The Busy Boy Buys Box Sets: Billy Bragg Revisited

Roger Holland

Billy Bragg has been described elsewhere as a one-man Clash, but that's the sort of arrant nonsense that gets music journalists a bad name. No, what Bragg is, is an English Bob Dylan. Cross-bred with a cockney Morrissey who learned how to box.

Re-issue! Re-package! Re-package! Re-evaluate the songs
-- "Paint A Vulgar Picture" (The Smiths)

Oops! The publicity for Billy Bragg - Volume One proclaims that this $80 boxset includes each of Bragg's first four albums. But it does't. It includes the first, second, third and fifth. The fourth album, Workers Playtime, is conspicuous by its absence. Otherwise, of course, it's business as usual. The same old song.

Billy Bragg - Volume One is an almost all-encompassing box set that ships complete with both a shiny new kitchen sink and the Billy Bragg Guide to the Great American Presidents of the Twenty First Century. As such, it offers keen commentators everywhere the customary opportunity to reflect upon the artist's lengthy career from the lofty perch of perfect hindsight. Unfortunately, it also offers fans and completists yet another chance to buy material they already own in order to acquire a few rarities, a couple of DVDs and the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from knowing that Bragg and his family will not be going hungry this Christmas.

Volume One
(Yep Roc)

It's not as if Bragg's work hasn't already had more than its fair share of repackaging. Back to Basics, Victim of Geography, and Life's a Riot Between the Wars all combined different variants on an early Billy Bragg theme. While 1999's Reaching to the Converted pulled together various b-sides and rarities. And 2003's triple CD collection Must I Paint You a Picture - The Essential Billy Bragg did pretty much exactly what it said on the label.

I can't help but suspect that Workers Playtime has been held over quite cynically for the second Billy Bragg box set. Volume Two, presumably. Because Workers Playtime is an immeasurably stronger work than Bragg's fifth release, The Internationale, which is included here in its place.

In a world ruled by cold, clinical sanity, Billy Bragg's licence to make music would have been revoked the moment he submitted his application to record The Internationale. A frequently ridiculous, pretentious, and embarrassing collection of socialist anthems, The Internationale is one of those records that sends me scuttling off to hide behind the sofa and recite random numbers loudly to myself until it's finished.

Clearly, therefore, Workers Playtime will vastly improve the marketability of the inevitable second collection that is already irrevocably condemned to feature the increasingly inferior Don't Try This at Home, William Bloke and England Half English.

Still, enough about the vulgar picture of pointy-headed marketing. If you've got the money to buy Billy Bragg - Volume One, you should also have the common sense to make your own purchasing decisions, and one thing's for sure, taken on its own terms, this is a largely outstanding set of songs. Unfortunately, it's a largely outstanding set of songs served up in some of the worst internal packaging it's ever been my misfortune to encounter. The expensively produced booklet looks highly promising but proves to hold nothing but lyrics, the credits, and the customary thank-you's. There's not an essay or an anecdote to be found. And as if that weren't enough, the cardboard foldout envelopes used to store the CDs (and two DVDs) must have been designed by an anorexic contortionist. It's all but impossible to get the product out of the packaging without getting fingerprints on the disks or tearing the sleeves. If you don't believe me, pop round to PopMatters Towers to check out the rip in my copy of Talking With The Taxman About Poetry.


Stephen William "Billy" Bragg has been described elsewhere as a one-man Clash, but that's the sort of arrant nonsense that gets music journalists a bad name. No, what Billy Bragg is, is an English Bob Dylan. Cross-bred with a cockney Morrissey who learned how to box. Now that's music criticism at its finest.

Bragg himself is obviously acutely aware that there's always been a Bob Dylan element to his music, and he's always been happy either to acknowledge his place in the tradition or to claim it. I've never been sure which. But check out song titles like "Talking Wag Club Blues" which features on one of the bonus CDs here, or "The Lonesome Death of Rachel Corrie", recently recorded specially for Bragg's website.

Like Dylan, Bragg is a singer-songwriter with a career that's spanned decades, and an audience that's remained largely faithful throughout.

