102 days ago
One of the things I kept in mind when curating Dave’s own taste in music for Dead Man Singing was trying to ensure that he was his own person, not just an identikit reflection of my own record collection. One of the big areas of difference is personified in Billy Bragg.
Dave was from the generation who were largely swept away by punk, while Billy came through on its heels. His early ‘one-man Clash’ incarnation would have put Dave off, meaning Dave never made any effort to listen to some of the later stuff that he would probably have enjoyed.
I was aware of Billy Bragg from early on, but didn’t come to him myself for several years. I remember one of my friends, Gordon, coming in to school the day after Bragg’s debut on The Tube and raving about this new singer he’d seen. I was struck at the profound connection that Bragg’s music had made with Gordon and marked him down as someone who was worth checking out, though I somehow never got round to doing so (it was harder in those days, without the instant gratification that streaming and YouTube now provide).
A few years later, I heard ‘She’s Got a New Spell’ on the radio – Johnny Walker’s Saturday Radio 1 show, I think – and realised there was more to Bragg than an angry young man hammering away on a rough-and-ready electric guitar. I stored that discovery away, but still did no more to check him out myself. It wasn’t until the mid-90s when I came across the CDs Back to Basics and Victim of Geography – compilations of his first few albums – at a bargain price and decided to take the plunge (we had to pay money to try out new artists back then, crazy days).
Since then, Billy has become one of my absolute favourite artists and I’ve seen him live a few times over the years. Last night it was joy to celebrate his 40 years as a recording artist at Portsmouth Guildhall. It was a standing venue, and we were only two or three rows from the front with a great view (once the tall gentleman in front of me shuffled over to the right – the only known instance of someone moving to the right as a result of a Billy Bragg show).
The night started with a 40-minute video, compiled from TV and concert appearances over the last 40 years (Billy said later that he’d shown it just in case any of us had forgotten who he was). When the show proper started, it was initially Bragg solo, back in one-man-Clash mode, but the musical palette soon broadened, with contributions from musicians Jacob Stoney (keyboards and backing vocals) and the wonderful C.J. Hillman (mandolin, guitars and generous but tastefully-applied dollops of pedal steel guitar – his interpretation of Dave 'Woody' Woodhead's trumpet solo on ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ a particular highlight). Billy was in customarily sparkling form, by turns witty, self-deprecating, passionate and articulate. Those who see him as just a protest singer are missing out on one of the great personal songwriters of the last 40 years (I finally got to see him perform ‘Tank Park Salute’, written in memory of his father and the most beautifully moving death song I know, as well as recent classic, the lockdown-inspired ‘I Will Be Your Shield’). Those who know him from sparkly pop hits like ‘Sexuality’ and ‘The Boy Done Good’ (great songs both) are missing out on someone who understands the relationship between pop and politics better than most. Music doesn’t change the world, as Billy explained to us, but it can communicate ideas to ordinary people who can then go on to work for change. There was politics last night, obviously (he’s not a fan of Suella Braverman or the current government; who knew?), including an impassioned version of the Woody Guthrie-penned ‘All You Fascists Are Bound to Lose’ along with old gems like ‘There Is Power in a Union’ and ‘World Turned Upside Down’.
When you’re trying to fit 40 years into one evening, there are bound to be some omissions – I would have loved to hear ‘The Saturday Boy’ and ‘Accident Waiting to Happen’ – but Billy saved a rare treat to the end. He came out, alone, for the encore before playing the entirety of his first album Life’s A Riot with Spy vs Spy (17 minutes or so – mini-albums were a thing in the 80s), shuffling the track order so as to finish, of course, with ‘A New England’, accompanied by enthusiastic backing vocals from the whole crowd.
At age 65, he’s still got it, and he’s still keen to pass it on. He said that evenings like this help to reignite his passion for change and to kick his cynicism into the gutter. We could all do with a bit of Billy in our lives from time to time.
He played Folkestone first tour after lockdown.a crowd inside. A tense night but made worse by death days before of refugees on the beach. He sung Distant Shore. Not a dry eye.
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