Billy Bragg, Barking

UPDATE – bootleg MP3 of gig available here

Barking welcomes back its Bard – Billy Bragg – political radical but it seems a small c conservative when it comes to the subject of “Box sets”:

“Why release a box set at my age..? well I wanted to put out something physical reviewing my career while there still is such a thing as a physical thing you can see and touch. I don’t do MP3’s… in the days long past when I might conceivably of met someone, and ended up back at theirs… I want to be able to sit and glance up on the shelf and check out their musical taste… I don’t want to have to furtively root through the menus of their ipod!

I still have my first record, a Rod Stewart 7″ and when I get it out it still smells of that summer of 73… and I wonder if in 30 years time that Gnarls Barkley MP3 will smell of the dank spring of 2006??”

I was pleased enough to be seeing Billy for the first time in years, but thanks to a kind swap with a Billy Bragg forumer I managed to move forward to the second row in the fairly intimate venue that is “The Broadway” in Barking. Unfortunately I didn’t manage the seat number A13 so any gags about it being “The seat number thats the best” can be dumped as B2 just doesn’t work… in fact I don’t think there is a even a B2 road is there, maybe its just a Birmingham postcode?? Anyway I digress!

One hundred and seventy two Billy Bragg fans and his mum eagerly awaited this rare home gig. The man that put Barking on the map, determined that it doesn’t get put back on the map with a BNP success in the local elections. His “Hope Not Hate” tour is visiting parts of the country where the BNP could gain a foothold, and no where is this more true than in Barking. You wouldn’t come to a Billy Bragg concert and not expect politics, but as Billy himself says apologizing for a very political opening and a passionate speech about the desperate need to defeat the BNP, there is more than politics at a Bragg show. It is at times almost stand up comedy with short breaks for songs, and the tunes themselves are tweaked for comic effect, so in “Shirley” the lyrics change to:

“How can you lie there and think of England when you don’t even know who’s the manager of the team”

Billy Bragg flying the flag

With his beloved Hammers reaching the FA Cup final football was a recurring theme of the night. The West Ham score was shouted out at various points, he blew bubbles out of a gun mid song, and the good and bad omens for West Hams cup final success were mulled over. The flag of St George will spring up in windows and on vans across the country as the World Cup approaches, and Billy unfurled his own flag to return to a theme he’s talked about before… being proud of being English. He’s taken stick for using the flag (as Morrissey before him did with the Union Jack) and an anti BNP gig is not the first place you’d expect to see the flag flying. Bragg passionately explains thats the whole point, every country celebrates its national day or flag and England should not be afraid to be proud of itself. Theres a five minute video and discussion of his views on an England for everyone over at the Beeb website.

Mid way through his set Bragg changed the mood again first with “Debris” a Small Faces song about Ronnie Lanes dad, and then “Tank Park Blues” (lyrics) a moving tribute to Billys own father. Accompanied beautifully by Ian McLagan (of the Small Faces) on piano it was impossible not to end up with a lump in the throat after those two:

I closed my eyes and when I looked
Your name was in the memorial book
And what had become of all the things we planned?
I accepted the commiseration’s
Of all your friends and your relations
But there’s some things I still don’t understand.
You were so tall
How could you fall?

As if to puncture the hushed atmosphere Billy went all music hall with “Honey, I’m A Big Boy Now” complete with exaggerated hand gestures to accompany words like Navy. Much to the confusion of Ian McLagan who had to quickly switch keyboards Billy departed from the set list and played “Everybody Loves You Babe” a favourite of mine from the William Bloke album. It could also be described as music hall, with Billy emoting how “you’re pretty but you’re boring” and ending with an deliberately overblown climax of “I’m begging you to stayyyyyyy…… out of my way, because everybody loves you babe….. but me”. Bragg had the smile of a man content and having fun in his own stomping ground.

