I heard about Billy Bragg before I heard him. Someone in the school playground marvelling, snorting, about a hooting idiot hollering about a milkman on TV the night before. It sounded like a weird joke and he clearly thought it was.
Bragg doesn’t get the credit he deserves for what he was doing over those first few records. He used what he had at his disposal, a voice which would make the word ‘untutored’ blush with shame, and an electric guitar, and he made something substantial, moving and provocative from them. What he did to his guitar, slashing, chopping, fighting with it, making jagged, shattered folk music that sounded like it had been dug from a quarry, would have been lauded if Steve Albini or Annie Clarke had made the same sounds in the 90s or 00s.
His first few albums, from ‘Life’s a Riot…’ to this, his third, form a brimming songbook. Bragg’s voice masks a beautiful sense of memorable melody and dozens of his songs are fine singalongs, aligning him once more with the English and American folk traditions.
The songs switch between pamphleteering politics and adolescent love poetry. Some, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, see these as signs of immaturity in Bragg’s lyrics. I think there is plentiful room for both. Young men will always moon after unobtainable women and men of all ages will always reduce complex politics to brut slogans. It’s interesting however to reappraise some of these old favourites and to realise that where as as 16 year old I thought they were about dangerous women who left betrayed men behind just because they were boring, now they seem to be at least as much about strong women who are rightly fed up of weak men.
Lack of sophistication (or of pretension) doesn’t always reveal lack of depth. Sometimes it’s an attempt to speak directly to the listener. In this Bragg at his best, like his hero Woody Guthrie, is a master.
Unfortunately on the night my slot came up as the takeaway arrived which means the group missed some of Billy’s choicest lines (“How can you lie there and think of England/When you don’t even know who’s in the team?”, “I wished I’d done Biology/For an urge within me wanted to do it then”) and Nick, who claims never to have heard the shattering, heartbreaking ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ still hasn’t.
Nick listened: Definitely a victim of bad timing in terms of the curry arriving, I didn’t take much of this in as Rob suggests, but Billy Bragg is definitely a character I’d have time for in the future. I actually really quite like his voice, which I hear as loaded with personality, and his lyrics are about the most humanising take on political songwriting that I’m aware of. On the surface of it – broadly acoustic singer-songwriter with funny/heartfelt/political lyrics, this isn’t really my bag, and I can’t see myself rushing to buy up his oeuvre, but I definitely think of him fondly.
Tom Listened: I can recall my oldest best mate, Alex Phillips, getting into Billy Bragg when we were in our early teens (somewhat against type as he subsequently went to public school, had an all male ‘wine’ club whilst at university and generally veered strongly towards the righter end of British politics) and I remember feeling shocked that anyone so tuneless could actually manage to sell records or be given a recording contract. It took a couple of years for Levi Stubbs’ Tears to come along and make me realise that Mr Bragg had a fine ear for a tune AND the ability to pull it off on record. And said tune still sounds magnificent, even if only Rob and I managed to resist the temptations of Bollywood Spice long enough to hear it through. The rest of the album sounded fine but I can’t help thinking that, yet again, Rob’s offering suffered from being an interrupted listen and I don’t feel that I was able to listen carefully enough to the second side to make a properly informed judgement. So, another one to file alongside Macarthy in the ‘need to listen again…sometime’ drawer.
Graham Listened: I had really overlooked how much I used to like Billy Bragg. I don’t know why I stopped listening to this and his other albums. He is a national treasure, but also still hugely undervalued. This must be addressed, vote for Billy !