Apparently we are (politically and culturally) in the new 1980s so it seems appropriate to mention an overtly political artist from the time.
I am mightily pleased to have found a getaround that enabled me to include this 1983 mini-album. I would happily have written about the later stuff, but have more to say about his early records, and I had forgotten that the original issue was played at 45 rpm.
I first came across Billy Bragg when a boy in my class wrote out the lyrics of Saturday Boy for me, changing double history to double biology to suit our timetable. The boy was a sixteen-year-old Tory and an idiot, but I will always remember fondly our chats about music.
In the mid-eighties, Billy Bragg fronted Red Wedge, and was at the height of his party-political activism. These days, he is approaching national treasure status; in the past year, he has had to live down favourable press in the Mail and, on Question Time recently, even Baroness Warsi appeared to be flirting with him.
He comes in for some stick for his financial success, but as many anecdotes paint him a diamond geezer as a total arsehole; I don’t know the guy, and am not much for heroes, so I’ll just say that I feel his politics make him an easy target.
I’ve always thought him extremely canny, with a bloke-ish image that is deceptively natural, but astutely put together: Fred Perry, home-knitted-looking jerseys, jeans, DMs and donkey jackets. All these say working-class, earnest, manly, but it is celebratory rather than cynically contrived, of a piece with the cheery “economy” branding of his earlier records with “pay no more than…” stamped on the sleeves.
I could have written about any of the tracks, but chose a love song rather than a political one. I know there are those who find him unbearably worthy. I don’t, but The Man in the Iron Mask embodies everything I like about Billy Bragg. I have a weakness for the slightly awkward romance (my all-time favourite Billy song is A Lover Sings) and on this his sepulchral tones sound masculine and vulnerable at the same time; the image of an isolated everyman, heartbroken yet stoic.
I am always a fan of kitchen sink production, but this track packs the power of simplicity. The punk-ish brevity and lone guitar combine to emotive effect with the wistful lyrics, and the song is economically built round the metaphor of the man in the iron mask, referring to both the impossibility of escaping the relationship and the masculine impassivity he affects. At a little over two minutes, it is a concise, neat little song, as functional and as pleasing as the Utility Records brand itself.
Surprisingly, there appears to be no slick promotional video, so we will have to make do with this live footage from 1985 that captures his rather lovely stage presence. I particularly enjoy the way he ends sweetly, with a flourish, as if he were Jimmy Page finishing some intricate hour-long display of virtuosity.