Like Dylan, Bragg started out as a solo performer and subsequently got into dealing with bands. Bands and big-name musicians. Billy Bragg's first album, Life's a Riot With Spy v Spy was an entirely solo affair that he promoted with low budget touring (one man, one guitar, and one very small portable amplifier), but by the time he came to record Talking to the Taxman About Poetry just three years later, he was already working with the likes of Kirsty MacColl and Johnny Marr.

Like Dylan, Bragg feels and is quick to express a close connection to the lives and works of Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Joe Hill.

And, of course, Billy Bragg has fashioned his entire private life after the lyrics of "Tangled Up in Blue".

There's scant evidence of Bragg living out the Morrissey dreams of "Handsome Devil", "This Charming Man" or even "There Is a Light". But Stephen William and Steven Patrick still share a common knack for the poetry of the mundane, and for throwing fresh light on the adolescent life and eternal insecurities of working class youth.

Released just as the Smiths were beginning to emerge fully-formed from Morrissey's coccoon, Billy Bragg's first album, Life's a Riot With Spy v Spy (1983) clocked in at little more than a quarter of an hour. Yet it still changed lives, including those of its creator and the BBC's Andy Kershaw. At the time, a part-time, late-night DJ on a local independent radio station in Leeds, Kershaw was among the very first to pick up on the appeal of Life's a Riot. He invited Bragg to play live in his studio late one Sunday night, and subsequently parlayed their growing friendship into a quasi-roadie, quasi-managerial relationship that somehow led him quickly into a career at the BBC. And why not?

Life's a Riot was a lo-fi pop-poetry revelation. Harshly declamatory guitar chords furnished the perfect setting for Bragg's flawed gems of heartfelt emotion and unashamedly, almostly exaggeratedly, estuary tones. In just seven songs, he dissected the politics of relationships, analysed the conflict between feminism and the glossy magazine market for women, and more. Much more.

What will you do when you wake up one morning
To find that God's made you plain
In a beautiful person's world?
-- "The Busy Girl Buys Beauty"

Twenty-three years on, Life's a Riot is still a revelation. Its strongest songs can still take away the breath. "To Have and to Have Not", a once incisive portrayal of the realities of unemployment for school-leavers in Thatcher's Britain, is now, thankfully, something of an anachronism, but songs like "The Man in the Iron Mask" and "A New England", which focus on the eternal issues of betrayal and yearning, have proved entirely timeless. While "The Man in the Iron Mask" is a heartbreaking study of the love that can lead a man to feign ignorance of his partner's infidelities, "A New England" was Bragg's breakthrough song. A cover by Kirsty MacColl hit the British Top Ten in 1985.

I don't want to change the world
I'm not looking for a new England
I'm just looking for another girl.
-- "A New England"

Even today you have to smile at the supreme irony of hearing Billy Bragg declare he has no desire to change the world. Apart from the glorious Redskins, the occasionally magnificent Easterhouse, and a bevy of unpleasant right-wing thugs with charmless guitars, it would be hard to think of any musician of his time who has been more politically active than Billy Bragg. If he missed so much as a single political fundraiser in the '80s, it could only have been because of a train strike. Indeed, after the success of his 1985 "Jobs for Youth" tour, Bragg founded and fronted Red Wedge, an organisation dedicated to the support of the British Labour Party in the run up to the 1987 UK general election. Named for a revolutionary poster by Russian artist El Lissitzky, "Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge", the Red Wedge organised a number of major tours and one-off shows that featured the likes of Bragg, Paul Weller, the Communards, Madness, and the Smiths.

Nonetheless, Margaret Thatcher won the 1987 election with a very substantial majority. It was her third successive victory. Despite prolonged and violent industrial disputes with mine workers and print unions, a fierce cabinet split over the fate of Britain's only helicopter manufacturer, and the very best efforts of Billy Bragg, the Conservatives lost only 1% of their national vote to a revived, modernized and centrist Labour opposition.

