Thursday, February 9, 2012

"A New England" by Billy Bragg - February 9th 80's Quest Song/Band of the day

I saw Billy Bragg for the first time when he opened for The Smiths on their “Meat is Murder” tour.  You know…the internet is truly amazing, because I was able to go online and find the exact date and details, playlist etc. of this particular concert.  It was on June 14, 1985 at the Opera House in Boston, Massachusetts.  This date surprised me, because I remember for a fact that I went to go see The Smiths a day or two after graduating from high school.  I remember this, because at the time I remember thinking that I would miss some of the graduation parties that would be taking place following graduation day, but I didn’t really care and thought, “Fuck it!!…I’d rather go see The Smiths any day!”  It surprises me, however, that the date of the show was June 14th.  We must have had a very stormy winter, and gotten a lot of snow days off from school that year that we had to make-up at the end of the year, or something, because graduation does not usually occur in June, but I guess ours did!!
At any rate, that is how I became acquainted with Billy Bragg, as he opened for The Smiths at the Opera House that evening.  I love that I was able to find this clip of Billy playing just one month before (May 1985) I saw him play; because this video must be very close to what my experience was like.  I remember at the time, I wasn’t sure who Billy Bragg was, and out walks this lone guy, no band….wearing a t-shirt, carrying a guitar, that was hooked up to this teeny box-like amplifier.  I wasn’t sure he was going to be any good, but he blew me away that night.  I never heard anything so simple, be so compelling.  I became a Billy Bragg fan that evening.
This song “A New England” is one of his better-known songs.  It was a bit more romantic, and less political than many of his songs, but it has some fab lyrics such as:
“I saw two shooting stars last night.  I wished on them, but they were only satellites.  It’s wrong to wish on space hardware.  I wish, I wish, I wish you cared…..”

Billy Bragg (real name Stephen William Bragg) was born in 1957 in Barking, Essex England.  In 1977 he formed a punk band called Riff Raff and played throughout London’s clubs and pubs. The band only experienced local success, and Bragg got disillusioned with music and joined the British Army.  He attended basic training, but after 3 months bought his way out of the army and did not serve as a soldier.  He went back to London and began playing solo with an electric guitar, and busking around the city. 
He put out a demo tape, but received no response, so he began to hustle to get himself ahead.  First he pretended to be a television repair man and got into the offices of Charisma Records A&R man, Peter Jenner.  Although Jenner liked the demo, Charisma Records was near bankruptcy and was not signing new artists.  When Bragg received an offer from a music publisher to record more demos, Jenner agreed he would release them as a record, Spy vs. Spy which was released in 1983.

When famed English radio DJ John Peel said on-air that he was hungry one night, Billy Bragg rushed to the BBC studios with some mushroom biryani and Peel played a song off Spy vs. Spy on the radio
Shortly thereafter Charisma Records was taken over by Virgin Records.  Jenner got laid off, and became Bragg’s manager.  Another record label Go! Discs heard Spy vs. Spy and made Virgin Records an offer to buy the rights, and the album was re-released on Go! Discs in November 1983.  Bragg released more albums with Go! Discs, and in fact, released 14 albums over his career:

·         Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy (1983)
·         Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (1984)
·         Talking with the Taxman about Poetry (1986)
·         Back to Basics (1987)
·         Workers Playtime (1988)
·         The Internationale (1990)
·         Don't Try This at Home (1991)
·         William Bloke (1996)
·         Bloke on Bloke (1997)
·         Mermaid Avenue (1998) (with Wilco)
·         Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (2000) (with Wilco)
·         England, Half-English (2002) (with the Blokes)
·         Mr Love & Justice (2008)
·         Fight Songs (2011)

His songs are a punky mix of folk music and protest songs, with some love songs thrown in the mix.  Bragg is a left-wing activist fond of grassroots movements.  His lyrics often reflect this.  He has spoken out for miner’s strikes, for reform of the British political system, voter apathy, police misuse of anti-terrorism legislation, and racism to name some. 
In January 2010 Bragg announced that he would not pay income tax in protest of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s plan to pay $1.5 billion in bonuses to its investment banking team.  He appeared on television and radio, and set up a Facebook page and made a speech in London’s Hyde Park in which he said, “Millions are already facing stark choices:  Are they willing to work longer hours for less money, or would they rather be unemployed?  I don’t see why the bankers at RBS shouldn’t be asked the same.”

Billy lives in England in Burton Bradstock, Dorset with his wife Juliet and song, Jack.  The song featured on 80’s quest today, “A New England” was written by Bragg and was also covered by singer Kirsty MacColl and became a Top 10 hit in the UK in 1985.  MacColl died young in 2000 when she was diving in Cozumel and was hit by a boat that belonged to a Mexican supermarket millionaire.  She was instantly killed.  Bragg had written some extra verses into the song for MacColl and since her death sings this song with the extra verses inserted as a tribute to her. 


I was twenty one years when I wrote this song
I'm twenty two now, but I won't be for long
People ask when will you grow up to be a man
But all the girls I loved at school
Are already pushing prams

I loved you then as I love you still
Tho I put you on a pedestal,
They put you on the pill
I don't feel bad about letting you go
I just feel sad about letting you know

I don't want to change the world
I'm not looking for a new England
I'm just looking for another girl
I don't want to change the world
I'm not looking for a new England
I'm just looking for another girl

I loved the words you wrote to me
But that was bloody yesterday
I can't survive on what you send
Every time you need a friend

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

I don't want to change the world
I'm not looking for a new England
I'm just looking for another girl


  1. Always loved this song too.

    There was news this week that John Peel's record collection will be digitized for online access. No insight on how long this will take or really what the heck that will mean, i.e., viewing cover art, listening? He owned 25,000 LPs, 40,000 singles, I don't know how many CDs, and obviously there is his archive of in-studio live recordings. The latter is probably the only material that either his estate or the BBC has clear rights to put online for this project.

    Even if there is a small fee involved in accessing this, I would probably be happy to pay it.

  2. I, too, was at that show in Boston at the Opera House -- my first exposure to Billy Bragg. I remember two things that I would love confirmation of from someone.

    First, I remember that the crowd demanded two encores from Billy -- unheard of for an opening act, one that no one in the audience had even ever heard before.

    Second, I remember that part of the way through the set, Billy's amp gave out. Instead of stopping or waiting for a fix, Billy kept singing while occasionally holding his electric guitar up to the mic while strumming to amplify. It was a hilarious improv and has stuck in my mind ever since.

    I soon went out and found Brewing up With Billy Bragg (vinyl of course) so I could listen to it enough to understand the lyrics. I confess that I understood only a fraction of what he said during the set not being accustomed to the thick British accent.