29 September 2005

Billy Bragg & Dick Gaughan - The Red Flag


Billy Bragg's wonderful 1988 album Worker's Playtime contains many of his best relationship songs - The Short Answer, Must I Paint You A Picture, Valentine's Day Is Over, The Price I Pay - all articulating emotional misfirings of various kinds with eloquence, wit and incisive melancholic grace.

But touring in the USA afterwards Bragg met Pete Seeger, one of the original Wody Guthrie era protest singers who, though aged nearly 70 at that time, still fighting as hard as ever.

The arresting effect on Bragg meant the next record came out without the luscious arrangements, the heartbreaks or the kitchen sink drama, but with a brisk and potent shout of political intent.

The Internationale is mostly covers, with Billy looking around the world and - a clear decade ahead of others - looking to home and singing Jerusalem as an inclusive anthem. This is the first time I ever saw it claimed as anything other than repugnant English jingoism.

Jerusalem had long been put alongside songs of racist shite like Land of Hope and Glory. Or Rule Britannia which declares that Britons never shall be slaves. That song was written at a time when slavery was a cornerstone of our national modus operandi. It isn't merely declaring that we are too good for slavery; it says that the subjugation we gladly inflict on others must never be inflicted on us. Remember that next time anyone tells you Last Night At The Proms is harmless patriotic fun.

But Jerusalem is something different. It doesn't declare us to be better than anyone simply because we're from round here. It says this land is fucked over by the industrialists, that we have work to do to improve it, and we must never stop making this a better place for us and those who follow after.

It was a bold, audacious move, to play it straight and sweet, in a manner not dissimilar to Roddy Frame's reading of The Red Flag.

Which is where we get on board with Billy. He teamed up with Scottish political folkster Dick Gaughan - whose Think Again he'd covered on the B-side of Levi Stubb's Tears in 1986 - and recorded The Red Flag set to its original tune; not the grand hymnal plod we know, but a jaunty Celtic jig.

As the sleevenote explained;

The Red Flag was written in December 1889 by Jim Connell, an Irishman. Inspired by the London dock strike he wrote the song on a train journey between Charing Cross and New Cross stations setting the lyrics to the old Jacobite air The White Cockade.

It immediately became popular with socialist singers throughout Britain but for some reason the tune was changed in 1895 to Tannenbaum, the version sung by the Labour Party to this day. Connell was outraged, claiming that the new tune murdered his lyrics. Here we have restored the original, a sprightly reel not a funereal dirge.

[MP3 deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]

26 September 2005

Aztec Camera - The Red Flag


It's the Labour Party Conference this week, so I'm posting two versions of its founding anthem, now an anachronistic call to socialism whose lyrics have about as much relevance to the modern Labour Party as Motorhead's version of Louie Louie.

First up is Aztec Camera's version, from the B-side of the How Men Are single. This comes from a funny time, the mid-late 1980s when Thatcher was winning her third election, hopes of nuclear disarmament were crushed underfoot, a majority of British teenagers believed they would die in a nuclear war, the miners had been broken and with them went, for all time, any real hope of strength in trade unions.

But these worries and struggles had galvanised those of us who opposed. Flailing around in the cess-tides of monetarist greed and arrogance, emboldened by the resilience and comradeship we saw among the miners and their supporters, there was this widespread feeling that somehow socialism was an imminent off-the-peg answer and - even more implausibly - Neil Kinnock's Labour Party would deliver it.

It's easy to look back now and see those times as the abandonment of the socialist dream, as Labour deliberately letting the miners be beaten, as the germination of the Blair tory-lite nightmare, that the old flags were tired and that the party should have ended conference with a chorus of 'we'll sing the red flag once a year'.

But back then, for many, that's where genuine hope lay. Worthy, intelligent people like The Smiths, Jerry Dammers, Tom Robinson, Paul Weller and, er, Bananarama signed up to Red Wedge, a sort of Labour Rock The Vote thing.

And Aztec Camera, hardly the most political band, recorded this version of The Red Flag. On the B-side of the strong, wise yet understated How Men Are, this simple piano and vocal version of The Red Flag shows off that wonderful purity and yearning in Roddy Frame's voice, that dry, plaintive yet consoling lightness and honesty he does so well, removing all the bombast and mumble usually associated with the song.

[mp3 deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]

20 September 2005

The Three O'Clock - In Love In Too & Lucifer Sam

fan club only 45

Right, a while ago I posted a couple of tracks by The Three O'Clock, a fabulous shimmery sunny Rickenbacker psych-pop band from early 80s California.

I mentioned then that I'd got a couple of really rare tracks, and if anyone was interested then to leave a comment and I'd take that as a nudge to post them.

But no, nobody did ask.

A few days ago that post got a comment at last, and from someone fortunate enough to catch them on their support tour with REM in 1985.

I read about that at the time, and it was a total dream ticket for me, my two favourite bands on the same bill. Over here we got no-marks called Grown Up Strange supporting REM in 85, while the Three O'Clock only played one UK gig ever as far as I know. And I wasn't there.

Anyway, despite not being asked for them, here are those very rare tracks. They're the two sides of a fan club only 7-inch issued in 1983, and as far as I know haven't been issued anywhere else.

In Love In Too is another one from the band's songwriting team of Quercio/Gutierrez, and Lucifer Sam is a cover of the Syd-era Pink Floyd classic.

The production values aren't as good as the proper releases, but never mind the lavish sonics, feel the rarity.

[mp3s deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]

09 September 2005

The Style Council - Headstart For Happiness


The lazy simplistic critique of Paul Weller’s career says The Jam were great, The Style Council were shit and the solo stuff’s OK but a bit boring. And that’s complete bollocks. He’s done genius and rubbish throughout his career.

Despite The Jam’s punk frenzy, The Style Council had his most political lyrics and also some tremendous euphoric joy-of-life songs. Headstart For Happiness is one of my favourite things ever recorded. This version was done as an extra track for the B-side of the Money Go Round 12 inch.

It was laid down so soon after it was written that you can clearly hear that Weller’s performing it in the same mood that it was written in. There was a later version recorded with a full band for the Cafe Bleu album, but it's heavy, clunky and lacks the bubbling joy of this take.

The shine, the looseness of the fingerclicks and handclaps, the flying-free feeling are so contagious, and the giddy effervescent sparkling lyrics of new found love have a matching wonderful irrepressible carefree abandon to them.

The positivity and love in the words describing coming together after a week apart from a person who sets your heart aflame and who makes everything go wild and make sense all at the same time are exactly how I feel right now.

Here she is - how could anyone not fall in love with her?

She's the one on the left, I hasten to add.

[MP3 deleted to make way for new ones. Sorry!]