ACTIVE WITH THE ACTIVIST (1)

JC writes

After all these years I now and again find myself struggling for something to write about. It’s one of the reasons I have deployed so many series looking at the singles from a particular group or singer as it provides a bit of discipline as well as taking care of a certain number of postings. They’ve also, for the most part, proved to be popular features with, amongst others, The Jam, The Style Council, James, Altered Images, The Clash, Buzzcocks, Morrissey and The Undertones all being given the treatment while of course I’ve recently started looking at XTC.

It seems natural to turn my attention to albums, especially when the singer or band in question has enjoyed a long career without ever really setting the singles charts on fire all that often or indeed in recent years releasing any 45s in physical or digital form. It won’t be a series that will appear on any given day….it will be sporadic and when the mood takes.

It’s going to kick off with Billy Bragg and I’m delighted to say that the series will benefit greatly thanks to some contributions from Jacques the Kipper. The love for the Bard of Barking was one of the things that really kick-started a friendship that is now heading towards the best part of 30 years and we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy one another’s company at a few of his live gigs in Glasgow and Edinburgh over that time. Some of the pieces in this series may be solo but others will likely involve a joint contribution. I can’t promise it will live up to the quality of Echorich and JTFL’s efforts on NYC but we will give it our best shot.

This journey into sound will begin with Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy (1983) and end at last year’s release in tandem with Joe Henry, the well-received Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. There will be many stops en route, occasionally including some officially sanctioned live releases, box sets and compilations. I’ll be upfront about it – there might be some stuff missing as I don’t claim to have everything he’s ever released, but I reckon looking at the shelf of vinyl, CDs and the bit of the floor where I keep the box sets, it’s on for something like 23 separate postings, although it might be a couple of these will be amalgamated.

Hope you’re up for it. So here’s part one of ACTIVE WITH THE ACTIVIST.

1983. The year during which I took leave of my teens. A time when, thanks to what was proving to be a highly educational course at University, both in terms of the lectures and the extended social mix of people I now mingled with regularly, I was becoming more acutely aware of what was right and what was wrong with the world.  1983. The year I got active in student politics taking part in my first marches, demonstrations and sit-down protests.

I began it still living at home with my parents and sharing living space with my two young brothers but my sense of adventure was growing and I was feeling confined by immediate surroundings. Looking back now, I realise that I wanted so much to happen but couldn’t quite articulate what it was, why I wanted it and how I was going to achieve it.

In August I moved into my first student flat with two friends. It was the very first time in my life that I had an entire space to call my own. I spread out accordingly, buying more records, books and an increasing number of music papers given that I could now make as much mess as I wanted and never worry about being nagged at, or, even worse, one of my younger brothers chucking something out before I’d finished with it.

I was able to absorb so much more including the increasing number of mentions of a singer called Billy Bragg. I knew he had an album out as I’d seen a few copies of it in a handful of shops in Glasgow but I hadn’t been drawn to give it a listen. Strange as it may seem, the fact it had a budget price was off-putting; my brain associated that sort of offer with poor quality recordings. I was also aware that it was just him and his guitar and quite frankly, the punk wars had been fought to get rid of the likes of those.

One day I saw a photo of Billy Bragg in a music paper. I realised that I had seen him before a few weeks earlier, albeit briefly. He had been playing on the street in Edinburgh during the annual Festival and Fringe but I had hurried past thinking he was just another busker. Looking back, I realised that he actually had attracted a more than decent sized crowd around him on that Edinburgh street but I was too enamoured with trying to find an afternoon show where there was the off-chance of a young actress taking off her clothes as part of the production to have paid him any attention.

The increasing press coverage was always positive. There were mentions of him being the perfect sort of act for the era, an antidote to the increasingly slick production values being deployed. He was then interviewed for a more in-depth feature and right away I could tell that I liked the cut of his jib. He was saying what he wanted to happen, why he wanted it and how he was going to try and achieve it. He talked of a love of The Clash and an admiration of Paul Weller which were other big plusses as far as I was concerned.

It was revealed that he was moving to a new record label with one of the first outcomes being that his debut LP would be re-released and made more widely available. By this time, the first of what would turn out to be a series of Peel Sessions had been recorded; it had been taped by someone who came visiting our flat and he insisted we give it a listen.  It turned out thayt one man and his guitar wasn’t such a bad thing after all and so I ended up getting myself a copy of Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy in the months leading up to Xmas 1983.

Once I got over the mistake of playing the first ten seconds at the wrong speed (it was a 45 rpm album!) I found myself warming to it very quickly. It was fairly rough and raw (but not as much as I had thought beforehand it would be) and you certainly couldn’t imagine Billy Bragg being thought of as a talented vocalist. However, punk/ new wave had taught us that it wasn’t about the singing or the playing; the emotion, energy and the attitude were all much more important and it was clear from the outset that this new kid on the block had all of those in abundance.

I wasn’t alone in falling for the record. The music papers fawned over it, particularly the NME which made it #3 album of the year, behind Elvis Costello and Tom Waits and immediately ahead of Soft Cell and Michael Jackson. Billy was soon on TV, appearing on The Tube on Channel 4 , all of which led to this debut LP, recorded at minimal cost and which hadn’t taken off for six months until its re-release, going top 30 in the charts in early 1984.

It’s an album with just seven songs that, between them, come in at under 16 minutes. It contains some of the best things he would ever release and demonstrated that he was someone equally at home writing frank and honest love songs as the political anthems which many in the music press were increasingly saying was his forte and calling in life. It’s an album with probably his best-known and most famous song but that wouldn’t come to pass for a few years yet until it was given the cover treatment by a wonderfully talented and hugely under-appreciated female singer.

