Tuesday, July 21, 2009

I don't want to change the world, I'm not looking for new England

27 Billy Bragg, 'Levi Stubbs' Tears'; 28 The Four Tops, 'I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey bunch)'

Barking is an interesting place...I think. I passed through Barking a lot when I lived in Essex (I never lingered for too long). The train from Leigh-on-sea (where we lived) to Fenchurch St (when we went to London) had a stop at Barking and when I taught at Walthamstow Academy I had to change trains at Barking twice a day. So really, all I know is the station and its environs. It's not pretty - a lot of terraced housing, train tracks, litter. A kind of no-man's land, between the Essex countryside and the thrill of London proper, is my dominant impression.

I'm being unfair...probably. If you grew up and went to school in Barking, I'm thinking you probably needed to be pretty tough to survive. This is the area that fostered the emerging talent of one Billy Bragg, the so-called Bard of Barking (but not by me, I usually hate that kind of lazy shorthand tag, I make an exception for the fabs).

My first meeting with Billy was on a South Bank Show. Billy was shown cruising around record shops with a guitar and an amp on his back. He played 'A New England' and I loved the rawness of the sound but I was especially taken with his voice. There was no attempt to disguise the Thames estuary accent. I don't recall ever hearing an accent like it. That distinctive voice is a large part of his charm, as is the social realism (at times verging on soap opera) in his lyrics - 'all the girls at school are already pushing prams'. I loved the opening - 'I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I'm 22 now, but I won't be for long'. Genius!

I much prefer Billy's kitchen sink dramas and love songs to the political edgy stuff he does (or did). His early albums were typified by the split between angry-young-labour-man songs and young-poet-with-tender-sensibilities songs.

Levi Stubbs' Tears is definitely a song in the latter category. In this brilliant pop song, Billy takes on a third person narrative of a woman who has been abused and shot by her husband. You may like to read that last sentence again. Amazing, but true, and you can sing along with Billy!

The story in a nutshell - as a teenager, the woman has married a wrong un after running away from home. He leaves her (he’s that type), but later returns from sea and shoots her. No reason is given for this so the casual violence is even more of a shock. As she recovers from her 'accident' she tries to recover her life. Listening to the Four Tops helps her to recover. Oh baby, it sure does. Why tears though? I have no recollection of Levi crying in any song, or even a Four Tops’ song about crying. Maybe it’s Billy’s artistic licence at work in sympathy with the woman. Never mind – it makes for a great title.

Along the way Billy name checks the immortal songwriters for the Tops and others on the Tamla Motown roster - Norman Whitfield, Barratt Strong and Holland/Dozier/Holland. Wow. How can such a sad song be so joyous? Easy - you name check those guys and say that their feel good songs will make it all okay. And they do (and they will).

Take I Can’t Help Myself frinstance. Any song that is sub-titled Sugar Pie Honey Bunch has an awful lot going for it, has it not. Levi Stubbs' smile is all over this song – it’s a joyous explosion of a tune. Levi’s a fool in love (is there any other kind in the pop song?) and he can’t help himself. That’s it! Less is more. The magic happens with the infectious beat and the singing.

If the protagonist is at home listening to that song, she will be mumbling to herself – ‘it’s you and me against the world kid’.

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