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Rethinking the Relevance of Billy Bragg in Today’s Music Scene [Part I]

24 April 2006

I’m listening to a podcast called “Coverville” on my new favorite Bay Area radio station KYOU (more on this fascinating station in a future column), and someone requests BILLY BRAGG’s cover of “She’s Leaving Home” by THE BEATLES. At first I’m dismissive. It’s a side of Bragg, or rather, of PAUL MCCARTNEY to which I never warmed up, even though I often love songs that other people call too “sentimental” or “sappy,” such as “Don’t Say You Don’t Remember” by BEVERLY BREMMERS. But the sentimentality of either version of this song just never convinced me. Paul’s really trying to be serious, trying to trump “Eleanor Rigby” and top Pet Sounds, both lyrically and musically, but even the backup lyrics that JOHN LENNON sings (and perhaps wrote), that add a somewhat sympathetic understanding of the parents’ perspective (and perhaps were the inspiration for, say, “Father and Son” by CAT STEVENS), don’t do quite enough to redeem it.

Nonetheless, I listen patiently as the DJ introduced the song by saying how he grew up in a house in which the only album that wasn’t classical or opera was Sgt. Pepper, and suddenly I can understand why people liked that song. Not only can I hear what FREDDIE MERCURY took from “She’s Leaving Home,” but I can also see McCartney as the mediator, bridging the seemingly extreme generation gap of that time by employing Vaudeville or English Music Hall stylings so as to imagine himself a 64-years-old (his soon-to-be present age come June 18!). So maybe it wasn’t great Vaudeville, and RAY DAVIES of THE KINKS had beaten him to it, but 1967-era McCartney had much more of an impact on convincing straight culture that “the kids are alright.” None of this really makes me want to hear the song again, but at least I can bring myself to think about it from time to time.

If I were a DJ or podcaster and someone called up and requested Bragg’s version of “She’s Leaving Home,” I’d suggest his rendition of “Walk Away Renee,”in which Bragg talks poignantly over JOHNNY MARR’s extemporaneous riffing on the melody of that great LEFT BANKE song 9 later covered excellently by THE FOUR TOPS) or one of Bragg’s many great originals—a body of work that sometimes gets lost in the cartoonish image the media paints of him as a politically-minded artist whose distinctive sound (like that of TOM WAITS) is, for many, alas, more recognizable than any individual original composition.

I first got into him at a young age, when a good friend came back from England armed with the early Bragg albums as well as the collected poems of BERTOLT BRECHT. Not only did those two BB’s go very well together, Bragg also reminded me of GIL SCOTT-HERON and JOHN PRINE; I was immediately hooked. Today, many acts, from JOLIE HOLLAND to THE COUP, not to mention the legions of those who were turned on to him through his collaborations with WILCO, express admiration for Bragg, yet I lost some interest in his newer albums around the same time (1988) that I lost interest in ELVIS COSTELLO’s new albums, as they both seemed to sacrifice some of their rawness and soul for what felt to me like overproduced schlock.

If Costello is still more important and enjoyable than Bragg for me, it has more to do with his words than it does with his melodies and production techniques (especially after he split from THE ATTRACTIONS ( a loss that, fortuitously, was GRAHAM PARKER’s gain). Many say Costello’s biggest flaw (for some it’s minor, for others it’s enough to turn them away) is the ‘merely’ clever word play in some of his lyrics, but for me that always went hand in hand with why he also does unironic covers of songs like “My Funny Valentine.” At his worst, he’s one extreme or the other, at his best he digs beneath the artificial split between cynicism and sentimentality to find their common roots (and, yes, being ‘too’ clever is a feeling and not simply a smug snarl).

But Billy Bragg was onto something different than Costello from the beginning. When I saw him play with RICHARD THOMPSON in Philadelphia circa 1989, he joked about how half his audience wanted him to be MORRISSEY while the other half wanted him to be BOB DYLAN. Which side was I on? If absolutely forced to choose, I knew which side I, and many of my friends in the West Philly squat, were on—but it wasn’t really an either/or choice between Dylan and Morrissey. There were other things going on here, about which I will elaborate in next week’s column.

[Part II to follow]