Underappreciated Master: Billy Bragg
When Lebeau and I recently sat down to talk about some of the pop culture we considered to be underrated and overrated on our new podcast (see Lebeau’s Le Show above), I named Billy Bragg as the recording artist I considered most underrated. Lebeau basically said “who?” This reaction is not uncommon when I bring up Bragg in conversation. He is not well-known outside of his native England, and there he is a divisive figure. Despite this, I consider him to be one of the finest songwriters of the last 40 years.
Bragg is a proudly strident supporter of labour issues and a self-identified leftist whose musical style may be best described as British folk punk. It is impossible to listen to many of his songs without quickly realizing this is important to him. Over the years he has also spoken out against racism, sexism, and homophobia. If you are one of our readers who is strongly opposed to any type of socialism, the images and ideas you will find included in Bragg’s work and in this article may be upsetting. I would recommend that you spend your time elsewhere on our excellent site. While I am left of center politically, I am not here to glorify Bragg’s political activities. I am here to glorify him as a songwriter. His politics are an inescapable part of who he is, however, and I will include information about that as I go. Any arguments in the comments section about his politics will either be ignored or deleted. Got it?
OK. Those of you who are still with me can start enjoying great music below.
Billy Bragg was born to working class parents in Barking, Essex, in the UK in 1957. He did not excel in his studies initially and was unable to advance to university education. Not long later, he became motivated by seeing gigs by the seminal British punk band The Clash, and he began to focus on politics, songwriting, and learning to play his guitar. After initial failure as part of a pub rock band he’d started with his friend Phillip Wigg called Riff Raff (they apparently never realized there was a previously existing American band with the same name), Bragg joined the British army for three months.
His military career did not take off any quicker than his musical career had, and he bought himself out of the contract. Bragg returned home and began playing small gigs and busking (performing on sidewalks or in subways for donations). He eventually developed a sort of backpack amplifier he called a “portastack” that allowed him to walk freely about while playing his electric guitar and singing. He billed himself as Spy vs. Spy in reference to the long-running MAD Magazine cartoon of the same name.
After sneaking into the offices of Charisma Records, he finally got a professional recording made, titled as “Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy.” The decision was eventually made to simply credit his recordings under his own name. The album, which was just 15 minutes long, eventually hit the top 40 charts in the UK after it got airplay from influential radio DJ John Peel. Bragg was listening to Peel’s program and heard him mention that he was hungry, so he raced to the studio with a mushroom biryani (a sort of Indian rice dish) and his record in hand. The first on-air play of a Bragg song was unfortunately at the wrong speed, because the album had been pressed differently than most standard vinyl recordings of the time.
Despite this, Peel promoted the record, and songs like “A New England” became well known.
The following year, English singer Kirsty MacColl recorded a more highly produced and radio-friendly version of the same song and it hit the UK singles chart at #7. She had mentioned that the song was too short, so with Bragg’s assistance an additional verse was written and included in her version, which also changed some lyrics to adjust for the different gender of the singer. There is nothing particularly wrong with MacColl’s recording (in fact, I absolutely adore her original rendition of “They Don’t Know” which was later remade by Tracy Ullman), but it is hard to take by comparison.
Many years later, when MacColl was tragically killed in a poorly investigated boating accident, Bragg began including her extra verse when he performed the song live. He probably owed her a debt for bringing his music to a wider audience there in the UK anyway, and it is a very nice tribute to a sorely missed artist.
Bragg’s next release was called “Brewing Up with…” and did even better on the album charts, reaching up to #16 in the UK. While most of the album continued to feature only Bragg and his guitar, there were the first hints of production trickery included in tracks like “Love Gets Dangerous,” with added reverb and backing vocals. “Love Gets Dangerous” is a complex expression of male anxiety when confronted with a strong woman, the kind of woman he wants to meet; the kind of woman he could fall in love with.
In 1985 there was a deeply contentious coal miners strike in the UK, and it is not surprising that Bragg came down on the side of labour in the issue. In response to the controversy, Bragg released a 4-song extended-play single which included his take on a traditional American union song “Which Side are You On?” It was his first top40 single, hitting #15 in the UK.
