Billy Bragg – Volume 2

It doesn’t seem a long time since I reviewed the Billy Bragg – Volume 1 box set, but here we are already with Volume 2. This rounds up Billy’s recording career so far[1], and includes four albums, each with a bonus CD and a concert DVD. This period saw a lot of changes – more mature songwriting, Billy playing with actual proper bands, longer gaps between albums, and shock horror sensation, singing in tune[2]. Anyway, on to the box. As with Volume 1, it’s nicely presented, with a lyrics booklet, the individual albums in their nice fold-out sleeves and the DVD in its own sleeve. And as before, it’s at a wallet-friendly price. Without even trying, I got it for under £30 in Newcastle. Breaking that down, if you allow £10 as a bargain price for the DVD, that leaves £5 for each CD. Which is good value, as we’ve come to expect from Billy. But that wouldn’t really matter if the music wasn’t worth listening to, would it? Fortunately there’s some great stuff here. I was going to refer to Billy as a National Treasure, only to find a review in the latest Q magazine using the same phrase. That’ll teach me to finish my posts more quickly, or something. Anyway, let’s take a look at each album.

Workers Playtime

Billy’s lyrics had always been sharp and witty, and with this album, the music developed substantially. Lots of good songs here including She’s Got a New Spell, which contains the memorable lines

The laws of gravity are very, very strict
And you’re just bending them for your own benefit

But the highlight of the album is the hit single Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards which features some of Billy’s strongest lyrics and a piano-led musical arrangement that builds and builds to a lunatic climax. Wonderful stuff. When playing it live, Billy often updates the references and generally plays around with this song.

In a perfect world we’d all sing in tune
But this is reality so give me some room
So join the struggle while you may
The Revolution is just a t-shirt away
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards

The bonus CD includes demos and a surprising cover of the Jam’s That’s Entertainment.

Don’t Try This At Home

And this is the album that gave Billy his biggest hit – Sexuality. And that’s not even the best track on the CD. I’ve always loved Accident Waiting to Happen, which has more good lines:

Goodbye and good luck to all the rubbish that you’ve spoken
Goodbye and good luck to all the promises you’ve broken
Your life has lost its dignity, its beauty and its passion
You’re an accident waiting to happen

But the song gets the “clever adjustment of somebody else’s lyrics” award for this little gem:

You’re a dedicated swallower of fascism

Love it. And there’s much more. Playing with a proper band encouraged Billy to create superbly arranged songs like Cindy of a Thousand Lives, Rumours of War and the gloriously over-the-top in a “What? That’s Billy Bragg?” way Sexuality.

The bonus CD includes more demos, some previously unreleased tracks and a collaboration with Natalie Merchant.

William Bloke

There was a long wait for the next album, while Billy attended to being a father. But he returned with an album which what with one thing and another, I hadn’t listened to very much since its release. My loss, as there are some great songs here including Upfield, in which Billy has a vision of angels

I dreamed I saw a tree full of angels, up on Primrose Hill
And I flew with them over the Great Wen till I had seen my fill
Of such poverty and misery sure to tear my soul apart
I’ve got a socialism of the heart, I’ve got a socialism of the heart

The angels asked me how I felt about all I’d seen and heard
That they spoke to me, a pagan, gave me cause to doubt their word
But they laughed and said: “It doesn’t matter if you’ll help us in our art,
You’ve got a socialism of the heart, you’ve got a socialism of the heart

Then there’s The Space Race is Over, a regretful look back at lost dreams. King James Version is worth mentioning if only for the opening line:

He was trapped in a haircut he no longer believed in

The bonus CD offers yet more demo versions, a cover of the Smiths classic Never Had No One Ever and some b-sides. Best item for me is Thatcherites, an arrangement with new lyrics of a traditional song in which Billy castigates the Old Enemy. Quite lovely.

England, Half English

Another long wait for this one. In the interim, Billy made those two albums with Wilco in which they wrote music for and recorded some unfinished Woody Guthrie songs. When he came back, he’d formed a new band, and this album is credited to Billy Bragg and the Blokes. The Blokes include Ian McLagan, formerly of the Faces, and quite possibly the New Faces too.

The album is the product of Billy thinking very hard about the nature of what it means to be English, and is an attempt to recapture patriotism from the far-right elements who have made it singularly distasteful. I didn’t quite get his point at the time, but with a gap of a few years and a fresh pair of ears, this album is certainly worth listening to. Highlights for me include NPWA, a good traditional Bragg rant against the unfettered power of global corporations

I grew up in a company town
And I worked real hard till that company closed down
They gave my job to another man
On half my wages in some foreign land
And when I asked how could this be
Any good for our economy?
I was told nobody cares
So long as they make money when they sell their shares

Can you hear us? Are you listening?
No power without accountability!

On a much lighter note, there’s Tear Of My Tracks, a tale of a man’s sorrow after selling his record collection. And more.

The bonus CD includes some B-sides and demos together with covers of Ian Dury’s Billericay Dickie and Bruce Springsteen’s Mansion on the Hill

If you’ve got a guestlist… – DVD

Bonus DVDs are often a bit of a let-down, and contain very little of lasting interest. But this is a Billy Bragg DVD, and therefore offers excellent value for money. The main feature is a full-length set from 1991 with Billy and his then band the Red Stars playing at the Town and Country Club. It seems to be the same show I have on tape somewhere, recorded from a Radio 1 In Concert programme at the time, though this version is a lot longer. A good selection of songs, performed very well, with lots of inter-song banter, in Billy’s typically self-deprecating manner. That’s where the gag about singing in tune came from. The show ends with Sexuality, which Billy describes as how he did his bit during the “seventeen years” when Bryan Adams was at number one in the UK singles chart[3].

And as if that wasn’t enough, there’s a short set from earlier this year, which is Billy playing mostly solo, but with contributions from long-time collaborator and friend Wiggy and John McLagan. Highlights include a version of Woody Guthrie’s All you fascists, and a suitably updated and bonkers version of Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards.

[1] Excluding the albums which he made with Wilco in which he recorded some previously unfinished Woody Guthrie songs.
[2] That’s Billy’s joke, not mine
[3] With that awful thing from the Robin Hood movie. Seemed more like thirty years at the time…