Billy Bragg – Back to Basics

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

Where to start? I worship Billy Bragg, an exceptional songwriter and admirable activist. He basically writes two kinds of songs – love songs and protest songs – and does so with aplomb. His lyrics are witty, insightful, humane, and heartfelt, and his melodies are second-to-none. His chunky, ragged guitar playing is passionate and inspired, and his thick Essex accent is absurdly charming. I first came across Bragg through my friend Duke, who loaned me – many, many times, until I finally bought my own copy – Back to Basics freshman year of college. I was immediately captivated and became a devout fan. I admit that Bragg’s more recent work does not do much for me, but his early string of albums is as gem-filled as a British dowager’s heirloom necklace.

What I Think of This Album

This is a record company compilation of Bragg’s first three official solo releases:  (mini) album Life’s a Riot With Spy v. Spy; album Brewing Up With Billy Bragg; and EP Between the Wars. Those first two albums can be found more easily now, having been re-released, but back when this comp was issued in 1987, they were difficult to track down. Whatever the impetus, this is a fantastic collection that speeds through 21 tracks in about an hour; this early material is really Bragg at his best, when he discovered the inflection point between folk and punk and sat there and demanded to be noticed.

Appropriately enough, things kick off with the seven songs that comprised Life’s a Riot (though they are slightly resequenced, probably to better effect), which is basically just Bragg singing over his own often-loud guitar playing. Right off the bat, Bragg unexpectedly offers up a hand of friendship on the vulnerable “The Milkman of Human Kindness,” before transitioning to a sensitive but sharp critique of the British school system and capitalist structures – Bragg, as it turns out, was effectively shut out from higher educational opportunities due to his performance on an entrance exam – on “To Have and Have Not” (“All they taught you at school / Was how to be a good worker / The system has failed you / Don’t fail yourself”). A leftover from his earlier band Riff Raff, “Richard” is a black-and-blue romance (“You helped me build this bed / But you won’t help me sleep in it / When I fall between you and the wall / Our titanic love affair sails on the morning tide”). Jay Bennett, who helped (future Bragg collaborators) Wilco make its great leap forward, was previously in a band called Titanic Love Affair, named after this lyric.

The song “Lovers Town Revisited” (yes, he has an original “Lovers Town”) tells a story, in under two minutes, of a disillusioned, shy, and quiet loner looking for love. Next is the song that should have made his career (the first time):  “A New England.” Quoting Paul Simon (from “Leaves Are Green”) and wistfully cutting ties with the erstwhile object of his affection (“I loved you then as I love you still / Though I put you on a pedestal, they put you on the pill / I don’t feel bad about letting you go / I just feel sad about letting you know”), Bragg crafts a catchy, realistic tale of surviving unrequited love. Kirsty MacColl had her biggest hit with this song; Bragg wrote two extra verses for her version (she consolidated them into one). The final song from Life’s a Riot is “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty,” a feminist takedown of beauty/gossip magazines. So over the course of the first seven tracks, Bragg firmly establishes himself as a vital, smart, caring, and tenacious artist.

The remainder of the album – mostly the eleven tracks from Brewing Up – only reinforces this notion and demonstrates even further growth and nuance. Witness the polemic against the right-wing press of “It Says Here;” the bleakly comic anti-war and anti-capitalist song “Island of No Return” (“I never thought that I would be / Fighting fascists in the Southern Seas / I saw one today and in his hand / Was a weapon that was made in Birmingham”); and the allegorical love-as-battle masterpiece “Like Soldiers Do” (“No one can win this war of the senses / I see no reason to drop my defenses / So stand fast my emotions / Rally round my shaking heart”). Bragg apes Chuck Berry on “From a Vauxhall Velox” (“Some people say love is blind / But I think that’s just a bit shortsighted”) while also borrowing the song title from Dylan, pulls some Eddie Cochran moves on “Love Gets Dangerous,” and channels Bo Diddley on “This Guitar Says Sorry.”

Also excellent are “Strange Things Happen” and “A Lover Sings,” the latter with a soulful organ part and a surprising lyric about “your tights around your ankles,” but the true highlight is the deeply affecting lovelorn tween – sensitive enough to quote the Delfonics’ “La La Means I Love You” – of “The Saturday Boy” (“She danced with me and I still hold that memory soft and sweet / And I stare up at her window as I walk down her street / But I never made the first team, I just made the first team laugh / And she never came to the phone, she was always in the bath”); the trumpet part on this is exquisite.

The final three songs are all political in nature, inspired by the UK miners strike of 1984-85, and all will make you pull on your Doc Martens and start researching “how make molotov cocktail” on the internet. You will definitely need a lyric sheet, as Bragg’s accent is as thick as a milkshake-airbound-for-a-fascist and he tends to pack a lot of syllables into a short space. I will love this album until the day I die.

The Best Thing About This Album

I could just say “The Saturday Boy,” which will rip your heart out, but the fact is that the best thing about this album is Bragg’s lyrics. He is masterful.

Release Date

May, 1983 (Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy); November, 1984 (Brewing Up With Billy Bragg); February, 1985 (Between the Wars); July, 1987 (Compilation)

The Cover Art

I can’t be objective. I love this album so much. I like the use of the blocks – they are a clever play on the title – and I like the cover art of the original releases on the top row of blocks.

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