In his 2010 book about protest music, titled “33 Revolutions Per Minute,” Dorian Lynskey, a writer for The Guardian, makes a strong statement about Billy Bragg. Lynskey claims that when asked to name a British protest singer, most people will only think of Bragg. This speaks to Bragg’s enduring success in the music industry and his involvement in leftist political movements. Despite his initial fame, it seemed unlikely that Bragg would have a compilation album celebrating his 40-year solo career. However, he has surpassed expectations with the release of a 14-CD “super deluxe” version (as well as a two-disc set and three-disc vinyl version).
Bragg was both commercially successful and highly praised, with his second album, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, reaching the Top 20 and his EP Between the Wars earning him a spot on the popular television show Top of the Pops in 1985. However, he was often seen as a product of his era and artists who are closely tied to a particular period in history often find it difficult to move beyond it.
Brewing Up and its predecessor, Life’s a Riot With Spy Vs Spy, may be the definitive musical artefacts of what you might call The Other 80s – a monochrome, earnest, secondhand overcoat-clad and Doc Martens-shod world of benefit gigs and GLC Jobs for a Change festivals, which has since largely been written out of history by pop cultural nostalgia. Bragg’s early work is politically committed but bleak in outlook – relationships invariably go wrong, the dole queue awaits school leavers, memories of the past skew towards failure and unrequited love – and strikingly austere. So austere, in fact, that when an instrument other than Bragg’s distorted guitar and bellowing voice appears, it feels startling. The brief burst of trumpet on Brewing Up’s The Saturday Boy sounds literally cold, as if recorded in a freezing studio, Bragg’s breath misting before his face.
Bragg was able to surpass the limitations of his time, as evidenced by The Roaring Forty. In a practical sense, he gradually expanded his sound and by the release of Workers Playtime in 1988, he was performing with a full band. While his lyrics often steal the spotlight, his talent as a songwriter and his diverse musical influences can be heard on the more manageable two-CD set. The album showcases a variety of strong and melodic tracks, ranging from ramshackle country rock collaborations with Wilco (with whom he worked on the Mermaid Avenue project, completing songs written by the late Woody Guthrie) to a version of the Internationale accompanied by a brass band. His incorporation of keyboard-led southern soul and brooding Smiths-like guitar adds to the eclectic nature of his music.
Furthermore, it turned out that he was a more intricate and multifaceted writer than initially perceived. Although he occasionally displayed clumsiness in his lyrics, using them as blunt instruments to convey his message (as seen in his 1991 single “Sexuality”), and was not opposed to leading crowd-pleasing singalongs (such as in “There Is Power in a Union”), he generally showed a subtlety and intrigue in his writing. On paper, his song “Between the Wars” – a lament for the collapse of postwar unity with numerous references to events like the Spanish Civil War and the Beveridge Report – may seem difficult to sell. However, the end result is a poignant emotional blow. In the songs chosen from his 2002 album “England, Half English,” Bragg delicately balances between patriotism (as heard in the concluding line of the title track: “Oh my country, what a beautiful country you are”) and disgust towards Britain’s imperial history and the idea of unionism. He remains open about his shortcomings and often questions the value of writing politically charged songs, as seen in “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward,” a defeated response to Margaret Thatcher’s third election victory, and the feelings of disappointment and dejection expressed in “Some Days I See the Point.”
The Roaring Forty suggests that Bragg’s songwriting talent may not lie in political themes. In Levi Stubbs’ Tears, Bragg showcases his skill for compact and impactful storytelling, with a grim kitchen sink drama condensed into a three and a half minute song. The chorus also speaks of the healing power of music. Tank Park Salute, possibly Bragg’s greatest composition, delves into his personal experience of losing his father during his teenage years. The song’s poignant reflection on memories and regrets transcends time and serves as a universal contemplation on the relationship between fathers and sons and the pain of losing a parent.
He has achieved the uncommon accomplishment of aging alongside his audience. He humorously discusses long-term relationships and domestic life in Handyman Blues (“It takes me 30 minutes to change a fuse”), and honestly expresses feeling more and more confused by the modern world while holding onto comfortable beliefs in Mid-Century Modern. In this album, he ponders if stepping away would make things easier, but ultimately decides against it. The Roaring Forty celebrates this decision.
During this week, Alexis heard 4.
Bar Italia – Jelsy
Extracted from the upcoming sophomore album by the band in 2023, titled “The Twits”, the song Jelsy is characterized by its acoustic guitar melody and expresses a sense of longing and fatigue in a poignant manner.