Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

Tank Park Salute

Probably like many, my favourite Billy Bragg albums would be those from what I call his middle period – 1986’s Talking With The Taxman About Poetry, 1988’s Worker’s Playtime and 1991’s Don’t Try This At Home. On these, he moved away from the “one-man Clash” punk folker approach that defined his earliest works and went for a more produced produced sound with fuller band arrangements. This sonic evolution perfectly complimented his lyrical growth on these records, as he began concentrating on more personal matters in his songwriting, dealing with the politics of relationships as well as government – surely a far more delicate and dangerous terrain.

I had Taxman and Playtime on a single compilation CD, Victim Of Geography and so in my mind they’re less two separate albums than one double-length masterpiece. So when the powers that be decided to split the two albums apart and put the former in the Volume One box set and the latter in the just-released Volume Two, inserting the 1990 protest mini-album The Internationale in the first box instead of taking things in the proper chronological order, well it went against my much more logically-ordered Billy Bragg cosmos. I certainly understand the logic – if they’d included Playtime in the first box it would have been an embarrassment of riches but would have left the second box with Don’t Try This At Home as the only must-have record in the set and almost certainly not worth the price of admission. The way they divvied it up, both sets have loads of crucial material.

After Don’t Try This At Home, Bragg took a half-decade off to be a dad and sadly, hasn’t managed to get his pen back into game shape since. Neither 1996’s William Bloke or 2002’s England, Half English were especially inspiring or inspired and while the Mermaid Avenue records with Wilco were certainly artistic triumphs, they were Woody Guthrie’s songs – not Bragg’s. This isn’t to say that I don’t expect him to never put out a great album again – I’m just saying that it’s been some 15 years since he’s seemed to be in that zone. Which is a while.

But Bragg has been busy in 2006, touring heavily in support of the box sets as well as releasing his first book – The Progressive Patriot. I’ve got a copy and am only a little ways in but so far, it’s a reasonably interesting if a bit meandering memoir and rumination on Englishness, nationalism and multiculturalism in today’s England. I’m currently getting a crash course in the history of the English monarchy. It helps if I read it aloud in a Cockney accent.

But check this out – courtesy of Outside Music, I have one copy of Billy Bragg’s Volume Two box set to give away. This has the four double-disc reissues plus live concert DVD circa 1991 and big fat booklet. To enter, leave a comment telling me your favourite Billy Bragg track – any era – and why. The contest will close at midnight, November 21 so that gives you a week. Hop to it.

Bragg talks to The Evening Standard about some of the topics covered in his book and takes a look back at his now-boxed career for Scotland On Sunday.

Got some media for you – the first few are Volume One-era MP3s provided by Yep Roc. Of the others, one is a live version of a track from Worker’s Playtime, another is the album version that is available as a free download from Billy’s website (but I’m saving you the trouble of going through the whole absurd e-commerce transaction to get it) and the last is a rather ill-advised remix of a song off England, Half English, also available free from the website. Billy Bragg + dance beats = no no no. Plus some of Bragg’s Volume Two-era videos.

CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED – thanks so much to everyone who entered, but congratulations to Nick who was selected as winner.

MP3: Billy Bragg – “It Says Here”
MP3: Billy Bragg – “Greetings To The New Brunette”
MP3: Billy Bragg – “Help Save The Youth Of America” (live)
MP3: Billy Bragg – “Must I Paint You A Picture?”
MP3: Billy Bragg – “Valentine’s Day Is Over” (live)
MP3: Billy Bragg – “Take Down The Union Jack”
Video: Billy Bragg – “Waiting For The Great Leap Forward” (YouTube)
Video: Billy Bragg – “Sexuality” (YouTube)
Video: Billy Bragg – “You Woke Up My Neighbourhood” (YouTube)
Video: Billy Bragg – “The Boy Done Good” (YouTube)
MySpace: Billy Bragg

np – The Acorn / Tin Fist

By : Frank Yang at 8:57 am
Category: Uncategorized
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  1. craig mailman says:

    You Woke Up My Neighbourhood reminds me of coming to Toronto and living here for the first time.

  2. stephen says:

    What did you think of Jetplanes last night, Frank?

