In which I continue my account of the Billy Bragg Volume 1 box set…
And then there is The Internationale, from 1990, a mini-album padded out with some bonus features and material from another e.p.. This is the first record where additional musicians are much in evidence, and Bragg's trademark electric guitar sound is not so present, if it shows up at all. The record is pretty much all political stuff, and mostly covers. It is a bit of a mixed bag, with the Bragg composition 'The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions' being both lame and simplistically didactic even beyond what you normally expect from Bragg. Of the covers, one is equally tiresome, this being 'Nicaragua Nicaraguita', sung acapella by Bragg, probably a bad move, given his voice. It also suffers from being a song about Socialist Nicaragua released after the Sandinistas were voted out of office there; it makes me feel like shouting "GET OVER IT! YOU LOST THAT ONE!" whenever I hear it.
'Jerusalem', though, is great, with Bragg's proletarian tones working with his claims that Blake's poem is radical and something to be reclaimed from the Tory bastards by everyone who dreams of a better England. 'The Red Flag' is a bag of fun too, sung to a Jacobite air rather than the more usual 'Tannenbaum'; Bragg claims his spritelier tune is actually the original.
The album's opener is 'The Internationale', the famous socialist song that people from all over the world would once sing as they dreamed of a better tomorrow. Bragg claims here that the song's lyrics were originally badly translated into English, so he writes new ones instead. I gather some have felt that in the process he turned a once insurrectionary song into something that even sell-out Labourite Social Democrats could happily sing, though my parents always find it disturbing to listen to.
The most striking track, though, is perhaps the closer of the original record: a song by Eric Bogle called 'My Youngest Son Came Home Today'. Bogle wrote well-known anti-war song 'The Green Fields of France'. This song suggests that Bogle is hostile to all war, including the struggle for Irish freedom, as it is sung in the voice of the father whose IRA activist son has just come home from the mortuary; the father is somewhat unimpressed with suggestions that the son's death is part of a great heroic enterprise.
In terms of how did I come to be aware of Billy Bragg – I think it must have been through seeing him sing 'Between The Wars' on Top of the Pops. I have been fond of him ever since, and already had many of these records on vinyl. I have also seen Bragg live, with almost twenty year gaps between each show; given how incendiary he is live it amazes me that I have not troubled to see him more.
The previous paragraph relates to something I have been doing experimentally in Frank's APA: writing about how I became aware of particular pieces of music. This is partly driven by my not reading much in the way of music journalism these days, so I am curious as to where I am picking up information on new sounds. Billy Bragg is of course not a new sound.
And that's it for Billy Bragg for the moment, until such time as I get round to watching the DVD in which Bragg plays concerts in countries that abandoned socialism shortly after his visit.