but it is further complicated by the fact that Keats’ own poem is a throwback, a poem with a deliberately blurred sense of place and time where the ‘knight-at-arms’ is suggestive of medieval literature and the quest. The most famous quest of all was the quest for the Holy Grail, which was originally narrated by a number of English and French writers such as Chretien and Malory, before achieving a 19th century renaissance, culminating in Tennyson’s epic Idylls of the King. Quests often lead to trouble at home: the Arthurian court was eventually undercut by Guinevere’s affair with Lancelot. Sexuality and women provide the digression which upsets its linearity and masculine bonhomie. Hence the importance of the question of whether ‘nature’ will ‘make a man’ of the narrator: the narrator is situated on the desolate hillside, poised between carrying on up a hill symbolic of his development to a particular goal (cf. The Pilgrim’s Progress), or coming back down along a different path via the mysterious invitation of a stranger, to become derailed from that initial goal. Should the man’s appearance be considered a threat, or perceived as a fortuitous piece of providence? Morrissey wonderfully leaves it ambiguous as to whether the definition of becoming a man, and thus realising the quest, is achieved through the former or the latter. Likewise, the Floralia of the music video leaves it unclear as to whether it signifies a blossoming or a deflowering, whereas the knight-at-arms ‘withereth’ like a dying flower, deflated from the early promise of the ‘meads’

Credit: Rhino Entertainment

Credit: Rhino Entertainment

The composer Richard Wagner was obsessed with mythic themes and epic narratives; not just composing operas based upon the Grail quest, but also interpreting old materials into his own mythos for the Ring cycle. Morrissey’s use of the rings as a symbol is thus a clever and self-conscious evocation of artistic precedent. It has been astutely commented that the line may be a reference to The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the tempter Lord Henry convinces Dorian to break off his engagement, but they are also a symbol of deeply mythic power, as the charming man further persuades the narrator to abandon his questing of those ‘rings’ in favour of relinquishing himself to the allure of forbidden sexuality. The fifth stanza of Keats’ poem is comparable because the imagery of the quest has been transplanted to the ‘belle dame’, as the ‘garland’, ‘zone’ (here synonymous with ‘girdle’) and ‘bracelet’ are ironically evocative of unity and completion, because the implied quest is abandoned and the knight is left in an incomplete state at the end of the poem. It’s also present in the poem’s structure, as the last line of each stanza is much shorter than the rest.

Wotan holds the ring in a production of Wagner's Ring Cycle

Wotan holds the ring in a production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle

As well as dwelling in the realms of symbol, Morrissey alludes to the powerful trappings inherent in aristocratic militarism – the punctured bicycle becomes both a detumescent weapon and a parallel with a knight losing his horse, and the excuse not having a ‘stitch to wear’ is an appeal to the protection of a suit of armour. The narrator wants to be prepared and outfitted for his quest, but the charming man’s appeals penetrate through. It is assumed that Keats’ solitary knight has long since lost his ‘pacing steed’, which substantiates the reading of the horse as emblematic of male sexuality given in the innuendo ‘set her on my pacing steed’ and ‘sidelong would she bend’, before it is drained by the ‘belle dame’.

To provide a succinct comparison, Morrissey narrates a landscape redolent of the north of England, but also of Keats’ eerie medieval/fantastical world. Both present men who are confronted with a threat to the loss of their sexual agency, but while Keats’ poem is a post-mortem, presenting a figure lost in purgatory having lost his sexual autonomy, Morrissey’s narrator’s situation is unresolved by the end of the song, though the influence of the original poem does mean that a similar ending is implied. The best example of this is the second verse of the song: the first line creates the expectation of a verb to provide the sentence with semantic sense, but none is provided. Agency has been shed from language, and placed entirely in the hands of the charming man.

Thoughts on Edward Hopper’s ‘Sun In An Empty Room’

