Love, lust, and socialism
by Erick Trickey
Sometimes I think even my friends who've heard Billy Bragg's music are coming to him backwards. They picked up 1998's Mermaid Avenue, Bragg's collaboration with Wilco that set Woody Guthrie's unpublished lyrics to music, but I'm not sure they ever dug into the albums that earned Bragg the keys to the Guthrie archives. This is the perfect time to revisit or discover Bragg's glory years, because he's coming to the Ark on a tour to promote the re-release of four classic albums (each with
a second CD of bonus tracks) and a boxed set compiling them.
Bragg thrilled the British independent-music scene in 1983 with Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, his raucous solo electric debut, a seven-song burst of blistering guitar and ultrawitty lyrics that mixed love, lust, and socialism. The debut and 1984's Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (long available together on the single CD Back to Basics, now reissued separately) announced a new voice: a guitar hero influenced by Clash-style punk rock with an earnest troubadour stance inspired by folk tradition. On "A New England," his signature love and antilove song, he veered from heartbreaker to heartbroken, letting a girl go with little regret, then wishing on two shooting stars and realizing they're satellites: "Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?/I wish, I wish, I wish you cared."
Bragg's third album, Talking with the Taxman about Poetry (1986), established his music's current mix of political rockers, folk-rocky romps, and honky-tonk and vaudevillian flourishes. This time, the romantic cad also sang the empathetic "Levi Stubbs' Tears," a song about a battered woman finding solace in the songs of Motown's Four Tops. The political anthems, which made him a leading voice in the British guitar armies raging against Margaret Thatcher's conservative revolution, also included "Help Save the Youth of America," a protest song about American carelessness and call to conscience for his fans here: "You can fight for democracy at home/And not in
some foreign land," he sang (and I guarantee he'll sing it again this month).
Marriage softened Bragg's caddish spark, he doesn't have Thatcher to kick around anymore, and his more recent self-penned albums haven't reached the old heights. Yet he's managed to age with dignity. In Britain, at age forty-eight, he's an elder statesman of protest music and left-wing activism: he's written opinion pieces for national dailies, campaigned to make the House of Lords more democratic, hosted a radio show, appeared on TV talk shows, and organized an on-line vote-swapping campaign that helped take two seats in Parliament from the Tories.
If you're new to his music, seeing him live is still the best introduction. He talks to the audience at length between songs as if he's catching up with old friends one minute and inspiring a political rally the next. I've taken many friends to Bragg gigs over the years, and while one couple was turned off by the chatter, the rest left utterly charmed and converted.
Billy Bragg plays the Ark on Tuesday, March 21.
[Review published March 2006]