The Ballad Of Billy Bragg
I first encountered Billy Bragg as a small boy (or so it seems now, all these years later), working as an order puller, packer & tea boy for Red Rhino South (nee Nine Mile Distribution) in the early 80s. I was the pup of the pack. Robin, Graham & the effortlessly cool Simon Holland had far superior taste & musical knowledge to inconsequential (or so it seemed at the time) me. I’d only just gotten over The Clash, for Morrissey’s sake! What did I know? Well for a start, I knew nothing of the Paisley Underground, The Rain Parade or REM. I didn’t own a copy of “Radio Free Europe” on 7” - or the “Chronic Town” mini LP either. I was just handed lists of records, which I duly pulled from the racks of vinyl, boxed, addressed & placed diligently on the postal pile for imminent dispatch. Some times I got to answer the phone – most of the time I got to make the tea.
Of course, it was all fields around those parts back then: fields of Sisters Of Mercy, fields of March Violets, fields that were destined to become Fields Of The Nephilim before much longer. One day a white label arrived that none of the others seemed to want. It was on a label called Utility, & was by some bloke called Billy Bragg. I snaffled it whilst no one was looking, reasoning that they’d all passed it up, & took it home to my tenement hovel on Regent Place, Leamington Spa.
The house I shared with Charlie Furness & Dave Tibbetts was nowhere near as grand as its address may infer. There was nothing remotely Regency about it. We occupied two floors above an Indian grocers shop that was haunted by a strange turbaned figure that would open the toilet door & freak the shit out of you when you were trying your damnedest to squeeze out one of your own – or walk into the bathroom & stare at your nakedness as you washed. My bedroom contained a broken window inadequately repaired with yellow & black gaffa tape, a smelly single mattress, my record player, my guitar, my amp, a clothes rack, a few Theatre Of Hate posters - & a gas fire for doing hot knives on. Spartan just about covers it.
It was June 1983 when I arrived home after a long day’s packing & tea bag straining with my white label of “Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy” concealed in a brown cardboard mailer. Can of lager in one hand, a joint of gooey black in the other, I lay on my mattress as the needle of my record player hit the wax for the first time. I read the press release as I listened:
Steven William Bragg was born 20/12/57 in Barking, Essex. Inspired by The Clash, he formed the Peterborough based Riff Raff in 1977, releasing a handful of 45s, including the seminal “I Wanna Be A Cosmonaut EP” (Chiswick), before the group split in 1981. Billy’s next move was fundamentally un-rock & roll: he joined the army! The army & Billy didn’t see eye to eye, however, & Billy bought himself out after only 90 days. Then he bought a guitar & an amp & busked his way around Britain, ending up in a recording studio courtesy of Utility. The results eventually became “Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy”.
Music aficionados often talk about road to Damascus moments. My good friend & mentor, Dave Jones, regularly told me about the moment he discovered Bob Dylan, & the ways in which is life had been irrevocably altered as a consequence. That summer’s evening, as I lay stoned & optimistically idealistic, listening to the sounds of one bloke & his battered electric guitar, I began to understand for the first time exactly what Dave had been on about all along. From the opening chimes of “The Milkman Of Human Kindness” I was smitten:
“If you are lonely, I will call,
If you are poorly, I will send poetry”
I have always been a hopeless romantic idealist – it just took me 20 odd years to work it out. From that June night onwards, I was walking in metaphorical darkness no longer. My friends & housemates could wear all the eyeliner in China, dress from head to toe in black - & bullshit all the teenage Goths they wanted to as far as I was concerned. Something had changed. I no longer felt alone. I no longer felt compelled to slavishly follow trends. I didn’t know for certain yet, but I was fairly convinced that Billy Bragg was never going to be trendy.
