SOME SONGS ARE GREAT SHORT STORIES (Chapter 30)

As I said in the previous entry in this series, some songs make for the very saddest of short stories. Particularly when they are true.

Between Marx and marzipan in the dictionary there was Mary
Between the Deep Blue Sea and the Devil that was me

If ever anyone could help me with my obsession with
The young Suzannah York
It was Mary

In my pink pajamas she asked me for something
I gave her the short answer

She read our stars out loud
And I knew then that we should have gone sailing

But we stayed home instead
Fighting on the water bed
Like the honeymoon couple on drugs

Me and Mary

What happened in the past
Remained a mystery of natural history

She should have been the last
But she was just the latest

If she wanted to be a farmer’s wife
I would endure that muddy life
I would dig for victory

And the sound of happy couples
Coupling happily in the dark
While you and I sat down to tea
I remember you said to me
That no amount of poetry
Would mend this broken heart
But you can put the Hoover round
If you want to make a start

All my friends from school
Introduce me to their spouses
While I’m left standing here
With my hands down the front of my trousies

I just don’t know what’s to be done
I wonder sometimes how did Dad meet Mum
And how did they conceive of me

Tell me Mary

The boys who came to the shop
Always made her laugh much more than I did

When I told her this must stop
She didn’t bat an eyelid

She said you know honey it’s such a shame
You’ll never be any good at this game
You bruise too easily

So said Mary

Her two brothers took me out
Of circulation for the duration

So we went our separate ways but does she still love me
She still has my door key

Like a bully boy in a Benetton shop
You’re never happy with what you’ve got
Till what you’ve got has gone

Sorry Mary

mp3 : Billy Bragg – The Short Answer (Peel Session)

The opening line is just genius. The remainder are incredibly moving, with just the right mix of nostalgia, regret and an understanding that some things, in the long run, are for the best. We’ve all been there, haven’t we????

JC

SOME THINGS DON’T EVER REALLY CHANGE

It’s election day here in the UK.  I’m dreading the outcome with the expectation that the people will give the keys to 10 Downing Street to someone who has taken the art of lying to a completely new level. I have worked for, with and alongside politicians, of varying abilities and talents, for 35 years and at times I have been party to misrepresentations, spin and efforts to deflect and distract – to some extent it has always come with the territory.

But Johnson is the first of a kind – someone who can stand in a room full of people and say things that he and everyone present knows to be absolute nonsense. We are hours away from confirmation that you can win an election by lying and lying and lying and lying and lying without stopping.

And then I remember that Trump achieved likewise in the USA and that the PM of Australia seems to have a similar reputation. It’s despicable.

Just before flying off to the recent holiday, I bought a magaine that looked back at the life and work of R.E.M. through the various media interviews they gave over the years to the music press here in the UK. It’s a fascinating read as there’s no effort to edit anything that was said (or asked) at the time, and there’s a few moments where the views and opinions do leave the band members looking or sounding a little bit odd and quite removed from reality. One thing said by Michael Stipe in 1988, on the eve of the election of George Bush Snr, that hit home in response to a question about apathy when it comes to politics and politicians:-

“It’s a real problem because the country is so huge that things can’t really be focussed on except through the media, which completely abuses or overdramatises events according to their whim.”

30 years on, and while the media is now much more than newsprint and TV, it is even more of a problem about the abuse of its power and the way it overdramatises events. Just google the words ‘Jeremy Corbyn’ and ‘Election 2019’ to get the idea.

mp3 : Billy Bragg – Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards (2019 version – live)

Taken from footage of Billy lending his support to striking university lecturers on a picket line in Birmingham, England on 5 December.

Tomorrow could well be the blackest of all black Fridays.  This blog won’t be reflecting at all on the election outcome. It’ll be in the hands of a guest with a very good ICA.

JC

YOUR SEXUAL POLITICS HAVE LEFT ME ALL OF A MUDDLE

The thing is, if this song had been in existence a few years earlier, my life would have been a lot easier:-

mp3 : Billy Bragg – Greetings to the New Brunette

Falling in love with a feminist at university in 1984 wasn’t the cleverest thing I ever did. Of course I was attracted to her because she was good-looking, but I wouldn’t dare tell her that was what it was all about. She was smart, articulate and incredibly aware and sure of her politics, and I did learn an awful lot from her. But I was, at heart, a boy who loved his football, his music, his dancing and, yes, the company of mates who were prone to boorish and occasionally offensive behaviour.

I tried my best, but I couldn’t be perfect and the relationship really was doomed from the outset.

