Sunday, 14 April 2013

Between the Wars

Between the Wars - Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg is sometimes so much of a poster boy for the lovable left that I think his actual songwriting is rather undervalued.

There's no point in my talking about the voice - there it is, you either hate it or kind of love it. It is what it is, so forcefully English it's as utterly mannered as anything else - though, in recent years Bragg has begun singing with a slightly absurd transatlantic accent, what with the Woody Guthrie albums and the move into more American sounds.

But how about the songs?  Well, rather splendidly, his most famous line defines exactly where he stands as a songwriter - "I'm not looking for a New England, I'm just looking for another girl" - that desire not be pigeonholed as a political writer, that feeling that actually he's a writer of love songs, and with a line like this actually being both. Wonderful.

And so it is that 'Between the Wars' is definitely a political song but it's also so pretty a song that it brings a lump to the throat. The Guardian put it Number 1 in its Thatcher playlist this week, and I think that was a wonderful choice - it doesn't mention Thatcher, nor is it per se an angry, bitter song of hope and comradeship. It is actually what leftism should be, not the unpleasant tit-for-tat meanness occasionally seen this week that can really make you think there's no difference, no hope, it's just a matter of different ways to be an arsehole.

But that's not what Billy Bragg thinks - cos his is a faith in his fellow man. On 'Upfield' from his 1997 album William Bloke, he calls it "a socialism of the heart" - yes, I know, it's cheesy, it's sentimentalism as politics, entirely unrealistic, but few people make fairness, hard work and being nice to each other being the key to everything in the world as realistic as Billy Bragg.

There's another song on 'William Bloke' which is even better, called 'Brickbat', which shows how conscious he is the dichotomy within his songwriting persona - a wondrous lovesong called 'Brickbat' whose key line is "I used to want a plant bombs at the last night of the proms, but now you'll find me with the baby in the bathroom with that big shell listening for the sound of the sea".

"La bombe seule est juste" - i always remember that line - for the last century or more where some people have believed that planting bombs in the name of what they believe are just causes will help their cause - and though plenty of those causes may well have been just, no one ever looks back at those bombs as helpful, do they? And the warmth and humanity of that simple fact is what Bragg's brand of revolutionary politics is all about.

This version of 'Between the Wars' is from 'Top of the Pops' in 1985, so fabulously anachronistic - god know what my 7 year olf self would have thought of this tuning into watch god knows what - Jennifer Rush? Madonna? Wham? One other thing about it is how underused Billy Bragg's one-man-and-an-electric-guitar shtick is - I often think it's a great sound - Jeff Buckley did it a lot too, but you really don't hear it much. There's something immediately edgy about it.

Anyway, I first heard 'Between the Wars' in 2001, I think, and it's one of the clearest, warmest, most romantic songs of the left I've ever heard. There are times in my life when anyone being anything but a leftie baffles me, and I think it's a songs like this that made me that way - the simple juxtapositions between good/bad, left/right, helping hand/iron fist, green field and the factory floor/skies all dark with bombers. And then, the pay-off - "Sweet moderation, heart of this nation, desert us not, we are between the wars". Moderation, eh? Such a particular word to use - there are so many others he could have used rhyming with "ation" which could have been more obvious, but moderation, well, I'm all for that.