Billy Bragg

Mixing pop and politics

Most musicians merely give lip service to social concerns when it's trendy to do so. Remember when it was hip to feed starving Africans? Don't see many folks concerned about that these days, do you? Remember the trendy save-the-planet eco-movement in the early '90s? Heard any protests against rainforests lately? Case closed -- for most celebrities, political involvement is a mere diversion between gigs and good copy for press conferences. Bragg, however, is quite sincere about his political beliefs, and not in a shrill, hectoring way (the way most other political acts tend to be -- which subverts any case they have, whatever good merits, 'cause idiotic, humorless fanaticism makes most sensible folk make polite excuses to leave your company). Bragg is smart enough to realize the limits of his political engagement as a recording artist on a corporate label -- "Mixing pop and politics/He asks me what the use is/I offer him embarassment/And my usual excuses". He's as close to a modern-day heir of Woody Guthrie as any songwriter extant, not only penning many deeply felt and intelligent songs about social issues, but organizing Britain's Red Wedge collective of musicians to raise money and awareness for leftist causes, and playing more benefits and rallies than your average Labour politician during election year. His sense of self-effacing humor, punning wordsmithery, and general humanism save him from becoming an unentertaining rhetorician; tellingly, he's actually better at sharply observed love songs than political protest. The grades on this page are generally quite low; Bragg is an earnest folkie, and he's never had much interest in music for music's sake, which makes his albums sparse in musical backing and too often deadly dull. However, he does come up with a song that will make you sit up every now and then, and he's impossible to dislike -- he's one of the few genuinely nice blokes in pop music.

Back To Basics (1987) ***

A collection of Bragg's early releases: 1983's Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy EP, 1984's Brewing Up With Billy Bragg mini-album, and 1985's Between the Wars EP. Armed with a thick Cockney accent and a clutch of earnest, rousing pop tunes, Bragg's first release is easily the best of his career that I've heard so far; his blasts of Clash-riff guitar, unaccompanied by anything but his ragged voice, keep Life's a Riot... on the right side of exciting - Bragg would have trouble keeping his listeners awake for the rest of his career, but not here. The seven songs on Life's a Riot... range from the warmly humanistic ("The Milkman of Human Kindness," "To Have and Have Not,") to Costello-esque sarcasm ("The Busy Girl Buys Beauty") to bitter in the defeat at love ("Richard," "The Man in the Iron Mask," "A New England"). That last song became something of a signature tune for Bragg, becoming a big hit in the U.K. several years later as a Kirsty MacColl cover, and deservedly so -- "A New England," is one of the greatest songs anyone wrote in the early '80s. Like Paul Westerberg's "Answering Machine," the naked accompaniment only tightens the focus powerfully upon the singer's rawly vulnerable emotional state, whose bitterness verges on complete emotional despair - couplets such as "I put you on the pedestal/But they put you on the pill," say quite a bit about modern love, and are not only clever but affecting.

From there on, it's downhill, but the first EP is such a gem of no-frills pop music that it's probably the one Bragg must-have until they release a well-chosen best-of. Brewing Up... adds extra instrumentation to Bragg & guitar, with pleasant results, but his songwriting's more inconsistent; as typical with Bragg, the political songs such as "It Says Here," can't compete with the love songs such as "Love Gets Dangerous." "Saturday Boy," perhaps the most affecting of the lot, tells the sad tale of Bragg's early sexual coming of age and his crush on the girl down the street who doesn't fancy him that much - nice guys finish last, and the trumpet solo underscores his pathos. "St. Swithin's Day," is another tender, sad look at the complications of modern relationships; luckily there's one rousing, Clash-y riff rocker, "Strange Things Happen," to keep the album exciting - Bragg could use a few more like those; those dirges are just dull! As such, there's not much to say about the overtly political, four-song Between the Wars EP, which contains a song about a 17th century peasant revolt and that old union fight song, "Which Side Are You On?"

Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (1986)

Supposedly Bragg's artistic highpoint; I've seen it at a reasonable price and will probably pick it up sometime.

Help Save the Youth of America EP (1988) **

Most live albums are expendable, and this is not much an exception; it's of historical note, since Bragg was one of the first Western rock stars to be allowed performance in the then Soviet Union. The title track helpfully adds Russian translation of his stage patter, to great cheer by the Soviet youth when he says that this song could have easily be called "Help Save the Youth of the Soviet Union." It's a catchy little riff-rocker in Bragg's patented one-man Clash style, and I'm sure it doesn't sound a bit different from its Talking With the Taxman... version. The acapella cover of "Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto," is a well-meaning gesture of solidarity with our struggling brothers in South Africa (wow, it's amazing how long ago 1988 was -- those strugglers are running South Africa now!), but musically, well, eh... I can't sit through it without feeling embarrassed for Bragg. "Days Like These," is a thoughtful protest against CIA recruiters on American campuses, and he ends with a sing-along of that old union standby "There is Power in a Union." Not bad if you see it really cheap; nothing essential, though. The voter registration pamphlet that came with my copy is a nice touch - that's our Bragg.

