Joe Smooth's Promised Land
'Promised Land' is one of those tracks that really sparked this project off. It baffled me how a track can be so secular, so adamantly cutting edge, and yet so blatantly religious and spiritual all at the same time. Combined with tracks like 'You've Got The Love', 'Baby Wants To Ride', and 'Can You Feel It', it's become one of those touchstone pieces that's mentioned in almost every single interview I do. So much so that I feel like I should be addressing this song explicitly in it's own right.
As far as house music in 1987 is concerned 'Promised Land' is remarkably accomplished, especially when you consider it was Smooth's second release. The quality of the piece is pristine, as is most of the output on the initial Joe Smooth album (also called Promised Land, just to confuse matters further). Tracks like 'Going Down' or 'Inside My Mind' repeat the pattern of 'Promised Land', and it would certainly be fair to call this period of Smooth's output somewhat formulaic in sound and approach. His discogs page makes for an interesting read, seeing a solid spurt of releases from 1987 to the start of 1990 then only sporadic occasional releases since that period.
As for the track is it perhaps the definitive example of the 'Utopia, Acceptance and A Brighter Tomorrow' strand identified in the research themes. There's talk of brothers and sisters, that fraternal/familial relationship between listeners, freedom and fighting against violence, angels, doves, walking hand in hand etc. So many tropes that one would associated with gospel ideologies and that sense of a religiously inspired utopia. Perhaps my favorite lyric in the whole piece is the chorus:
When the angels from above fall down and spread the wings like doves, as we walk in hand, sister, brother, we'll make it to the promised land...
That honestly couldn't be more replete with christian iconography; angels wings, doves, walking together, and a promised land. Normally I'd attempt to read into these types of lyrics something about their origin being rooted in the christian and something about their intention, but with 'Promised Land' it doesn't feel as difficult as some. Whilst the track offers quite obvious imagery in it's lyrics, they do not seem to fit with some of the more obviously christian pieces. There's no god, no power, rather it's person/people centred and seems more evocative of a civil rights movement or collectivistic approach rather than an explicitly religiously informed one. It is a fine example of where the line blurs between explicit christianity, and hijacking/borrowing symbols to further a message.
So... original video of Joe Smooth's seminal classic Promised Land. Hmmm... Yeah... The video lacks any symbolism or reference akin to that that has generally been the focus of this project. Instead it's an obviously low budget throw-away piece most likely for local television station broadcast. To be fair at this time it was pretty forward thinking of Smooth or DJ International to even think about putting a video together for something that was still such an isolated scene. It's just a shame that half the video just looks like some home footage of their holidays to the Yukatan peninsula.
Given just how unremarkable the video is, the A-side artwork for the original vinyl release in 1987 might be the first instance of a crucifix in house music. If I'm not mistaken the image shows a minimalistic interpretation of Calvary/Golgotha with a small crucifix to the side of the pinnacle of the hill. In the sky shines a star skin to that in the nativity stories and birds circle overhead (doves or something more sinister—who knows?). I've not been able to locate the origin of the phrase. It doesn't appear to be a direct biblical reference, although it certainly evokes the "valley of the shadow of death" and Psalms 23:4.
In summary: 'Promised Land' was a hit for Smooth on both sides of the atlantic, and was subsequently covered by Weller's insipid post-Jam soul outfit 'The Style Council', furthering it's appeal here in the UK. But the track still holds up, and holds up well under analysis. It's using symbolism and imagery we readily associate with christianity, it's lyrics are overtly referencing some ideas of utopian tomorrows and furthering humankind through collectivism and community, and even the artwork rings of christianity. Yet, somehow the track stops short of feeling like a religious anthem, and rather something that just borrows stylistically/ideologically from that base of power.
'Promised Land' is a confused web of influences, that yields a surprisingly consistent outcome. It shows where lines of communication can easily exist between these various thematic ideas this project is exploring, and shows that often overtly religious instantiations of house music can fly almost under the radar of many listeners.