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

9 May 2006

[Continued from Part I]

Part of Bragg’s sonic greatness on his earliest solo songs was the sharp, jagged, electric guitar played totally solo. It was both punk and post-punk simultaneously. One could say that BILLY BRAGG ’s sound was but his gimmick, his shtick, but it got something across that neither THE CLASH nor BOB DYLAN were getting across by the early 1980s, when Bragg emerged: the lonely, solo, punk, whose songs were about girls and politics from a socialist perspective. On one level, it was more modest than The Clash or such politico-anarchist bands as CRASS.

Here was an emotionally naked, yet very articulate, lonely guy, in the wake of the late ‘70s economic depression and MARGARET THATCHER’s clampdown, trying to be a socialist; at the same time, though, he was not even able or willing to hold a band together (the ill-fated RIFF RAFF), let alone to have a satisfying relationship with a girl.

Bragg implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) caused his listeners to ponder the consistency of their personal life and their public life as profoundly as Dylan had done 20 years earlier. But, unlike Dylan, Bragg didn’t rely on the theatre of changing phases and reinventions of self that Dylan played out from album to album. With Bragg, we got the private and the public songs side by side on the same album – with no narrative to tell us which type embodies a more mature stance. In short, we got mixed-up confusion, and we loved it. But we also got a resolve—“Just because you’re better than me, doesn’t mean I’m lazy/ Just because you’re going forward doesn’t mean I’m going backwards”—which warped the space between Dylan and JOE STRUMMER/MICK JONES.

Lyrically, such songs as “To Have And Have Not,” spoke to my post-baby-boomer friends and me in similar ways to the more apolitical lyrics of PAUL WESTERBERG, who had started around the same time. When Westerberg sang, “I suppose your guess is, more or less, as bad as mine,” (from “Nevermind,” which no doubt served somewhat as the inspiration for the title of the NIRVANA LP), we saw it as an insidiously brilliant, and even sublime, way of convincing oneself that, yes, despite the long institutional shadow cast by the baby-boomers which had stifled our generation’s voice in the mass media, there was, indeed, a way of our own.

The baby-boomers might have seen such songs as unduly pessimistic, but they missed the point—after all, the classic clichés of the “Love Generation” had been revealed to be empty words, and these one-liners by Bragg and Westerberg were as much of a call to action as the beautiful song “Ace” by THE DESCENDENTS. These songs were a soundtrack for the protracted adolescence that had been forced upon us in many ways, and though it was youth culture, it tried to learn from the mistakes of the previous generation, or even of the first generation of punk at its worst, by not elevating youth to an ethical ideal.

Musically, too, early Bragg told us we could even sound kind of bad, yet still be able to get the song across with presence and conviction. You could even flaunt it. Perhaps “folk-punk” was a fitting characterization of this music (though that term was also used to characterize VIOLENT FEMMES; more on them in a future column), but whatever you wish to call it, Bragg’s early attitude toward performing and songwriting is as much the founding spirit of the ‘80s underground/DIY/‘zine/college radio ethos as is the well-produced sonic textures of MORRISSEY. But it’s a side that is nearly unrepresented in contemporary
college radio/alternative/indie scenes.

Today, low-fidelity (I am talking about sound, not about an ethical stance toward monogamy—though there’s some overlap here) is, for the most part, as much as a no-no in the indie scene as it is in ostensibly more commercial scenes, at least for males. CAT POWER, JOLIE HOLLAND and JOANNA NEWSOM may have come out of the gates with a more low-fi sound, but each is considered to be a virtuoso vocalist (or, in Newsom’s case, harpist) in a way that Billy Bragg, or even Dylan, were not, and each has increased production values on successive albums. (Rumor has it that Newsom is now working with VAN DYKE PARKS!)

The idea of cheap production and cheap entertainment, as in THE MINUTMEN’s ‘econo’ philosophy, which was so central to 1980s alternative culture, has largely gone the way of the small car, and with it, we’ve lost a certain aesthetic beauty of jagged edges (and not just the virtuoso jagged edges of GANG OF FOUR, but the ‘sloppy’ ones of The Minutemen, for instance). Instead we are surrounded by S.U.V.s,, whose owners almost always prefer “She’s Leaving Home” to “This Ain’t No Picnic.”

Now, I have nothing against beautiful sounds and sonically textured records. I can appreciate integration of song and sound in, say, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” or the new album by KELLEY STOLTZ as much as anyone else, but to elevate this side of the musical spectrum to an almost ethical mandate (first draft: “Any aspiring musician should go into debt to get PHIL SPECTOR or DANIEL LANOIS, or even JOHN VANDERSLICE, if one wants any hope of getting played on even college radio—unless you happen to be someone who can help get the DJ laid…”) has resulted in a deadening sonic sameness, or at the very least, an unbalanced meal—not that I don’t love my indie pop tarts, but sometimes I have to eat my greens, sing them blues, or at least, as Billy Bragg does, talk to the taxman about poetry.


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