The first time I heard Billy Bragg sing was on breakfast TV. Heripped through a rousing version of It’s Say Here and I dropped my schoolbag in shock: I had never witnessed anything like it. Punk rock folkmusic if you please.
The sound of a cheap untreated electric guitar, apin sharp eye for details and the spirit of The Clash withoutthe rock ‘n’ roll posing. The self confessed big nosed bard of Barkingshredding the idea of press freedom, the royal family and tabloiddouble standards in under three minutes. I had never realised thatmusic could jab like that, carry real meaning and be delivered withsuch white knuckle conviction. I was hooked.
Listening to Billy Bragg’s work in a block like this I am struck byhow consistent, strong and passionate his song writing is. Vol 1contains seven CDs: the first three studio LPs plus the Internationalmini LP and various EPs, live tracks and B-sides. There are also twoDVDs of live material. It’s a testament to Billy Bragg’s ability thatthere is no filler on here at all.
I have always felt that to define or stereotype him simply asjukebox for the likes of Arthur Scargill is to miss the point. There’sno denying that he is a political songwriter, and a brilliant one atthat, but there is so much more to this Karl Marx set to music. Muchlater in his career he sung of having “a socialism of the heart”, and fromthe opening bars of his debut LP you are in little doubt that this istrue. On the songs on these CDs – be they protest songs, love songs or agenre breaking mix of both – it is the humanity, warmth and empathy thatshines through.
The songs on Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy and Brewing Up With BillyBragg still sound raw, vital and basic. You get Billy, his gruff vocalsand the sound of a budget guitar plugged into a practice amp. The musichere makes the The White Stripes sound like ELO. In an agewhen someone like Tears For Fears would spend two months on adrum sound the rawness of these recording was startling andrevolutionary. It was a conscious attempt to distil music back to itsvery core.
If you compare Man In The Iron Mask from the first LP and Myth ofTrust from the second you get a clear example of his skill as a wordsmith and writer. Both are tales of affairs, the first told from thepoint of view of the injured party, the second from someone who ischeating on their partner. Man In The Iron Mask is pure pain lonelinessand defeat. It’s a love song of sorts that subverts the macho swaggerof rock music with something more human and truthful. On Myth Of TrustBragg peels away the bravado of the love affair and exposes the rotten,self-serving disgust at the centre. This ability to cut through to thecore is something that places him above the vast majority of hispeers.
The songs come thick and fast, the love songs Saturday Boy, StSwithin’s Day, A Lover Sings; the politics, Island of No Return,Ideology, To Have And Have Not. When the political meets the personalon tracks like Levi Stubbs’ Tears, Between The Wars and Home Front,Bragg was forging a new type of soulful folk music, a blend of leftwing politics and warm heartfelt observation. In a post Blair worldwhere socialism has become a four-letter word, we need the likes ofBilly Bragg more than ever. It’s shameful that in days like theseno-one has taken up the torch.
The rare tracks are a treat for any long term fan: A13 Trunk Road ToThe Sea spins Route 66 through Essex to Southend. Back To The OldHouse is a glorious cover of The Smiths track, the live versionof A Lover Sings has Johnny Marr throwing in the riff from ThisCharming Man.
It always made me chuckle that Bragg managed to fuse, soul, Woody Guthrie-styled politics and killer tunes to a degree that Paul Weller never managed after The Jam. Soul music doesn’t live instylised backing tracks or the clothes that you wear but in the heartand soul of the performer. This is soul music and Billy Bragg is a soulsinger. You need to hear these songs: they will make you life better.