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From the vault – Billy Bragg

One thing I love about Billy Bragg is that he is genuinely timeless. That’s not because his music has the forever classicism that, say, the Beatles do, but because he’s constantly updating from where he was to where he actually is.  Therefore, 50 year old Billy doesn’t write about early 20s angst any more, because he doesn’t suffer from it. Unlike many other lefty 80s icons, he’s not still railing against Thatcher. Here’s his 2006 update on the classic ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards’. The other bloke, incdentally, is Ian McLagen of the Faces. Quality.


Introducing….Fighting Fit

Remember Red Wedge? It was the tour that was going to revolutionise the 80s. Basically, people would go and see Billy Bragg, Paul Weller and Lloyd Cole and they’d immediately go and vote Labour, thus ending Margaret Thatcher’s reign of terror. Except it didn’t.

But at least they tried. These days, the most political new bands seem to get is to suggest that Iraq was, y’know, a bad idea. It’s pretty safe ground and it really doesn’t turn up any trees. Continue reading

Mixing Pop and Politics # 2 – We’ve Nothing But Total Respect for Annie Lennox

There is nothing wrong with one having convictions. (Well, morally at least. Actual convictions can tend to have a ruinous impact on one’s life, as Boy George is about to find out. And it’ll mean when he sings his most famous song, he’ll be telling fibs. Singing about not having convictions without conviction when he does indeed have convictions. I’m confusing myself here.) And there is fundamentally nothing wrong, nothing at all, about supporting causes you feel passionate about. But sometimes can who you are rather upstage the point?

Annie Lennox is a case study here. She appeared at the weekend, ‘leading calls for the end to Israel’s bombing of the Gaza Strip’ according to the BBC. And my first reaction was, as it always is when I see a musician doing something like this, why has the news picked her to be the spokesperson here? Was there no activist or protest organiser available? Why does having hits twenty years ago qualify you to speak on complex political issues?

Now, ELM is an avowedly apolitical website and will remain so. This is not a debate about who is right and who is wrong in this situation. It’s just impossible not to find it a little patronising when pop stars tell you what to think.

Oh, okay then; certain pop stars.

Annie Lennox has always struck me as a tool. The blatant self-regard, the style over substance image, being that close repeatedly to Dave Stewart and not stabbing him…the list is endless. The last few years, however, have seen her move into a whole new level of tedious drone. For a start, she no longer sees herself as a pop star, nor even a musician; no, these days La Lennox regards herself as a ‘humanitarian’. Nobody who isn’t in some form of showbusiness would ever regard themselves as that. Missionaries, fundraisers, Medical volunteers, people who build wells for drought-hit African villages, people who drive trucks laden with aid through dangerous territory to poverty stricken areas…….they are humanitarians. And even THEY wouldn’t describe themselves as that. It’s juts one of those tautologies. No-one who would describe themselves as a humanitarian can actually be one.

This may look a bit uncharitable, and frankly it is. I’m sure she means well, and in the final analysis, it doesn’t do any harm. the counter-argument is that it helped generate more publicity. But did it really? This is the number one story in the world right now – well, it would be if we weren’t so shallow and Celebrity Big Brother hadn’t started – so what did it do? Add that sheen of celeb?

The fact is, Annie Lennox may feel she saves the world one bit at a time. But if she really wants to do something useful, she could change her actual job rather than just a title. Till then, it’s self-indulgent posturing. Real people combine jobs with making a difference; she could too. But while it’s merely about making her feel like a ‘humanitarian’ then its pretty safe to say that she won’t.

Billy Bragg – Nottingham Rock City

by E Streeter


“I’m the Marmite artist” says Billy Bragg, “you either love me or hate me”. That’s a fairly typical comment from the Bard of Barking, at once self-deprecating, funny and shrewdly observed. Billy is sporting a new t-shirt this evening: Marmite logo on the front and tour dates on the back, in a vain attempt to get his favourite spread to sponsor him.

The Nottingham Rock City gig is the opener for the second leg of Bragg’s UK tour, interrupted by a few months in the USA where he picked up his support act, Billy Otis. The best way to describe American Billy is to think ZZ top refugee with a baseball cap and much better politics. Billy tried a bit too hard to put across an “I’m an American, please don’t hate me” message, obviously not briefed that a Billy Bragg audience is as progressive and politically switched on as it gets. Mr Bragg himself ventured into potentially risky territory with a couple of references to the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Miners’ Strike in an area which didn’t support the NUM, but he, unlike the mining industry of Nottingham, got away with it.

Hardcore Bragg fans prefer things when it’s just Billy, his guitar and the crowd and this is one of those gigs which left you feeling uplifted and smiley. The set list I saw bore almost no relation to what BB played, but three highlights for me were ‘A Lover Sings’, ‘Greetings To the New Brunette’ and a highly contemporary ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’ which managed to reference Hugo Chavez, John Sergeant, the endurance of the Cuban Revolution, Strictly Come Dancing and parasitic bankers. Genius.

