Worker’s Playtime

May Day is a worker’s holiday, first established in the UK in 1978. In 1988 Billy Bragg gave us his most perfect song, Waiting For The Great Leap Forward, a song written from personal experience of an 80s vision of revolution, benefit gigs, fanzines, activism and t-shirts. Billy is a wordsmith but words can be easily missed if the music isn’t good enough. Thankfully Waiting… has a tune good enough to complement the lyrics. I could try to pick the bones out of the lyrics and give some analysis but they’re best presented as you hear them, as a rush of Billy’s thoughts, scribbled on the back of a beer mat…

‘It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline
But on the Che Guevara highway filling up with gasoline
Fidel Castro’s brother spies a rich lady who’s crying
Over luxury’s disappointment
So he walks over and he’s trying
To sympathize with her but he thinks that he should warn her
That the Third World is just around the corner

In the Soviet Union a scientist is blinded
By the resumption of nuclear testing and he is reminded
That Dr. Robert Oppenheimer’s optimism fell
At the first hurdle
In the Cheese Pavilion and the only noise I hear
Is the sound of someone stacking chairs
And mopping up spilt beer
And someone asking questions and basking in the light
Of the fifteen fame filled minutes of the fanzine writer
Mixing pop and politics he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses
While looking down the corridor
Out to where the van is waiting
I’m looking for the great leap forwards
Jumble sales are organised
And pamphlets have been posted
Even after closing time there’s still parties to be hosted
You can be active with the activists
Or sleep in with the sleepers
While you’re waiting for the great leap forwards
One leap forward, two leaps back
Will politics get me the sack?
Here comes the future and you can’t run from it
If you’ve got a blacklist I want to be on it
It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n roll
From Top of the Pops to drawing the dole
If no one seems to understand
Start your own revolution and cut out the middleman
In a perfect world we’d all sing in tune
But this is reality so give me some room
So join the struggle while you may
The revolution is just a tee shirt away
Waiting for the great leap forwards’
Have a good bank holiday everyone.

There’s A Lot Of Nice Places To See Out There

Stepping backwards in time from yesterday’s Balearic Charlatans remix to a song from Liverpool in 1986 that found its way into DJ Alfredo’s record box in Ibiza and the terrace at the Cafe del Mar with his guiding philosophy of ‘if it sounds good, play it’. Driving Away From Home (Jim’s Tune) was a single from It’s Immaterial, a Liverpool band with a Mancunian at the helm (John Campbell) and Henry Priestman of The Christians involved on keyboards. The song is perfect mid-80s synth-pop with acoustic guitars and a semi- spoken vocal, not a million miles from the Pet Shop Boys. Driving Away From Home was a UK hit (number 18) and popped up on adverts and compilations and TV shows but don’t let that take anything away from it.

One of my favourite aspects of the song is the attempt to write a British road trip song, something that on the face of it is an American thing. ‘Why don’t we cross the city limit, and head on down the M62, it’s only thirty nine miles and forty five minutes to Manchester’ John says, and goes on to tell the driver ‘all you’ve got to do is put your foot hard down to the floor, we can call on people I know in Newcastle or maybe in Glasgow’. See also Billy Bragg’s A13 (Trunk Road To The Sea).

Driving Away From Home (Wicked Weather For Walking)

It’s Wrong To Wish On Space Hardware

Billy Bragg’s A New England, thirty years old right now, is one of the great lyrics of the latter part of the Twentieth Century. I know, a ridiculous claim, but there you go. The first verse has that almost nonsensical opening couplet about being 21 when he wrote the song but 22 now and the girls he knew at school who have already outpaced him age-wise and growing up-wise followed by the one half-rhyming pedestal and the pill. After the chorus ‘I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, just looking for another girl’- there’s the brilliant verse combining the Cold War space race, shooting stars, wishing and unrequited love which is pure post-punk poetry…

I saw two shooting stars last night
I wished on them but they were only satellites
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware
I wish, I wish, I wish you’d care

The sparseness of Billy’s rapidly strummed electric guitar adds to the early 80s lonesomeness. It may not be his best song but I don’t think he’s ever written a better lyric. He may have matched it but he’s not bettered it.

Kirsty MacColl’s cover version, below, is different- not better, not worse, different. Fuller, with a biggish pop production by husband Steve Lillywhite and two additional verses written for her by Billy. Number 7 in the pop charts in 1984.