The following year saw the release of Bragg’s most musically ambitious recording yet, with most tracks including backing musicians or studio enhancements. “Talking with the Taxman about Poetry” was subtitled “the difficult third album,” a title which proved confusing to American fans who had not had access to his other recordings yet. The cover art certainly made it clear what the contents might include. It is one of my absolute favorite albums, just full of exhilarating and emotional songs about love, class, and politics. The next four songs I’ll feature are all from “…Taxman…”
“Levi Stubbs’ Tears” is a sad and harrowing story about a woman who marries too young, and falls victim to the cruel world around her. It hit #29 on the UK singles chart in the autumn of 1986, seeming to reflect the interest people had in Bragg at the time. Despite its brilliance, “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” certainly does not sound like a hit single.
There is something in that line “she takes off the 4 Tops tape, and puts it back in its case” that just gets the waterworks flowing for me every time. This song has continued to haunt me year after year.
Bragg’s next single from “…Taxman…” is one of his best known songs, and maybe the one which is most associated with him. “Greetings to the New Brunette” The recording includes both guitars by The Smiths’ Johnny Marr and backing vocals from Kirsty MacColl. Alternately titled simply as “Shirley,” the song’s narrator expresses his own coming of age through falling head over heels in love with the girl he is singing to. She frustrates and confounds him as he protests against growing up, but I think we know he will.
Bragg’s talent for astounding lyrics continues to knock me out here. “I’m celebrating my love for you, with a pint of beer and a new tattoo,” and “here we are in our summer years, living on ice cream and chocolate kisses, with the leaves fallin’ from the trees, if I was your old man, and you was my Mrs.”
After the coy political references dropped into the otherwise traditional love song which was “Greetings to the New Brunette,” Bragg returned to old-fashioned in-your-face politicizing in the call for appropriate participation by the U.S. in an increasingly dangerous world. It is a sneaky parody as well, with driving, sunny guitars paired with a classic union chant structure to evoke both the leisure of the American seaside and the strident push for action.
Those last lines are plainly frightening.
Next up is one of Bragg’s most smile-inducing songs, another jaunty, jangling love paean that just can’t help but toss in a couple of lines about its protagonists’ political leanings. After all, they are part of what the narrator loves so much about his new girlfriend. And again Bragg admits that maybe this girl is a little too much for him, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
The bridge features still more stunningly great words: “I know people whose idea of fun is throwing stones in the river in the afternoon sun, oh let me be as free as them, don’t let her pass this way again” Just beautiful.
In 1987 American fans got the gift of Bragg’s first few recordings compiled into a single release called “Back to Basics.” There were no new songs included here, but I consider it important, because for me here in the old U.S., it was the only way for me to get those early recordings, and for a while it simply stood in, in effect, as Bragg’s “first” album to me.
One of the wonderful songs included is a re-working of the 1975 Leon Rosselson composition about the Diggers, who challenged the legitimacy of land ownership. It is a powerful story, and even if you don’t fully agree with the Diggers’ claims, it is very easy to sympathize with their fate and to draw parallels to the roughshod that big business can run over the lives of common working folk.
Other great songs on “Back to Basics” which I haven’t covered yet were “St. Swithin’s Day,” “The Milkman of Human Kindness,” “It Says Here,” and “Between the Wars.” For anyone wishing to bask in the simplicity of one passionate man and his guitar, this is a perfect place to go. You can almost imagine yourself on the sidewalk while Bragg strolls by wearing his portastack.
Back in the UK, Bragg contributed a version of the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home” as part of an all-star reproduction of “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” A double A-side pairing Bragg with Wet Wet Wet’s recording of “With a Little Help from my Friends” resulted in a #1 ranking on the UK singles chart. I am only really making a note of it, because it was Wet Wet Wet’s recording which dominated airplay.
In my first semester of college at a rural southern university, Bragg released “Workers Playtime,” which featured a further expanded group of musicians to support Bragg’s central voice and guitar. Particularly notable were Bruce Thomas of The Attractions on bass and Michelle Shocked with backing vocals (I’m sure Billy is regretting that last one nowadays since Michelle has gone off the rails). The album featured the most significant use of strings yet in his catalogue, and some of his original supporters objected, much like Bob Dylan’s early folk fans complained when he “went electric.” I can’t say that I cared as much. While “Workers Playtime” was uneven in a couple of spots, its pleasures were still overwhelming, with some of Bragg’s most lovely and joyful sounds.
The first single “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward,” shows Bragg in fully aware inner conflict over his political and populist impulses. While the record includes some of his most heartfelt and beautiful love songs, he managed to slap overtly Communist cover art on it, almost guaranteeing that a large number of Americans would turn away from purchasing it at the record shop. In fact, I imagine that many shop owners went out of their way to push “Workers Playtime” behind another artists’ albums in their display bins.