hopper room

Edward Hopper has perhaps suffered more than most from the commodification of visual art in the latter half of the 20th century. His most well-known work, Nighthawks, has been immortalised in cultural references both high and low since its completion in 1942. In this, it is similar to another instantly recognisable icon of modern art, Edvard Munch’s The Scream. However, whereas The Scream’s circulation in cultural media appears to stem from its encapsulation of something innate, primal; a grotesque feeling shared by all but otherwise never vocalised, Nighthawks has been unfairly agglomerated into the aestheticisation of noir, drawn in part by the pervasive influence of Hollywood but also because the painting works with more subtlety than Munch’s Expressionist magnum opus. The central image of the figure with mouth wide open and hands clasped to face in a moment of sheer existential dread in The Scream is immediately startling, but Nighthawks only offers us corners; its characters have their backs turned to us, and the painting is much less inviting, reflecting the introspection and isolation of the people it portrays. Like most of Hooper’s works, the mood is much more brooding, with a nuanced interplay between setting, shade, and composition. For Munch, it is telling that Andy Warhol used The Scream in one of his mass print projects, as it highlights the pervasive impact that the work has, so much so that Warhol attempted to undermine its aura through repetition and adulteration. However, you only have to see the usage of what is essentially the same figure in the mysterious Dr. Who villains ‘The Silence’ to have an understanding of how the painting still translates across boundaries of time and nationality, because The Silence still engender that same feeling of raw dread lurking behind the thin veneer of humanity. The fact that The Silence’s unique selling point is the inability to remember them once you look away attests to this, because it is only by viewing Munch’s painting that we gain an understanding of how prominent fear is in our emotions.

 munch scream silence 

Therefore, the contemporary image of Hopper as the court painter of urban noir settings has neglected to address the incredible originality and depth of his work. To try and address this, I offer an analysis of one of his last works, Sun in an Empty Room, which is shown at the top of this article. Analysis of Nighthawks would also suffice, but I think there is something even more telling about Sun in an Empty Room, not least because as one of his final works it demonstrates a realisation of Hopper’s creative vision and because it was completed in 1963, offers an alternative to the naive analyses of culture which broadly paint the 1960s as a time of optimism, communality, and freedom.

The titular room of the painting is, in contrast, neither optimistic nor remotely free. Hopper’s paintings normally confront us with a figure pictured in a state of total isolation (regardless of the population on the canvas), but here we are not granted even the luxury of a subject. Neither are there any narrative elements in the painting. I alluded earlier to Andy Warhol’s project of saturating images until they became shorn of what gives them their essential aura in their first place, but using this painting as an example, we can see that Hopper beat him to it. There is very little in the painting to grab your attention. Imagine it on a suitably sized wall of your home; it would be difficult enough perceiving the painting from the surrounding wall, never mind analysing the actual work.

Much of the painting’s dynamism stems from its engagement with what is considered realistic, or ‘realism’. It is certainly a very realistic scene; an empty room is something we are all familiar with. Or are we? If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? The ability to observe an empty room poses the same philosophical problem. The title of the painting insists that what we are viewing is an empty room, but our presence as spectators offers a paradox, because a room with an observer present cannot be considered empty. Similarly, the light originates from somewhere behind or around us, casting illumination on the scene – by being places in the painting, do we bring a redemptive light, or is it a penetrative voyeurism? On one hand, Hopper could be arguing that this is the luxury painting affords; the ability to become a superhuman spectator, not in the canvas, and thus able to observe an empty room without an invalidating ‘observer effect’. The more negative interpretation is that Hopper shows us how, in viewing a painting, we are never at a level of perfect detachment; that we always have some engagement with the painting which means we cannot view it objectively. Both analyses are perfectly adequate, but I generally side with the latter one, because of some of the other delicate techniques Hopper applies in the painting. Even without musing on the ramifications of the composition of the piece, the fact remains that painting what is called an ‘empty room’ is incredibly ballsy; trying to articulate absence when the overwhelming tendency in Western art is to manifest presence and/or narrative.

For example, though the room is very regular, the centre where the eye would conventionally meet a vanishing point is replaced with an outcrop of wall, creating a concertina effect. Once again the eye of the viewer is made to confront its pre-existing expectations of interaction with art, as even though the wall is passive, it is also stoic, refusing to mould exactly to the viewer’s expectation. The emphasis on that dividing line of wall is also pronounced with the contrast between light and dark on either side. Instead of having the traditional use of perspective which fades to a common vanishing point, we are met head-on by a wall which is shaped like the prow of a ship travelling directly towards us, or perhaps the furrowed eyebrows of a staring foe.

The painting also teases us with illusions of realism. At first glance there seems to be nothing out of place about the scene; in fact, its banality is possibly its most striking feature to begin with.  As well as this, there seems to be no reason why Hopper should play with light and shadow, because the canvas appears to be just too empty to be able to do that. Nevertheless, attempts to recreate the ‘scene’ of the painting have proven that the middle crossbar of the window should project a shadow onto the back wall. One of the most important effects of making this compositional choice is that it preserves the purity of the contrast of light and dark at work in the piece, ensuring that sections of wall oppose each other in discrete blocks without the interference of another shadow. Given the playful impossibility of the title (how could a Sun be contained within one room?), then I believe that the use of light in this way is playfully cheeking at earlier paradigms of light in Western painting, for example the stark chiascuro of Caravaggio’s revelatory pieces.