Billy Bragg dreams of David Cameron loving him

Billys on good comic form when talking about his bafflement at David Cameron declaring his love for The Smiths “It’s like Karl Rove coming out and saying he always liked Black Flag”. “I’ve been having nightmares” he says that Cameron says I really like the Smiths but the artist I love the most is really… Billy Bragg. At this point he wakes up screaming, and his wife will ask “are you having the Cameron dream darling?”

There were too many great moments, funny quips, passionate speeches, and stone cold classics to go into everyone. New material like “I keep the faith” held its own against the oldies, Woody Guthrie made a topical appearance in Bills reworking of “You fascists are bound to lose” and how else could he end but with a barnstorming song he claimed only ever to play when in Essex, “A13” (Lyrics & MP3 at the V&A site here). Complete with Grays Thurrock updated to Lakeside, Thurrock.

“If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness
Take the A road, the OK road that’s the best
Go motorin’ on the A13″

And so to the first encore, and Billy continues the tradition of Woody Guthrie updating an old song with new lyrics. Leadbelly’s ‘Bourgeois Blues’ is twisted into “The Bush War Blues“. Where Leadbelly was protesting about racism in Washington Billy turns it into a protest about Bush and his poodle Tony. He originally recorded it under the aka of “Johnny Clash” an alter ego accidently developed as his voice husky and low with the rigours of touring made him sound a bit like Johnny Cash. Billy did a brief Johnny skit before launching into Bush War Blues.

After “Great Leap Forward” and a stand up fist pumping version of “The Internationale” Billy was presented with a West Ham shirt with Bragg on the back to mark his work for Searchlight, and for helping the fight against the BNP. Cue much Hammers, and Irons related calls and banter from the audience. Billy seemed genuinely chuffed, and I wish the Hammers well in everything EXCEPT the cup final (spot the Liverpool fan).

To finish the night and in honour of Kirsty, Billy led the audience in a sing-along of “New England”. A fantastic, thought provoking, moving, and funny night has to end eventually, but I for one wont be leaving it as long before I see Mr. Bragg again. Classic stuff. His mum must be proud… well except for the language of course.

And lest we forget what it was all about, as dannye11, a blogger who was also at the gig puts it… Don’t forget to vote on May the 4th. Theres nothing the BNP loves more than a nice low turnout, its the only way those clowns get in!

UPDATE 5/5/06: Well that couldnt have gone much worse! 11 BNP councillors in Barking alone!! Depressing times, and another warning to New Labour not to ignore the working classes, but in the long term as someone once said “These fascists are bound to lose”.

Bragg Info:

Website: / Myspace / Love Music, Hate Racism

Buy: £30 for a box-set of 7 CD’s and 2 DVD’s of classic Bragg… Bargain! – Buy from Amazon here

MP3: Cold & Bitter Tears (live) – a terrible recording of Bill & Ted Hawkins but a favourite of mine, the highlight of which is the classic “I hate to do the dishes, and I know the reason why… putting on your apron makes want to cry”.

Unisex Chip Shop (Live) – Bill Bailey writes a Billy Bragg mickeytake and is joined by Bill at Glastonbury to perform it (Billys son says its one of his favourite Bragg songs!). Great stuff.

A New England(Myspace link so click dont right click) – One of greatest songs of the last century – FACT!

Podcast – Part one of the Billy & Wiggy podcast.

Bush War Blues – Leadbelly meets George. W

Archive of Billy Bragg live bootlegs – hundreds of MP3’s of Billy live

Bloody England(Myspace so just click to download) – DJ Wrongtom mix of New England, soon to be on cover of Mixmag magazine.

Pics: Billy Bragg @ The Broadway, Barking 01/05/06

Read: A13 – Billy talks to the V&A Museum about the A13

If you like Billy: You might like Chris T.T. Check out a live version of his superb “Huntsmen come a marchin” on myspace. or buy “9 Red Songs” here

Watch: Billy on why all of England should proudly fly the flag of St. George.

“Greetings to the new brunette” music video

Lars Frederiksen And The Bastards cover “To Have & Have Not” (actually dont click its terrible… no hang on I quite like it..)