Album of the Week, June 29: Brewing Up with Billy Bragg

BraggLGDStephen William Bragg was born in Barking, Essex in the UK in 1957. Uninspired by the rote aspects of his education, he diverted himself by learning guitar and jamming with his neighbor, Wiggy. They formed the pub-punk outfit Riff Raff, which performed and recorded many singles but never really got off the ground. Bragg, using his longtime nickname Billy, began busking with just an electric guitar and amp. When he saw the Clash at a Rock Against Racism carnival, his musical direction coalesced. A true folkie, he makes no apologies for his many clear influences but crafts his own distinct brand of music which he calls “Urbane Folk.” Blending leftist politics, literate dissections of relationships, passionate dedication to human rights, and a strong sense of melody and musical history, he follows proudly in the footsteps of musicians as cohesively diverse as Ewan MacColl, Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and the Clash.

Bragg used a number of tricks and clever promotional gambits — including posing as a television repairman and delivering a snack to John Peel’s radio show — to gain traction for his nascent career. His first release was the mini-LP Life’s A Riot with Spy Vs. Spy, a stripped-down blast of folk featuring his vocals, lyrics and guitar. Building on that success — after a few delays due to label issues — he assembled 11 songs for his second and most powerful album.

Title Brewing Up with Billy Bragg
Act Billy Bragg
Label Go! Discs Release Date November 1984
Producer Edward de Bono
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  16
  1. It Says Here
  2. Love Gets Dangerous
  3. From A Vauxhall Velox
  4. The Myth of Trust
  5. The Saturday Boy
  6. Island of No Return
  7. This Guitar Says Sorry
  8. Like Soldiers Do
  9. St. Swithin’s Day
  10. Strange Things Happen
  11. A Lover Sings

Brewing Up shows a growing confidence and willingness to stretch himself. While sonically similar to the first release, it includes a few overdubs and additional musicians. These carefully chosen moments enhance the sound without detracting from what makes Bragg so compelling: his stark delivery and amazing use of language.

Things kick off with a damning indictment of the press. It Says Here does more than just encourage listeners to consider the source — it forces them to consider how accurately corporate news can ever reflect the truth. Given its composition decades before cable news stratification, it’s eerily prescient. It’s also a  powerful statement to start off this exploration of politics both personal and geopolitical.

Love Gets Dangerous shows off his other side, looking at  a new relationship and the mix of joy, anticipation, and terror that it can bring. This one-two punch nicely sets up Bragg’s depth as a singer and composer. From A Vauxhall Velox is unabashedly English in lyrical content but universal in its sympathetic look at the fumblings of early physical romance. It also features a nice guitar nod to 50s rock, well-suited to the automotive passion theme. That segues into darker territory as The Myth of Trust explores the ways even a dedicated relationship can erode over time. Bragg’s stark vocal over a dark, almost droning guitar figure casts a bitter spell, perfectly setting the mood of romantic betrayal. He moves to happier times with the nostalgic The Saturday Boy. A tale of an unrequited schoolboy crush, it’s a charming song, nicely crafted. The inclusion of a sprightly trumpet line is one of the few adornments on the album and it helps create just the right atmosphere.

Global politics return with the Falklands inspired Island of No Return. A flat rejection of military action as a political solution, it uses personal narratives to make its striking point. Over a martial beat, Bragg delivers one of the best vocals on the album, mixing laser-like observations with scathing sarcasm. This Guitar Says Sorry is another perfect Bragg moment, a brief but powerful look at a doomed romance and the racial politics that created the whole situation. Allowing his guitar to say as much as his words, it’s one of the finest moments in his stellar career. Like Soldiers Do is another nice mixture, using military images to represent romantic tribulation.

The finest track on the album is the aching St. Swithin’s Day. Bragg uses moments of English history and culture as landmarks in a long-lost relationship. Loosely structured and passionately sung, it’s a stunningly mature song from a singer not even 30. Strange Things Happen explores the power of loneliness, clearly drawing from the anxiety of youth in quick capsule of longing. Bragg wraps up the album with a more abstract look at love, the charming A Lover Sings. In a series of well-chosen images he outlines the ups and downs of romance in post-industrial times. It’s the perfect conclusion to this wonderful exploration of love, yearning, and politics and sets the stage for his astounding growth as a musician in the coming years.

FURTHER LISTENING: Bragg knocked out five albums in eight years then slowed down significantly as political and family demands took over much of his time. Since 1991 he’s only release five more original albums. He also worked with Wilco to create sonic settings for recently recovered Woody Guthrie lyrics on the Mermaid Avenue series — with three discs to date. All of his albums offer a wonderful mix of carefully blended music and lyrics, showing off his sense of politics and humor and his true compassion for the complexities of the human condition. The three that followed Brewing Up are the best, with his sonic palette growing on each outing. Talking With the Taxman About Poetry is the best center point between his simple early sound and his eventual destination. Workers’ Playtime has some great moments but is the least consistent. Don’t Try This At Home is in many ways his masterpiece, but gets a bit muddy as the embroidery hides the lovely fabric on a number of songs.

Back to Basics compiles his first two albums and first EP on one disc, providing his entrée into the American market — it’s the single best Bragg disc. For a great overview, the two-disc Must I Paint You A Picture is a perfect capsule of most of his impressive career.


About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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