Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Billy Bragg

Brewing It Up With
CD Presents LP, 1984

I was gonna post this on May day given Billy's predilections for breaking out in "La Internationale," but I guess I'm just apathetic. But Billy Bragg isn't and I suppose you and I should be inspired.

So, I don't have many Bragg records (this and the next one) although I did see him play at the old 930 Club and was entertained even (as someone noted in a comment on a previous post), he played for a loooong time.

Quick bio - born in 1957, kicked around, joined the Army for a short time even, found punk rock and then came up with the idea of becoming a "Who'll Stop the Rain" era Dylan except strap a loud Stratocaster on instead of an acoustic. He's the first troubadour neo-folkie I know of that did that. Had a minor hit in the UK when he covered a Beatles' song but for the most part he has a loyal following of people with like-minded politics and he's never sold out or wrote lyrics to suit record sales.

This was his second album as Billy Bragg, the first being more weighted towards lovesick songs and such and the third (Talking with the Taxman About Poetry) really integrated the two together well and is considered his best. This was his first overtly political album and is described as his reaction to Thatcherism and the effect it had on the miners. He's now an avowed socialist but, as he describes, a socialist of the heart not of the head:

Bragg: "If you’re gonna articulate the way you see the world in socialist terms, you are constantly going to be tripped up by people going, “What about totalitarianism?” And fair enough. The Soviet Union had many faults, and one of the fundamentals was that it denied that people had spiritual needs. I went to Soviet museums of theology where they showed you how base religion was, while making a religion out of Lenin and Marx and never seeing the irony of that.

You don’t want to live in a society based purely on materialism. Or, frankly, a society based purely on theology: a fundamentalist, theological society. The United States of America looks like turning into both at once."
Whether you agree with that or not, in much sense, Billy Bragg was/is the logical heir to Woody Guthrie but not as a throwback imitator but as a smart guy who updated Guthrie's mix of idealism and righteousness for the 80's and beyond. Guthrie's daughter, Nora, who got Billy to write music for some of Woody's final lyrics (1998), said about Billy after seeing him in 1992:
“Although he had come out of a punk rock background, he could sing along with the country and western singers, the folkies and just about everyone else who appeared in the show. When he accompanied the rappers Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy on Vigilante Man, we were blown away. He seemed open to anything and everything. His wry sense of humour, reminiscent of Woody’s, also caught our attention immediately”.
So this album shows him in his formative stage. That said, some of the songs here are good here and dare I say catchy. He's at his best on this album when he brings in another musician such as the late Kenny Craddock playing along on a Hammond organ "A Lover Sings." This song always reminds me of Squeeze but without the band and with a Mersey feel but without the beat. One of my favorites from the album and I don't know why more people don't cover it.

The only other song with a second instrument is the laidback "Saturday Boy" which uses a trumpet at the end. It makes these two tracks standout from the rest and I think Bragg got the message as he now plays with a backup band (which includes an ex-Mekons and some ex-3 Mustaphas 3' dudes)

At times here, though, his lyrics are in need of an editor. Some of these lyrics may work with a younger voice projecting some sort of virginal innocence but I can't help either giggling or just draw heavy (annoyed) sighs when I hear some of his lyrics coming from a guy who's almost 30 years old. For instance:
Walking in the park, kissing on the carpet
And your tights around your ankles
Late at night a lover thinks of these things
I dunno.. All I'm saying it's just that he needs someone to go over his "lovesick" songs and kinda take him aside and say, you know this part about how you like how she rubs herself "against the edge of my desk" - uh, that's not working for me... doesn't she have some quirk that's sounds like you aren't singing about your kitty cat? "Love Gets Dangerous," a song that got some play on my local "progressive rock" station is also awkward if you listen to it closely. Best not to since the tense guitar and harmonies carry it. Does love really get dangerous? Maybe, if you're in inexperienced teenager... I dunno. Something a little "off" about his love songs.

On the other hand, he almost always hits the mark, and hard, on his political songs. The opener, a still relevant scorching punk spit at the British papers (and the media in general), "It Says Here" still makes me tremble at the awesomeness of the lyrics and the raw guitar:
Where they offer you a feature
On stockings and suspenders
Next to a call for stiffer penalties for sex offenders
"Island of No Return" is one of the first modern war protest songs that I remember that took a sympathetic view towards the soldier. Maybe his time in the Army helped in this regard. In this case, some poor bloke is sent off to the Falklands and finds out that the enemy is shouldering a weapon at him that "was made in Birmingham." Again, it hits the mark and then some (references to Kipling and England's past may not be universal to all, though).

So, see for yourself. Here's one lovesick song and one protest song.

"A Lover Sings" - I wonder if gets asked to do this at weddings
"Island of No Return"

Fine print: Listen, my beloved. Then perchance they mock when they are happy, when they boast themselves in the pomp of their riches! when they boast themselves in the inflated state of false honours: then they mock us, and seem to say, Behold, it is well with me: I enjoy the good things before me: let those who promise what they cannot show depart from me: what I see, I hold; what I see, I enjoy; may I fare well in this life. Mp3s offered for fair use and only temporary.

  • Billy's website is like him, no slacker. All song lyrics, albums, some downloadable concerts (for pay), articles and interview and a forum where all his fans can get angry together. He's living in Dorset where he runs a "tactical vote-swapping" site and he plays assorted festivals and benefits.
  • This album has been repackaged into Back to Basics with the other solo guitar records... and you can buy from his site
  • The quote from Bragg about socialism comes from his website which republished an interview in the UK Church Times


nrkey said...

Hi Jim,
recently on my blog I have published part of my collection of the italian partisan song, covered by many different artists and languages and musical genres.
I'm still looking for the version made by Billy Bragg. Do you have it?
Thank you. I often read your grat blog and I learn a lot of things.

Anonymous said...

OK, huge Bragg fan here. I don't want to nitpick, but I did want to mention just a few things:

1) You said "Stratocaster," which I know is just meant to mean "electric guitar" here, but for the record, his early records are pretty much synonymous with his favorite guitar, the unique Burns Steer. (I won't go into why it's 'unique', but it is rather unlike most any other guitar, and it really shaped his early sound.)

2) Your post kinda makes it sound like he "found" socialism and punk and "came up with the idea" to make solo punk-folk records, but it wasn't so much a conscious "career move" as you make it out to be. He was in a band before any of his own records (the name escapes me at the moment) and their lyrics were blatantly socialist. Also, Mr. Bragg is on record as saying (like his true peer, Elvis Costello), he was greatly influenced by early Clash to do what he done did.

3) OK - I'm gonna pick a nit - I disagree about his lyrics "needing an editor." Part of his charm is that his work is well-constructed and literate, but retains an "off-the-cuff" feel. He may be in his late 40s now, but his recorded work captured the awkwardness of early love by NOT avoiding goofy phrases like "the way she rubbed against my desk" - a lyric that continues to grab my attention and evoke nostalgia, despite having heard it hundreds of times.

Lastly, thanks for bringing attention to this stuff. It's pretty remarkable work. Cheers!

Jane Hamsher said...

Hi Jim,

Great post. I got tagged with a music meme yesterday and would love to tag you -- I can't think of anyone whose answers to the questions would be more interesting.


Jim H said...

Anonymous, Nrkey - thanks for the comments and setting me straight on the Burns Steer. You're right, I was kinda being generic about the electric guitar. I'm a drummer so what can I say. I never meant to imply it was a "career move" to go more socialist only that the second record as Billy Bragg differs in this respect from the first record (which I admit I heard many years ago but don't own). As for your comments on his lyrics on this record, well, I guess it's all in the ear of the beholder.