At this point, Billy Bragg is more than just a musician; he's an institution. The past 15 years have seen him become an author, political commentator, and de facto curator/proselytizer of the Woody Guthrie legacy, in addition to his own musical output. Given his current status as a beloved, NPR-friendly raconteur in America and "national treasure" back in England, it's hard to remember a time when Bragg was a divisive figure who invented his brand of scrappy folk-punk that was equal parts love songs and socialism. Bragg's recent albums feature lots of the upbeat, soulful roots music that has increasingly dominated his records since 1996's William Bloke. His early career, however, sounded much different.
Following the dissolution of his first band, Riff Raff, and a brief stint in the British Army, Bragg burst onto the scene as a solo musician with little more than his heavily accented voice and a slightly-distorted guitar on 1983's mini-album, Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy, which set the template for his early work. The following year he released a proper full-length, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, which added only occasional production touches to his stark guitar songs. He expanded his sound further on his "difficult third album", Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, in 1986, which was his first top ten album in the UK.
Workers Playtime (1988) was his breakup album, which also saw Bragg finally cave in and bring drums into the mix. Finally, in 1991 he released his pop masterpiece, Don't Try This at Home. Recorded with an all-star cast including members of the Smiths, R.E.M., and Kirsty MacColl, the record gave him his highest-charting single, got him on Late Night with David Letterman, and allowed him to tour the world with a full band in tow. It also marked the end of his early work, as he would take five years off from recording after Don't Try This at Home and return to the studio a husband and father with new responsibilities and concerns.
In his career since then, Bragg has managed the difficult task of aging gracefully without betraying the spirit of his first records. But for most inveterate Bragg fans, it's his early work that burns the brightest. It's on these first records that he slashes and burns his way through the political and personal struggles of early adulthood with the passion and idealism of youth. Here then are the ten finest moments of Billy Bragg's early work.
10. "Sexuality" (Don't Try This at Home, 1991)
Sex by the end of the Cold War was a frightening proposition. A decade of Reagan/Thatcher Puritanism, combined with the threat of AIDS and the homophobia it spawned, combined to make human er... relations yet another battleground with literally life-and-death consequences. Against this background, Bragg's lead single from his pop extravaganza Don't Try This at Home felt like a breath of fresh air. Co-written with Johnny Marr, the song's breezy production, cheery backing chorus (featuring Kirsty MacColl) all helped underscore the lighthearted, sex-positive hit long before that phrase migrated out of the university and into popular conversation.
It was one of Bragg's biggest singles and what's amazing is how quintessentially Billy the song is, full of sardonic self-deprecation and even a reference to the Red Star Belgrade socialist football club. While lines like "Just because you're gay / I won't turn you away" or "Safe sex doesn't mean no sex" may seem clunky and obvious in the era of Lady Gaga, they were revolutionary for the pop charts at the time. Plus, I'm sure that Gaga will never write a line as funny as "I feel a total jerk / Before your naked body of work" or deliver it with half of Bragg's charm and insouciance.
9. "The Saturday Boy" (Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, 1984)
From its first wistful chords, "The Saturday Boy" tugs at your heartstrings and evokes the bittersweet nostalgia we all feel remembering the naïveté of young love. Bragg's storytelling is note-perfect (unlike his singing) as he reminisces about all the little details of first love. He recalls treasured afternoons when he was able to walk her home or steal a dance in the school cafeteria to the Delfonics' "La La (Means I Love You)" with amazing reverence. One can't help but wonder if this is the same girl he sings about putting on a pedestal in "A New England".
Of course, as with all early Bragg, our hero is doomed to be unlucky in love, complaining that "In the end, it took me a dictionary / To find out the meaning of 'unrequited'" while the girl runs off to cooler parties without him. Though the story is a sad one, it's leavened with humor, pathos, and sweet innocence that's perfectly captured by the Penny Lane trumpet that accompanies Bragg's lonely guitar. "The Saturday Boy" is Bragg's anthem to that shy, awkward kid that everyone was at some point growing up. Some nearly 20 years on, it still packs an emotional wallop.
8. "Levi Stubbs' Tears" (Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, 1986)
Although '60s folk-rock and UK punk were the most obvious influences on Bragg's early work, often under looked is his passion for Motown and American R&B. He picked up not just the soulfulness of the singing but also a keen sense of rhythm which he brought to his guitar playing, especially in his third album, Talking with the Taxman About Poetry. The homage is made more explicit in the album's lead single, which name-checks the lead singer of the Four Tops along with Berry Gordy and Holland and Dozier.
