Billy Bragg – erupted on the scene in 1983, much like an over-ripe boil, full of anger and slashing raw guitar chords and brilliant lyrics and an even rawer East London accent. A hang-over from the punk-era but mixed with left-wing politics and folk songs, Billy was a real breath of fresh air in a smoother than smooth music industry easing itself comfortably into it’s third decade of dross. I caught up with Billy in 1987 when I bought Back to Basics, a compilation of his first three albums and EPs. You can feel the transition from just electric guitar strumming to more complex arrangements – but the words are just as hard hitting, whether bewailing the Political situation or his early army training or singing about teenage love affairs in a totally un-romantic way. The record is naïve and very basic and yet still relevant. Why is nobody shouting about the obscenity of the Tories today? He had a very minor hit with ‘A New England’ which was then picked up by Kirsty MaColl who had a top ten hit with it.
But Billy was never about fame and fortune; simply making enough money to survive and get his message home was enough; in a way he was far more genuinely a punk than any of those who had come a decade earlier. Anyway, these early songs are quite brilliant, if often very short. Stand-out tracks – ‘Tank Park Salute’, ‘St. Swithin’s Day’ and ‘A Lover Sings’ and ‘Between the Wars’. But the album leaves me a bit cold, the struggle against Thatcherism seems s long time ago, and we lost that battle. In some ways this record seems older than even the Beatles, almost early 20th Century. Still, a remarkable achievement to even get these songs recorded. Billy was releasing singles and Eps and short albums during the early eighties – my next record was another collection of these called Reaching to the Converted. Another great collection of songs; which are now beginning to be filled out with more instruments and subtler melodies – no longer shouting but singing. The lyrics continue to amaze “How can you lay there and think of England when you don’t even know who is in the team” or “My concrete is more impressionable when it’s wet” He really was a working-class hero and poet. Best songs ‘Shirley’, ‘Sulk’, the spoken ‘Walk Away Renee’ and ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’. The Interntionale followed in 1990, an un-apologetically left-wing album, as if we had dared to forget Billy’s credentials. Again an interesting record, great songs sung with much gusto. The slim album is filled out with some live tracks and rarities. But at over 60 minutes it gets a bit tiring, not his best album really. That was the following year’s Don’t Try This At Home, a real triumph. From opener ‘Accident Waiting To Happen’ it just rolls along; a great variety of songs – the sad admission of ‘Moving The Goalposts’, to the brimming joy of ‘Sexuality’ (Just because you’re gay – I won’t turn you away; if you hang around I’m sure we can find some common ground). The mysterious ‘Cindy of a Thousand Lives’ and a great rendition of ‘Dolphins’. Not a bad song on the record, great production (at last), varied instrumentation and brilliant tunes; Billy had grown up with this record.