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
-- "Between the Wars"

More than twice as long as its predecessor, Bragg's second album, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg (1984) was a powerfully moving combination of political anguish and unrequited love. It opened with "It Says Here", a bitter attack on the British media that conspired with Thatcher, "In a strictly money and numbers game." Two further songs were obviously inspired by the singer's own brief spell in the military. "Like Soldiers Do" is half bemused love song, half an expression of solidarity with the cannon fodder sent out to die in centuries of confused and poorly directed conflicts. Doubtless the imagery of "Like Soldiers Do" came to Bragg because of the 1982 war between Britain and Argentina that was fought out in the South Pacific over the ownership of the tiny Falkland Isles. A topic he discussed directly in Brewing Up's second military miniature, "Island of No Return".

I hate this flat land, there's no cover for sons and fathers and brothers and lovers
I can take the killing, I can take the slaughter but I don't talk to Sun reporters
I never thought that I would be fighting fascists in the Southern Sea
I saw one today, and in his hand was a weapon that was made in Birmingham
-- "Island of No Return"

Speaking in the voice of his one-time soldier buddies, Bragg was quick to point out that today's fascist enemy was yesterday's convenient customer. The reference to the British newspaper The Sun was both an echo back to It Says Here, and a direct comment on that particularly loathsome rag's coverage of the Falklands War.

The Sun is Rupert Murdoch's blue-collar flagship in the UK, and a prime example of the hypocrisy that will "offer you a feature on stockings and suspenders, next to a call for stiffer penalties for sex offenders". When a possible compromise solution may have prevented the war before it began, a Sun headline proclaimed, "Stick It Up Your Junta!" And when a British nuclear submarine sank the Argentinian troop carrier General Belgrano, The Sun's headline triumphantly proclaimed "Gotcha!", even though the Belgrano was carrying over 1200 troops at the time. The Sun's attempts to exploit the war in its own battle for ratings with the anti-war Daily Mirror upset many of those involved in the conflict. The tabloid's own official historian later reported a serviceman who said, "Your headlines often made us feel sick", and that there were "ritual burnings of The Sun" on the task force vessels.

Musically, there's more to Brewing Up than Life's a Riot, but not much more. The edges are just a little smoother, the production a little more clear, but the songs remain the same. Lyrically, however, Brewing Up is much more polished. Pushing the politics to one side, songs such as "A Lover Sings", "The Saturday Boy" and "St Swithins Day" highlight Bragg's increasingly deft and fundamentally English touch with the themes of teenage loves and infatuations. "The Myth of Trust", a delicate reversal of "The Man in the Iron Mask", makes muted suggestions about the impossibility of male fidelity. "From a Vauxall Velox" recalls Dylan's "From a Buick Six", and offers a raucous and amusing celebration of lust. And the whole just hangs together splendidly.

I'm celebrating my love for you
With a pint of beer and a new tattoo
-- "Greetings To The New Brunette"

If Brewing Up With Billy Bragg was a great record -- and it was, then Talking to the Taxman About Poetry (1986) was then, and remains today, Bragg's crowning achievement. The difference is clear from the first strummed chords of the opener, "Greetings to the New Brunette". Bragg's somewhat primitive guitar has been replaced by Johnny Marr's more eloquent richness. There are hints of bass and percussion. Even a touch of slide guitar. And as this punning story of a mismatched couple repeats to fade, Kirsty MacColl's backing vocals become increasingly prominent. Could the big-nosed Bard of Barking get any more sophisticated? Well, not when you factor in a middle-eight during which Marr dawdles and dabbles with the melody from "Walk Away Renee", no. Not really.

The second track on Talking is "Train Train". An ill-fitting, too-fast cover of a second rate moment from a third rate pub rock band called the Count Bishops, it reads today like Bragg's last sub-conscious protest against his own inevitable evolution. For no sooner have the last echoes of his own angry guitar and Bobby Valentino's positively furious fiddle faded thankfully into the distance, than a positively pastoral flugelhorn introduces "The Marriage". From the ridiculous to the sublime in but a single bound, and all courtesy of Dave Woodhead, an old friend of Andy Kershaw, whose own band Positively Testcard has been playing Kwela -- the South African township pennywhistle jive of the '50s and '60s -- to the good people of South London and beyond for more than a decade now.