Taking the needle & placing it back at the beginning of Side 1 for the second listen, the wonderment of what I was hearing swelled inside me. There’s a special place music can take you when you are convinced that you are the only person in the world that understands it. If music could talk. Isn’t that the point, Joe? The adrenalin surged through me the way only music can when you hear something totally unique. “To Have & To Have Not” appealed to my innate sense of personal injustice:
“Just because you’re better than me, doesn’t mean I’m lazy
Just because I dress like this, doesn’t mean I’m A Communist”
My father had been a lifelong socialist & a committed Labour Party voter. We didn’t have the Daily Star delivered, or anything that radical (my father, ironically, read The Daily Torygraph, claiming it was always best to know what the opposition were up to, tactically – before tapping his nose & winking!), but I had been raised to appreciate the wisdom of the political left of centre. Back in the early 80s, wearing communist regalia would often lead to heated debate in the pubs & towns of our locale - & if you were very unlucky – a good kicking. Obsessive fixations with Marxism were nothing out of the ordinary back then:
“Just because you’re going forwards,
Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards”
The subtle critique of the failed romancers that was “Richard” wasn’t lost on me either:
“Do you think I only love you ‘cos you sleep with other boys”
The resonance of words such as these to a young man already burnt by the fires of unrequited love cannot be understated. By this stage in my life my first serious relationship had hit the rocks enough times to be considered extremely un-seaworthy by the majority of passing adults proffering advice. My roll as a loser in love was apparently highly defined.
“I was 21 years when I wrote this song,
I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long”
The opening lines to “A New England” immediately struck yet another chord with me – an F major barre chord, if I’m not mistaken. At the end of the song’s 2 minutes & 7 seconds my Fender acoustic was as busy as my fingers - labouring to master both the chord progression & the tune. To say that it didn’t take me long is no slight on the compositional talents of Billy Bragg – or an elevation of my humble skills either, for that matter. If you can play the guitar & sing at the same time - you will understand that this is not a boast as such – more of a compliment, I would suggest. Either way, “A New England” has remained in my buskers cannon ever since.
“The Man In The Iron Mask” practically reduced me to tears from the off. Without getting too specific, let’s just say it’s theme of love & loss mirrored my own experiences so accurately it was almost uncanny. That resonance has only increased with the passage of time & subsequent heartbreak: the “The Man In The Iron Mask” could almost have been written specifically for me. Let’s leave it there. To be honest, it’s still painful to think about. Even all the years down the line. Love’s like that - & when it’s inextricable bound to a certain sound, a poignant lyric & a bunch of shared memories, those same tears are never far behind:
“When he drops you off, I will not say,
Who was that, who so quickly drove away,
The things you’ve done & the places you’ve been,
When I open the door for you, I will not let them in,
As long as you come back to me I will never ask,
For you I will be, the man in the iron mask”
“The Busy Girl Buys Beauty” was witty, wry & amusing by comparison – but still reminded me of girls I knew intimately. The very same girls that were possibly already pushing prams, choosing colour schemes & buying pine scatter cushions from Habitat.
“Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy” ended abruptly with “Lovers Town Revisited”, a biting commentary on casual violence in small-town England around chucking out time – which in those days was 10.30pm on a weekday - & 11.00pm at weekends! I will never forget the screams of a particularly unfortunate young man beaten to a pulp yards from my abode as I lay like a coward listening to his pain through the crack in my window - & doing nothing to help.
At 16 minutes and 2 seconds, “Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy” was brief to say the least, but the damage had been done & I was hooked. I would spend the next few years following Billy from pillar to post, buying every record, poster, t-shirt & badge along the way - & working all the songs out on my trusted Fender as I went about my business.
I met Billy a few times down the years, the first incident occurred at a University gig in Birmingham around 1985. My aforementioned girlfriend & I, having belated realised Billy was gigging that night without having acquired any tickets, decided we’d risk it anyhow, & rang said Uni to bullshit them with a story about travelling up from London at the last minute. Could they guarantee us getting in? Get here early, they said.
By the time we arrived at the venue, rather predictably in retrospect, the house was full, & a contretemps ensued (surprise, surprise). Angry, more as a mask for my disappointment than anything, I demanded to see Billy himself, claiming that he would either intervene or add us to his guest list (embarrassing, I know). A few minutes later I was tapped on the shoulder by Billy himself, who listened to my bullshit whilst somehow managing to keep a straight face, before telling me, tenderly, that if the man said it was a sell out then, unfortunately, it was a sell out. End of. I thanked him profusely, incredulous that I’d met my hero in the most unfortunate of circumstances, & still remained on the wrong side of the till wondering what the fuck I was going to do next.
I didn’t have to ponder long: the next moment a student came through a sliding door to the side of the gig entrance, foolishly failing to shut it completely as he went. I didn’t need to think twice, my accumulated years of gig going had taught me that much, at least. We were through the door before you could say The Clash Meets Smokey Robinson. Away with the mixer - & mingling with the buzzing crowd. Billy was masterful that night. The audience in the palm of his hand, his political convictions bared for all to see. The atmosphere was electric. We had the power!! Thatcher was bound to resign in the morning. Someone would surely let her know how much we all hated her.
