People I’m Glad Exist: Billy Bragg

I promise this series is not going to consist entirely of tributes to middle-aged men with guitars. But Billy Bragg is one of the people for whom I most frequently give thanks, so it would have been wrong to omit him.

Billy Bragg’s songwriting talent is equivalent to any of the greats from last century and this. His lyrics combine the clever composition of Morrissey or Bragg’s contemporary Kirsty MacColl with the emotional simplicity and directness of Billy Joel or my beloved Proclaimers. From his first awkward steps onto the illuminated stage of Top of the Pops, he has worn his heart on his sleeve in a way that is both endearing and courageous. And throughout his career, he has consistently written, sung and acted on behalf of causes he believed in, whether or not they happened to be in fashion at the time.

When I recall seeing Billy Bragg live, I see him not in some cavernous commercial concert hypermarket, where the music appears secondary to the purchase of gassy lager and burgers in soft white rolls. Instead, I think of him as a small figure on a distant stage, viewed between home-made protest banners, usually clad in black and, it seems safe to assume, playing for the beer and the benefit. I’ve seen Billy Bragg at miners’ rallies and poverty protests across Scotland’s central belt. I have not, it rather belatedly occurs to me, ever paid to see him play. An omission I really must put right (makes mental note to check when he is next playing Glasgow and try not to give birth that night). Down the decades, he has schlepped from fields to town squares to dingy venues, marching shoulder to shoulder with anyone he finds fighting injustice, never throwing a pop star strop and demanding a dressing room strewn with lilies or hand-painted by cherubs.

The point is, he stands alone. I literally cannot think of another current mainstream artist who is so defined by his politics without being confined by them. He combines his activism with moving, thoughtful lyrics and excellent pop tunes. He’s a product of the 80s, but instead of remaining there alongside Red Wedge, Zammo and Arthur Scargill, he has continually contributed to modern debates without deserting his ideals.

His musical career started with the urgent thrum of his guitar in A New England, in which he wants nothing more than a girlfriend. In many ways this musical approach has remained the most powerful Bragg vehicle: just him, a guitar and some heartfelt lyrics.  He repeats it time and again, from the brooding, lovelorn Man in the Iron Mask to the emphatic and unashamedly old-fashioned There is Power in a Union, with its “Down with the blackleg” refrain that seems to echo straight from a 1980s brazier.

But Billy Bragg doesn’t just do propaganda and heartache. He also does a nice line in historical songwriting: I’ve always thought that an account of the industrial revolution, Bragg-style, would be a fantastic read. In Between the Wars – another man-and-guitar classic – he tells the story of a man struggling to survive the austerity of the 1930s, abandoned by his government but holding to his belief in a better world. “I kept the faith and I kept voting, not for the iron fist but for the helping hand”.

And in The World Turned Upside Down, with the unpromisingly factual opening line “In 1649…” he considers the Diggers seeking to control a little of their own land and manages to make this modern listener both sympathise with their cause and sorrow at their brutal suppression. It is genuinely masterful, and if I occasionally think that Billy’s worldview is a bit overly simplistic (“bosses bad, workers good” is a bit much for this inoffensive middle manager to accept) I forgive him when he comes up with lines like

“The clergy dazzle us with heaven or they damn us into hell. We will not worship the god they serve, the god of greed who feeds the rich while poor men starve.”

These kinds of narration or reflection are Billy Bragg’s stock-in-trade and he does it brilliantly, but occasionally he goes in another direction, gathering together a band and what I like to imagine as a bunch of cheerfully pickled pals to serve as a chorus, and coming up with a proper foot-stomping romp.  My favourite example of this is Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards, with its deceptively pleasant piano tinkling at the start, building up to a defiant reassertion of the Bragg core values as the drums kick in and he tosses in lines like

“Well here comes the future and you can’t run from it, if you’ve got a blacklist, I wanna be on it”,

concluding with the joyous yell,

“Beam me up Scotty!”