The really scary thing is that so little has changed in society since he penned these words:-

Up in the morning and out to school
Mother says there’ll be no work next year
Qualifications once the golden rule
Are now just pieces of paper

Just because you’re better than me
Doesn’t mean I’m lazy
Just because you’re going forwards
Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards

If you look the part you’ll get the job
In last year’s trousers and your old school shoes
The truth is, son, it’s a buyer’s market
They can afford to pick and choose

Just because you’re better than me
Doesn’t mean I’m lazy
Just because I dress like this
Doesn’t mean I’m a communist

The factories are closing and the army’s full
I don’t know what I’m going to do
But I’ve come to see in the Land of the Free
There’s only a future for the chosen few

Just because you’re better than me
Doesn’t mean I’m lazy
Just because you’re going forwards
Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards

At twenty one you’re on top of the scrapheap
At sixteen you were top of the class
All they taught you at school was how to be a good worker
The system has failed you, don’t fail yourself

Just because you’re better than me
Doesn’t mean I’m lazy
Just because you’re going forwards
Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards

mp3 : Billy Bragg – To Have and Have Not
mp3 : Billy Bragg – A New England
mp3 : Billy Bragg – The Busy Girl Buys Beauty

Jacques’ slightly different take:-

Okay, so I’ve read what JC has said. Clearly I’m much younger than him, always have been. At least in my own head. Anyhow I have a completely different perspective on the first Bragg album. Let’s cut to the chase – musically it is RUBBISH.  Lyrically up there with the best, of that I am sure. But musically, it would take him many years to master these songs and sing and play them the way that a better musician would have intended.

But, but, BUT. That is exactly what is so brilliant about this album – the counterpoint of lyrical beauty, anger, humour, love, not to mention the politics, floating above a badly played, not that well recorded, scratchy mess of (simple) chords. Did I mention the awful singing? For me back then the reality of Billy was better than my expectation. Here was a man that sang and played it as badly on record as he did live. And didn’t care.

Listen to the mature manner in which he has reinterpreted these songs over the years. Marvel at what damn fine, all round crooned tunes these now are. I love these reinterpretations. But thank whatever Deity takes your fancy that this was not the way back in 1983. Would he now be the nation’s favourite beardie leftie had he not grabbed us by those proverbial bollocks back then with that squall of noise? I think not.

Nuff said. None of your old man extended play JC article. That’s it. Cheers and goodnight.

JC adds….

If having read that you had this particular image of the two of us in your head….give yourself a pat on the back!!!!!

 

7 thoughts on “ACTIVE WITH THE ACTIVIST (1)

  1. Again, a series to look out for, and very much so in fact! Unlike Jacques, I prefer the rough cut on the first album, not the more polished style that came later. BB’s first work always meant a great deal to me, lyrically he exactly expressed the views I had back then, as well with the political songs as with the love songs. And the fact that the album came with a lyric sheet helped a great deal (for me as a non-English speaker) in understanding what he had to say.

    A real masterpiece indeed and easily 1983’s best album … perhaps together with the Violent Femmes’ debut, New Order’s ‘Power, Corruption & Lies’ and Soft Cell’s ‘The Art Of Falling Apart’.

    And no, I didn’t leave out ‘High Land, Hard Rain’ undeliberately, I still think it’s a bit overrated!

  2. Like you, I have pretty much every long player the Bard of Barking has released (except the recent John Henry collaboration, which is on my “must get around to buying” list). And it’s all good, in different ways. For me though, Spy vs Spy and Brewing Up With are where it’s really at. There’s a rawness, an honesty, to those two albums that sets them on a higher plain. Essentially they say: here is an everyman singer, an everyman guitarist, doing something that sounds like anyone could do it but crucially elevated by lyrics, both powerful and poignant, themes, both emotive and emotional, and delivery, both positive and passionate. Yes, he has changed over the years (who hasn’t) and he’s a much more rounded singer, songwriter, musician and performer now. But for me, those first two albums will always be just a little bit untouchable.

  3. Thanks, JC, for this treasure. I reckon we are about the same age. I was introduced to this album when I was attending university in Boston, age 20, at a small record shop. I was a major Costello, Clash, The Jam fan at the time. I have gone on to see Billy live at the 9:30 Club in Washington DC and agaim at the SXSW festival in Austin, TX. I don’t always understand the politics of England, but live the power and sentiment he conveys. Writes a good love/relationship song as well!

  4. What a great post, I hugely look forward to the rest. The autobiographical stuff was great, but the fact that it’s tied to one of my all-time favourite songwriters makes it even more special.

    I can see both sides of the argument regarding these early recording. There’s definitely an argument that the raw quality adds something his later, more polished work has lost. There’s also an argument that the singing is pretty bad… but then, I’ve always found myself drawn to singers with “unusual” vocal styles over the ones who can jump up and down five octaves with ease.

    Whenever you see Billy live, he always does a bit about his audience are divided between those who love the love songs and those who want to raise their fists in their air in protest. I’ve always strayed towards the former, because he writes love songs like nobody else, but he’s also one of the few political performers to ever make me feel that I should be more active. In a world of apathy, Billy reminds you to care.

  5. Nice piece and comments, all. Apropos of nothing other than it was the mid-80’s too – do you have any thoughts on the Faith Brothers? I heard Big Sound Authority recently and it immediately took me back to that time, similar horn sound.

  6. ‘fraid not Kevmore….not a group that I followed back in the day. Always happy to take a guest contribution if you’re so inclined…

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