  3. Michael says:

    While my favourite album is Workers Playtime, there is absolutely no competition when it comes to best track – Levi Stubbs’ Tears. With its heartbreak lyrics and his best sparse guitar work, it never fails to move me even after all these years. And it perfectly sums up the experience of living in the UK at the time – not very optimistic at all. There was nothing quite like the Thatcher Years to disillusion a generation…
    I’ve seen Billy three times now – once for Talking To The Taxman, once for Don’t Try This At Home (where Robyn Hitchcock was the support band…) and once a couple of years ago and can highly recommend the experience because he makes it so memorable thanks to his between song banter.

  4. sean says:

    For me it has got to be Ontario, Quebec and Me (live). The studio version comes with a disappointing falsetto-ish vocal. But on the official Billy Bragg and the Red Stars Live Bootleg the vocal is straight and the song is perfect.

    That song was used as the first dance at my wedding. Saw him perform it at an HMV instore appearance in Toronto in 2002. Told him that i’d used it and he said he appreciated that I had shared that.

    Had seen him live 5 times and the only time he’d performed that song was the one time my wife wasn’t with me. So, this past September, we saw him again at a small club in Montreal and he played it, the first time we’d heard it.

    And instead of soaking in the moment I spent half the song recording a video thinking awesome! he’s playing the song! before realizing that a) the video would never turn out well enough to be worth watching again b) he’s doing "our" song and I should probably think more about that than videoing it.

  5. Jack says:

    I’m going to go in a slightly different direction, partly because of Frank’s dismissal of 1996’s William Bloke CD – which I think is a very strong album, and well worth revisiting. Although the best song on the album is "Upfield", with it’s Northern Soul stylings and Socialist refrains, I also rather fond of Billy’s reworking of Rudyard Kipling’s "A Pict Song". I think it’s one of the few songs on the album which revisit his old solo electric guitar/vox style, and under Mike Harris’ scumbag government Billy’s visceral rendering of Kipling’s appreciation of the power of the oppressed masses really meant something to me.

  6. Zen says:

    I saw the man a dozen times in the 80s at various demos and festivals. Though I admire his political stand, the track that stands out is "A13" – a real crowd-pleaser, rocking, clever & funny. Respect.

  7. John says:

    I always go back to "This Guitar Says Sorry" from Brewing Up With Billy Bragg. I first heard it after taking a flyer on buying the two-album (yes, as in vinyl) Back to Basic set. The raw energy of its Bo Diddley beat was infectious, and the first time I picked up an electric guitar and even remotely knew what I was doing, I taught myself the song in a heartbeat. Thank God my weak attempt at his accent never left the bedroom. That, coupled with the Britishisms that took me years to parse, have made it my favorite despite the fact that dozens of great songs came after.

  8. Chris says:

    For me, it has to be "St. Swithin’s Day" from Brewing Up… Surely one of the best break-up songs I’ve ever heard. The reference to "making love to a memory" while using his "own hands" gets me everytime. Masturbatory jokes aside, it’s quite a tender moment. The lyric is just so unabashedly direct and unarguably human.

  9. chris says:

    Tough one, my friend. I can pick many "favorites", but I’ll go in a different direction and pick the one song with the most emotional heft.

    Like many of Bragg’s decidedly British references, I never understand what "Tank Park Salute" meant….but I certainly understood the lyrics.

    With the transition from child ("Daddy is it true we all have to die") to adult ("A little boy’s lifetime away"), this is the one song that almost makes me cry every time; I challenge anyone to listen to it and not think of their father, living or dead.


  10. chris says:

    i saw a kid in the playground when I was in 8th grade with a BB t-shirt. This must have been right around life’s a riot with spy v. spy. I sought out what I could at the time (really pre-internet music find was a total crapshoot), and on my next visit to T.O. went to a defunct record shop on College across from Maple Leaf Gardens and bought Talking… around that time I went to high school and Billy came to play the masonic temple on yonge. I figured out somewhere to stay that night and waited 8 hours outside the venue to get in. Michelle Shocked opened the show and Billy came on at the end to do a couple of tunes with her. He played a banger of a set – this was the era of the "Lick Bush" sticker on his guitar – and after invited people to come up and chat with him.

    I was also trying to learn guitar at the time, and was getting through most of the album but was having a tough time with some progressions on Levi Stubb’s Tears (esp. the loud bit in the middle) so I asked him what they were. He told me, and although I couldn’t understand some of the chords I was able to squawk my way through it at a talent night a few months later. to a round of boos. so for me LST is the quintessential billy song.

