Back in the year 1973, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, and Carl Palmer made an interesting decision regarding their album, Brain Salad Surgery. They decided to record their own version of the hymn, “Jerusalem,” and make it the first song on the new album. ELP had made a name for themselves in the world of progressive ROCK. These boys were not touring the Anglican Church circuit playing selections from the hymn book “whilst” citing the English Common Book of Prayer. Far From it. So why include a nearly 200 year old poem by William Blake, which was made a hymn by Hubert Parry in the early 1900s, in their new album? It seems like a strange choice, right? Well, maybe not.
And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon Englands mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land
And every British reader shouted, “AMEN!”
William Blake wrote “Jerusalem,” also known as “And Did Those Feet,” as a preface to a book of poems in the early 1800s. It is known for its heavy nationalism, which is why it is such a beloved hymn in Britain. Undergirding the poem is the legend of Christ’s supposed journey to England with Joseph of Arimathea. In the poem, Blake clearly questions the validity of the legend. The first two stanzas question the legend, and it is as if you can hear Blake answering his own questions. “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?” No! “And was the holy Lamb of God, / On England’s pleasant pastures seen!” Again, no! But, Blake wants to believe that Jerusalem was indeed “builded here / Among these dark Satanic Mills.”
I am reminded of what the early Christian apologist, Tertullian, once said: “What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?” I ask, what does Jerusalem have to do with… London? Blake desperately wants Jerusalem to be built in “England’s green and pleasant Land” when he states that he is willing to fight without ceasing until the New Jerusalem is built in England.
This poem is simply dripping with religious imagery. From the Biblical image of chariots of fire taking Elijah into Heaven (II Kings 2:11) to God sending chariots of fire to protect Elisha (II Kings 6:17) to the prophet Ezekiel’s vision of chariots of fire in Heaven, it is clear that Blake wants a Heavenly army to fulfill his desire of the New Jerusalem established in England. Blake looks at the legend of Christ’s journey to England with skepticism, yet he looks forward to Jesus’ return with anticipation.
No wonder “Jerusalem” is so beloved in England. The hymn supports the belief that England and the West hold a superior sense of culture, society, truth… etc. What Englishman wouldn’t want to see the New Jerusalem established in England? But, there is a problem… those damned Satanic Mills. What are we going to do about those? And just what the heck are they anyways?
I’ll give you my thoughts on what they are, for what that is worth (not much, I assure you). From my reading of the poem, along with a quick glimpse of English history at the time, I believe the Mills are referring to factories and engines of war. Many argue that they refer to the rising problems of the garment factories and cotton mills in England, but I think that this poem was written far too early for that to be Blake’s main concern. The main British concern at the time was rising hostility with the French, not all that long after the American Revolution. As a rather pacifistic Romantic, Blake would have hated war. Yet, nevertheless, we see him calling for weapons of war in the next stanza. I believe he is doing so because, with this very poem, he wants to usher in the New Jerusalem “in England’s green and pleasant land.” However, before that event can take place, the factories and engines of war must be destroyed. There must be strife before Jerusalem can be established.
So, what does all of this have to do with ELP? Where is the connection?
First, why not place a favorite nationalistic hymn at the beginning of your new album? American musicians record their own versions of the “Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America” all the time, so it really would not be all that strange to place a patriotic song in a rock album.
Then again, knowing the rather a-religious (to put it nicely) tone to Greg Lake’s lyrics, maybe they meant to use it in a way not unlike William Blake. It is just barely possible that they were trying to refute the legend of Christ’s visit to England. However, I doubt that ELP was looking forward to the triumphal return of Christ and the establishment of the New Jerusalem in England. Rather, ELP wants to see Jerusalem built in England, but God has no part in it. How, you ask, did I arrive at this, well, random conclusion? Maybe “Karn Evil 9 1st Impression Part 1” can shed some light upon that:
And not content with that,
With our hands behind our backs,
We pull Jesus from a hat,
Get into that! Get into that!
We pull Jesus from a hat…. Think about that for a second. What does a magician do? Most magicians are masters of optical illusion, so, for ELP, is Jesus just an illusion? Perhaps the Grand Illusion… hehe. Is there nothing more to this song than a refutation of the original legend and a declaration that, since Jesus never came, then we must build the New Jerusalem ourselves?