The next time I met Billy he’d thankfully forgotten all about our previous meeting. The venue on this occasion was Dingwalls – the event: The Folk Roots World Music Awards, or something like that. I bumped into him coming back from the toilets & babbled incessantly about my admiration for him & his work. He was charming & genial, we spoke for a good 10 minutes, & the unsatisfactory nature of our previous meeting rapidly paled into insignificance. I offered him a drink, which he declined, & I knew instinctively that this particular meeting was already way past its sell by date.
The last time I interacted with Billy was a couple of years ago on a BBC Radio London show on the subject of politics in pop. I was a studio guest along with Tim Smith of The Adverts. Billy was joining in by phone - & the daunting circumstances of the experience were only compounded further by Billy’s eloquence & encyclopaedic knowledge of his subject. To say I felt somewhat out of my depth was an understatement to say the least. Following an impressive monologue from the man himself clearly dissecting the very essence of what we were there to discuss, I was prompted by the presenter for a comment. All I could think of to say was that there were 2 sides to every coin, & that Billy had also written a golden host of the most affecting everyman love songs in the history of British pop! Talk about ducking the issue. Billy thanked me politely, whist stifling a yawn, I remember imagining, & TV Smith saved my bacon by entering the studio the very next moment, apologising profusely for his tardiness, deflecting my inability to express myself verbally neatly as he arrived.
Why am I boring you with all this? The answer is simple: “Billy Bragg Volume 1”, the wonderful new box set from Cooking Vinyl (BRAGGBOX001)
The 9-disc box contains:
“Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy” - Billy's 1983 debut recording together with a bonus CD featuring 11 extra tracks.
“Brewing Up with Billy Bragg” - the original 1984 album and a bonus CD with 11 additional tracks.
“Talking with the Taxman About Poetry” - Bragg's 1986 album plus 10 extra tracks on a bonus CD.
“The Internationale” - Billy's 1990 release, now combined with his “Live & Dubious” EP and five bonus tracks. The package comes with a bonus DVD called “Here & There” documenting Bragg's then-pioneering appearances in East Berlin, Nicaragua and Lithuania during the Eighties.
“From the West Down to the East” - a DVD featuring the South Bank Show's March 1985 profile of Billy Bragg together with film of his August 1986 concert in East Berlin. This DVD is exclusive to the boxed set.
A luxury full-colour booklet featuring artwork, lyrics & messages from Wiggy & Billy himself.
Billy Bragg is an institution. An artist inspired by Punk Rock & sweet Soul music who has combined the two & put his convictions were his mouth is time & time again. He’s continually informed as he’s entertained. For every “It Say’s Here”, “Island Of No Return”, “Like Soldiers Do”, “Ideology”, “There Is Power In A Union”, “Help Save The Youth Of America” or “Between The Wars” there was a “The Myth Of Trust”, “The Saturday Boy”, “St Swithin’s Day”, “A Lover Sings”, “Greetings To The New Brunette” or a “Levis Stubb’s Tears” - 2 sides to every coin.
As Billy would later say on “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward” (to be included on Volume 2):
“Mixing pop & politics he asks me what the use is,
I offer him embarrassment & my usual excuses”
From the perspective of one of those infamous fanzine writers who’s highly unlikely, now, to ever see his 15 minutes, the use is somewhat perplexing. Listening to “Volume 1” in one sitting, I am reminded that not only was Billy Bragg the greatest British songwriter of his generation – but also that the very notion of politics in pop reached its nadir through his emotive words & deeply affecting melodies - & that the idealism we once shared as we stood together at the edge of the platform, like a train it has gone by so fast. The fact that by the time we finally got the Labour government we’d protested so hard & so long to install they turned out to be Conservatives after all, is the real lump in the throat here. Of course, that isn’t Billy Bragg’s fault, that’s just the way life is in these selfish times.
When all is said & done, you can’t put a boy down for trying, & Billy Bragg tried way harder than almost everyone else put together. The ideology now rests beneath the waves Britannia has strived so hard to rule, rotting besides the galleons & clippers that brought us our collective wealth at the expense of the indigenous peoples of the world. Levi Stubbs isn’t the only one in tears.
Jean Encoule tMx 24 03/06