A couple of more favorite lyrics: “If you’ve got a blacklist I wanna be on it.” Who hasn’t felt like that sometimes? Also, “So join the struggle while you may, the revolution is just a T-shirt away.” I just love this sincere expression of street-level politics matched with a winking admission of its inch-at-a-time nature.
Below is one example of the sort of simple love song Bragg is also capable of. I don’t have much to say about it that a good listen won’t say to you in itself.
Cara Tivey’s lovely piano playing is a highlight.
A guest appearance on Norman Cook’s “Won’t Talk About it” returned Bragg to the UK singles chart in 1989. It is a strange credit on Bragg’s resume, because “Won’t Talk About it” is a relatively lightweight dance track built on a sample of a guitar part lifted from Bragg’s “Levi Stubbs’ Tears.” I’m not going to display the song here to pollute your ears. You can do that on your own effort or just consider that I’ve taken that bullet for you. The song placed at #29, matching the chart ranking of the original “Levi Stubbs’ Tears.” Ugh.
In 1990, Bragg released the short album “The Internationale” on his own Utility Records label. The balance between political and love songs was not in play this time around, with most of the record populated by reworkings of previously existing leftist anthems. The title song was based on a famous socialist tune used in many union meetings of the 19th and 20th centuries. When I acted in a production of Clifford Odets’ play Waiting For Lefty, which takes place at a cab drivers’ union meeting, we sang this song to help recreate the feeling of such an event.
“The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions” was the one song included on “The Internationale” written completely by Bragg, and it stands strong amongst the others there.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to sell, and if you want narcotics we can get you that as well.”
The next year brought another album which made the effort to mix the political and personal more tolerably for those who just wanted to hear a good tune. This time, the album’s cover art was also much more neutral. “Don’t Try This at Home” again featured a strong group of guest artists, including Johnny Marr, Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Kirsty MacColl on multiple tracks, and Michael Stipe of R.E.M. doing backing vocals on the song “You Woke up my Neighborhood.”
The lead single for “Don’t Try this at Home” was the raucous personal liberation song “Sexuality,” which became Bragg’s biggest hit in the U.S., climbing up to #2 on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart. It also did well in the UK, becoming a #27 hit on the mainstream singles chart. You can see Marr and MacColl in the fun video made to promote the record.
A more traditional Bragg recording was the song which kicked off the album, “Accident Waiting to Happen.” The track does a good job of presenting Bragg as an artist who takes his work and his subject matters seriously, but who does not take himself nearly as seriously.
“I have all the self-loathing of a wolf in sheep’s clothing in this carnival of carnivores…”
The album suffers from some muddy production and an inconsistent tone, but has continued to be a favorite nonetheless because of continued strong songwriting and became Bragg’s highest-charting album in the UK, sitting at #8 in late 1991 and also charting in Australia.
Extensive touring, a bout with appendicitis, and time spent raising his new son caused a significant break between times in the studio for Bragg, and his follow-up attempt, “William Bloke,” did not appear until five years later. This was Bragg’s first real misstep, with a few strong tracks showing his typical brio and wit, but an overall feeling of the depressions and nostalgia of an older man who has not come to grips with aging yet. Reviews were mixed, but the long time off did not badly effect the album’s sales, with “William Bloke” still hitting #16 on the UK albums chart.
Not long after, Bragg was approached by the daughter of famous American folk artist Woody Guthrie with a project in mind. She had found some unused lyrics of her Father’s which had never been set to music and offered them to Bragg and the indy band Wilco for completion and recording. The resulting collaboration, known as “Mermaid Avenue,”(named after the street where Guthrie lived on Coney Island) became one of Bragg’s most highly visible recordings in the U.S. and appeared to rejuvenate him.
The lead single from “Mermaid Avenue” was called “Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key” and featured a backing vocal by former 10,000 Maniacs singer Natalie Merchant.
Lebeau is a big fan of classic silver screen actress Ingrid Bergman, so it would be a crime not to include the funny little song about her that came out of “Mermaid Avenue.”
The imagery is not particularly subtle is it? Guthrie was apparently also a big fan of Bergman’s.
Lest you imagine that Bragg had settled into pastoral, easy-listening mode, here is a hard-rocking entry that emerged from the “Mermaid Avenue” sessions called “All You Fascists.”
