Monday, January 11, 2016

The Songs of Billy Bragg

A Lover Sings: Selected LyricsA Lover Sings: Selected Lyrics by Billy Bragg
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

More than a book of lyrics, A Lover Sings gives fans of Billy Bragg a "behind the music" look at the creation of his songs.

Bragg made a name for himself in the UK in the early 80s as a folk/punk-styled political voice for the left through strident message songs on the one hand and on-the-sleeve personal story songs that touched upon young folks in and out of love.

In the intro to the book, Bragg explains his roots and influences. Considering the punk sensibilities of his early work, it's surprising to hear that songwriters like Paul Simon had an impact on him and that the Motown sound was a favorite of his youth. I guess I shouldn't be surprised after listening for years to lines in his songs like "Remember the sadness In Florence Ballard's eyes" and references to Holland, Dozier, Holland in a song like "Levi Stubbs' Tears".

The Clash seemed a more likely source of inspiration and certainly they helped to form Bragg's ideas and sound, and yet, so too did the enthusiastic energy of the British music hall tradition contribute to his one-man-and-a-guitar performances: Billy Bragg on the South Bank Show

Bragg's brand of socialism is well summed up in his song "Between the Wars":

I was a miner, I was a docker
I was a railway man between the wars
I raised a family in times of austerity
With sweat at the foundry between the wars

I paid the union and as times got harder
I looked to the government to help the working man
But they brought prosperity down at the armoury
We're arming for peace, me boys between the wars

I kept the faith and I kept voting
Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
For theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man

Theirs is a land of hope and glory
Mine is the green field and the factory floor
Theirs are the skies all dark with bombers
And mine is the peace we knew between the wars

Call up the craftsmen, bring me the draftsmen
Build me a path from cradle to grave
And I'll give my consent to any government
That does not deny a man a living wage

Go find the young men never to fight again
Bring up the banners from the days gone by
Sweet moderation, heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are between the wars

Reading of his struggle and the evolution his ideals underwent has always been interesting to me. He's like a version of Phil Ochs, but one who kept the faith and fought on despite overwhelming defeats and an ever-growing conservative movement in his home country.

I doubt I could've become so enamored with the man's music if it had been only politically-minded. I need the human element in my music, the personal struggle and all the emotional baggage that comes with it. Luckily, Bragg provided that in spades. Relationship woes were a constant source of material for his lyrics, especially in the early days.

It's quite exciting to be sleeping here in this new room
You're my reason to get out of bed before noon
You know when we sat out on the fire escape talking
What did you say about running before we were walking

Sometimes when we're as close as this
It's like we're in a dream
How can you lie there and think of England
When you don't even know who's in the team

Your sexual politics have left me all of a muddle
We are joined in the ideological cuddle

I'm celebrating my love for you
With a pint of beer and a new tattoo
And if you haven't noticed yet
I'm more impressionable when my cement is wet

Politics and pregnancy
Are debated as we empty our glasses
And how I love those evening classes

You really know how to make a young man angry
Can we get through the night without mentioning family

The people from your church agree
It's not much of a career
Trying the handles of parked cars
Whoops, there goes another year
Whoops, there goes another pint of beer

Here we are in our summer years
Living on ice cream and chocolate kisses
Would the leaves fall from the trees
If I was your old man and you were my missus

Give my greetings to the new brunette

The times they were a' changin' and Bragg changed with them. He kept faith with his ideals, but his life-view had to change when fatherhood came knocking. This is most in evidence upon his mid '90s William Bloke album which explores his new role as caregiver while still coming to grips with his political leanings. It's a very reflective album on the whole and second in pop accessibility only to Accident Waiting to Happen.

One detraction from the A Lover Sings reading experience was that I was given a reader's copy poorly formatted for Kindle. The type was extremely small and hard to read. I believe they just scanned the proofs and made digital files directly from them. But that's a mark against the publisher, not the book or its author. If you know you're giving a reader's copy to a reviewer, why would you give them something that's going to negatively impact their reading experience? That's the sound of somebody dropping the ball right there.

But aside from that, this was a nice behind the scenes look into the writing process of one of my favorite songwriters. Any fan rabid looking for a more intimate knowledge of Bragg should grab themselves a copy. Non-fans and new initiates should listen to some of his music first.

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