  11. Matt Berlyant says:

    Although I’m tempted to pick "It Says Here" or another of Bragg’s more politically-themed songs due to their relevance in these times, I have to choose "Must I Paint You a Picture". Other than being a jaw-droppingly heartwrenching love song, it reminds me of seeing him play at Irving Plaza in New York in the fall of 2000 and how the song stood out. I’ve always thought that Bragg is much better on his own as opposed to with a band (especially live, though I always go back to his first few records when I wanna hear him) and when he played this song with just him and his guitar (and some organ from Ian McLagan), it confirmed that feeling.

  12. mike says:

    My favourite Billy Bragg track has always been "Waiting For The Great Leap Forward", with it’s line ‘The Revolution is only a t-shirt away!’. But musically, the way the song builds until that chorus of vocals at the end continuously repeats the refrain "Waiting For The Great Leap Forward" is so deliriously uplifting.

  13. Chris says:

    disagree with your view, which is not unique, about William Bloke – I think it’s def. his most slept-on album and the one that i find gets better the more I revisit it – I think songs like 14th of Feb, Upfield, Brickbat and Space Race rank with his best, plus Goalhanger and Sugardaddy were good fun.

  14. Nick says:

    Great post! To just pick one favorite song from one of my favorite songwriters, one of the few artists who are able to switch so effortlessly between the political and the personal…*sigh*

    Okay, it’s gotta be "Greetings To The New Brunette." The song came out at a period in my life where I was experiencing for the first time the joys and pains of adulthood, love, and death. I played the album non-stop during this time, and the song never failed to bring a smile to my face (although conversely, "Levi Stubb’s Tears" never failed/fails to bring tears to my eyes- I truly believe it to be the saddest, most poignant song ever written). In my opinion, the lyric "I’m celebrating my love for you/with a pint of beer and a new tattoo" accurately describes how it feels to be in love better than just about anyone else has ever done (not that I’ve ever had someone’s name tattooed on me). It’s joyous yet resigned.

    And the video ain’t bad either…

    (Honorable mention goes to "Life With The Lions" for one of the best opening lines ever written: "I hate the arsehole I become/every time I’m with you…")

  15. Andy says:

    I used to love The Saturday Boy from "Brewing Up…" because schoolboy sexual frustration was something I could really relate to even if I was twenty when the album came out – those scars ran deep. Billy was great for me politically but it’s all those songs that aren’t political that make hime special. St Swithins Day and Levi Stubbs Tears are two of my favourite songs ever. Oh and Life With The Lins because "arsehole" is just the best word to have in a lyric.

    (I ‘ve already got the box set, as well as lps, cds, cassettes and sheet music so this isn’t a competition entry just a chance to get all dewey eyed at my pathetic youth…)

  16. mark dessauer says:

    Thanks for bringing Billy back into the well deserved spotlight. My vote is for Tank Park Salute. I have no idea where the name came from (perhaps the act of defiance from Tieanmen Square of one person in front of the tank?) but the lyrics and melody struck me to the core. My father passed away around soon after Don’t Try This At Home came out and my emotional reaction to his death not not fully realized until I listened to Tank Park Salute on a rainy spring day in Cincinnati in 1992. I still hear the song and I am haunted.

  17. Arn says:

    Hey Frank: long-time reader, first-time writer. Interesting take on Bragg,
    although I’d have to dispute the sharp separation you draw between early and late Bragg. Much of the early stuff (my own faves, especially Brewing Up.) contains both amazing relationship insights and reflections as well as tub-thumping and fascist-killin’ guitar licks. Take for example, *my* all-time favourite track, "A New England": blends the dole, Thatcherism’s diminished expectations, and youthful anomie into a punchy reflection on life in a deindustrializing world: "I saw two shooting starts last night/I wished on
    them/But they were only satellites/It’s wrong to wish on space hardware/I wish, I wish I wish you’d ca-a-are." Need I say more?

  18. Frank says:

    Yeah, I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Bragg never tackled personal or relationship topics in his earlier songs – "A New England" and "St Swithin’s Day" being two of his absolutely finest compositions ever – but I was commenting more on how the balance of those began shifting more towards the personal with each album. Which makes sense – it’s far easier to rail against the government than write about your feelings. I personally think Bragg is at his best when he combines head and heart

  19. crash calloway says:

    A friend gave me a tape of ‘life’s a riot’ in the summer of 1984 and I’ve never looked back. I agree that you shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss William Bloke, and I think that ‘Brickbat’ is one of my favourite songs – a real grown up love song mixing the transcendent and the every day. I first saw him live in summer ’85, and last at Easter this year, and both were wonderful. To be honest, though, I’d be perfectly happy to go back to that first day and choose ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’ as my favourite song – it’s witty, angry, heartfelt, everything a billy bragg song should be, and not bad at all for side one track one of a whole career.