Greetings to the New Brunette came up on a podcast thing I was listening to a few days ago, and it was probably the first time in three or four years I had heard it right through. I had forgotten how wonderful a tune and song it is (with a tip of the hat to Kirsty MacColl and Johnny Marr) and I got a little bit misty-eyed with the nostalgia of it all, with the realisation that I was fortunate to grow up in the era I did, not just for the great music I was exposed to, but the opportunities that life has afforded me, from not having to take a job on leaving school to meeting incredible people at every stage of my life.

I’ve got this on 12″ vinyl. Here’s your b-sides:-

mp3 : Billy Bragg – Deportees
mp3 : Billy Bragg – The Tatler
mp3 : Billy Bragg – Jeane
mp3 : Billy Bragg – There Is Power In A Union (instrumental)

The first of these is a cover of a Woody Guthrie song, inspired by a tragic incident of which I had no inkling until writing this post. Click here.  Billy is very ably assisted on this one by Hank Wangford.

The second is a cover of a track that is best-known from its version by Ry Cooder but which in fact dates back to the 1930s as the work of Washington Phillips, an American gospel and gospel blues singer who, in an oversight, doesn’t get any credit on Billy’s release on this single.

The third, as has been mentioned before on this blog, is a stunning version of an early Smiths b-side, while the last track is exactly as it says on the tin, an instrumental take on one of Billy’s best-known political songs.

JC

THE JOY OF (a mixed) SEX (duet) : Couple #10

Today’s offering is a cover of a song written and released in 1977 by Johnny Moped.

I’ll be honest, the only info I have on the band has been courtesy of t’internet. They have been described as a pioneering punk band but it would seem this reputation is based largely on the fact that so many on the scene in London in 76/77 were veterans of the pub circuit, often not quite as competent as those who took things seriously. They had formed in May 1974, initially as Johnny Moped and the 5 Arrogant Superstars, before changing their name to Assault and Buggery, then the Commercial Band, before reverting to just Johnny Moped, all in the space of eight months. One of their initial members was Ray Burns who would, as punk broke, change his name to Captain Sensible and run off to join The Damned, but in doing so he ensured his old mates got to play a few gigs as support act. They were one of the bands that appeared on a very early punk compilation LP, the Live At The Roxy album in 1977 (the others being Slaughter & The Dogs, The Unwanted, Wire, The Adverts, Eater, X-Ray Spex and Buzzcocks) and that helped them ink a deal with Chiswick Records for whom there were three singles and an album before calling it a day in 1978 (albeit there have been various reunions over the years since).

Were they any good? Well, given that one review has described the cut on Live At The Roxy as “….archetypal Moped: heavy R&B slobbering through a meat grinder and hung out for the fire ants. It sounded incompetent, but the best Moped gigs always did, a fumbling, bumbling, grumbling noise that boasted all the proficiency of a blind man playing poker….”, it’s fair to say they were an acquired taste.

But many music journalists seemed to love them, choosing to make their second 45 as single of the week in three of the weekly papers around at the time. Despite this, it sold miserably, probably shifting very few copies outside of the capital, but it would inspire this take on it:-

mp3 : Kirsty MacColl and Billy Bragg – Darling, Let’s Have Another Baby

It was recorded as part of a BBC Radio 1 session for the Nicky Campbell show that was broadcast on 26 June 1991 and later included as a b-side on the Walking From Madison single.

Kirsty and Billy were great friends, going back many years and it really does sound as if they had an absolute ball working together on this one. Likewise with this, that was also recorded for the same session:-

mp3 : Kirsty MacColl and Billy Bragg – A New England

RIP Kirsty. You’re still much missed

JC

AIN’T NOBODY WHO CAN SING LIKE ME

Today’s another example of time catching me out as I’d never have guessed it is now 20 years since Mermaid Avenue, the collaboration between Billy Bragg and Wilco in which music was put to previously unheard lyrics by the late Woody Guthrie, one of America’s most revered folk musicians.

The project had been a number of years in the making, its origins lying with Nora Guthrie, who was the director of her father’s foundation and archives. Woody had been a prolific lyricist and his archives contained more than a thousand sets of lyrics to which music had never been put and it was her dream/ambition that they be offered to a contemporary artist who could put a late 20th century slant on things, with the hope that her father’s work and legacy would reach a newer and wider audience. Billy Bragg was the person to whom she turned, but in doing so she wanted the songs not to simply be a pastiche of her dad’s sound.

The singer/songwriter was extremely honoured but unsure if he could do the project full justice and in turn he asked Wilco, a then relatively new(ish) band from Chicago with its roots in indie and country rock, to consider lending a hand.

