Many thanks for such great and supportive feedback to the first installment of this new feature. The suggestions that have been made will feature in coming weeks, but for today I want to focus on a song that is very dear to me.
I don’t think anyone will disagree with my proposal that A New England is a classic. Written in late 1982/early 1983, it has always been one of the most popular of Billy Bragg songs, one that gets as loud a cheer as any when he plays it live.
It’s a song that came to wider public attention back when Kirsty MacColl covered it and took it all the way to #7 in the UK charts in the early months of 1985.
Wiki tells the story quite accurately:-
The opening lines of the song (“I was 21 years when I wrote this song/I’m 22 now, but I won’t be for long”) are identical to the opening lines of Paul Simon’s song “Leaves that Are Green”, which appears on Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 album Sounds of Silence. During a concert in Winnipeg, Canada on 27 September 2006, Bragg stated Simon and Garfunkel had a strong influence on him and that he took the line from their song intentionally.
Bragg has said the song had its origins in seeing two satellites flying alongside each other. Searching for romantic inspiration, he had to make do with “space hardware”. He told a BBC interviewer he “stole” the melody from Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song”
Kirsty MacColl recorded the song the year after its release by Bragg. Her version was produced by her then-husband Steve Lillywhite. Entering the UK chart in 1985, it was her biggest solo hit, reaching number 7 in the UK Singles Chart and number 8 in the Irish Singles Chart.
Bragg’s original version of the song had only two verses. MacColl thought the song was too short, and so Bragg wrote a further two verses for her which she consolidated into one. Since MacColl’s death, Bragg has included the additional verse in performances of the song as a tribute.
The recording of “A New England” was the first collaboration between MacColl and her husband Steve Lillywhite on one of her own solo recordings.
MacColl first discovered Bragg in 1983 when she went to see one of his live performances. One of the songs Bragg played was “A New England”, which MacColl immediately identified as having hit potential. MacColl told Smash Hits in 1985: “I always thought ‘A New England’ would be great with loads of harmonies, it’s such a good melody. Billy does it in a very rough way, and it’s like a busker doing a really good Beatles song. She added to Gilbert Blecken in 1994: “I knew the song was fantastic, but [Bragg’s] version was just the skeleton of the song, so I wanted to dress it up.”
I bought the single on, or very shorty after, the day it was released, without ever hearing it, which is why my copy has the quite rare ‘bombsite’ cover on the front of the sleeve rather than on the reverse. The purchase was on the basis that I was a Billy Bragg fan who had enjoyed previous singles by Kirsty MacColl, so there was very little that really could go wrong. The piece on vinyl has remained a favourite ever since, with it now being quite poignant given the tragic and horrific death of Kirsty back in 2000. I’ve also managed to take good enough care of the vinyl that It remains free from cracks and hisses.
Credit does have to go to both Kirsty for the way she re-interpreted the song, turning it into a bonafide pop classic while keeping the innocence and charm that was such a hallmark of the original, and to Steve Lillywhite whose deft and crisp production has ensured the song hasn’t dated.
mp3: Kirsty MacColl – A New England (extended version)
The 12″ version is almost eight minutes long, with a very lengthy fade-out. I trust this 320kbps rip meets with your collective approval.