A New England

There Will Be A Reckoning

Billy Bragg’s album of this year (Tooth And Nail) has some good songs on it- this is one of them- and has some of the political bite and ire of his former work.

There Will Be A Reckoning

There’s something about the album as a whole that doesn’t quite work for me- a bit too one paced, a bit too samey. Maybe that’s just down to me and a lack of concentration over full albums nowadays, especially ones that don’t have too much sonic variety. But then not every lp can or should have dub, krautrock and free jazz spilling into it’s grooves can it?

Every Time I Switched On The Radio There Was Somebody Else Singing A Song About The Two Of Us

I think Billy Bragg has noted this himself and most Bragg fans too but his back catalogue contains more love songs than political songs, but still he is labelled as a political artist. This song, Walk Away Renee from the mid 80s, is one of his best loved love songs- originally by 60s group The Left Banke, Bragg cajoled tour mate Johnny Marr into playing the guitar and then wrote new lyrics for it, and performed them spoken word style. And what a set of lyrics they are, skewering the rush of  young love and the turmoil of break up.

‘She said it was just a figment of speech
And I said ‘No, you mean figure’
And she said ‘No, figment’
Because she could never imagine it happening
But it did’

Then we get Billy playing the shy boy, which works in terms of getting her attention, but when she speaks to him the first time he gets a nosebleed and ‘she guessed the rest’. The pair go out, get the ferry and when no one collects their fares Billy knows this will be something special- a free ride signifying the blossoming of love and then the radio keeps playing songs about him and her. Like it does. He compares the start of a love affair to a fairground ride, scary and a rush and wanting it to never stop- which is a cliche, and we know it’s a cliche and Billy knows it as well. One of those cliches people falling in love use. Meanwhile Johnny picks away gently and unobtrusively.

Of course it goes wrong as these often things do- she starts seeing someone else. He sees her in the car park with Mr Potato Head (pre-Toy Story this). Car parks -ordinary, prosaic places where nothing happens and where things go wrong in people’s lives. Potato Head puts his coat around her shoulders. Later that night Billy can’t get them out of his head…

‘…I thought about the two of them together
Until the bathwater went cold around me
I thought about her eyes and the curve of her breasts
And about the point where their bodies meet.’

Torment in a rented flat. Head going round and round. Stupid Mr Potato Head and his coat, and them… at it. Sometime later he confronts her- it doesn’t go well, and Billy chucks in another great one liner about being the most ‘illegible batchelor in town’ and she laughs at him and we laugh with him. And then suddenly, as the loss of love builds and jealousy and heartbreak are about to consume him, everything changes, love and infatuation die; Billy plays his trump card lyrically, and the fire burning in him is doused by a massive bucket of cold water…

‘And then one day it happened
She cut her hair and I stopped loving her’

Truly top stuff. I heard it again recently out of nowhere and it was as good as the first time even though I knew what was coming.

Walk Away Renee

Mother Russia

To Pussy Riot from Billy Bragg

!No Pasaran!

I started May by wittering on about a Spanish Civil War themed mix tape and which songs might go onto it. Thanks to everyone who made suggestions about other songs- Drew, Davy H, Helen and Suggestedformaturereaders. Thus, I can start June with a better, more expansive Spanish Civil War mixtape.

Durutti Column- Sketch For Summer
Manic Street Preachers- If You Tolerate This Then Your Children Will Be Next
The Clash- Spanish Bombs
The Pogues- Lorca’s Noveno
Billy Bragg- Jarama Valley (available here from The International Brigades website)
Leonard Cohen- Take This Waltz (based on Lorca’s words)
O’Luge and Kornertrone Allstars- Spanish Bombs (cover of The Clash song)
Christy Moore- Viva La Quinta Brigada
The Stone Roses- Guernica
Maxine Peake and Urban Roots- speech by Dolores Ibarruri (aka La Pasionaria, from the Billy Bragg cd linked above)

Can we make a case for Jonathan Richman’s Pablo Picasso on the grounds that Picasso painted Guernica? Reckon so.

Viva La Quinta Brigada

The photo of the militiawoman in heels with a pistol was taken by Gerda Taro, Robert Capo’s partner. Between them they covered the war and helped invent photo journalism. Gerda was killed during the war, run over by a tank accidentally. Stunning picture isn’t?