The results were surprisingly good. The efforts of all concerned did justice to the brief insisted on by Nora with it being a genuine collaboration for the most parts with Billy often being backed by Wilco (in much the same way as he had enjoyed recording with The Red Stars and various guest musicians in the early 90s and would do again with The Blokes in the noughties) while the band itself drafted Billy in on acoustic guitar and backing vocals on the lyrics to which they were writing the music. Billy’s tunes were recorded in Dublin and Wilco’s tunes in their home city. A number of other musicians, such as Natalie Merchant, Bob Egan and Eliza Carthy came on board as guests, adding further layers of authenticity class to the finished product. The critics reacted positively to Mermaid Avenue, sales were quite decent and all seemed to be good.

The following year, a 90-minute DVD was released in which the story of the venture was told, including great studio footage and interviews with all concerned, during which a few tensions were revealed, particularly around who got to choose which lyrics and how best they should be recorded. There was also a bit of angst over the fact that the song selected by the record label for the single didn’t really feature Wilco and indeed was probably the closest to a Woody-type recording rather than a contemporary interpretation. The fact is, however, it is the most striking and memorable track on the album:-

mp3 : Billy Bragg & Wilco – Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key

I’ve no doubt that Billy, upon seeing the refrain ‘ain’t nobody who can sing like me’ was desperate to grab this one for himself. It’s one that really does lend itself to his gentle acoustic side, while the violin accordion and backing vocal from Ms Merchant turn it into a thing of genuine and moving beauty.

There were two previously unavailable tracks added to the CD single:-

mp3 : Billy Bragg & Wilco – My Thirty Thousand
mp3 : Billy Bragg & Wilco – Bugeye Jim

Both are tracks in which Billy wrote the music, which sort of gave the impression that Wilco were a junior partner in the collaboration, a situation which understandably annoyed frontman Jeff Tweedy.  Listen closely to the former and you’ll hear the tune is very much based on Battle Cry for Freedom, from which Billy had composed Power In A Union on his 1986 album, Talking With The Taxman About Poetry.

Interestingly, when Billy went out on the road with The Blokes to perform the songs from Mermaid Avenue, he took a completely different tack with Way Over Yonder…..

mp3 : Billy Bragg and The Blokes – Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key (live)

JC

SOME SONGS ARE GREAT SHORT STORIES (Chapter Eleven)

A GUEST POSTING by JULIAN BADENOCH

Hi Jim Something to annoy your readers and bait the DMCA guys.

Billy Bragg’s only No. 1 single was on a double a side with Wet Wet Wet in 1988.
from a NME charity album for Childline “Sergeant Pepper Knew My Father”

Of course the original is best.

Jules

Wednesday morning at five o’clock
As the day begins
Silently closing her bedroom door
Leaving the note that she hoped would say more

She goes downstairs to the kitchen
Clutching her handkerchief
Quietly turning the backdoor key
Stepping outside, she is free

She(we gave her most of our lives)
Is leaving (sacrificed most of our lives)
Home (we gave her everything money could buy)
She’s leaving home, after living alone, for so many years (bye bye)

Father snores as his wife gets into her dressing gown
Picks up the letter that’s lying there
Standing alone at the top of the stairs
She breaks down and cries to her husband
“Daddy, our baby’s gone.
“Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly?
How could she do this to me?”

( note from Jules, this verse brilliantly sums up the lower middle class mores of the time, the use of daddy for husband and baby for grown up daughter is spot on )

She (we never thought of ourselves)
Is leaving (never a thought for ourselves)
Home (we struggled hard all our lives to get by)
She’s leaving home, after living alone, for so many years

Friday morning, at nine o’clock
She is far away
Waiting to keep the appointment she made
Meeting a man from the Motortrade

She (what did we do that was wrong)
Is Having (we didn’t know it was wrong)
Fun (fun is the one thing that money can’t buy)

Something inside, that was always denied, for so many years
She’s leaving home, bye, bye

mp3 : The Beatles – She’s Leaving Home
mp3 : Billy Bragg – She’s Leaving Home

JULES

ACTIVE WITH THE ACTIVIST (2)

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.)

JC adds……………

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.

mp3 : Billy Bragg – It Says Here

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:-

mp3 : Billy Bragg – The Saturday Boy

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:-

mp3 : Billy Bragg – Strange Things Happen

And Billy demonstrated that old punks can write the most stunning of break-up songs while owning up to being, literally, a wanker:-

mp3 : Billy Bragg – St Swithin’s Day

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….

JC

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 used Billy’s songs over the years to help me through some really tough and emotional times……