I imagine the “union gun” mentioned is Guthrie’s guitar, which was famously painted with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists.”
The “Mermaid Avenue” eventually produced three discs worth of tracks, which are now all available for purchase as a single set.
With Bragg’s muse back in place, he responded with one of his wittiest and most lively records to date, the 2002 release “England, Half-English.” Like in previous outings, Bragg’s humor was often aimed at serious topics, with the title track specifically skewering the growing nationalism and racism he saw cropping up around him in Britain. The track was released in partnership with the first song on the album “St. Monday,” about a hardworking fellow who is having a hard time getting going at the beginning of his week.
Other up-beat and witty songs from the album include “Jane Allen,” “NPWA,” “Baby Faroukh,” “Another Kind of Judy,” and “Tears of my Tracks,” a wry tale about a music fan who is mourning the necessary sale of his collection of vinyl records.
The protest ballad “Take Down the Union Jack,” however, was the big single off this album, capturing some of the blowback from the zeitgeist over the Queen’s Jubilee and some general dissatisfaction with rampant nationalism. Bragg takes the opportunity to suggest that splitting up the UK may not be the worst idea in the world, and plenty of folks in Scotland agree pretty heartily. I have no dog in that fight, but I will mention that it is a popular enough sentiment that the song hit #22 on the singles chart.
In 2005, Bragg contributed his celebrity and musicianship to a project called Rosetta Life, which made efforts to provide opportunities for positive experiences for patients with terminal illnesses through the arts. Bragg co-wrote three songs with patients in hospice care and played guitar on the resulting single, with vocals by a singer named Helena. The lead song “We Laughed” encourages family members to focus on the positive and enjoyable moments they had with their terminal loved ones. It is a sweet song that sounds like something out of the easy-listening 70’s. Being that it was for a wonderful charity and that it charted at #11 for Bragg, I’ll stop my criticisms right there.
Six years after “England, Half English,” Bragg released a new full album of original songs, with reviews being decidedly mixed. As a big fan, there is plenty on the album to satisfy my need for new songs from my favorite British Socialist Singer-Songwriter, but there are also some disjointed and even boring tracks which make me wonder what he was doing for most of those six years. The lead single “I Keep Faith,” while not measuring up to his very best, is pure comfort food for me and communicates real warmth from an artist who is often prickly or even a little preachy. It also boasts one of his finest melodies in years.
2011 was a busy year politically for Bragg, with the songwriter joining the Occupy movement in England and reacting to the News of the World phone hacking scandal by recording a song flatly asking his fans to boycott one of the several news organizations guilty of unethical behaviors (what?! by Rupert Murdoch? I am shocked, I tell you, Shocked!) Honestly, considering the kind of content The Sun was already routinely publishing, I don’t think there was ever much chance you’d find me buying a copy. It’s just not the kind of thing I’m interested in at all. Also, it’s not often on newsstands in the U.S. There’s that, too.
It’s a pretty decent protest ballad with a very legitimate target.
Just last year Bragg took another step in his development as an artist, releasing “Tooth & Nail,” a stripped down album full of western-tinged folk sounds in a fashion much more realized than in any previous recording. Like many other British musicians, Bragg has revealed a fascination with traditional American music, but unlike many, he appears to be capable of making the form his own. “Tooth & Nail” incorporates early folk, blues, country, and western influences while maintaining Bragg’s propensity for a good protest song. Have a listen to a live performance of the excellent “There Will be a Reckoning.”
That sends chills up my spine in a way that a Bragg song has not done since the time of “Don’t Try This at Home,” and maybe it’s no coincidence that “Tooth & Nail” is Bragg’s fastest-selling album since that commercial high-water mark. It may also be that the scenes he describes remind me of the environment I’m enduring here in North Carolina. I’m not sure if that’s heartening or depressing.
While Bragg’s musical output has slowed in recent years, he appears poised for one of the stronger artistic periods in his career, and there is certainly no lack of targets in today’s political climate for him to level his union gun at. Just yesterday, reports came that Bragg had helped to overturn a ban on the use of steel guitar strings in Britain’s prisons. He argued that the more prisoners are able to participate in productive and rewarding activities, the lower the chances that they will be repeat offenders. Prison authorities have reacted by rescinding the overarching ban, while retaining the freedom to reinstate it for individual prisoners who give cause.
Here’s hoping Bragg keeps up the good fight and blesses us with more and more of his gorgeous songs.