The first time I heard Billy Bragg sing was on breakfast TV. He ripped through a rousing version of It’s Say Here and I dropped my school bag in shock: I had never witnessed anything like it. Punk rock folk music, if you please.
The sound of a cheap untreated electric guitar, a pin-sharp eye for details and the spirit of The Clash without the rock ‘n’ roll posing. The self confessed big nosed bard of Barking shredding the idea of press freedom, the royal family and tabloid double standards in under three minutes. I had never realised that music could jab like that, carry real meaning and be delivered with such white knuckle conviction. I was hooked.
Listening to Bragg’s work in a block like this I am struck by how consistent, strong and passionate his song writing is. Volume 1 contains seven CDs: the first three studio LPs plus the International mini LP and various EPs, live tracks and B-sides. There are also two DVDs of live material. It’s a testament to Bragg’s ability that there is no filler on here at all.
I have always felt that to define or stereotype him simply as jukebox for the likes of Arthur Scargill is to miss the point. There’s no denying that he is a political songwriter, and a brilliant one at that, but there is so much more to this Karl Marx set to music. Much later in his career he sung of having “a socialism of the heart”, and from the opening bars of his debut LP you are in little doubt that this is true. On the songs on these CDs – be they protest songs, love songs or a genre-breaking mix of both – it is the humanity, warmth and empathy that shines through.
The songs on Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy and Brewing Up With Billy Bragg still sound raw, vital and basic. You get Bragg, his gruff vocals and the sound of a budget guitar plugged into a practice amp. The music here makes the The White Stripes sound like ELO. In an age when someone like Tears For Fears would spend two months on a drum sound the rawness of these recording was startling and revolutionary. It was a conscious attempt to distil music back to its very core.
If you compare Man In The Iron Mask from the first LP and Myth of Trust 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 the point of view of the injured party, the second from someone who is cheating on their partner. Man In The Iron Mask is pure pain loneliness and defeat. It’s a love song of sorts that subverts the macho swagger of rock music with something more human and truthful. On Myth Of Trust Bragg peels away the bravado of the love affair and exposes the rotten, self-serving disgust at the centre. This ability to cut through to the core is something that places him above the vast majority of his peers.
The songs come thick and fast, the love songs Saturday Boy, St Swithin’s Day, A Lover Sings; the politics, Island of No Return, Ideology, To Have And Have Not. When the political meets the personal on 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 world where socialism has become a four-letter word, we need the likes of Billy Bragg more than ever. It’s shameful that in days like these no-one has taken up the torch.
The rare tracks are a treat for any long term fan: A13 Trunk Road To The Sea spins Route 66 through Essex to Southend. Back To The Old House is a glorious cover of The Smiths track, the live version of A Lover Sings has Johnny Marr throwing in the riff from This Charming 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 in stylised backing tracks or the clothes that you wear but in the heart and soul of the performer. This is soul music and Billy Bragg is a soul singer. You need to hear these songs: they will make your life better.