Public Image ltd. Play “Rise”

Listen to this track by rotating cast of musical characters in orbit around one-time Rotten singer John Lydon; Public Image, Ltd. It’s “Rise”, a single and top twenty record as taken from the imaginatively titled 1986 LP, Album (or Cassette, or Compact Disc, depending on format…). The album was the fifth released under the name Public Image, Ltd. since forming in 1978. By this period, it was more like a John Lydon solo record with some very notable, and very unexpected players featured on it.

The musicians on this song alone are a fair distance away from the musical world with which Lydon was generally associated. Stylistically, they’re even pretty far from each other in terms of genre, coming in from parallel stylistic universes to make a (perhaps) surprisingly complementary set of noises together while still retaining their own signature styles. This internal cohesion is largely down to the involvement of producer, bassist, musical director, and co-writer of this song Bill Laswell, well known for his knack for finding common threads between genres and musician’s styles to create something seamless out of them.

What does singer John Lydon himself bring to this song in the middle of all of that, a charting hit that reached #11 on the UK pop charts? Well, perhaps unexpectedly from the guy who wailed “no future for you!” at one point in his career, I think this song is about hope for the future itself. But, it’s hope with a cost. Read more

Jill Sobule Sings “When They Say We Want Our America Back (What The F#%k Do They Mean?)”

monster protest jams vol 1Listen to this track by singer-songwriter-satirist with a highly developed social conscience matched by a sense of humour, Jill Sobule. It’s “When They Say We Want Our America Back (What The F#%k Do They Mean?)”, a single as taken from her involvement in the recent My Song Is My Weapon project, and its accompanying album Monster Protest Jams, Vol. 1. The album is a compilation of new protest songs that includes the work of artists like Tom Morello, Todd Rundgren, Amanda Palmer, Wayne Kramer, Wendy & Lisa, and many others.

The project, co-founded by Sobule, is based around the idea that the grand tradition of artistic protest in America needs an online forum. Through Pledge Music, we can help make that a reality particularly during a time when it is very difficult to tell satirical headlines from the actual news. More to the point, it’s a time when also-ran politicians and would-be world leaders seem to deal mostly in ambiguity and emotional button pushing instead of real data, specifically around the nebulous concept of the good ol’ days when America Was Great. No one can quite remember this era in exact detail, but many feel as though they need to replicate it in our modern age by electing repressive and out and out dangerous demagogues.

So, what is the role of the protest song in a socio-political environment such as ours? Does is have the same effect as it once did in the idealistic sixties or even in the jaded seventies? In this age of technological networks, maybe the answer is less about the song, and more about the listeners. Read more

The Specials Play “Too Much Too Young” (Live EP Version)

The Special AKA Too Much Too YoungListen to this track by first tier of second wave ska outfits The Specials. It’s “Too Much Too Young” as featured on their 1980 EP of the same name. It was released in January of that year, quick to follow up their self-titled record that preceded it in October.

This song was featured on that release as well, with a slightly slower  and more languid tempo. With this version, recorded live in front of an audience at the Lyceum in London, the song is amped up in every way, full of the kind of on-stage energy for which the band were known by this time, clocking in at just over two minutes. The result was a number one showing on the UK singles chart in February, being the shortest song in the UK to hit a number one spot during that decade.

As with much of their material, The Specials drew inspiration from the Trojan label and the music associated with it coming out of Jamaica in the mid-to-late sixties. Head writer Jerry Dammers based this song around some elements that can be found on the 1969 single by Lloyd Charmers “Birth Control“, adding a bit of contemporary content of his own in this new track that took some of the themes of the original, and put something of a political spin on the proceedings in so doing. So, how does a jaunty ska track become so political? Read more

McCarthy Play “Red Sleeping Beauty”

McCarthy band group shotListen to this track by Barking, Essex-based left-leaning jangle pop maestros McCarthy. It’s their 1986 single “Red Sleeping Beauty”, the harbinger for their first album that would appear the next year, I Am A Wallet.

The band put themselves across as a sort of politicized Smiths, with jangling guitars and lyrics that alluded to the cracks in the facade where mid-to-late ’80s Britain was concerned. They built their sound around the political lyrics of singer/guitarist Malcolm Eden, and the chiming folk-indie lines laid down by lead guitarist Tim Gane.

McCarthy formed in 1984, just before the height of the unemployment rash and miner’s strike in England, as well as the dismantling of the social safety net at the hands of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives. Despite their material being very concerned with those particular times, by the time this track came out on the Pink label, they didn’t get much radio play internationally, or even domestically, other than by way of the immortal champion of fringe indie bands John Peel, who hosted several of his famous sessions with McCarthy.

But, they would provide another service to music as a whole beyond their small but vital output by the end of the decade, even if at the time, they appeared not to make much impact. Read more

Bronski Beat Plays “Smalltown Boy”

Bronski Beat The Age of ConsentListen to this track by London-based synthpop trio Bronski Beat. It’s “Smalltown Boy”, their biggest hit, released in June of 1984, and eventually appearing on their first record Age of Consent by the end of the year. Before this, they were three housemates living in Brixton, south London; Steve Bronski (after whom the band is named), Larry Steinbachek, both of whom played keyboards, and Jimmy Somerville lending his uniquely calibrated pipes as lead vocalist.