Again, I ask, what does Jerusalem have to do with London? Well, for the Jews, Jerusalem was arguably the center of the universe. It was where God made his home on earth, in the Temple. It was where man could come to find the presence of God. However, the presence of God left the temple at the shredding of the curtain with the death of Christ. Man no longer needed a mediator to get to God. Man’s heart became the temple of the Lord. Therefore, Jerusalem lost its importance to humanity. For the nationalist who wants to believe that the legend of Christ’s visit to England was real, London is the new city where God’s presence should and will be. Furthermore, there was once a day when the sun never sat on the British Empire (one could argue that it still doesn’t). It would seem that Britain enjoyed the favor of God and would therefore be a logical place for the Heavenly Jerusalem.
For ELP, before London can become the New Jerusalem, the Satanic Mills must be destroyed. If they were weapons of war for Blake, what are they for ELP? In my opinion, there is no reason they can’t still be weapons of war. In 1973, the US was deeply entrenched in the Vietnam War, and with that war came all kinds of new technology designed to kill other people. The world was also firmly rooted in the Cold War, and there was an ever present reality that everything could be destroyed without a moment’s notice. Before ELP can make London their New Jerusalem, war must cease, and England must triumph.
But, then again, maybe not. Let’s look at “Karn Evil 9 Impression 1 Part 2” :
Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends
We’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside
There behind a glass stands a real blade of grass
Be careful as you pass, move along, move along
Come inside, the show’s about to start
Guaranteed to blow your head apart
Rest assured you’ll get your money’s worth
Greatest show in Heaven, Hell or Earth
You’ve got to see the show, it’s a dynamo
You’ve got to see the show, it’s rock and roll
Maybe, for ELP, it was always just a show. It’s just a dynamo, it’s just rock and roll. Maybe the whole discussion brought on by their use of “Jerusalem” is part of the show that they have created. Maybe this little article can sit next to the seven virgins and a mule. That would be nice. Maybe Greg Lake will pull Jesus from a hat; I don’t know.
It seems that the connection between William Blake and ELP isn’t really all that Divine after all. ELP starts, like Blake does, by refuting the legend, but their motives for ushering in the New Jerusalem are completely different than Blake’s. William Blake, I believe, honestly desired to see Britain become the “promised land.” For ELP, in the end, it was all just a show.
Other Progarchy posts on “Jerusalem” :
Dave Smith: https://progarchy.com/2014/06/11/jerusalem-a-view-from-a-brit/
Pete Blum: https://progarchy.com/2012/10/25/dark-satanic-mills/
6 thoughts on “ELP, William Blake, and Jerusalem – The Divine Conection”
Trump will not cease from Mental Fight, Nor shall [his] Sword sleep…
Leave it to the English to talk and ask Questions, and The Donald to “get ‘er done.”
I’m afraid to ask for what values of “‘er” Trump is “getting ‘er done.”.
Wow, I think you are over thinking this one.
These are songwriters telling stories through song. The fact that they tell this story probably means they felt some connection to the original writing but why can’t it just stand on its own fir what it is, a beautiful song about the New Jerusalem in the heart of England?
As far as the song about showmanship and pulling Jesus from a hat. You only have to watch a televangelist from that period to get that lyric.
Don’t over think things just enjoy the show.
I wrote this a long time after writing a an academic essay on Blake’s poem, so I had been “overthinking” the poem for a reason. I was curious as to why a band that didn’t really appreciate organized religion or religious nationalism would choose the poster-child hymn of British religious nationalism at the beginning of an album. I don’t think they chose it just because it was a nice song.
But then again, my original conclusion was that it was all just a show, and I still think it was.
You don’t know them yet you make a wild judgement.
Jesus biggest critics and crucified were the religious experts of the day. They will know us by our Love. Maybe someday when the New Jerusalem is revealed.
Cest La Vie
I always hear it as a foreshadowing of what’s to come later on the album, specifically the dystopic scenario of “Karn Evil 9:” pride in the glory of England and its “green and pleasant land,” oblivious to the worm in the meal that the “dark satanic mills” represent, which will be made manifest in “the show that never ends.”
It’s a shame that “Jerusalem” was banned as a single because it leaps out of the speakers. It could have made the album an even bigger hit, at least in the UK.
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