Tag Archives: Billy Bragg

Freedom and Rain

13 Oct

freedomandrain

From 1990, on the  Cooking Vinyl label (COOKCD 031), Freedom and Rain was a collaboration between June Tabor and the Oyster Band.  Although very well-received, it was a one-off project of an album and short tour (I was fortunate enough to catch them headlining at that year’s Cambridge Folk Festival) and it wasn’t until 2011 that they decided to do a follow-up (which I’ll write about shortly).

It was an inspired pairing though: By this time the Oyster Band had carved out their own distinctive instrumental take on English folk-rock (involving concertina and cello – which set them apart from others in the genre) and they benefited on this album from the assurance and strength of Tabor’s matchless voice. And on the other side of the equation,  June Tabor, whose own work is usually characterised by spartan, restrained instrumentation benefited from having a fuller, richer mix – something she had begun to explore by guesting with Fairport Convention at their festival a couple of years earlier).

What makes this such a good album is the selection of material – just ten songs, three traditional and seven contemporary – most done quite fast.

The selection opens with ‘Mississippi Summer’, an unusual, brooding choice for musicians so closely associated with the music of the British Isles but which introduced me for the first time to the songwriting of Si Kahn.

Track two  two is a melodeon-driven take of ‘Lullaby of London by the Pogues’ Shane MacGowan – perhaps a little to ‘jaunty’ for me although it does show McGowan’s songwriting skills to good effect.

The third selection is ‘Night Comes In’ which first appeared on Richard and Linda Thompson’s ‘Pour Down Like Silver’. Taken at a faster tempo than the original, this rocks out in a way that makes it a bit more accessible and it just about works since June Tabor’s interpretations Richard Thompson songs are always worth hearing.

Next up is a version of Billy Bragg’s ‘Valentine’s Day is Over’, where a female vocal (especially June’s)  works better than a man’s (even the composer’s): “Thank you for the things you bought me/Thank you for the card/Thank you for the things you taught me when you hit me hard/Love between two people should be based on understanding/Until that’s true you’ll find your things all stacked out on the landing/Surprise, surprise Valentine’s Day is over” .

Track five is perhaps the most surprising cover, the Velvet Underground’s ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’ by Lou Reed. This works remarkably well and is a highlight of the collection – with June Tabor’s imperious, austere, vocal surpassing Nico’s original from 1967, some great drumming from Russell Lax and what’s either a cello or a viola providing a drone-like backing. (This track is in the same vein as the Oyster’s earlier cover of New Order’s  ‘Love Vigilantes’).

The first traditional song is ‘Dives and Lazarus’ – taken a swift pace which really rocks out and benefits from a cracking bass line from Chopper and a three-piece brass section. This version also contains the wonderfully weird descriptive lyric line line:  “Hell is dark, Hell is deep, Hell is full of mice” that makes me smile whenever I hear it.

Track seven is another trad. song (‘Dark Eyed Sailor’) which is one of my favourites. I first heard this done by Steeleye Span and have another version interpreted by a very young  Kathryn Roberts and Kate Rusby . All are wonderful – this version , again done at pace with a hard-rocking rhythm section.

The eighth track (‘Pain or Paradise;) sounds like it ought to be traditional but was written for the Albion Band by John Tams and issued as a single in 1979. Based on a sea-shanty (‘Riding on a Donkey) which I first learned at school, this features a double-tracked June Tabor vocal and (once again) a driving brass section. A great song.

‘Susie Clelland’ (aka ‘Lady Maisry’ or ‘The Burning’) is the final traditional song on the album (number 65 of the Child collection of ballads) and describes the fate of a Scottish lady who had the temerity to fall in love with an Englishman! The string arrangement works really well.

The collection closes with the only song by one of the performers – Ian Telfer. ‘Finisterre’ is a lovely, slow acoustic number with a wistful lyric and one of the few tracks where you can really hear Alan Prosser’s guitar work above the mix.

It tempting to speculate what might have been had these six musicians stayed together to build on this album’s success – and what might have happened if a major label had been there to give it a decent marketing push – but as it is, it’s still one of the top ten examples of Folk-Rock Britannica and well worth tracking down if you don’t know it.

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Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy

4 Jun

SpyVSpy

From 1983, Billy Bragg‘s debut offering – just seven tracks long and with ‘Pay no more than £2.99′ emblazoned on the cover’! I bought it in Cambridge, from the the city’s finest record store – the market stall/shop known as Andy’s Records.

The production budget can’t have been excessive since it is just Billy, his strident, earnest English vocals and his electric guitar – but this focuses on the songs and, right from the start, he’s been a cracking songwriter. There are love songs (most notably ‘A New England’ which Kirsty McColl took into the charts), social commentary (‘The Busy Girl Buys Beauty’ and ‘Lovers Town Revisited’) and anger. The lyrics of  ‘To Have And Have Not’ especially have a depressingly contemporary ring thirty years later:

“Up in the morning and out to school
Mother says there’ll be no work next year
Qualifications once the Golden Rule
Are now just pieces of paper

Just because you’re better than me
Doesn’t mean I’m lazy
Just because you’re going forwards
Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards

If you look the part you’ll get the job
In last year’s trousers and your old school shoes
The truth is son, it’s a buyer’s market
They can afford to pick and choose”.

I actually have three versions of this album: the original vinyl on GoDiscs/Utility (which played at 45 rpm rather than the conventional 33 rpm for and LP)*; a CD reissue which adds the later four-song ‘Between the Wars’ collection; and a third extended edition included in the ‘Volume 1’ box set which adds eleven additional tracks from the same period to the original seven.

From this  you will gather that I really rate Billy Bragg – and have bought pretty much every major official release and a smattering of others) since 1983.

* LPs (Long Playing Records) I heard memorably described by guitarist Wilko Johnson on radio as “a bunch of downloads stuck to a bit of plastic”! They rotated at 33 and a third revolutions per minute on the turntable).

Kite

9 Apr

Kite

It’d be a shame if the only lasting memory of the late Kirsty MacColl were as guest vocalist on the Pogues’ Fairy Tale of New York’. There was so much more to her than that.

Kite (1989, Virgin records catalogue CD KM1) was the first thing by by her that I ever bought. I’d enjoyed those of her early singles which I’d heard (especially the wonderfully titled ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’ and a great cover of Billy Bragg’s New England’). I also I knew she’d written ‘They Don’t Know’, a single which charted for comedienne/actress Tracey Ullman.

I suppose the things that clinched it as a purchase though were (1) that it featured guitar and co-writing credits for Johnny Marr fairly shortly after The Smiths, (2) because it contained a cover of the Ray Davies song ‘Days’ which is so damn good it’s better than the original by The Kinks and (3) it also covered the French-language song ‘Complainte Pour Ste. Catherine’ by Anna McGarrigle – a sure sign of good taste in my book!

This is one classy album. Fifteen tracks, produced by then-husband Steve Lillywhite and not a turkey among them. While ‘Days’ is the outstanding track it’s a close run thing with the opener ‘Innocence’ and the poignant ‘Don’t Come The Cowboy With Me Sonny Jim’ in contention also with ‘You Just Haven’t Earned It Yet Baby'(a Morrissey/Marr cover) which, again, is as good as the original.

Apparently, Ms MacColl suffered from stage fright and didn’t perform live very often – which makes me treasure even more the fact that I managed to see her play a few years later (at what was then Northampton’s Irish Centre and is now a lapdancing club) before her untimely death stopped the music.