In "Levi Stubbs' Tears", Bragg paints a bleak but empathetic picture of a woman who ran away from home as a teenager to marry a man not worthy of that word. Although he's boorish and cruel, she would rather suffer his abuse than live alone. Echoey vocals and stark guitar mirror the woman's isolation and it's not until the song's coda that the mood lightens. As Bragg starts singing about the greats of Motown he's joined by light bongos and trumpet and the song lifts off. The only relief to her loneliness is the love songs of her youth. Although it's one of his saddest tracks, "Levi Stubbs' Tears" is also one of the most powerful. Bragg always had a knack for exposing the often-unseen trials and burdens that come with being a woman in modern society, and he never does it more skillfully or compassionately than in this song.
7. "Between the Wars" (Between the Wars [EP], 1985)
Although Bragg made his name as a protest singer, he was always more a progressive patriot than a "burn down the system"-style anarchist. Released on an EP of the same name in 1985, "Between the Wars" was an anthemic vision of England that differed starkly from the laissez-faire capitalist future that Margaret Thatcher was seeking to impose at the time. "I kept the faith / And I kept voting", Bragg sings with hopefulness and determination that would come to define his political songs, "not for the iron fist but for the helping hand / For theirs is a land with a wall all-around it / And mine is faith in my fellow man."
The almost religious reverence he attaches to these political ideas is stirring and gives the song a weightiness that put it a notch above your more standard punk screed. Written in the midst of the massive arms buildup at the end of the Cold War, Bragg's warnings against "skies, all dark with bombers" also scan as a chilling warning premonition of what the status quo might yield. "Between the Wars" was Bragg's first Top 20 hit and landed him on Top of the Pops, where he famously eschewed the show's lip-syncing policy and delivered a stirring live performance that forever cemented the song's place in the Bragg canon.
6. "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" (Workers Playtime, 1988)
By the time he went into the studio to record his fourth album, Bragg had been a full-time musician for nearly half a decade. During that time he was constantly touring, writing, and organizing. After such a whirlwind existence, it was a time to pause, look at the state of his life and the state of the world in order to try and figure out what, if any, success his effort had brought. "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards" was the result. The song starts macro, as Bragg looks at the world just before the end of the Cold War and muses presciently about "luxury's disappointment" and warns (as one of Fidel Castro's brothers, no less) that "the Third World is just around the corner".
But after the first few verses, Bragg shifts his focus to the micro, singing about the nature of fame and the point of "mixing pop and politics", with a few jabs at himself "basking in the light of the 15 fame-filled minutes with the fanzine writer" thrown in. Built around a loose-limbed guitar riff and a tinkling dance hall piano, "Great Leap Forwards" is a slow-building singalong as each verse throws another instrument into the mix until finally, the chorus rolls in like a cathartic wave. In the end, Bragg answers his doubts with feisty optimism in the justness of his cause. In the end, his message is as relevant to punk rock as to politics; "If no one out there understands / Then start your own revolution and cut out the middleman." The not-so-secret point being that the only way to leap forwards is to stop waiting and jump.
5. "There Is Power in a Union" (Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, 1986)
"There Is Power in a Union" is technically a Joe Hill song, written in 1913 for the Wobblies to the tune of "The Battle Cry Of Freedom", but there are some songs that other artists just come to own. The Pogues did it with "Dirty Old Town", Hendrix did it with "All Along the Watchtower", and Billy Bragg did it with "There Is Power in a Union". Bragg has always been not just a political songwriter but also an activist willing to walk the walk. Before forming the pro-Labour Red Wedge movement, Bragg cut his teeth playing benefit shows for the Welsh miners' strike in 1984. During that time he became steeped in traditional union songs including "Which Side Are You On?" and "The World Turned Upside Down" which he covered on the Between the Wars EP.
This immersion bore fruit with his 1986 re-write of "There Is Power" released on Talking with the Taxman About Poetry. With its strident guitar riff and compassionate but unyielding lyrics his version quickly became a modern classic. For evidence of the song's power look no further than recent union battles in Ohio and Wisconsin where the song was nearly ubiquitous, covered by everyone from John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats to the protesters and activists themselves. Written as a rallying cry for those seeking to give a voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless, Bragg's song has only become more timely and essential as the years have rolled on.
