I saw two shooting stars last night,
I wished on them, but they were only satellites.
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?
I wish, I wish, I wish you’d care.
—Billy Bragg, “A New England”
Bragg wrote these lyrics in 1985, after Thatcher had reclaimed the Falklands, Reagan had secured a second term across the Atlantic, and the Space Race had settled on the song’s protagonist’s romantic eye like a fleck of shit. This may be what Bragg does best—dovetailing the political and the personal.
For Bragg’s character, the heavy atmosphere of the Cold War (literally and figuratively) becomes the strange bedfellow of his love-sickness. He has his doubts about its appropriateness, but he goes ahead anyway and pins his humble hopes to the orbiting metal. I guess in that there’s some sad and lonely emancipation. What else is there to do? “I’m not looking for a new England, just looking for another girl”.
While Bragg’s man hopes a new love might be his warm escape from England’s urban decay and the associated disassociation, Bragg himself was more ambitious. He did long for a new England, and railed articulately and humorously against the Iron Lady. When John Major moved into 10 Downing Street, Bragg could still move wonderfully from the political to the personal, but listening to his best of—Must I Paint You a Picture—one gets the feeling that Bragg needed Thatcher for his best work.
Bragg was my first ever gig, at the Sandringham Hotel that sat—it’s closed now—on Perth’s Swan river. I went alone. It was a few weeks before my 18th birthday, and I was anxious I wouldn’t be admitted to the licensed event. I needn’t have worried.
It was all there—the wise-cracking raconteur, the good-natured banter. He’d brought a band—the Blokes—and it featured Ian McLagan on keys, who had once played for Bragg’s childhood heroes The Faces.
My politics have changed considerably since I bought my first Bragg record. Today, I doubt Billy and I would agree on much. But still, still, still Bragg’s music is some of the warmest, richest, wittiest I’ve yet encountered. To dismiss Bragg on grounds of ideology seems like a spectacularly unimaginative, cold and churlish thing to do. You’re missing out on this, for instance, from “The Saturday Boy” where Bragg sings from the perspective of an awkward school-boy: “She lied to me with her body you see/And I lied to myself about the chances I’d wasted”. Bragg can say more in two lines than artists can say in whole albums.
For Bragg, politics was the personal—your health and home, your security in the great market place, your position spiritually and emotionally amongst the shuffling masses. Bragg had one eye on Thatcher, and another on a young man crying alone in Brixton. And hey, who hasn’t wanted a visit from the Milkman of Human Kindness?
“If you’re lonely, I will call
If you’re poorly, I will send poetry
I love you
I am the milkman of human kindness
I will leave an extra pint.”