The verbal riffing ensures time whizzes by and that the songs are given context and emphasis. Clearly fired up by witnessing first hand Barack Obama’s epoch making victory (I was going to say ‘historic’ but if ever a word were overused it’s that), Billy reminds us again and again that positive changes are possible and that we, not he, can bring them about. The most interesting part of the evening was discovering that seeing The Clash play Victoria Park in the inaugural Rock Against Racism gig was the event that changed the course of BB’s life and took him on that 30 year plus journey, which led to Nottingham in November 2008. Bragg’s ‘Johnny Clash’ song got an airing as a result, an homage to Strummer and the can-do spirit which eventually coughed up one of England’s finest song writers. I mean, anyone who can write a line like ‘and if you haven’t noticed yet, I’m more impressionable when my cement is wet’ deserves to be front and centre when British songsmiths are ranked.

Three cover versions give a good idea of what makes Billy tick – ‘I Ain’ t Got No Home’, a 70 year old Woody Guthrie song about dispossession which could have been written the day before, a surprisingly strong ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ originally by the wonderful, wonderful Sam Cooke and a half-arsed ‘Jeanne’ by The Smiths. Eclectic doesn’t begin to describe it.

He slapped it into the BNP, George Bush, Tony Blair and the usual targets. He also stitched together a closing sequence of songs to bring even the most jaded leftie to life: ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’, ‘There Is Power In A Union’,  ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’, ‘I Have Faith’, and  – despite losing his voice two thirds of the way in  – gave us ‘A New England’ to send us home happy. Billy Bragg may well be a Marmite artist but seeing him this evening was as enjoyable as it was the first night I saw him play, a mere 21 years ago at a Labour Party Conference in Blackpool. Plus ca change……………..

Mixing Pop and Politics – Bye Bye to the Reverend

What do you mean, who? The Reverend of Reverend and The Makers has only gone and announced that he is retiring from music after the release of his next album. Hotlines have been set up and the Army is poised to mobilise to break up any demonstrations which might turn ugly.

The reason the Reverend – or Jon McClure to his mum and dozens of fans – is that he is depressed by the lack of political interest in music at the moment. there’s no activism, see, no Red Wedge and this upsets Jon somewhat. Now, the cynical amongst us might say that McClure’s 15 minutes are about seven seconds away from ending and he’s just getting in there first before the record company drops him, but that would be unfair, if probably true.

McClure has done his bit; he’s organised several anti-BNP and anti-racism events, and fair play to him for that. Muscially, he’s about as politicised as Alphabeat, but in his extra-curricular attempts, he’s done a clumsy but decent job (and doesn’t deserve all the oppobrium heaped on him. Well, not all of it.) But it got me to thinking – who is out there writing the tunes that inspire political dissent?

The top bands in the firmament at the moment – Arctic Monkeys, Glasvegas, Bloc Party etc – write from an intensely personal point of view. There aren’t a glut of bands issuing calls-to-arms, which is odd when you consider the times we find ourselves in.

Why is this? Well, it’s a tough skill; for every Billy Bragg there’s a S#M#A#S#H making a howling arse of themselves. Secondly – and this is a major consideration – visas. If you write, say, an overtly anti-America song, it could well mess up royally your chances of getting permission to work there. Maybe bands feel it isn’t worth the risk.

And there’s the rub; at a time when we need them most, our pop masters are clamming up and singing about life in the abstract. It’s a shame, but it is understandable – we all have to eat.

The Friday 5 – 5 Awful Political Songs

Some find politics boring. ELM does not. How can you not? Once you stop worrying about it, and accept that it is what it is, you can simply sit back and enjoy the madness. It’s fascinating to think that almost every important decision, things that affect our lives, are taken by professional decision makers who have had precisely no training and no relevant experience. That’s magic! How can you worry about anything when you know how random everything is? It’s just a ride man, it’s just a ride.

But some people do care, and fair play to them. Sometimes it’s admirable; someone like Billy Bragg, whether you agree with him or not, genuinely believes in the causes he espouses and has done a lot more good than bad. And even someone like Lemmy, unreconstructed old Tory bastard that he is, at least believes in the Conservatives because he is rich and they look after rich people better than Labour (well, better than Old Labour; the new lot are pretty comfortable round money.)

Contrary to popular belief, rock’n’roll does do serious issues. think about it; it’s always been about love and loss and death and life. It just doesn’t really do politics that well. Even skilled commentators come a cropper, so it’s hardly surprising that neer-do-wells and halfwits struggle to turn coherent, thought-provoking lyrics out regularly. Here we celebrate some unspeakably bad attempts. We know that their hearts were in the right place, it’s just their heads were clearly up their arse.

