From the Red Wedge in the mid-late 80s, to the Left Field in Motion in 2011, Billy Bragg matters just about as much as he ever has: vitally to some, not in the least to others
The Red Wedge brought Bragg, The Style Council, The Communards and others together in the name of engaging young folk with politics. Fast forward to 2011 and we hear the Sound of Rum in support. The least likely looking rap act you’ll see, the fact that they managed to win a Billy Bragg crowd with an extraordinary spoken word poetry turn from the singer, and carry them through to a grinding big metal hip-hop finish speaks volumes. Both charming and excellent – do look them up.
Perhaps energised by his young comrades, or these challenging times, Bragg himself seems to have found inspiration to reboot a fair chunk of his 80s anger and passion. Certainly, there’s an energy and vitality which wasn’t quite there in Bragg the performer when he was arguing for proportional representation or tactical votes for Lib Dems.
And so he rips through a back catalogue which stands up well to the test of time starting with a blistering It Says Here – an attack on the excesses of the tabloid press which could have been written, if not yesterday, certainly last week – thundering through trade union anthems and wonderfully updated version of Great Leap Forward, to more flippant romance in tracks like New England and Sexuality which remind us, if needs be, that Bragg is more than just a mouth or a mouthpiece – song-writing talent and musicianship is evident throughout.
Even then, arguably the most relevant, urgent material brackets the catalogues of the 80s and early 90s. First, a Woody Guthrie song from the 1930s tells how “the gambling man is rich while the working man is poor”, and Bragg’s own 2011 response to phone hacking, Never Buy the Sun also strikes home.
Bragg’s own merchandising stand sells a Marmite-themed tea towel and there’s a bit of that: the bard of Barking’s dulcet tones are an acquired taste but, on this form, it is a taste well worth acquiring.