Bach, Beethoven, Brickbat and Me
Between his 5th LP (Don’t Try This At Home) released in late 1991 and his 6th (William Bloke) released in 1996, Billy Bragg changed. Certainly over a five-year period it would be stranger were he not to have changed, but these changes were not minor.
After years of touring a bout of appendicitis forced him to take a break and convalesce. He then got married and had a kid. How would the lovelorn troubadour react to being a husband and father? How could he balance domesticity with activism?
William Bloke gave all the answers.
Opener From Red To Blue dealt with the politics straight away. At once reaffirming his own commitment whilst castigating those who allowed changes in their personal life to affect their politics, it was strident classic Bragg, with a family twist. To Bragg of 1996 the question wasn’t whether he would allow family life to make his politics become more selfish (and more Blue) but whether he should “vote Red for my class, or Green for our children”.
It’s a wonderful song, but perhaps not a genuine departure from his other works.
Brickbat, however, is.
I can’t help but make comparisons between Billy Bragg and Phil Ochs. Each is (or was) the foremost political songwriter of their time. Both wore their politics proudly, wrapping it up in melody, anger and humour. Both brought their audience onside with sometimes madcap, often self-deprecating, always engaging stage banter.
There is however one massive difference between them – love. For all his obvious political commitment, it is songs of love that absolutely defines Billy’s career. “I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, I’m just looking for another girl” may or not be a wholly truthful line, but it speaks of a truth none the less. Songs such as The Home Front, Valentine’s Day Is Over and even Between The Wars, served to humanise political issues. In Upfield he sings of “Socialism of the heart” and this “heart” is everywhere, in the personal as well as the political. Most obviously in songs such as The Only One (“the chain that fell off my bike is wrapped around my heart”) but is key to…well, pretty much every song he ever wrote. He may not mention L.O.V.E much, but it lurks behind so many of his lyrics.
Which brings us to Brickbat.
It probably sounds proper wanky to say so but to me this is the key Billy Bragg song. This isn’t an apology for domesticity. This is a celebration. This was, in Billy’s own words, a song about getting a life. The life that so many of his other songs documented the search for. For life, read love. Read, family.
He sings – “I used to want to plant bombs, at the Last Night of The Proms” (don’t we all! Metaphorically at least), taking us to now, to his new reality – “but now you’ll find me, with the baby, in the bathroom, with the big shell, listening for the sounds of the sea – the baby and me”. It’s a beautifully, simple scene.
A brickbat is a something can be used as a weapon. In using it as the title of the song it’s a as if he’s taking something he could be attacked with a turning it against any accuser – “And through it all, the stick I take is worth it for the love we make”.
The song ends with three words – “I love you”.
Love is present in Phil Ochs’s songs, but it appears more vague, more abstract somehow. “It’s only love that frees the fires for burning” he sings in Song of My Returning. Love here is not the be-all and end-all, but is spur for other deeds. (An unreleased song called Love Is a Rainbow seems to have been written by someone who has no more than a theoretical understanding of love – “And love is a rainbow curving down from the sky, falling crystals of colour, shades of warm that never die”. Little wonder he never recorded it.)
Political commitment, however, is present, stark and obvious.
Phil’s 3rd album, the sparse, overtly political Phil Ochs’ In Concert, ends with When I’m Gone, an affirmation of political action like no other. His next album is far less obviously political, and the sparseness (by 1967 not so much a byword for folkish authenticity as a tired cliché) replaced with a lushness of strings and an overload of poetical ideas. And yet as with Billy’s William Bloke, it opens with a reaffirmation of all that had gone before it – “I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give”. Unlike Billy’s song it wasn’t reaffirming activism in the face of comfort and love, rather it was in the face of disappointment. Each verse is a litany of despondency and regret. He sings of dreams turning into nightmares, of warm feelings becoming deformed, of screaming and mistakes. All of which makes the refrain – “cross my heart and hope to live” – all the more life affirming. I want to live, not because of the joys of life, but despite all of its horrors. It paints Phil as a contrarian, happiest in opposition. Happiest when there is something to fight.
And there is his Brickbat. Or at least his closest song to Brickbat. The bravest song he would ever write.
Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Me.
Just like Billy’s song it sings of quiet, of domesticity, of the life that happens when you’re making other plans. But where Billy’s song is warm and cosy, with arguments feeling real and small and normal – here we find dullness, life-sapping dullness.
The morning breaks with dust in the air. Phil lays on his back. Life goes on around him, humdrum, uninspiring. He is “surrounded by cemetery”. He sings of the “Warner Brother’s ghost”. Phil’s description of Los Angeles as a “sensual morgue” rings true here. The word that springs to mind is moribund. And yet I called this song brave, and it is. Partly because he portrays his life as dreadfully uncool. He singing of truth for its own sake, there is no pretence here. “Nobody gets along”. Eurgh.
The various characters that we meet – Karen, Frances, Eric, Andy, Eric, Walter – appear just as names followed by characterless actions. Whilst we may be able to figure out who they are (if “speechless” Walter is Walter Cronkite for example, than that tells of a deeper sadness) it’s as if Phil doesn’t want us to know, maybe doesn’t want to know himself even.
In Brickbat Billy sings, “the past is always knocking incessant, trying to breakthrough into the present”, followed by a warning that “we have to work to keep it out”. Here though, Phil “dreams of the past”, or rather escapes into it. And where can he go from here?
Billy described the Brickbat as a song about finding a life, a life with activism, a music career and a family balanced, precarious maybe, but balanced all the same. Phil’s life away from music and politics seems…virtually non-existent. In his previous album he sang “my life is now a death to me” and here it is, presented as evidence. And it’s rather shocking. Horrible even.
And where does he go from here?
The final two tracks on his final studio album.
Basket In The Pool – a rather vacuous song of a rather sad, pointless act of defiance.
And finally, No More Songs – the end of the world.
Shocking. Horrible even.