Saturday, April 22, 2006

An Illustrated Guide To... Billy Bragg

The Bard Of Barking is on a UK tour from Sunday, accompanied by former Small Faces organist Ian McLagan. This being a Billy Bragg tour it's the Hope Not Hate Tour, supported by the Amicus, GMB, RMT and Unison unions as well as The Left Field, Love Music Hate Racism, Searchlight and Unite Against Fascism. Thus is the image of Billy Bragg shouting the left wing rights reinforced. Is it really justified, though? Well, yes, if he's gone to this much effort, but what about the stuff he made his living with?

There are two things everyone knows about the early life of Stephen William Bragg, DOB 20/12/57: he joined the Royal Irish Hussars of the Royal Armoured Corps in 1981 after his pub rock outfit Riff Raff split (his father had been in the Royal Tank Regiment and helped keep the peace in immediately post-WWII India) but left after three months having bought himself out with "the best £175 I ever spent", and he got his first Peel play after hearing him mention on air that he fancied a mushroom biriyani, bought one and handed it over at Radio 1 reception. The album also handed over was Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy - Bragg initially gigged under the Spy Vs Spy nom de plume, taken from a Mad magazine cartoon strip - one of the last releases on Charisma records, which had released prog prime Genesis, Van der Graaf Generator, Lindisfarne, Vivian Stanshall and most of the Monty Python records but had fallen on hard times, so much so that they couldn't afford a promotion budget for it (Bragg was its last signing before Virgin swallowed the label whole) Luckily Bragg was willing to travel with guitar and portable amp to hand, picking up many a music press writer almost stumbling across him and instantly becoming a fan. After a reissue on Go! Discs, a slot on The Tube and a third place in the NME writers' end of year poll the album made it as high as number 32 at the start of 1984. His back to basics approach (Back To Basics, coincidentally, being the title of the 1987 compilation that stuck his first two albums together) was different to the all-pervading robotic pop and plastic soul of the day, we'll say that for it.

The Milkman Of Human Kindness (the first song from the album Peel played, except here it's at the right speed. A story we've never quite believed, for what it's worth - we appreciate how he might have put on oddball prog/noise/techno at the wrong speed, but a solo singer-songwriter?)
A New England on The Tube

Being on the cover of the second NME of 1984 helped, mind. Support dates with Echo & The Bunnymen in America followed, and to fill the gaps in between he and manager (and Charisma A&R man) Peter Jenner developed the Portastack, a PA stack only slightly taller than Bragg himself that he would wear on his back while playing in the street during New York's New Music Seminar. Although his work had mostly been concerned with strip-mining affairs of the heart and soul, it was his occasional socio-political edge that was magnified after the 1983 election and when he started playing GLC-sponsored gigs and miners' benefits around London that year. September 1984's Brewing Up With Billy Bragg delved into this side more but still revolved on varied emotional states - The Saturday Boy, based on his actual schoolboy romance, was widely praised, and it wasn't alone.

The album entered at a barely credible number 16 - the Redskins never did that - while in the first month of 1985 Kirsty Maccoll was taking A New England to number seven in the singles chart. In the same month as the miner's strike officially ended Billy, spurred into action partly by the politicised folk revival, brought out the Between The Wars EP, featuring the titular live favourite, an adaptation of 1930s US miner anthem Which Side Are You On?, veteran political folkie Leon Rosselson's The World Turned Upside Down and Brewing Up's It Says Here. It reached number 15 and got Billy onto Top Of The Pops, joining Nik Kershaw and Loose Ends in the studio.

It Says Here

He and the Labour party were now inseperable in the public conscious, going as far as appearing in a party political broadcast, and it was he who came up with the name Red Wedge after a Russian constructivist painting, kicking off a tour at the start of 1986 that came to include the Smiths, Madness, Lloyd Cole, Prefab Sprout, the Style Council and the Communards among many others, and playing at the GLC's farewell free concert at the end of that March. In between there was an album to record, and what emerged was Talking With The Taxman About Poetry, its title taken from a poem by Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, featuring extra instruments for the first time properly as well as Johnny Marr and Kirsty Maccoll on Greetings To The New Brunette. There was politics, but not in a hammer-home style, Bragg still just as concerned with political manoevurings of the heart.

The Marriage
Greetings To The New Brunette video

Having warmed up for 1987 by getting arrested on a CND demonstration in Norfolk, Bragg found himself distracted for much of it, not by Red Wedge's fading, the concurrent election defeat, a trip to Honduras or a deputising stint for long time mate Andy Kershaw but by a deep love affair gone wrong. Much of this played into 1988's Worker's Playtime, produced by Joe Boyd (Pink Floyd, REM, Nick Drake, John Martyn, Fairport Convention, 10,000 Maniacs), preceded by a fluke number one when his cover of She's Leaving Home crept in on the Childline-aiding double-A undercard of Wet Wet Wet's With A Little Help From My Friends. One reviewer called it "broken heart surgery" and the idea of love lost and attempting to understand women generally runs right through the album, which was the first on which Bragg was backed by a full band and on closer Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards, a chorus of just about everyone he knew. Listen carefully as the slow fade kicks in for a particularly raucous effort from Go! Discs employee Phill Jupitus.

Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards

Bragg left Go! Discs upon their takeover by Polygram in 1989, briefly setting up Utility, UK home to Juliana Hatfield and Evan Dando's Blake Babies. 1990 saw him self-issue The Internationale, a stopgap mini-album reworking political protest anthems ranging from a return to solo work to a full brass band popping by, promoted in part with a gig at Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow. Drawn out negotiations saw him back at Go! for 1991's Don't Try This At Home, among his most consistent lyrical work and only top ten album, covering Gulf War paranoia, football hooliganism, capitalist ills, Wolves star turned Jehovah's Witness Peter Knowles and his own father's death on this.

Tank Park Salute

Former tour support friends Michael Stipe and Peter Buck turned up on You Woke Up My Neighbourhood while Marr and Maccoll returned for anthemic first single Sexuality, Jupitus directing the video and later helping Billy rework into occasional encore favourite, um, Bestiality. We thought we had a version of this on our hard drive but it seems not, but we've got this if it's any use...

Billy Bragg & Bill Bailey - Unisex Chip Shop (live at Glastonbury 2004)
Much the same, but more visual

An endless, unenjoyed tour with band The Red Stars ended abruptly when Billy's appendix burst, which gave him the opportunity to pay his advance back to Go! Discs, marry their boss' ex-wife, expand his writing portfolio and become a father, pretty much in that order. It was 1996 until the release of William Bloke, a grown up album in many ways, attempting to get a handle on the fact he wasn't the one man and a guitar ranter of yore. It sent him back into the album top 20, single Upfield somehow making Radio 1's playlist, and an 1997 election night gig in the heart of Red Wedge land was its own political rally without overtly being one.

Another side road opened up the following year, although it had actually begun when Bragg played at Central Park to celebrate what would have been Woody Guthrie's 80th birthday. There he met his daughter Nora, already a fan, and the idea was hatched shortly afterwards for him to put new interpretations to a stockpile of unused original lyrics, choosing Billy as "he didn't come with a lot of baggage" with regard to knowledge of the source. Bragg handpicked Wilco as support on Mermaid Avenue, getting on so well that they recorded a second album's worth of material that came out two years later, although they later fell out over mixing and a mooted tour fell victim to schedules. Bragg's arrangements aren't always immediately obvious, as indeed his voice isn't at times. Mermaid Avenue went on to sell as many records in America as the rest of his back catalogue put together. Here it ended a run of top thirty full studio albums dating back to Brewing Up With...

Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key

A hastily conceived backing band, The Blokes, was instead formed for touring duties, including McLagan. Back home with time to kill Bragg appeared on Question Time, Radio 2 drivetime and in Nicky Wire's ever growing hate list after he took a photo of their Glastonbury backstage private portaloos. Wire never got a road near Dagenham named after him, though. He moved to Dorset, had a near-shouting match with Boris Johnson on Radio 4 which ended with Bragg inviting Johnson to Glastonbury for a BBC documentary, wrote songs for a Royal Shakespeare Theatre production of Henry V and was given an honorary degree by the University of East London. In 2001 he campaigned for Lords reform and advocated tactical voting after realising his local MP was Oliver Letwin and the Lib Dems were closing in on him, leading to an only mildly dignified appearance on Letwin's hustings on Newsnight clad in Roman centurion gear. (Letwin's share of the vote actually increased, but Bragg's actual Tory tactical target next door lost his seat) Somewhere in the middle he made time to write England Half English, released on the twentieth anniversary of his first gig. This was his first proper band collaborative work, in which he attempted to make sense of the many sides of nationalism through a multitude of styles. It wasn't his most even work - The NPWA's attempt to make 'No Power Without Accountability' a rousing slogan curiously failed - but it's a grower and Take Down The Union Jack got him back onto TOTP the same month as he appeared on the Weakest Link and the week before the Golden Jubilee, standing on a box lamenting "Gilbert and George are taking the piss" to kids surely there for Atomic Kitten, Liberty X and Ms Dynamite, whose family it turned out Bragg knew well. In terms of studio work that was it, excepting last November's We Laughed, a benefit for the Rosetta Life charity written by terminally ill patient Maxine Edgington, until this month's free mp3 release The Lonesome Death Of Rachel Corrie, an opinion splitting (admittedly we're mostly going on the usual roundel of idiot blog commenters - not you lot here, you're lovely, we mean on the politicised blogs), Dylan-cribbing song about the peace activist killed by an Israeli bulldozer. But before you go any further, note wryly titled best of Must I Paint You A Picture?, which came out towards the end of 2003, reviews almost as one wondering why they hadn't noticed how he'd written love songs just as well if not better than political ones. Twas ever thus.

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