4. "To Have and Have Not" (Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy, 1983)
Speaking of songs that have only become more relevant since the '80s, Bragg's indict of the disposability and powerlessness of the working class in the modern economy, "To Have and Have Not", could have practically been an Occupy anthem. As industrial work has disappeared in the UK and America, gone too are the kinds of middle-class jobs that used to provide a good living to those with high school education. Bragg perfectly captures the sense of hopelessness and abandonment this creates among those who struggling just to get by. It's a brutally systematic critique as he complains that "in 'the land of the free', there's only a future for the chosen few" and even "all they taught you at school was how to be a good worker / The system has failed you, don't fail yourself."
Built around four jerky chords, the album version is a bit thin compared to the raucous live showstopper it's since become (the version on the Help Save the Youth of America [EP] is my personal favorite). Unsurprisingly, it's is also a perennial cover choice for young punks from Lars Fredericksen of Rancid to Titus Andronicus. What makes "To Have and Have Not" so affecting is Bragg's ability to make you feel just how deep and personal the pain caused by unemployment and poverty can be. Sometimes, all you can do is offer a sympathetic ear and angry guitar.
3. "Greetings to the New Brunette" (Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, 1986)
For the first few years of his career, Bragg was something of a sonic purist with all his songs built around electric guitar and featuring, at most, one additional instrument. Therefore the lead track off Talking with the Taxman About Poetry with its chiming acoustic guitars, a mournful slide, and female backing vocals (again via Kirsty MacColl) was a bold declaration of a new direction. Channeling Ray Davies and Paul Weller, "Greetings to the New Brunette" is one of Bragg's finest character sketches and was also (unsurprisingly) replete with social commentary. He writes the song from the perspective of a young ne'er-do-well whose in love with Shirley, a woman who challenges him at every turn.
The man wants nothing more out of life than a football game and a few pints of bitters and is frustrated by Shirley's challenging sexual politics and domestic ambitions. "Here we are in our summer years / Living on ice cream and chocolate kisses", he sings, setting up that question that lies at the heart of the song, "But would the leaves fall from the trees / If I were your old man and you were my missus?" He is asking the question as much to himself as to her. His answer is a vague request that could be a loving joke or a sardonic kiss-off. "Greetings to the New Brunette" is Bragg at his best: simultaneously honest, angry, and timorous, writing songs with as much emotional depth as the best of the Smiths or the Replacements.
2. "Tank Park Salute" (Don't Try This at Home, 1991)
If there's one subject that hard to tackle with pop music, it's death. In punk, it's generally approached with testosterone-fueled martial imagery, while softer pop often crosses the line between sentimental and maudlin. With its inscrutable title clear-eyed emotionalism, "Tank Park Salute", Bragg's clear-eyed but emotional tribute to his father, joins the ranks as one of the most relevant poets. Poet Wisława Szymborska once wrote that "the most pressing questions are the naïve ones", and Bragg proves this as confronts the transient nature of his existence.
"Daddy, is it true we all have to die?" Bragg asks with the pleading innocence of a child. Later he muses "You were so tall / How could you fall?" in a voice that suggests an appreciation of the man gained in maturity. The tinkling piano, light guitar, and understated strings combine to form a gossamer musical bed that cradles Bragg's words as if they were a broken heart. At its root, great art seeks simply to ask the question, "What does it all mean?" "Tank Park Salute" is one of the finest attempts to answer that query that pop music has to offer.
1. "A New England" - (Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy, 1983)
The finest early Billy Bragg song is, of course, the one for which he will probably be best known for time immemorial. Marrying heartbreak, romantic hopefulness, and chugging, Chuck Berry-guitar, "A New England" was the song that put Bragg on the map, and it remains one of the best of the 1980s. Written while he was still in Riff Raff and before joining the army, it is Bragg distilled into his most basic elements. Purportedly sung by a frustrated young man who "doesn't want to change the world" and is "just looking for another girl", everything else about the song indicates that Bragg is looking for true love and a better world.
As always, Bragg feels left out as he sees his peers rushing into their early 20s with kids as he searches for someone. He's a man seeking romance in an unwelcoming world. When he goes looking for shooting stars, all he's given are satellites, leaving him to wonder "is it wrong to wish on space hardware?" It's a song at once sad and hopeful, despite its own best efforts. Although it was his best-known song when it was released, it really took off nationally in the UK in 1985 when Kirsty MacColl's poppier take reached number seven in the charts. In later years Bragg has turned the song into a singalong closer for his live shows and, in memory of MacColl, he always adds her extra verse. As long as there are still heartbroken dreamers pouring out of bars, I'm sure that the song will have no problem finding itself at home.