BILLY BRAGG: BREWING UP WITH BILLY BRAGG (1984)
1) It Says Here; 2) Love Gets Dangerous; 3) The Myth Of Trust; 4) From A Vauxhall Velox; 5) The Saturday Boy; 6) Island Of No Return; 7) St. Swithin's Day; 8) Like Soldiers Do; 9) This Guitar Says Sorry; 10) Strange Things Happen; 11) A Lover Sings; 12*) Between The Wars; 13*) The World Turned Upside Down; 14*) Which Side Are You On.
Compared with Life's A Riot, Billy's first full-length LP seems almost orchestrated — not only are there a few extra players spicing up the songs every now and then (Dave Woodhead on trumpet, or Van Morrison's keyboard player Kenny Craddock on organ), but Billy's own guitar parts seem fuller, more fleshed out, more in line with the traditional understanding of what a «punk / garage rock song» should sound like. Still, I have to confess that, as much as his lonesome busker approach might have seemed revolutionary at the time, it is very hard for me to overcome the «rockist» attitude and appreciate these songs — be they well written or not — on the same emotional level as if they were full band productions.
Let's just face it, something like the bravado guitar intro to ʽFrom A Vauxhall Veloxʼ, for instance, just begs for rhythm section support — it's one thing just doing this on a street corner or in your living room, but in the studio... well, on a purely intellectual-symbolic level, it's all understandable, but on the level of pure instinct, it's all about «oh shit, too bad the guy was on such a tight budget, couldn't even afford himself a bass player». It just can't be helped, that's all, no matter how much intoxicating London charisma he is sweating out while the tapes are running.
But yes, there are some dang good songs here — not John Lennon level, I guess, but definitely at least Elvis Costello level. Thematically, Billy goes on to develop his two major concerns: (a) fuck the system that is ruining our lives and (b) fuck the bitch that is ruining my life — and the two are so tightly intertwined that I can't help thinking, is it the system that is supposed to be responsible for the breakdown of human relationships, or is it the breakdown of human relationships that is responsible for the collapse of the system? One thing's for sure: Billy allocates the exact same amount of passion for both themes, which is ultimately good, I guess, because a two-track mind in art is always preferable to a one-track one.
And here comes another confession: at this point, I actually prefer Billy's love (or «anti-love») songs to his political statements. The reason might be very simple: they work better as stripped-down ballads, whereas the political songs are the ones that suffer the most from lack of additional musicians. (Although even there, once Billy starts to croon he begins to sound like Morrissey's ragged twin, and the songs start looking like early demos for Smiths ballads. But this problem is notably easier to overcome). ʽThe Myth Of Trustʼ, for instance, is not only lyrically smart (offering its own interpretation of the allegory of Adam and Eve with the serpent left completely out of the picture), but also has a creepy «dark folk» twist to it — later on, Adam and Eve make a much happier comeback in the organ-backed ʽA Lover Singsʼ serenade, but they have to pass through some highly uncomfortable moments before they find out all about love.
Of course, though, the album will still be generally remembered not through its ruminations on the nature of sexual attraction, but through its political statements — the anti-Thatcherite ʽIt Says Hereʼ and the anti-war anthems ʽLike Soldiers Doʼ and ʽIsland Of No Returnʼ. Of these three, ʽIslandʼ packs the biggest punch and is probably the single most underworked song here: the arrogant lyrics, the furiously strummed power chords (with some funky syncopation thrown in for good measure), the way he massacres his not-too-inherently-strong voice on the line "...in his hand was a weapon that was made in Bir-ming-haaaaam!..." — these are all hallmarks of a good song... but yes, it could have been better.
Still, all in all there is definitely some progress. Billy's lyrics are thought-provoking both on the love front and on the social struggle front; his guitar playing skills, if anything, are demonstrated here even better; and the occasional guest instruments are selected with loving care (did I yet get a chance to mention the cute ʽPenny Laneʼ-like trumpet solos on ʽSaturday Boyʼ, placed there and nowhere else because this is, like, the tenderest song on the album?). For all these reasons, the thumbs up rating should never be placed under doubt — even if the final brew, alas, is just not strong enough for my tastes, and I cannot picture myself voluntarily returning to this record whenever I want to hear a love serenade (if we're talking about the same time period, I'll still predictably pick The Smiths) or a fuck-the-establishment statement (if we're talking about the same time period, I'll still predictably pick The Clash). Then again, who knows? Maybe in a few years' time rhythm sessions will become so passé, your spirit will realign to electric guitar busking without you knowing it, and then...
...anyway, on a technical note, these days this album also comes in a 2-CD edition with plenty of bonus tracks (including some Smiths and Stones covers with Johnny Marr himself guest-starring on second guitar), but I have only heard it as part of 1987's Back To Basics compilation, so my bonus tracks are three more songs from the 1985 EP Between The Wars — one of them an old cover of a pro-union song, and another one (ʽWorld Turned Upside Downʼ) is a Leon Rosselson song about the Diggers' Commune of 1649. Well... the EP was just too short a format to make space for any more love serenades, I guess.