The second in this occasional series in which Jacques the Kipper and my good self will offer some observations on Billy Bragg‘s LPs. If you need a reminder, or indeed missed it when it appeared some four months ago, here’s what we said about the debut.
Jacques is going to get things going this time around……
I’ll start by clarifying any misunderstanding from my assessment of the first album. I have been an avid purchaser of and attender at all things Bragg since way back when he was shouty. I love the first album. I am a fan. (Although I am struggling with his new single. Love the politics, not so keen on the tune.)
With that, I move on to album number two in this occasional series, Brewing Up With… First, a HUGE admission. This may be the Bill album that, in its entirety, I’ve listened to least. Possibly surpassed, or underpassed, by Mr Love and Justice in recent times, but that’s about it. JC won’t be happy but I had to look back at what tracks were actually on it. This album harks back to being on the dole with no money and thus buying power. I did buy it at the time – I had after all plenty time to hunt round the many (sigh) record shops to look for it at the cheapest possible price. Truth is though, at that particular time, my friends and neighbours were not in the main listening to this particular pop-folk. Instead we were favouring men and women who banged on metal piping and the like. And Dead or Alive. (No worries though, I was about to see Buba and the Shop Assistants.)
Anyhow, on checking track listing, imagine my surprise to learn how many of my absolute favourite songs reside on this album. I must have listened to these as individual songs hundreds of time over the years and have heard most of them live tens of times. It seems therefore only fair to abandon, for 40 minutes or so, Breakfast Muff’s new release to revisit an album that I didn’t realise I loved so much.
It says here we start with It Says Here. As said above, I’ve heard this so many times that I’m finding it hard to critique. Simple but effective summary of everything that is distasteful about the Press. Prescient too given what was to happen in subsequent years with the exposure of various UK tabloid papers abhorrent practices.
Love Gets Dangerous definitely would not have gone down well with my mates of that time. Bit too conventional singalong pop. Never a favourite of mine either.
The Myth of Trust is a lyrical mini masterpiece though. JC will describe it better than I ever can.
Guitar frenzy From a Vauxhall Velox. It’s kinda over before you even knew it had properly begun. A metaphor for my love life at the time if ever there was one.
Pause. I’m about to say something that many, almost certainly most, of you will disagree with. The Saturday Boy is one of the finest songs ever written. In another Vinyl Villain piece I selected a different Bill tune as a favourite. However, this may well be THE favourite. I’d swap this for all that Bob Dylan or McCartney/Lennon have ever written. Perfect. In every way. That is all.
Then there was the one about Bill’s time in the army. The fact that he’d signed up rather than sign on used to be considered quite controversial by some in a highly political audience. There were a few spats. Oh to be so virtuous as to never have made a mistake, career or otherwise. For the record, this is an anti-war song. Nice guitar thrashing.
St Swithin’s Day soppy stuff. Lovely.
Like Soldiers Do. Nice metaphorical wordplay. Not one I often listen to. And I’d forgotten the Clash style ending.
This Guitar Says Sorry in which Bill hints at the Woody Guthrie obsession that would eventually surface.
Somewhere between the Clash and the Jam, Strange Things Happen.
As they say in that Friends thing that none of us have ever seen – this is the one about Adam and Steve. A Lover Sings is the anthem that Bill didn’t know he’d written. Still a live favourite and one we’ve all sung along to. What a fantastic way to end.
Okay, so that’s my conventional take on Brewing Up With… An album I didn’t remember I liked so much. Now, like you, I’m about to read what JC said. I’m sure he’s summarised things more eloquently and informatively. And there’s bound to be a moment (or three) where I think I should have said that…
(Addendum – there was.)
Twelve months after the success of the debut album, it was time for Billy Bragg to test the waters with the follow-up. In some ways it was the same as before with left-wing politics mixed in with some incredibly personal observations on love and romance. But in other ways it was different as this record was more than just Billy thanks to some trumpet playing from Dave Woodhead and some keyboards from Kenny Craddock.