The single was a smash success, gaining top ten showings all over the world, and only after the three friends did only a brief stint of gigs before signing with London Records. Besides the clear thematic content in the song itself, another aspect of the song was assuredly brought out by the video which enjoyed heavy rotation. In it, Somerville portrays a young man who is on a train, reflecting on what it was that set him out on his journey; that the small town where he is from is too small for him, and for others like him.

In many ways, it’s a pretty simple narrative. But, it was, and is, tied up in a common thread that we’re still working our way through as a society today. Read more

UB40 Perform ‘Food For Thought’

Here’s a clip of Birmingham UK reggae octet UB40 with their 1980 track ‘Food For Thought’ as taken from their debut album Signing Off.  Among the bands coming out of the ska/reggae revivalist movement in the Midlands of England by the late 70s and early 80s, UB40 had the most commercial success, although it’s important to note that they were never officially a part of that scene.

Their were a lot of Birmingham bands that focused their songwriting initially on political topics around the time UB40 debuted. And the sociological similarities between UB40 and the Two-Tone scene are undeniable. For instance, the band formed in an economically depressed region of the country, is multi-racial, and drew from the sounds of the Caribbean for inspiration including Desmond Dekker, The Slickers, Jimmy Cliff, and Toots & the Maytals, among others. But these overarching elements are where any comparisons to their peers end.

I first heard this tune on the band’s 1983 Live album, a song about the disparity between the first and third worlds, with some references to the absurdity of religion in the face of human suffering thrown in.  I was 14 at the time, unaware of most of what was going on in distant places.  But the weightiness of this song, the stark imagery in the song’s lyrics, more than made up for that lack of awareness.

The lamenting sax lines from saxophonist Brian Travers, along with Ali Campbell’s plaintive vocal convey the sadness and the anger in this tune.  And the rhythm makes each line hypnotic, holding the attention of the listener. It’s always annoyed me that reggae has been sidelined as music to smoke pot to, especially when so much of the best of the genre is about paying attention, and not letting it wander.  And this was the strength that UB40 had on their early albums; they made reggae music that had something to say, like the music of those who influenced them.

UB40 were more of a purist reggae outfit when they started out, leaving behind the abrasive textures of punk which marked the Two-Tone sound which was another prevalent musical scene in Birmingham, Coventry, and the outlying areas. This is one of the major reasons why they are thought of as being separate from their contemporaries like the Specials or The Beat.  They would eventually leave the rootsy sounds of Jamaican reggae too,  and take it in a more AM radio pop-reggae direction by the late 80s and into the 90s, which diluted their sound to the band’s detriment.

But, their first few albums were very focused on their dual purpose as a band; play reggae and make money.  If this last bit sounds a bit on the mercenary side, it’s because these guys had all lost their jobs and formed the band as a means to make up the difference.  They even named the group after the UB40 form, which is the documentation needed to get their dole money.

After they gained an audience and rose in stature, they most likely had a more difficult time justifying their unemployment benefits.  Yet, at least in the beginning, they were giving voice to that audience by singing about what they perceived to be a crumbling society around them, as well as how the corruption of their government was affecting life in the Third World.  In short, they were a long way from reggae covers of Elvis tunes, at least for a while.


Billy Bragg Performs “Tank Park Salute”

Here’s a clip of Billy Bragg performing one of my favourite songs by anyone; “Tank Park Salute” taken from his 1991 album Don’t Try This at Home.

Billy Bragg

The song is one of the most heartfelt songs about death ever written. While the song is an eloquent expression of what it is to experience loss, it’s also got a child-like quality in the performance to offset any accusations of sermonizing. In this song alone, Bragg is shown to be one of the most gifted songwriters of his generation.

This is a song about a son coming to terms with the loss of his dad, a figure that had stood for stalwartness and permanence, now having passed. The loss leaves his son to come to terms with mortality – his father’s, and ultimately his own as well. There are no answers here, just raw emotion; “at the top of the stairs is darkness”.

Billy Bragg is most often associated with a customized punk-folk sound, and with material with an anti-establishment, politicized edge sung in a class-conscious Essex accent. It’s true that Bragg’s left-of-centre, pro-union stance is a big part of his catalogue from his Thatcher-era debut onward. But, even from the beginning, he was interested in classic pop songwriting, not impersonal political sloganeering. Bragg has always been a writer of songs about the human condition. Politics are merely a facet of his interest in this greater theme.

Some of his best tunes are the ones that are straight-up love songs. See his “Milkman of Human Kindness” from his 1983 EP Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy. A down-to-earth, no-bones-about-it love song of this kind is rare in its delivery, and in its melodic appeal. This song alone shows that Bragg is not a two-dimensional polemical loudspeaker, riding a trend of anti-government songwriting. The themes found in his work as a whole are universal, timeless, and having to do with flesh and blood human experience. This is the Holy Grail of any songwriter – to make a connection with that, and have that connection endure.

Bragg’s songwriting pedigree was well established when Nora Guthrie contacted Bragg about putting music to the lyrics penned by her father who was the original left-leaning politicized songwriter – Woody Guthrie. She had found pages of lyrics written by her dad, and Billy Bragg added music to Woody Gutherie’s lyrics, with the help of alt-country band Wilco who signed on to back him and to contribute their own musical efforts to the songs. The resulting albums – Mermaid Avenue, and Mermaid Avenue Volume 2 – were released to acclaim in 1998 and 2000 respectively.

Billy Bragg’s latest album, Mr. Love & Justice is out now.

For more music, check out the Billy Bragg MySpace page.

The man is touring, folks. For record releases and tour dates, subscribe to the RSS feed found on the Billy Bragg official website, too.