Review Summary: Nostalgia ain't what it used to be.
That moment when you finally leave school or college and venture out into the real world. Your whole future ahead of you. No job, no discernible skills, no money. What the hell are you going to do with your life? As for love, well you’ve outgrown the comfort blanket of your parents, but for what? Who are you going to share your life with? All around you, your friends are settling down, chasing mortgages, careers, babies; as life leaves you behind.
Billy Bragg formed a punk band after leaving school, but a couple of years down the line, was still going nowhere. He joined the army, but became so disillusioned he had to buy out his contract. At just twenty he found himself reduced to being just another statistic in the ranks of the unemployed. When life should be just beginning, it must have seemed like it had already passed him by. He pours out his frustrations into this compilation of early songs, such as the wistful pop tune and top ten UK hit New England
("People ask me when will I grow up to be a man/But all the girls I loved at school are already pushing prams").
The transition from boy to man is also about a search for truth; finding and developing your own ideas on how to live your life; a search for enlightenment about the ways of the world. At a turbulent time in English history with the Falklands War, the Miner’s Strike and economic depression, Bragg vents his embryonic views on a host of subjects, from war and unemployment to fashion and the media. Numerous songs deal with the invidious lot of the soldier with his slashing guitar wielded like a weapon. Towards the end of the record he becomes ever more ideological, finding the answers he is looking for in socialism and trade union philosophy.
But even if you don’t agree with his answers, don’t let that put you off. Whatever the subject, the fervour and passion of his abrasive singing voice is undeniable. Admittedly, there are one or two songs, where the clanging, clattering guitar clangs and clatters once too often, such as the aptly titled This Guitar Says Sorry
. The songs work best when there is some sense of subtlety, of finesse, such as the clarion call of a trumpet on The Saturday Boy
or the eddying swirls of an organ on A Lover Sings
. For someone who has been pigeon-holed as a protest singer, it is surprisingly his deft touch with words that forever holds sway. How about these lines to describe his infidelity: "And when you found out what happened yesterday/While you were away in this land of Cain/We were upstairs in the bedroom dancing disgusting/Flushing our babies down the drain/The apple that doesn’t want to get eaten/Will still fall off the tree." - The Myth of Trust
Armed with just an electric guitar, no drums, no bass, that serves somehow to emphasise and reinforce his own isolation, Bragg is above all else a troubadour, spinning his tales of love and passion, about wanting the girl, about getting the girl, about losing the girl. A sense of ineffable sadness pervades these songs. At an age when he should be looking to the future, he’s already lost to the past. That girl he had a crush on at school? Well, he’s still not quite over her:
"She danced with me and I still hold the memory soft and sweet. And I stare up at her window as I walk down her street. But I never made the first team, I just made the first team laugh. And she never came to the phone, she was always in the bath." - The Saturday Boy