You just don't understand it
This tender trap we're in
Those glossy catalogues of couples
Are cashing in on happiness again and again
-- "The Marriage"

The story of a sceptical and reluctant bridegroom, "The Marriage" must be a big favourite chez Bragg these days. Its protagonist dares his bride to wear white, wants to know just what exactly makes their love a sin if it comes without a ring, and accuses the wedding industry of exploiting dreams. More than anything, however, he seems to be rebelling against the expectations and example of his parents.

So drag me to the altar
And I'll make my sacrifice
But love is just a moment of giving
And marriage is when we admit our parents were right
And marriage is when we admit our parents were probably right

"Honey, I'm a Big Boy Now" offers more musings on infidelity and the inevitable failure of marriage, accompanied by a profoundly old school "pianner". As such, it merely appropriates yet another Dylan song title. "Ideology", however, loots and pillages like a viking on angeldust as Bragg places his outspoken contempt now for the entire British political establishment and system of government into a framework rich with repeated and explicit references to Dylan's "Chimes of Freedom".

Continuing the political theme, "There Is a Power in a Union" is a plea for working class solidarity set to the tune of the American Civil War anthem, "The Battle Cry of Freedom", but "Help Save the Youth of America" is a less specific and therefore somehow more enchanting piece of work altogether. Indeed, as Bragg told a Russian audience, it could equally well have been entitled "Help Save The Youth Of The Soviet Union". Crossing Bragg's own trademark guitar stylings with something approaching the Clash playing a Bo Diddley beat, "Help Save the Youth of America" is one of Talking's absolutely standout tracks, and its message is every bit as relevant today as it was in 1986: "You can fight for democracy at home, and not in some foreign land". Mixing classic rock 'n' roll references with gun control, the Scopes Monkey Trial, and the price of shipping a teenage soldier's corpse back from the killing zone, "Help Save the Youth of America" is at once both affectionate and scolding.

The fate of the great United States is entwined in the fate of us all
As the incident at Tschernobyl proves, the world we live in is very small
The cities of Europe have burned before and they may yet burn again
And if they do, I hope you understand that Washington will burn with them
Omaha will burn with them. Los Alamos will burn with them.
-- "Help Save the Youth of America"

For all the undeniable quality of Talking's political talking-points, Bragg's greatest strength remains his ability to show us snapshots from everyday lives and make them us care. The finest example of his craft is probably "Levi Stubbs' Tears", which also graces Talking to the Taxman About Poetry. Certainly, this haunting collection of tragic moments from one woman's life comes complete with the best opening line in the history of opening lines, "With the money from her accident she bought herself a mobile home".

Unfortunately, the excellence of "Levi Stubbs' Tears" also serves to highlight the deficiencies of Billy Bragg - Volume One beyond the mere inclusion of the absurdly pompous The Internationale. Volume One does indeed, as advertised, feature additional material. A DVD of an East Berlin concert performance from before the Wall fell? Check. A DVD of the South Bank Show TV Special from 1985? Check. The Between The Wars EP, the Live and Dubious EP and a whole host of B-sides, Peel recordings, and other assorted out-takes? Check, check and thrice check. But for all that, it still comes up lacking when completism is needed most.

Yes, Volume One has Billy Bragg's workman-like cover of the Smiths' "Back to the Old House", but it lacks either of his truly excellent versions of the same band's "Jeane".

And yes, Volume One has Bragg's defiant Essex-boy reworking of "Route 66" -- entitled "A13, Trunk Road to the Sea". And yes, it has his covers of Gram Parsons' "Sin City" and Woody Guthrie's "Deportees (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)". But no, it doesn't have "Walk Away Renee (Version)". And this song, the b-side to the single of "Levi Stubbs' Tears", is a much more interesting and rewarding piece than any of his other covers and much of his original work. As the story would have it, Johnny Marr was strumming his way through "Walk Away Renee" during a lull in the recording of "Levi Stubbs' Tears", when the recording engineer had the foresight to tape him. Later on, Bragg added a simple spoken narrative about yet another doomed romance. In just about every way that counts, "Walk Away Renee (Version)" is the definitive Billy Bragg moment, and even if it was as unwitting as the fable suggests, it's also Johnny Marr's single best work beyond the Smiths. And without it, I simply cannot love Volume One.

And then one day it happened
She cut her hair
And I stopped loving her
-- "Walk Away Renee (Version)

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