Workers Playtime (1988) **1/2

Switching gears slightly from the political to the personal, Bragg crafts a concept album about the ups and downs (downs, mostly) of an obviously autobiographical recent relationship in which he wound up on the losing end. He's come to the painful conclusion that "most important decisions in life/Are made between two people in bed," and includes liner notes quoting Gramsci on how he realized that he would've made a better revolutionary if he'd paid more attention to his personal life. Despite the title and ridiculous cover (that proclaims that "Capitalism is killing music"), there are only a handful of political songs on this disc, and they're among the weaker tracks. Despite my political disagreement with some of Bragg's ideological leanings, my only real beef is his endorsement of Maoism on the cover and title (from a Chinese radio show). Mao's Cultural Revolution killed more Chinese than the Japanese did in WWII, if I recall my history correctly - why is perfectly acceptable in polite company to affect Marxism, when if someone did the same for Nazism they'd be ostracized? After all, more people died, and were repressed and tortured in the name of Marxist-Leninism than Hitler. Anyhow, Bragg certainly starts and ends this album on high notes, but the middle of the album becomes on slow string of amorphous balladry that I can hardly keep awake for. "She's Got a New Spell," and "Must I Paint You a Picture," are sharply observed portraits of the pitfalls and pleasures of young love, but after those two openers the album runs out of steam. Thankfully it perks up with the second to last song, "Short Answer," in which Bragg finds the name Mary between Marx and marzipan in his dictionary - see, he does have a sense of humor about his political sense. The last song, "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward," is Bragg's most accomplished song and perhaps most memorable song - a cinematic but humble piano epic set during the early '60s days of the new Castro & Kennedy administrations; it's the one that contains the self-mocking lines about mixing pop and politics, and even tongue-in-cheekly quotes Mott the Hoople to boot. A terrific way to end the album -- it's too bad Bragg had to wait until the very end to come up with a great one.

The Internationale EP (1990)

Bragg goes for the throat here -- the seven songs are all angry protest numbers, including the infamous title track (yep, a cover of that relic of Communism).

Don't Try This At Home (1991) **

This album's a dull drag even by Bragg's snail-crawling standards, redeemed by a handful of catchy and intelligently observed singles material. Well, all of Bragg's songs are intelligently observed, and very sincere as a plus, but rarely is he catchy or exciting. Produced by ex-Smiths Johnny Marr and given some musical assistance by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, this once again pushes Bragg farther away from his spare roots to full-band musical backing - the results are unobtrusive and unexceptional, as the focus as always is on Bragg's words and songs. The color coding on the back of the CD jacket unintentionally sets this up to be divided into four four-song EPs (another problem of the CD age - this is way too long), each fronted by a catchy single and followed by three dirgey B-sides. Well, that's the way the CD seems to work to me, so I'll follow my logic: of the singles, "Accident Waiting To Happen," is a fine, though unexceptional opener about modern love; "You Woke Up My Neighborhood," is a better attempt at that sort of thing, with a really strong chorus about finding a girl you're crazy about; "Sexuality," Bragg's catchiest (not a synonym for best) pop single jingle, is a well-intentioned anthem for love in the PC age - it's not sexy at all, but Bragg's well intentioned, and we promise not to bash gays and always use a condom!; in "North Sea Bubble," a jaunty slice of music-hall, Bragg shares a drink with Thomas Paine. The dirgey numbers that take up the rest of the CD are as thoughtful and well-intentioned as usual, taking all the right stands on all the right subjects - anti-war, anti-nationalism, anti- Japanese-American internment during WWII. The closer, "Body of Water," disrupts the pattern somewhat by being uptempo - too bad he didn't write a few more fast songs, as these dirges are really getting to be a major drag. Remember, propaganda only works if you keep the listeners awake.

The Peel Sessions (1992)

Bragg live in the studio during his early years; considering his low-frills approach, I highly doubt that the versions here are any different from those on his early albums.

William Bloke (1996)
With Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (1998)

His highly acclaimed teamup with American roots-rockers Wilco, setting some old Woody Guthrie lyrics to original music and melodies. Critics went bonkers over this disc, so I'm keeping a good eye out for a reasonably priced copy.

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