Box Set Features Political Stockpile of Billy Bragg

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British songwriter Billy Bragg is best known in the United States for setting Woody Guthrie lyrics to music on the Mermaid Avenue CDs. Like Guthrie, Bragg is a populist, and often political, songwriter. His music from the 1980s is featured in a new boxed set.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The music of Billy Bragg is raw and rousing. He's been called a one-man Clash, referring to the late-'70s left-leaning band from Britain. Bragg's music from the 1980s is now being reissued in a box set. Listeners can trace the changes in his lyrics as they became increasingly political, and his sound as it became more and more polished. Jeffery Pepper Rodgers has this review.

JEFFERY PEPPER RODGERS, reporting:

To appreciate just how different Billy Bragg's records sounded when they first came out, imagine you're in England in the early '80s. The latest big thing is the glossy, synthesized pop, groups like Spandau Ballet and A Flock of Seagulls.

(Soundbite of song "I Ran")

A FLOCK OF SEAGULLS: (singing) I just ran, I ran all night and day. I couldn't get away.

RODGERS: Then along comes a young songwriter making music like this with just a cheap electric guitar.

(Soundbite of song "A New England")

Mr. BILLY BRAGG (Musician): (Singing) I was 21 years when I wrote this song. I'm 22 now but I won't be for long. People ask me when will you grow up to be a man? But all the girls of the school are already pushing prams.

RODGERS: Like his heroes The Clash, Billy Bragg rejected the hype and escapism of pop music. But he also wrote witty love songs with great hooks, and soon made his mark on the U.K. charts.

(Soundbite of song "A New England")

Mr. BRAGG: (Singing) I don't want to change the world. I'm not looking for a new England. I'm just looking for another girl.

RODGERS: In 1985 Bragg even appeared on the BBC Hit Parade Top of the Pops, singing this song inspired by the miners' strike against Margaret Thatcher's government.

(Soundbite of song "Between the Wars")

BRAGG: (Singing) I was a miner, I was a docker, I was a railway man between the wars. I raised a family in time of austerity with sweat at the foundry between the wars.

RODGERS: Five of Bragg's early albums have been reissued both individually and collected in a box set called Billy Bragg Volume One. The box includes some concert and interview footage, plus an array of alternate takes and demos that will mostly be of interest to diehard fans. Especially because so many original album tracks already sound like demos.

(Soundbite of music)

RODGERS: Taken chronologically, the CD's trace the political evolution of Billy Bragg from a socially conscious rocker to a writer of leftist and union anthems.

Mr. BRAGG: (Singing) There is power in a factory, power in the land, power in the hand of the worker. But it all amounts to nothing if together we don't stand. There is power in a union.

RODGERS: As Bragg's songs became more political, his records became more polished and produced. The best music in the box set is the most raw. Especially Bragg's debut of Life's a Riot, Spy vs. Spy and its follow-up, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg. While a lot of music from the eighties has faded into nostalgia or worse, Bragg's three-minute blasts of electric guitar and voice still sound urgent and new.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers is author of the book Rock Troubadours and The Complete Singer Songwriter. He reviewed the box set Billy Bragg Volume One.

(Soundbite of song "Love Gets Dangerous")

Mr. BRAGG: (Singing) It scares me just enough. Love gets dangerous, love gets dangerous. Dangerous, love gets dangerous. Dangerous, dangerous.

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Volume 1

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Album
Volume 1
Artist
Billy Bragg
Label
Yep Roc Records
Released
2006

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Volume I

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Album
Volume I
Artist
Billy Bragg
Label
Cooking Vinyl
Released
2006

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