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Thursday, August 20, 2015

Billy Bragg: The Internationale

BILLY BRAGG: THE INTERNATIONALE (1990)

1) The Internationale; 2) I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night; 3) The Marching Song Of The Covert Battalions; 4) Blake's Jerusalem; 5) Nicaragua Nicaraguita; 6) The Red Flag; 7) My Youngest Son Came Home Today.

I am afraid there is very little to be said about this album, and what little there is to be said is nearly all bad. Perhaps the best thing is Billy's new lyrics to ʽThe Internationaleʼ, which deem­pha­size the violence of the original and focus on "being inspired by like and love". Not that this really matters any more — who has really given a damn about the anthem ever since the Soviet Union abandoned it in favor of something even more pompous and imperialistic? — but sort of a nice idea, all the same. Couldn't say the same for Billy's vocal delivery or for the mariachi-style arrangement, though: looks like he's still buskin' out there, despite the increased number of play­ers, and if I happened to pass by, I doubt I would have spared a penny. Might even have to go and report them — not for communist propaganda, but just for offending good taste.

I guess somebody must have told Billy one day, «you know, for a guy who's supposed to use music for political purposes, you sure have a lot of songs about chicks on each of your albums», so Billy eventually decided to show his true colors and record at least a small album (an EP, in fact) that would be nothing but political: anthems and workers-rights-ballads all the way, with traditional melodies, but largely new lyrics to, like, bring them more up to date in a world still largely ruled by Thatchers and Reagan-Bushes — whether you're a fan of these rulers (not highly likely if you're an avid rock music listener) or whether you hate them as much as Billy does, it is sort of a logical fact that the most blatant way to stand out against them is sing a Marxist anthem, even if you're no Marxist yourself.

You do not have to do much, really, except just take a glance at the titles — I mean, ʽI Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Nightʼ, indeed? Sung accappella? At least when Joan Baez did this at Wood­stock with the original, this could make sense to fans of Joan Baez' voice, period. Are there any fans of Billy Bragg's voice out there? (As in — real fans, people who think of him as a unique, outstanding singer, that is, not just people who have no problems with his voice, like myself). If not, well, okay, this is a tolerable, but derivative memento to Phil Ochs. "And did those feet in ancient time"... — in between Greg Lake and Eric Idle, my pop-style associations of ʽJerusalemʼ find themselves exhausted already. ʽNicaragua Nicaraguitaʼ? I sympathize with the people of Nicaragua, but not necessarily with the Sandinistas, and even then, I'm sure they can get along well enough without Billy's support. ʽThe Red Flagʼ? Oh no...

Had this album remained as just an EP, it would have quickly been forgotten in LP-centric disco­graphies, and we would all have been better off. Unfortunately, it was re-released in 2006 as part of a 2-CD edition that also contained the 1988 EP Live & Dubious — a mix of live performances from Berlin and somewhere in the Soviet Union (Lithuania, I believe), where he must have been invited as a Representative of the People, although some of his comments must have rubbed off unpleasantly on the shoulders of Party officials (for instance, having explained why the song is called "Help Save The Youth Of America", he then states that the song might just as well have been called "Help Save The Youth Of The Soviet Union").

So now this thing is very much a regular part of his musical career, and it is probably the weakest link in that career — think John Lennon's Sometime In New York City, but even that album was a groundbreaking, earth-shattering masterpiece in comparison, since Lennon at least composed his own political songs, and came up with all sorts of ideas about how to maximize their effect with various instrumentation and production tricks. The Internationale is as barebones as it gets, and for all of Billy's undisputed sincerity and enthusiasm, he should have probably just released the title track as a collaboration with Pet Shop Boys — I can easily imagine a synth-pop version and a revolutionary (in both senses of the word) video, bringing the man all the way up to the top of the charts and effectively ending Conservative rule for eternity. As it is, the album just gets a thumbs down — I don't even see it having a rallying effect, much less any musical value.

1 comment:

  1. I just want to say here that "The Internationale" is still in use by many different organisations around the world, including social democratic ones, in the context of which I myself have sung it many times, albeit in rather less violent versions than the classic Soviet one.

    Also Billy Bragg is not very good.

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