5. “There Is Power in a Union” (Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, 1986)
“There Is Power in a Union” is technically a Joe Hill song, written in 1913 for the Wobblies to the tune of “The Battle Cry Of Freedom”, but there are some songs that other artists just come to own. The Pogues did it with “Dirty Old Town”, Hendrix did it with “All Along the Watchtower”, and Billy Bragg did it with “There Is Power in a Union”. Bragg has always been not just a political songwriter but also an activist willing to walk the walk. Before forming the pro-Labour Red Wedge movement, Bragg cut his teeth playing benefit shows for the Welsh miners’ strike in 1984. During that time he became steeped in traditional union songs including “Which Side Are You On?” and “The World Turned Upside Down” which he covered on the Between the Wars EP.
This immersion bore fruit with his 1986 re-write of “There Is Power” released on Talking with the Taxman About Poetry. With its strident guitar riff and compassionate but unyielding lyrics his version quickly became a modern classic. For evidence of the song’s power look no further than recent union battles in Ohio and Wisconsin where the song was nearly ubiquitous, covered by everyone from John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats to the protesters and activists themselves. Written as a rallying cry for those seeking to give a voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless, Bragg’s song has only become more timely and essential as the years have rolled on.
4. “To Have and Have Not” (Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy, 1983)
Speaking of songs that have only become more relevant since the ’80s, Bragg’s indict of the disposability and powerlessness of the working class in the modern economy, “To Have and Have Not”, could have practically been an Occupy anthem. As industrial work has disappeared in the UK and America, gone too are the kinds of middle-class jobs that used to provide a good living to those with high school education. Bragg perfectly captures the sense of hopelessness and abandonment this creates among those who struggling just to get by. It’s a brutally systematic critique as he complains that “in ‘the land of the free’, there’s only a future for the chosen few” and even “all they taught you at school was how to be a good worker / The system has failed you, don’t fail yourself.”
Built around four jerky chords, the album version is a bit thin compared to the raucous live showstopper it’s since become (the version on the Help Save the Youth of America [EP] is my personal favorite). Unsurprisingly, it’s is also a perennial cover choice for young punks from Lars Fredericksen of Rancid to Titus Andronicus. What makes “To Have and Have Not” so affecting is Bragg’s ability to make you feel just how deep and personal the pain caused by unemployment and poverty can be. Sometimes, all you can do is offer a sympathetic ear and angry guitar.
3. “Greetings to the New Brunette” (Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, 1986)
For the first few years of his career, Bragg was something of a sonic purist with all his songs built around electric guitar and featuring, at most, one additional instrument. Therefore the lead track off Talking with the Taxman About Poetry with its chiming acoustic guitars, a mournful slide, and female backing vocals (again via Kirsty MacColl) was a bold declaration of a new direction. Channeling Ray Davies and Paul Weller, “Greetings to the New Brunette” is one of Bragg’s finest character sketches and was also (unsurprisingly) replete with social commentary. He writes the song from the perspective of a young ne’er-do-well whose in love with Shirley, a woman who challenges him at every turn.
The man wants nothing more out of life than a football game and a few pints of bitters and is frustrated by Shirley’s challenging sexual politics and domestic ambitions. “Here we are in our summer years / Living on ice cream and chocolate kisses”, he sings, setting up that question that lies at the heart of the song, “But would the leaves fall from the trees / If I were your old man and you were my missus?” He is asking the question as much to himself as to her. His answer is a vague request that could be a loving joke or a sardonic kiss-off. “Greetings to the New Brunette” is Bragg at his best: simultaneously honest, angry, and timorous, writing songs with as much emotional depth as the best of the Smiths or the Replacements.
2. “Tank Park Salute” (Don’t Try This at Home, 1991)
If there’s one subject that hard to tackle with pop music, it’s death. In punk, it’s generally approached with testosterone-fueled martial imagery, while softer pop often crosses the line between sentimental and maudlin. With its inscrutable title clear-eyed emotionalism, “Tank Park Salute”, Bragg’s clear-eyed but emotional tribute to his father, joins the ranks as one of the most relevant poets. Poet Wisława Szymborska once wrote that “the most pressing questions are the naïve ones”, and Bragg proves this as confronts the transient nature of his existence.
“Daddy, is it true we all have to die?” Bragg asks with the pleading innocence of a child. Later he muses “You were so tall / How could you fall?” in a voice that suggests an appreciation of the man gained in maturity. The tinkling piano, light guitar, and understated strings combine to form a gossamer musical bed that cradles Bragg’s words as if they were a broken heart. At its root, great art seeks simply to ask the question, “What does it all mean?” “Tank Park Salute” is one of the finest attempts to answer that query that pop music has to offer.
1. “A New England” – (Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy, 1983)
The finest early Billy Bragg song is, of course, the one for which he will probably be best known for time immemorial. Marrying heartbreak, romantic hopefulness, and chugging, Chuck Berry-guitar, “A New England” was the song that put Bragg on the map, and it remains one of the best of the 1980s. Written while he was still in Riff Raff and before joining the army, it is Bragg distilled into his most basic elements. Purportedly sung by a frustrated young man who “doesn’t want to change the world” and is “just looking for another girl”, everything else about the song indicates that Bragg is looking for true love and a better world.
As always, Bragg feels left out as he sees his peers rushing into their early 20s with kids as he searches for someone. He’s a man seeking romance in an unwelcoming world. When he goes looking for shooting stars, all he’s given are satellites, leaving him to wonder “is it wrong to wish on space hardware?” It’s a song at once sad and hopeful, despite its own best efforts. Although it was his best-known song when it was released, it really took off nationally in the UK in 1985 when Kirsty MacColl’s poppier take reached number seven in the charts. In later years Bragg has turned the song into a singalong closer for his live shows and, in memory of MacColl, he always adds her extra verse. As long as there are still heartbroken dreamers pouring out of bars, I’m sure that the song will have no problem finding itself at home.
+ + +
This article was originally published on 8 May 2013.