In his book “33 Revolutions Per Minute” published in 2010, Dorian Lynskey, a writer for The Guardian, boldly claims that Billy Bragg is the go-to British protest singer. This speaks volumes about Bragg’s enduring presence in alternative music and leftist activism. Despite his initial fame, it seemed unlikely that he would reach the milestone of a 40-year solo career, let alone have a 14-CD compilation released in his honor. However, there are also options for a two-disc set or a three-disc vinyl version.
Billy Bragg was both commercially successful and well-received by critics, with his second album in 1984, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, reaching the Top 20 and his EP Between the Wars earning him a spot on Top of the Pops the following year. However, his work was often seen as representative of the era in which he was creating, making it difficult for him to break free from that association and appeal to a wider audience.
Brewing Up and its predecessor, Life’s a Riot With Spy Vs Spy, are perhaps the definitive musical works of what could be referred to as The Other 80s – a black and white, sincere world of secondhand overcoats and Doc Martens, filled with benefit concerts and GLC Jobs for a Change festivals. This era has largely been forgotten in pop culture nostalgia. Bragg’s early music is politically passionate but pessimistic – relationships always seem to fail, school graduates face the unemployment line, and memories are often tinged with disappointment and unrequited love. It is also starkly minimalistic. So much so, that when an instrument other than Bragg’s distorted guitar and powerful vocals makes an appearance, it is almost jarring. The brief trumpet solo in Brewing Up’s “The Saturday Boy” feels chilling, almost as if it were recorded in a freezing studio, with Bragg’s breath visible in the air.
However, Bragg managed to surpass the limitations of his time, as evidenced by The Roaring Forty. He gradually expanded his musical style, eventually performing with a full band on his 1988 album Workers Playtime. Despite his lyrics often overshadowing his talents as a songwriter and his diverse musical influences, a closer listen to the two-disc set reveals the strength and variety of his melodies. The album features a mix of ramshackle country rock collaborations with Wilco (as part of their Mermaid Avenue project, where they completed songs by the late Woody Guthrie), a version of the Internationale with added brass band elements, and keyboard-led southern soul influences alongside brooding jangle reminiscent of The Smiths.
Furthermore, he revealed himself to be a more intricate and multifaceted writer than he was initially perceived. While he occasionally displayed clumsiness in his lyrics, using well-intentioned but blunt language (as seen in his 1991 single “Sexuality”), and incorporating singalong chants (such as in “There Is Power in a Union”), he typically maintained a more subtle and intriguing approach. On paper, his song “Between the Wars” may seem like a difficult sell, as it laments the collapse of the postwar consensus and includes references to historical events like the Spanish Civil War and the Beveridge Report. However, the end result is a poignant emotional blow. In the songs chosen from his 2002 album “England, Half English,” Bragg navigates a delicate balance between patriotism (“Oh my country, what a beautiful country you are,” he declares in the title track) and disdain for Britain’s imperial past and the concept of unionism. He remains open to acknowledging failure and often questions the value of writing political songs, as seen in “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” which responds to Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory, and in the feelings of disappointment and despair expressed in “Some Days I See the Point.”
The Roaring Forty suggests that Bragg’s true talent as a songwriter may lie beyond the realm of politics. In its striking opening line – “With the money from her accident she bought herself a mobile home” – Levi Stubbs’ Tears is a brilliant display of concise and powerful storytelling, a bleak kitchen sink drama condensed into three and a half minutes and uplifted by a chorus about the healing power of music. Tank Park Salute, arguably Bragg’s finest composition, delves into his experience of losing his father during his teenage years. Its poignant depiction of memory and regret transcends time and serves as a universal reflection on the relationship between fathers and sons and the loss of a parent.
He has accomplished the unique achievement of aging alongside his audience. He humorously addresses long-term relationships and domestic life in “Handyman Blues” (“It takes me half an hour to change a fuse”), and openly expresses his confusion about the modern world while clinging to familiar beliefs in “Mid-Century Modern” from 2021. Despite considering stepping away, he ultimately decides not to in “The Roaring Forty”, making it a decision worthy of praise.
30 minutes of audio
Alexis spent 30 minutes listening to audio this week.
Bar Italia – Jelsy
Taken from the band’s forthcoming second album of 2023, The Twits, the acoustic guitar-driven Jelsy is lovelorn and lovely, and affectingly weary.