Monday, June 14, 2010

Folk-Punk: Billy Bragg - Peel Sessions

Some people consider much of punk rock just cruder, less-developed heavy metal but to me a lot of the best punk sounds like amped-up, sped-up, riled-up folk music.

I've never witnessed a better proof of the above theory then seeing Billy Bragg at The Winnipeg Folk Festival in 1989. Billy didn't go acoustic or jam with the some zither orchestra. Instead, taking melodies, chord structures and words much of the audience would be familiar with but delivering them with a relentlessly hammering and spitting energy he proved himself to be that "One-Man Clash" the press claimed he was.

As the eighties progressed, Bragg added ever-more musical layers, proving that less is more almost empirically. Back then, I used to scan the credits of any Bragg release hoping to read only "Billy Bragg, Guitar/Vocals" knowing if I saw "Cara Tivey, Piano" then it was much less likely for Strange Things to Happen. This Peel Sessions collection, my absolute, unconditional favourite in an incredible series, features the starkest, rawest, bluntest version of nineteen songs from Bragg's catalog from 1984 to 1988. It includes not only two songs unrecorded elsewhere ("A13 Trunk Road to the Sea" and John Cale's "Fear is a Man's Best Friend") but also slashing solo takes on tracks from the too timid-sounding album Worker's Playtime.

Peels Session link is in the comments

Speaking of comments, tell us when you think Billy Bragg was at his best.

Support the artist!






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  2. I got to see Billy a few times back in his early days in the USA. The first time was when he opened for The Smiths on their MEAT IS MURDER tour. This was an amazing show.
    And the 2nd time closely after that he was the headliner at a club called The Roxy in Washington, DC and a very shy Suzanne Vega opened for him.

  3. Must have been in the eighties that I went to a festival in Glasgow that had multiple bills in mutiple locations.
    Billy Bragg was playing Clydeside. A place that is steeped in socialist history.
    Most of my mates decided that this was where they were going, but in my drunken and drug induced wisdom I thought it would be better to go to Glasgow Green and lie in the grass and watch Aswad, Rip Rig and Panic and such.
    Unfortunately when I met up with my friends they said that Billy had played a blinder and Michael Stipe had joined him to sing The International.
    It was one of those you had to be there moments.......and I wasn't.
    Bit crap really.
    Anyway. Early day7s are the ebst for me. The first three albums in particular.
    Over recent years my admiration for him has grown due to his opposition to racism and his staunch socialist values, but at the same time my love for his current music has dimmed. I'm not sure when the last time was that he released anything that really made me sit up and take notice.
    I fully agree about the punk attitude fitting in with the Folk style.
    Early Michelle Shocked albums are another good example of how that raw basic angry folk backbone can be effectively punky.

  4. In general, I like Billy Bragg's older albums better than his later ones. I saw him live however, last year, a solo concert, and that was really good. When you get the chance to see him, don't miss it. Great songs and good jokes and commentary between.

  5. I saw Billy a couple of times in 1984, and again last year when he toured to mark the 25th anniversary of The Miners Strike.
    He has as much energy now as he did back then- and his enthusiasm is amazing. He also talks a great deal of sense about socialism.
    I'm a great lover of music stripped down to its bare bones so Life's A Riot gets my vote.

  6. Hello
    I look for the album of "the shoulders" taken out in 1992 " trashman shoes "
    Somebody has information or links on this group
    Thank you

  7. That's an upload of a Billy Bragg gig on my blog inspired by this post here.

  8. Vaughn
    Those sound like two great shows - Billy's relationship with The Smiths is another cool part of his musical understanding.

    We all have those "Shows We Didn't Go To" (and I like "It was one of those you had to be there moments.......and I wasn't" as the summary of those).
    Liked your thoughts on the subject both here and on your blog.

    I'm an early album guy, thoguh I did try and go see him at the Folk Festival again a few years ago but showed up too late.

    We'll see..

    Yeah Billy seems to have weathered some career ups and downs and found himself a good little niche.

  9. I've always thought this album was the best version of his songs...

    I don't know if it's the 'earnestness', or the 'one-on-one' directness and intimacy, but this has become the go-to Bragg album for me over the years. If it only had a version of 'The Tatler' on it, it'd be near perfect.

    And give Cara Tivey her due.

    Thankfully, she's no Hank Wangford!

  10. Saw Billy a year ago in London, and he was excellent. His old stuff was very exciting and raw, and his more recent stuff is more mature, but both fit their times well. And he is always a GREAT live act, and an inspiration to those on the left in England driven to despair by the Labour Party.

  11. bio
    I think producers don't get Billy Bragg - it's offensive to thier thinking that someone might sound his best with no ornamentation at all. As for Cara Tivey, I can say she plays well in a style I loathe. And as hank Wangford, he'll be making an appearance here on Monday!

    I wonder if Labour's banishment to the opposition benches will inspire a new great album in Billy.

  12. Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy/Between The Wars was my favorite period.

  13. Anon
    Me too but there's lots more great stuff.

  14. Life's a Riot had the superb use of space that much music at the time used as a feature rather than having to fill every millisecond with sound. By the time of Workers Playtime he had shown that his songs could work with more than that sparse charm. Wellington Town Hall (New Zealand 1992) showed that he could tailor a live show to his audience. For most artists, it's my first introduction or first time I noticed them that sits most fondly, so Life's a Riot era is my answer, as that was what I first heard... but so many more memories that push it close.

  15. pjc
    Those first records are just so charged - it's almost unbearable.

  16. It's been awhile since I've listened to any Billy Bragg music. Your blog has got me remembering how much I enjoyed the truth and power in his words and music. Looking forward to 'rediscovering' this man's talent.

  17. I saw Billy Bragg in the mid-90's (William Bloke era), just him and a guitar - terrific show. I was going through some old cassettes today and found the six-track version of this, A13 always amuses me as I am also Essex born. Thanks for the post!


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