JOHN HARRIS ON BILLY BRAGG
John Harris is a Guardian journalist who regularly appears on BBC2's Newsnight Review, and has contributed to Q, Mojo, Rolling Stone, the Independent, and NME.
Billy Bragg performed at the Cheese and Grain on Wednesday, July 6th as part of the Frome Festival.
"...The basic point is simple; Billy Bragg's great, isn't he?"
Billy Bragg’s first album was released 33 years ago, in May 1983. Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy was recorded in a tiny demo studio over three breakneck afternoons. It featured only him, his guitar, and seven songs.
His fourteenth album came out in 2013: Tooth And Nail, put to tape in Pasadena, California, with the US producer Joe Henry – Madonna’s brother-in-law, for what it’s worth – and a full band. On the face of it, the two records might be the work of different artists: one, the fired-up “one-man Clash”; the other, a more mature, reflective singer-songwriter, audibly getting his head around age and experience, and the uncertainties they bring.
But appearances deceive. Leaving aside the achievement of sustaining a career over 40 years, for those of us who have kept faith with Billy Bragg over most of that time, what counts the most is not how far he has come, but the continuities that define his work then, and now. From A New England (on that first album, in all its jaw-dropping glory) to a song like No-one Knows Nothing Anymore (perhaps the last album’s most accomplished piece), the long-standing quality of his songwriting speaks for itself. And that’s only half the point: what really counts is the way that he speaks to the human condition – life as it is lived, by each and every one of us.
His so-called “political” material is often much misunderstood: often, it’s much more nuanced and complicated than ‘p’ word suggests. If you saw him playing Between The Wars (1985) on Top Of The Pops, you may have appreciated that it viewed history and ideology from a resolutely emotional, personal perspective.
Equally, if you treasure his 2008 album Mr Love And Justice and in particular a song called I Keep Faith, you may have wondered whether it’s about sticking to your ideals, or sustaining a lifelong relationship. It’s probably about both: this is a man, after all, whose range of merchandise includes a T-shirt extolling a “socialism of the heart”.
And when he really focuses on the stuff of love and loss, metaphorical fireworks go off. I’m not sure anyone has written as movingly about missing someone as he managed with St Swithin’s Day (1984), come up with a song about bereavement as perfect as Tank Park Salute (1991), nor turned in a composition about infatuation as brilliant as The Warmest Room (1986). And the list goes on, threaded throughout 33 years of greatness, and appreciated by an audience that has grown up with him while being regularly refreshed by new recruits. These kinds of pieces often end with some flowery sign-off, but the basic point is simple: Billy Bragg’s great, isn’t he?
Billy Bragg performs outside Raves From the Grave Record Shop, Frome, 2014 Photography: Chris Bailey