Thursday, January 26, 2012

Six Song Six-Pack - Billy Bragg's Best One-Liners

Billy Bragg's songs inhabit a world of their own. Sure it's not too different from the actual world that he wrote them in (by and large, Thatcherite England) only it's somehow sharper. Everything's more packed with meaning and purpose (be it good or bad). Oh, and everyone's a lot wittier. 

Given that he started out playing pubs with just his voice and a guitar, it's not surprising that Bragg is a wordsmith of the highest order. Whether shouting blunt political barbs, making wounded romantic observations or treading the murky waters where those two realities intersect, Bragg manages to fill his songs with lively joi de vivre, snarling cynicism, genuine love and wry humor, often all at the same time. It's writing that consistently sticks in your head, first for the melody, then for the laugh and ultimately for the message - a bar most songwriters aspire to reach even once.

His is a talent that can't ever be fully described and must be experienced, so with that in mind, On Warmer Music is proud to present the Bard of Barking's six best musical one-liners. (Fair warning, I've just finished a marvelous book in the defense of puns, so I might be a bit bullish, use these at your own discretion).

1. "You're a dedicated swallower of fascism!"
Accident Waiting To Happen - Don't Try This At Home

Nothing's more satisfying than a really well-crafted kiss-off line and Billy goes the whole nine yards in this torch song. As with so many of his works this one is packed with memorable phrases starting with the opener, "I've always been impressed with a girl / who can sing for her supper and get breakfast as well". He proceeds to detail is falling out with a less than liberal lady, delivering one scathing personal and political attack after another. "Your life has lost it's dignity, it's beauty and passion" he tells her before sneering the title line. If this is a great torch song though, then the spark that lights the flamethrower has to come from the ending of the second verse. He starts with a pretty sharp warning, which turns out to just be the warm up, telling her "one of these nights you're gonna get caught / it'll give you a pregnant pause for thought". It's at this point you appreciate that Billy finally got a full band because between the surging drums, furious guitar and female backing the clinching line just soars, beautiful Kinks homage that it is. I have to admit that sometimes I wish I could form a band and start dating a horrible person just so I could get the satisfaction of breaking up with her like this.

2. "Some people say love is blind / but I think it's just a bit short-sighted."
From A Vauxhill Velox - Brewing Up With Billy Bragg

Although Billy was never much for pastiche (he preferred to make other people's songs sound like his, not the other way around), he wasn't above including one of the most loving and effective Chuck Berry homages ever put to vinyl (and that's saying something) on his debut full-length Brewing Up With Billy Bragg. Many Americans had probably never heard of a Velox, or even the car maker Vauxhill before this song (I sure as hell hadn't), which makes a perfect subject for Billy. Who else could find such an effective way to Anglify such prototypically American subject matter as crusin' in your ride, pickin' up chicks? "From A Vauxhill Velox" is a quick teenage ditty about picking up a girl for a little fun in the car despite her overbearing parents. It's an homage to lust, with a gas guzzling car being the perfect vehicle for such a trip. Of course, Billy is philosophical about such hormone-induced encounters, as you can tell from this pithy line.

3. "How can you lie there and think of England / when you don't even know who's in the team?"
Greetings To The New BrunetteTalking With The Taxman About Poetry

Oh, this was it. This song was the lead track off his "difficult third album", replete with ringing, Johnny Marr guitars, lap steel and doubled tracked female backing vocals. It announced to the world that Billy Bragg could make the jump to the next level of musicality without missing a step. In "Greetings To The New Brunette" Billy plays an immature yob whose fallen in with a girl (woman) so alluring that he even lets her challenge his world. She's his reason to get up in the morning but he's also driven to distraction by her strong politics and desire to have a family. It's an angry, happy, sad, lovely song full of memorable lines, but none better than this one. For those who aren't familiar, the expression "lie back and think of England" had long been a British colloquialism (with surprising longevity) for how women should perform their "marital duty", so it's use here is surely (Shirley?) ironic, given the woman's politics. Billy twists this even further, with his love of soccer giving it a triple meaning. Ultimately though, this might not even be the song's cleverest line because by the time he repeats the title to the fade, you now see it's the narrator's winking acceptance for the newest member of his family.

4. "I said 'I'm the most illegible bachelor in town!' / and she said 'yeah, that's why I could never understand any of those silly letters you wrote me.'"
Walk Away Renee [Version] - Reaching To The Converted

At a certain point, I guess Billy decided to prove that he didn't need melody and he really could just write a little six-verse, fully formed love story. Set to the a heart plucking, acoustic rendition of the Left Banke's "Walk Away Renee", Bragg's "cover" is really nothing  more than a verbally dazzling spoken love story. He starts the story with another foreboding pun, "She said it was just a figment of speech". When he corrects her, she tells him that she meant figment "because she could never imagine it happening". Billy spins an incredibly sweet falling in love story, complete with little details a descriptions of infatuation so spot-on that they should be trite but instead just end up sounding painfully apt. Of course the romance eventually sours and he's just as devastated as he was happy before. However, the next thing you know , the song ends, some impossibly brief 2:26 after starting with another immortal kiss-off closer. "Then one day, it happened - she cut her hair and I stopped loving her."

5. "They all want what we've got / they just don't know it yet."
The Marching Song of the Covert Battalions - The Internationale [EP]

This song should be given to every high school junior who just read his first Chomsky article and is outraged about world politics. Maybe that's because Bragg, never himself a diligent student was sort of learning about the world as he went and it wasn't until the late 1980's that he started learning about America's atrocious record of meddling in Latin American politics. Released on the between albums holdover EP, The Internationale, "The Marching Song Of The Covert Battalions" was inspired by his first visits to central America including a upfront view as an election monitor to the popular leftist-reformist Sandanista government's surprising electoral defeat at the hands US pressure. Bragg packs all the cynical rage over capitalism and the corruption of democracy that he can into this otherwise bouncy, hurdy-gurdy tune. He throws out icy one-liners like they're going out of style with lines like "freedom's just another word for nothing left to sell" or America's response, "how dare they buy our products / and still they don't respect us" while tossing out the name of Bishop Oscar Romero, martyr to a US hit squad. In the end, Bragg's righteous indignation at unchecked capitalism's brutal logic is perfectly channeled and articulated through writing such as the line above, Bragg again showing that political songwriting can be both moving AND fun.

6. "Our Titanic love affair sails on the morning tide."
Richard - Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy

Billy's debut "album" (seven songs, fifteen minutes, you tell me) hit hard and fast, with almost all quick, spiky love songs. Although it wasn't the catchiest or the sharpest of the batch, over the years, the cuckold's lament, "Richard" has had surprising staying power. It's a song sung by a man in love with a woman with whom he shouldn't be. Jayne is too wild to be held down, which Bragg knows, but he can't let go of her nonetheless. "You helped me build this bed" he sings "but you won't help me sleep in it". The chorus is a mocking singsong of "there will be parties / there will be fun / there will be prizes for everyone" with Billy knowing that one of them will be his girlfriend. Titus Andronicus knows that self-destructive feeling, as they recently took that melody and stretched it into a five minute homage replacing the word "prizes" with "tall gallows". However it's the damn-the-torpedoes romanticism that gives the song hear and balance. Jay Bennet (once of Wilco) was so inspired that he even named his first band after part of the song's resignedly hopeful lyric - "our Titanic love affair sails on the morning tide!"


  1. Great selection from the great Billy Bragg.

  2. Thanks Tim! Billy was always a bit too quirkily English to take off here in America, which is a damn shame, especially given how we need musicians like him in times like these. I try to spread the gospel...