Saturday, 13 April 2013

Desert Island Discs 22 Worker's Playtime by Billy Bragg

22 Worker's Playtime by Billy Bragg 1988

"In a perfect world we would all sing in tune , but this is reality so give me some room"

By the recording of Workers Playtime Billy Bragg's life was in a bit or turmoil. Having thrown himself into red wedge , he had seen labour somehow manage to cock up an election they were expected to win

" mixing pop and politics he asks me what the use is , I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses"

He'd met his future wife who happened to be the current wife of his record label boss. He had strangely scored a number one with a cover of the Beatles "She's Leaving Home" as a double a side with Wet Wet Wet. His live vocal rendition on Top of the Pops saw the popular press go for him with both barrels.

Out of this came his most personal and least political lp. When it came out I played this lp to death (partly as someone I fancied at the time had given me a copy) but mostly because it is full of relationship politics   rather than social politics.

The problem I'd always had with Billy Bragg is although I agree with pretty much everything he says , it all feels a bit preaching to the converted, and apart from Days Like These and Between the Wars , lacks a bit of subtlety.

Workers Playtime is a million Miles away from this.  Recorded with a full band with songs full of wit , emotion and endlessly quotable lyrics.

Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards is the only overtly political song but again this is a more personal  reflection on the election defeat even it does end with the rallying cry "the revolution is just a t shit away" . Still in his live set today , the lyrics of the song tend to change every year , but the original is the best. Here is the closest I can get to the lp version but even then he cant resist some special changes for American tv.

The other issues songs Rotting on Remand and the domestic violence in Valentine's Day is Over both have a lightness of touch that means the "message hits harder". Only on the anti war Tender Comrade does he revert a bit to type. The fact he bravely sings unaccompanied means it does stick out both lyrically and musically form the rest of the lp

The heart of the lp are the personal songs of the heart. The opening track She's got a New Spell features a great bit of Johnny Marr guitar and the prefect throwaway line for a pop song

She's Got a New Spell - Billy Bragg

"One minute she's gone to get the cat in
the next thing I know she's mumbling in latin"

Cara Tivey adds piano and backing vocals and takes some of the harshness from the Essex's brogue

The lyrical high comes with the short answer , with its opening line of

Between Marx and marzipan in the dictionary there was Mary and from then on each line is gold dust

This live version from a radio show is a bit ropey but these songs are meant to be sung with real voices and more of us sing off key than on

However he is at his most personal and vulnerable in the heart string tugging The Only One

The Only One by Billy Bragg

You can buy Workers Playtime here


  1. I know he's a good songwriter. Covers by Kirst MacColl's "A New England" and Stewart & Gaskin's "Levi Stubbs Tears" are wonderful. However Bragg's own thick brogue has always been my stumbling-block in appreciating the music of the man himself. Wish I was better at getting past accents...


    - I'm sure my view of Mad Richard is different than most visiting this post. He appears to be much-maligned by the press over there. Here across the pond he's barely made a wave, so my view isn't clouded by preconception. I only know the music. The Verve were fine, and the solo debut was grand (prominently featuring MM mate BJ Cole) but it was with his sophomore release I truly connected big time. This is "serious music"... soul-searching, passionate and laden with sweeping string arrangements. I've read it described as epic beauty. I agree...

    Science Of Silence:
    Man On A Mission:
    Nature Is The Law:
    Human Conditions (entire album):

    1. Excellent choice TT.
      Unsure how I left Ashcroft off my list.
      Di brutally murders 'Buy it in Bottles' every time we play this; which is often...

  2. I've picked a different Bragg but this is one was close. I must be alone in loving when people sing in their own accents? And I've always liked his willingness to nail his colours to the mast although it can leave one nonplussed.
    He's always had a gift for the couplet though, and yearning for a little bit more than a revolution: "In the end, it took me a dictionary / To find out the meaning of unrequited"

  3. I have to agree with TT about the accent; so thick it's almost Dick Van Dyke...
    Great writer though; I much prefer his personal moments to the political poking.
    I recognize that earnest benevolence as part of his charm but it sits a little uneasy with me for some reason...

  4. Billy Brag is another artist I really don't care for. Like Trev ,if I do listen to him I prefer his personal songs to his political. I do like his cover of The Beatles song 'She's Leaving Home' that I have on some compilation CD.
    # 22 Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career. Here's a band that have taken a leap forward on each of their releases ( so I'm expecting huge things from their new one in June).I saw them live supporting The Trashcan Sinatras back in 2004 and have been hooked ever since.
    The Sweetest Thing

  5. Phil,
    I got 'Let's Get Out of This Country' mainly for 'Lloyd, I'm Ready to Be Heartbroken'. Again, it was an album I didn't return to. Need to look at My Maudlin Career; another title that resonates...

  6. I'm afraid I don't really get Mr Ashcroft - thought the Verve managed to be fantastic and awful often in the space of a couple of songs. Got his debut solo lp which was pleasant but felt it had been over polished to remove a lot of the personality. I'll give him another go.

    I'm with you Seamus - his new lp which is a lot better than his recent few is slightly spoilt by most of the songs being sung in an American accent

  7. You might want to check that rallying cry... the revolution is just a what away?

    Great post though.

  8. I love David's typos. Borderline jenius...

  9. thanks pip
    i kind of like my version!


Leave a comment and let me know what you are listening to.