It wasn’t just the fact that he’d been getting good press that had raised his profile – the entire first half of 1984 was spent on the road most often as support for high-profile and chart acts. These included The Style Council on their first ever UK tour, and notwithstanding my brief glimpse in Edinburgh the previous August, that March 1984 gig at the Glasgow Apollo would have been the first time I saw and heard Billy Bragg in the live setting. There was also an increasing number of benefit gigs for a number of important causes that saw him on bills with the likes of The Smiths and The Redskins.
The second album was recorded in July 1984. In the time between its completion but before its release, Billy would undertake his first tour of America as support to Echo & The Bunnymen, evidence again that he was having an impact on some of the most important and hip musicians of the era. He, however, was determined to do things his way and not to fall for the trappings that often come with being a success in the music industry and where others sought six and drugs to accompany their rock’n’roll, our hero launched into even more benefit gigs, often to support the increasingly bitter Miners’ Strike. These events saw him perform alongside some very fine exponents of folk and traditional music, and would go onto have a huge impact on his own songwriting and his stage manner.
Brewing Up With Billy Bragg was released in October 1984. It contained many songs that had been written around the same time as those on Life’s A Riot but they benefit from a more confident sounding singer, a lot of which can be put down to how often and how well the songs had, literally, been road tested.
That he was seen increasingly as a political activist and agitator made it a sound and sensible decision to open the new album with one of his most obvious rabble-rousing songs.
A scathing attack on the tabloid and gutter press that still resonates strongly today. It was however, one of only three outright political songs with the other two were about life in the armed forces and the impact of the Falklands War. The remaining eight songs on this new record were love songs; and were some of the best love songs that my then 21-year old ears had ever had the pleasure of listening to.
One of the songs really resonated with me. And I’m sure it did similarly with any bloke who listened to it.
Everyone at some point during their school days suffered pain and misery with the opposite sex. It was part of growing up. Even if you were lucky enough to have the person you were besotted with pay you some attention, it was destined to end in tears and it was only years later that you realised you just hadn’t been grown-up or mature enough to really deal with it all. But until now, nobody had ever really captured it so perfectly in words and music:-
Even if he’d have quit the music industry there and then, Billy Bragg would have left a legacy that we would still be talking about and praising to the high heavens thanks to the 18 songs on the first two LPs, but in particular The Saturday Boy with its story of a love that grew in double-history and its tune that incorporated the coolest trumpet solo since the days of Louis Armstrong .
The album proved also that love songs can be played at the speed and with the energy of punk:-
And Billy demonstrated that old punks can write the most stunning of break-up songs while owning up to being, literally, a wanker:-
I really could very happily put all 11 songs up with this posting and make a case as to why they are essential listening for one reason or other. It’s an amazing album that has more than stood the test of time – but what I do recall from 1984 were reviews that suggested Billy should stop with the love songs as he didn’t have the voice or technical ability to really do them justice. Other writers said they admired his personal stuff but given there was a need for a highly motivated and talented political songwriter to fill a huge void then they’d rather he concentrated on the songs he that went down best at the benefit gigs for the miners, students or, CND or got the loudest cheers when he entertained tens of thousands who marched in protest at the Thatcher government’s proposal to abolish the democratically elected Greater London Council for the crime of it being a different political hue than that of Westminster.
Some even asked why, at a time of the most bitter industrial and class dispute in living memory, a song that Billy Bragg was performing to great ovations at the benefit gigs had been left off Brewing Up With. This was the beginning of a hint at a backlash among some music writers, particularly on the hard-left, but events of 1985 and beyond would change all that. That however, is for the next time round….
PS : Today marks the beginning of my annual trip to Westport in County Mayo, Ireland. If I’ve messed anything up in this or the next few days worth of postings then please let me know in the comments and I’ll rectify things on my return. Just thinking that I’ve uses Billy’s songs over the years to help me through some really tough and emotional times……