It’s a tune I often turn to on the train in the morning, when I need something to boot me up the bum and make me smile. And it sums up the Bragg brand brilliantly, in one funny and truthful verse.

“Mixing pop and politics

He asks me what the use is

I offer him embarrassment

And my usual excuses

While looking down the corridor

To where the van is waiting

I’m looking for the great leap forward”.

People I’m Glad Exist: The Proclaimers

Sometimes, I can be a miserable besom. There’s so much to complain about in the world, and so many tasks to get through every day, that I forget about the people and things that bring me joy.

So I am introducing a new feature to The Shoogly Peg, an occasional series that I will add to whenever the fancy takes me. It’s called People I am Glad Exist, and I’m starting with The Proclaimers.

You know there are some people – someone you know, or someone you don’t, public figures, musicians, comedians or friends – who just make you smile, make you see things differently or reaffirm something you knew to be true but could not yourself express? That’s what this feature is all about, and The Proclaimers are an excellent example.

For some people, The Proclaimers will never be anything more than Five Hundred Miles and Letter from America. Both fine, fine songs, but to limit your exploration of the band’s output to these two pieces is like wandering through Kelvingrove and only looking at Sir Roger the elephant. There is far more depth to this longstanding and underrated outfit, just as there are treasures both glorious and camouflaged buried within the Kelvingrove.

My love of the band is based on two things: the quality of their lyrics and the depth of their emotional content. To listen to a Proclaimers song is to go on a journey. It might be short or long, it might cover one day or one hour or it might span a country, a continent or a lifetime. There is more fervour in either Proclaimer’s tiniest tootsie than there is in most mainstream pop star’s entire tattooed and well-honed torso. To ramble through their back catalogue is to accompany the Reid brothers through their life, as they move from passionate and well-informed idealism to idyllic family life to bitter break-ups and acrimony to reflections on what it all means, and where it might yet lead.

They do not deal in complicated lyrics, metaphor, juxtaposition or analogy. There is little mystery for an English language student to dismantle. Instead, their talent is honest, heartfelt lyrics, delivered with an urgency akin to that found in gospel music, humour, harmonies equal to Lennon and McCartney’s and a cracking ear for a tune.

Take, for example, the song Your Childhood, from the 1994 album Hit the Highway. It’s an album written by men who are married and navigating family life, and Your Childhood is a simple song about how much a father loves his daughter. It’s not exactly an original sentiment, but its quiet delivery and heartfelt words brought a lump to my throat even before I was a parent.

“You’ve got your mother’s looks

You’re a beautiful little girl

You’ll break boy’s hearts all over this world

And then one day you’ll walk out the door and I know

You’ll break mine”.

The track listing from Hit the Highway is a perfect illustration of the way in which The Proclaimer’s musical output has tracked their life experiences. We start with the gloriously raucous Let’s Get Married, with its self-explanatory central idea and the lovely assertion,

“When we’re old, if they ask me

How do you define success I’ll say

You meet a woman and you fall in love and you

Ask her and she says yes”.

Then we have the faster-paced Follow the Money, about the frenetic and never-ending need to earn a living to support a family (“Spent everything I earned yesterday”). And all this economic strife seems to have an impact: towards the end of the album we get Shout Shout, an angry description of family arguments and childish battles, with its exasperated chorus,

“Shout! Shout! Don’t leave a doubt! Smash up the place and throw things about!

You won’t change a thing by doing that.”

Yet in the midst of family breakdown and despair there is always room for spiritual contemplation. As an atheist, overtly religious songs that preach certainty do not speak to me. But despite their Christian faith, the Proclaimers never proselytise. They travel from the brief, passionate outburst of I Want to Be a Christian, to the irate reproach to cynical evangelists of The Light, to the thoughtful wrestling with the whole concept of faith contained with I Think That’s What I Believe. (“So I sit in this European nation in the twenty-first century. And I know that someone’s got it wrong, is it them or is it me?”)

