The first time I heard Billy Bragg was when Anne Nightingale played The Milkman of Human Kindness one Sunday evening in 1983. Or maybe 1984 – my memory isn’t that precise. What I heard was a not particularly musical voice accompanied by some singularly rough guitar strumming. Yet there was something appealing about the song, and something endearing about the singer. Albums followed over the years, and while the guitar playing improved, and was often accompanied by contributions from other musicians, the voice of the Bard of Barking has never really changed much. It’s not always a pleasant sound, I suppose, but I’ve always found it oddly pleasing. Billy writes songs about life: brutally honest love songs, and sharply-observed political songs, too. Back in the 80s, he did a lot of campaigning and fund raising for all the right radical causes – he was a leading member of Red Wedge, a well-intentioned collective of musicians working to promote the Labour Party in those dark days of Thatcherism. Over the years, I’ve bought his albums, upgraded cassettes to CDs, bought the compilations and generally been a fan. And now, here is something special for fans like me. It’s a Billy Bragg box set. Not the box set, mind. This is volume one, which covers his career up to around 1990. A second set is to follow covering later material, and I’m looking forward to that already.
Now there are several approaches to the retrospective box set thing. There’s the “remaster the albums and add some extra tracks” thing, and there’s the “put a good selection of well-known tracks on, and throw in a couple of ‘rare’ tracks that the fans all bought on the last compilation thing”. Then there’s the Billy Bragg way. In the box, you’ll find his first four albums, all remastered and in attractive folders. Each one comes with a bonus disc – the first three with CDs of extra tracks, many of which are genuinely unreleased, and the last with a DVD featuring some live performances from the 80s. Rounding it off is a bonus DVD with a 25-minute documentary taken from a 1985 South Bank Show, presented by Melvyn Bragg (no relation, as the DVD credits helpfully point out) and another concert. Finally, there’s a booklet with the lyrics to the album tracks (but not the extras). All in a nice box at a quite reasonable price, which is what you have to expect from Billy. His earlier albums came with a “pay no more than…” label, which was a Good Thing. So let’s take a look at the individual albums.
Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy
Seven short tracks – more of a mini-album, really. Original cassettes had the album on one side, with the other helpfully left blank with the helpful suggestion “Bootleg the Bragg – confuse the enemy”. Highlights include A New England, which was covered by Kirsty McColl, and The Man in the Iron Mask, a dark, tortured love song:
You said you loved me and it broke my heart
I was always your prisoner right from the start
The nights you spend without me
This house is like a dungeon
And you only return to torture me more
You must have your reasons
I will not ask
For you I will be
The Man in the Iron Mask
The bonus disc has eleven tracks, which include some different versions, a cover of John Cale’s Fear is a Man’s Best Friend, and the really quite excellent A13, Trunk Road to the Sea, Billy’s version of Route 66. Really.
Brewing up with Billy Bragg
The first full-length album opens with a blast against the hypocrisy of Britain’s tabloid newspapers in It Says Here
It says here that the Unions will never learn
It says here that the economy is on the upturn
And it says here we should be proud that we are free
And our free press reflects our democracy
When you wake up to the fact that your paper is Tory
Just remember, there are two sides to every story
Then there’s Island of No Return, about the 1982 Falklands War, and Strange Things Happen, another love song. And more. Extra tracks include a cover of the Smiths’ Back to the Old House and the four songs originally released on the Between the Wars EP, including Which Side Are You On, inspiured by the 1984-5 Miners’ strike and a cover of Leon Rosselson’s World Turned Upside Down, which is about a radical group of the 17th Century called The Diggers.
Each of the CD folders contains a quote. For the most part, they’re from reviews and the like. But this one’s much more interesting. It’s a statement from Our Price Records, a retailer since absorbed into the Virgin chain:
It is doing nobody any favours for customers to start seeing £3.99 chart albums being displayed.
Yes, of course, we’d all have been much better off paying more…
Talking With the Taxman About Poetry
Billed as “The Difficult Third Album”, this showed a significant development in musical arrangements, and in Billy’s lyrics. Lots of nifty wordplay, not least in opening track Greetings to the New Brunette:
Sometimes when we’re as close as this
It’s like we’re in a dream
How can you lie there and think of England
When you don’t even know who’s in the team?
Levi Stubbs’ Tears was a hit single, Ideology is a more mature lament for the state of British politics at the time:
When one voice rules the nation
Just because they’re top of the polls
Doesn’t mean their vision is the clearest
And the best of all this bad bunch
Are shouting to be heard
Above the sound of ideologies clashing
Hmmm. Twenty years on, and nothing much has changed, other than the name of the party in charge.
The bonus CD includes an instrumental version of There is Power in a Union, some alternative versions, a few unreleased songs and a cover of The Tracks of My Tears
Last up is this mini album from 1990. It includes Billy’s rewriting of socialist anthem The Internationale, a performance of the other socialist anthem The Red Flag sung to the original tune its writer intended rather than the more familiar Tannenbaumm, and a delicious piece called The Marching Song of the Covert Battilions:
How can a country large as ours
Be scared of such a threat
Well if they won’t work for us
They’re against us you can bet
They may be sovereign countries
But you folks at home forget
That they all want what we’ve got
But they don’t know it yet
And Days Like These is another blast against the bloody awful politics of the times.
Also on the CD is the content of a live mini-album recorded at various locations, and including a good version of Help Save the Youth of America.
The bonus DVD has a good selection of live performances recorded in what was then East Berlin, Nicaragua and Lithuania.
All in all, an excellent box set, and really good value for money. If you’re even slightly interested in Billy’s music, this is a great package. If you’ve no idea about him at all, there are some free MP3 files available on his official site. Check those out, then get the box.
Me? I’m waiting for the great leap forward. Which is one of Billy’s best songs, and should be on Volume 2 when it appears.