Throughout history the sun has been associated with transcendence, renewal and a higher form of experience, yet here it is isolated into distinct, regimented blocks – given Hopper’s interest in cityscapes and portraits of urban experience earlier in his career, then this is reducing his philosophy into its most constituent parts. Just as the American city seems to bring people together but actually confirms their isolated individuality, here sunlight is shown to be something ruthlessly segregated; there is no essential underlying common humanity other than our collective recognition that we are all alone. Contrast this with a Renaissance painting like Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, where the interplay of form and shadow becomes a Platonic metaphor for the profundity of the spiritual world beyond the merely physical.

supper at emmaus

Hopper’s light is a commodity, another capitalistic distillation just like his forlorn gas stations or theatres which promise a collective experience yet only exacerbate individuation.  Hopper’s sense of isolation makes his work in fact very similar to The Scream, but the distance of decades between each piece’s completion shows a change in attitude over time – Munch as the last, brash cry of the 19th century, a violent railing, whereas Hopper’s is a more completive acceptance, expressed in the language of conformity. I alluded to the cultural repetition of Nighthawks in fashionable forms but it seems destiny that that should happen, because Hopper converses in the tongue of advertising and offering an ideal before dismantling it before our very eyes.

Beyond the effect on light and shadow that the window has, it should not be forgotten that it is our only portal into the world outside, suggesting that there is something of a world outside, though it is incredibly indistinct. The green and grey view out of the window, a slush created from only a few brush strokes, reminds me of the complete absence of nature depicted in Samuel Beckett’s Endgame, written only a couple of years earlier:


Open the window.


What for?


I want to hear the sea.


You wouldn’t hear it.


Even if you opened the window?




Then it’s not worth while opening it?



HAMM (violently):

Then open it!

(Clov gets up on the ladder, opens the window. Pause.)

Have you opened it?





You swear you’ve opened it?







It must be very calm.

(Pause. Violently.)

I’m asking you is it very calm!



Beckett famously disliked his work being interpreted in the context of the growth of the nuclear bomb and lazy assumptions that Hamm and Clov are post-apocalyptic survivors, but considering the work in cultural dialogue with Sun in an Empty Room betrays some of the fears of a world with mutually assured destruction – Hopper’s painting was finished only a few months after, and could have conceivably been worked on during, the Cuban Missile Crisis. Instead of being represented with an accurate depiction of the natural world outside the room the viewer is tested, given a superficial signifier of nature to accept. Thus, in viewing the painting in the context of nuclear war, we can observe how Hopper’s portrayal of emptiness and strange nature makes the viewer consider to what extent they are happy to sacrifice both individual conscience (manifest in the complete absence of a subject, someone we can sympathise with, a common element to Hopper’s earlier paintings) and the natural world. The natural world here is green, but that is the only property it possesses, it is shorn of everything else. Take a closer look:
hopper windowIs it a tree blowing in the wind? Is it a bush surrounding a now-derelict house? My flatmate in my final year of university, who I do not hesitate to call an Actual Artist, reckoned it looked like some sort of Kraken-like monster, a portent of doom in its own right. What’s more, the general murkiness of the scene outside appears incongruent with the shaft of light piercing the room.  

You do not have to subscribe to the theory that Hopper is completely inspired by the Cold War, but I would maintain that despite its apparent passivity the painting is structured in a pugilistic way. Violence is present through the light’s striking entrance into the scene, but it is intangible, coming from a source which does not obey the usual rules of observation and visual representation. It may be facile to think of nuclear war as an inspiration, but when coupled with the effect of the concertinaed wall I mentioned earlier, Hopper manages to make an empty room appear antagonistic.  The detached gaze of the spectator is shown to be destructive, invalidating the room’s designation as ‘empty’ and being met by an irresistible force in the composition. This is a fundamental theme running through Hopper’s work and is demonstrated through the trope of ‘corners’ I alluded to earlier, where characters stare into the distance, rarely meeting the omniscient gaze of the spectator. Hopper pulls the eye onto sharp edges, not the luxury of deep vanishing points.

There is much to be said about Hopper’s work, and not all of that can be expressed here. The reason why this painting intrigues me so much is because, as I mentioned earlier, emptiness runs against everything we expect, or possibly demand, from art. It is interesting that a painting that would perhaps be the least distinct in a gallery is, for that reason, the most subversive of cultural expectations.