The Police – Invisible Sun

Sting always fancied being a spokesman for a generation. Alas, he wrote the odd decent pop pot-boiler and that was about it. rather than sticking to what he knew – and there would have been nothing wrong if he had – he decided he would treat us to his feelings on the Troubles in Northern Ireland (I love that term; it makes it sound like a disagreement on place settings at a wedding than the virtual civil war it was.)Trite soundbite a sixth-former would be proud of? Yup, we got ’em;

“There has to be an invisible sun
That gives us hope when the whole day’s done”

But even that sounds like The Songs of Innocence compared to this cracker;

“I face the day with me head caved in
Looking like something that the cat brought in”

I mean, what the fucking hell is that? the worst part of it all is that Sting genuinely thinks he is an artist, rather than Pete Waterman with pecs. Strangely enough, it didn’t resolve the issues in the Province. Which is unfair, because the place deserved better after being badly served by Rock’s glitterati….

Paul McCartney – Give Ireland Back To The Irish

Paul was a bit pissed off that that Lennon fella was considered the more intelligent songwriter (which was probably a bit unfair to be honest.) So he decided to become a hit, edgy political commentator. Sort of sharing his thoughts with the world. Alas, turns out his thoughts weren’t as thrilling as he’d thought. He’d clearly done about three minutes research into the whole Ireland thing and the end result was appallingly, toe-curlingly awful in the way only Macca when he really shoots and misses can be.

“Great Britain You Are Tremendous
And Nobody Knows Like Me
But Really What Are You Doin’
In The Land Across The Sea”

We’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he was probably stoned. ‘Hey, Linda…I’ve just had a thought about Ireland. Isn’t it a shame, la?’ Dreadful.

The Cranberries – Zombie

Maybe Ireland deserved all that though, for inflicting this mob on us. Clearly a comedy act who got strangely massive for about six minutes in the 90’s, this was their attempt to tell us about the horrors of a divided nation. Except, as Andy cairns of Therapy? noted at the time, it was pretty infuriating hearing someone from Limerick singing about tanks and guns. But is that harsh? Is it unfair?

“Another mother’s breaking
Heart is taken over. Zombie! Zombie! Zombie hey,hey,hey,oh dou, dou, dou,dou dou…”

No, it’s perfectly fair. America seemed to love it though.

The Black Eyed Peas – Where Is The Love?

A riposte to 9/11 apparently. And, a plaintive call to order in a confused world. Or a load of platitudinous bollocks given a pseudo-meaning in an attempt to pretend it is any more than a pop song. I actually think Fergies ‘Ladylumps’ is a more politically sensitive lyric.

“What’s wrong with the world mama?
People living like they aint got no mamas”

I didn’t make that up. that’s actually the lyric. Really. God love them.

Razorlight – America

This truly is a belter. So simplistic a mentally sub-normal teenager would reject it for being too saccharine. It’s so unspeakably stupid that you’d suspect it was a joke….but then you remember Johnny Borrell, a walking Punch puppet, is involved and you’d believe anything.

‘Un-uh-oh…Trouble in America’.

And who can argue with that? I suspect Borrell was referring to the carnage caused by Alan Greenspan to the long-term health of the American economy. Or maybe not.I look forward to their follow-up, ‘War Is, Like, Bad?’

Hideously fuckwitted.

So, several songs that simply didn’t change the world. Some may say they had a go and should be commended for it. Others that they should be forced to watch endless hours of David Frost. I’d vote for option two.

Any more for any more?

Billy Bragg – ‘Mr. Love & Justice’ Review

I was talking earlier about musicians remaining relevant. The Bard of Barking should be the case study for anyone wanting to do so. With his first album in six years, Bragg sets his manifesto out in the title; those are the two themes he has been returning to for almost thirty years. And he’s still as passionate about both after all these years.

Opener ‘I Keep Faith’ is a lovely little Celtic Country-Soul number which could as easily be about his missus or his politics. ‘I Almost Killed You’ is a cracking little folk number showcasing all of his wit, warmth and humour. ‘M for Me’ will resonate with anyone who has ever been in a relationship. Bragg has never written about the stars aligning in his love songs; he’s far too practical, always capturing the mundanity of relationships in a world where we are daily projected unrealistic images of what ‘love’ actually is. Oddly, his songs remain all the more touching for it, and I defy anyone in a long-term relationship not to smile hearing it.

The more political songs come later. ‘The Johnny Carcinogenic Show’ is an anti-tobacco song, while ‘O Freedom’ wonders about the outcome of removing liberties to ‘protect’ freedom. His tone is never preachy, more like a sensible cajoling narrator.

This is a relaxed album from a man comfortable about his place in the world while remaining distinctly uncomfortable about what that world is becoming. His voice is softer than his more strident early work these days, but still unmistakeably him. Ably backed by the Blokes, he delivers an album full of Hammond organ, brass and acoustic guitars. For those who prefer the man with just his guitar, the limited edition comes with another disc of just that; all 12 songs done by Bragg solo.

The man is a national treasure; long may his conscience trouble us.