  20. Nic says:

    Life with the lions.
    Difficult to be chosen, but…’love is not a game you play to win’.
    The man is a great performer; I saw him in Milan, playing in a Park with Cara Tivey for the local Communist Party Meeting, in 1990 or 1991, can’t remember; piano and guitar, and a unpredictable sense of humour.

  21. richard says:

    I could say "Richard" but that would be too easy. I love the way that he brought Leon Rosselson’s "World turned upside down" to a broader public, but I think I too will have to to go with Waiting for the Great Leap Forward – reminds me of why I have to continue in the stuggles that I’m in.

  22. Mark says:

    No votes yet for "Valentines Day is Over" yet? That’s the one for me. So many great lines: "For the girl with the hour glass figure Time runs out very fast" … "That brutality and economy are related now I understand" … "love between two people must be based on understanding Until that’s true you’ll find your things all stacked out on the landing"

  23. Dan says:

    I feel like all the best ones are "taken" but there are so many… as a nascent guitarist myself – Billy is hardly a technically great guitarist, which makes many of his songs easy to play! – I enjoy playing and singing "St. Swithin’s Day" (a song so beautiful and so sad), the clangy ringing chords of "There is Power in a Union" and, most of all, "A Lover Sings," which like many of his earlyish relationship songs has a wistful, clever edge undercutting the ultimately bitter facts of love gone wrong, or just gone. So, "A Lover Sings" it is.

    "… and your tights around your ankles – late at night a lover thinks of these things…"

    By the way: A Billy Bragg story. I brought my then just-turned-15 son to a press conference for the "Tell Us the Truth" tour show in New York in November 03; he was sitting there with me facing the performers answering questions, when Billy singled him out in his a Clash T-shirt as an example of something right (vis a vis political awareness) with America’s youth. Later on, milling around, Billy put his arm around him. And then during the show while one of the other acts was on, Billy saw me and said "You must be so proud."
    I still refer to this as the day my son officially became cooler than me.

  24. DW says:

    I’ve always loved "Sulk," which I think was a B-side only. The words pithily capture the petulance — on both sides — of a disintegrating relationship, and the music really evokes an affected nonchalance. Plus it’s just damn pretty.

  25. thomaus says:

    I’m surprised no one has claimed "Sexuality" for their fave. It’s a great song, and was one of his highest charting singles (I bought one of them). Plus, it combines politics and sex with clever wordplay.

    Why isn’t it anyone’s favourite? Is it because it’s too poppy? Or because Johnny Marr shared the song credit? Or is everyone too embarrassed to mention it on a family site?

    You really understand that there IS power in a union when Billy sings "I’ve had relations with girls from many nations…"

  26. Miche says:

    I have to go with the Short Answer. It seemed to capture perfectly and with that Bragg humor, the course of a relationship. The beginning/the infatuation/the slip up and eventual fight and the resignation. This is what i found Billy Bragg to be best at, a way with words about romance that began with Saturday Boy (one could argue these songs are essentially dealing with the same subject matter only at a different intervals of a mans life – the high school crush versus the college love) and culminated in this beautiful description of love and sadness. So my long answer to this contest is Billy Bragg’s The Short Answer.

  27. Naomi says:

    I would have to say "The busy girl buys beauty" – one of the catchiest songs ever written about the female obsession with artifice. Only a truly enlightened man could ever understand how a young girl learns "the truth about pain" from the pages of fashion magazines.

  28. Keith says:

    Because there is no pretence nor ego involved with Billy`s lyrics, Their appeal is universal and I`m sure I`m not the only one who`s favourite song has changed depending on what mood I`m in or what month/day/hour it is.
    Today for example, Must I Paint You A Picture is hovering near the top of my list, but I know there has been times when this one only manages a lowly top 5 spot :O)
    Also, having always skipped "Cindy of a thousand lives" whenever it came on, after taking the time to find out who Cindy is, the song has became a top 10 favourite as I now "get it".

    dont blame the school, blame the milk snatcher