Friday, 10 April 2009

Beautiful songs: A New England

The name Billy Bragg didn't mean a thing to me until one early morning about 10 years ago, in the dingy upstairs of the pre-renovation El Mocambo. The name still only holds limited meaning for me, event though the man has made a comeback in the years since I first noticed his music. But that meaning is strong, and rests on the power of his first release, the EP Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy—in particular, the song "A New England". I have in my mind some negligible recollection of the song's name from before that fateful day, but it is most probably false, and it doesn't matter anyway.

It was that morning, probably around four o'clock, when Billy Bragg, alone with his electric guitar, roared into my life with the perfect anti-political slogan: "I'm not looking for a new England; I'm just looking for another girl".

I don't think I considered the politics or simply the meaning behind the words too closely at the time—really they're quite direct and don't need a lot of interpretation—but I clearly remember connecting with them intuitively (i.e., without bothering to think about them), as representative of my state of mind at the time. I was anti-political, and I was looking for another girl, although it sounds simple, and it could probably have been said of the great majority of my friends.

I was 21 years when I wrote this song;
I'm 22 now, but I won't be for long.
People ask me "when will you grow up to be a man?"
But all the girls I loved at school
Are already pushing prams.
So this song was the perfect way to end a long night of dancing, drinking and desperate socializing: with some poetry from another time—when most of us were babies or children—that tidily summed up our lives. This was at Blow Up of course, in case you hadn't guessed. And many songs that one could hear there summed up quite succinctly us mods' and britpoppers' attitudes towards life: the intense focus on style, fashion and cool; the cynicism, apathy and condescension; the need to belong, evinced through excessive drinking and drugs. Pulp, Blur, the Divine Comedy—they all made the life clear: "Modern Life is Rubbish", so let all us "Common People" grab "Something for the Weekend", and so on.

But Billy Bragg wasn't the frontman of some English bourgeois neo-glam art-school band with six members all wearing suits, dresses or jumpers. He was an activist punk and poet with a guitar and a middling voice. And at 3:30 in the morning you could even dance to him in a solo Britpop fist-pumping kind of way. The sound in the El Mo echoed with a few last souls on the floor—this was the "real" end of the night after all—and the touch of distortion screamed and shivered through the place. And then you'd go home—or to someone's home anyway—more or less satisfied that you played your part; your life was justified by some words written as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, as though that time were simpler—oh sad nostalgia.

So anyway, "A New England" finished my Saturday nights for many months. I couldn't say for how long—probably over a year; maybe even two! This was somewhat before I became a DJ at Blow Up, so I wasn't quite "in" yet. I don't remember whom I asked about the song. It might have been head honcho Davy love—it was he who played it every weekend—or it might have been my excellent dancing partner James S.; or I may have harnessed the power of the World Wide Web way back when, and searched for the easily understood lyrics. Either way, I know I bought that record as soon as I saw it at one of my local second-hand record stores. I had remarkable luck finding records I wanted. I played it over and over at home, taking in each of the stunning songs. I hadn't heard anything like it—so powerful, sincere and sparse—and I'm not sure I have since. But nothing else—no other Billy Bragg work that I've listened to—has given me even remotely similar feelings. Clearly the time played a great part.

I wish I had recorded in some way (you know, like in memory) what other groups or albums I got into around the same time, to do some sort of comparative study on what was influencing me. I think I prayed through music then, and throughout my long adolescence. By listening and singing along and dancing to certain songs, repeatedly, I reinforced the themes, ideals and wants they contained. I came to understand the world in terms of middle-class British (anti-)romance and vices and (anti-)politics—a sort of ethic of non-engagement, disdaining authority, but not bothering or willing to dispute or subvert the prevailing order. This is what I brought into my life, and how I lived my life at the time, it's fair to say. I guess it's not an uncommon theme for youth generally.

Recently I gave up the delusion that I might digitize the album from my vinyl copy, and I downloaded Life's a Riot. I hadn't listened to "A New England" for several years. Although I've since and finally left my adolescence behind (as far as I imagine I ever will), along with my apathy and several other traits that are acceptable—even charming—in youth, but distasteful in adults, the song still resonates deeply with me.

And now I'm free to consider the wider circumstances of the song: it is the product of a certain time and condition in the United Kingdom—which I won't pretend to know anything about—and it's certainly not anti-political, despite the appearance of its disarming lyrics. The chorus makes it clear that there is call for a new England, just that the subject of the song won't have anything to do with it. Instead, he is focussed on the issues—or the one main issue—facing young people anywhere in the world at any time: the passage into adulthood, the acceptance into society, the original political act. It did presage this passage in me. Within a couple of years, I moved out of my parents' house, began working regularly, engaged in political discourse, and eventually went to university—and left behind Blow Up, with some sadness. I guess it shouldn't be surprising then, that I stopped pulling Billy Bragg off my record shelf about that time, too.

Now I can listen to it at leisure, and I have. I almost feel guilty listening to it, like I'm indulging in some deep nostalgia. But would I ever feel indulgent listening to The Beatles or New Order? But enough of that! "A New England" is almost overpowering in its simplicity. I was certainly more indulgent the first time around! I hold it in Awe, like a Spring of Pure Beauty filtering through the Fabric of the Universe. I recommend a listen—to the album version first. Some live versions are very good, but none of them match the original recording, to my ears.

I hope you've enjoyed my little story; I promise to have something more for you soon.
___

I was 21 years when I wrote this song;
I'm 22 now, but I won't be for long.
People ask me "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;
Though 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.
Looking for another girl
Looking for another girl
Looking for another girl

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The New Dilettantes by Adam Gorley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Canada License.