A musical catalogue that spoke insightfully about family and religion would be impressive enough, but The Proclaimers, it is my firm belief, can write a touching  and perceptive song about literally anything. I would happily listen to them sing about emptying their bins, cutting their toenails or cleaning out their ears. Their early classic Oh Jean, about attempting to lose one’s virginity in 1980s Edinburgh, still makes me smile, with its possibly unique lyrical use of the phrase “slap in the pus” during a wry but oddly sweet description of teenage romance.

From the same album, What Do You Do discussed the need for Scottish independence long before it was fashionable and posed the plaintive question “What do you do when the rest can’t see its true?”: a quandary that perplexes the 45% to this day. Like Comedy’s Women and Wine talks about exactly that, and seeks to do nothing more meaningful than immortalise some bloody good times. Should Have Been Loved provides reassurance with a healthy dollop of gusto to someone who’s been treated badly by life. Their breadth is breathtaking, their musical accomplishments astound and they find joy in everything.

And that, in the final analysis, is why I am so glad that the Proclaimers exist. No matter what their subject matter or with what soft subtlety a song may begin, there is always the sense of a barely-repressed roar just around the corner, that any minute the drums will kick in, a guitar riff will build and one of them will open his mouth and let rip with an exultant shout, celebrating one marvellous aspect of life or another.

Two final examples to illustrate this point. There’s No Doubt, from the Born Innocent album, has the dispiriting early line,

“There’s no doubt about it now. Youth has gone.”

But its quiet and melancholy opening, which threatens to render the listener miserable at their own atrophy and imminent demise, quickly builds to an exuberant  crescendo, celebrating the persistence of love well into old age, as everything else falls away.

And a final classic. The best-named song in Western history, The Joyful Kilmarnock Blues, contains a line that, for me, sums up the jubilant and everlasting appeal of the Proclaimers.

“The question doesn’t matter, the answer’s always aye.”

Playing ping-pong with childcare problems

You are a senior manager in a large and important organisation. One lunchtime, your boss discreetly calls you and a manager from a different department into her office. She tells you, quietly and seriously, that something has gone very wrong in an area of delivery for which the two of you share responsibility. She asks you both for an explanation.

Choose your response.

A) We’re both very sorry. Something’s gone wrong, and we’ll work together to figure out what happened and how we can resolve it as quickly as possible.

B). Well, it wasn’t me, it was her! And even if I did get some things wrong, her department got it much more wrong, and everything was much worse that time you put them in charge!

Which do you think would be most likely to get you politely escorted to the door, clutching a cardboard box and a P45?

And yet inexplicably, response B is the option that not only the First Minister but also Glasgow City Council plumped for today, when discussing the fact that many parents cannot access the 600 hours of free childcare to which we are allegedly entitled.

Kezia Dugdale asked the First Minister what she was going to do about it. The First Minister told her that the problems in Glasgow were all the Labour Council’s fault, so she should speak to them if she wanted to get it sorted. The SNP backbenches erupted in joy. The aforementioned Glasgow City Council, in the person of Cllr Stephen Curran, put out a statement saying that whatever they might think, what parents actually wanted were changes to national policies and that Glasgow City Council was really doing a magnificent job on childcare, even though lots of pesky parents kept pretending it wasn’t.

What I find especially dispiriting about it all is that I bet everyone involved was very pleased with themselves. The First Minister had turned a difficult question back on the Labour party, and the Council had responded quickly to make quite clear where they thought the blame lay. But nobody lifted a finger to improve the situation, and no parent or child was at all better off at the end of this unfortunate and unedifying day in politics.

Well, as politicians are so fond of saying, let me be clear. I want politicians to stop focusing on making their party look good and start concentrating on fixing problems.  I couldn’t care less who sorts this out: I just want some of our leaders to take responsibility, act like grown-ups and stop blaming each other. Perhaps they ought to spend some time in their own local nurseries – on today’s evidence, toddlers might have something to teach them about adult behaviour.