…Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?

Perhaps it’s partly as a result of his pluck and determination, but Billy Bragg is one of those artists who grow on you. I became marginally aware of him in the early ‘80s after hearing Kirsty MacColl’s version of today’s selection, but never had occasion to listen to the man himself until the late ‘90s, having purchased the album, Mermaid Avenue.

The actual Mermaid Avenue is the Coney Island street where Woody Guthrie lived (the album cover includes a picture of his house) and Guthrie’s daughter, Nora had asked Bragg to set some of her father’s unrecorded lyrics (and he had many) to music after seeing him perform a Woody Guthrie tribute concert in Central Park.

Bragg asked if he could recruit Wilco (out of Chicago) to serve as his band and the result was a surprising success; so much so that a Volume II was later released. Unsurprisingly, the word “surprising” is used regularly when discussing Stephen William Bragg

Born in Barking, Essex in 1957, he first formed a punk band (called Riff Raff) in the late ‘70, playing pub gigs in the evenings with days spent working in a record store.  But after a number of years and a number of unsuccessful demo tapes, he became disillusioned with his music and joined the British Army as a recruit for the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars.  Three months in and Bragg saw the light.  Having completed basic training, he managed to buy his way out of the army.

The theory behind such an option is that it’s in no one’s best interest to have a malcontent within the ranks of a professional army, although the more training one has received the higher the cost.  In Bragg’s case it was £175 (in 1981) and he returned to London, initially as a busker and then as a solo act in clubs and pubs around town.

In due course he began to circulate a new demo tape, once again without success.  But this time Billy Bragg wasn’t going to leave it at that and after pretending to be a television repairman, managed to get into the A&R (Artists and Repertoire) offices of aptly named, Charisma Records. Even though Charisma was near bankruptcy (and soon acquired by Virgin Records) Bragg convinced enough of the right people that his music would make a good record and in 1983 the album Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy was released.

He didn’t stop there, however, upon hearing an influential disc jockey at BBC Radio 1 mention on-air that he was hungry, Bragg rushed to the studio with a takeaway biryani and the thankful DJ played a song from his album.  Regrettably the album was unconventionally cut to play at 45 rpm and the DJ played it at the wrong speed.

All was well in the end, however and after repeated play at the correct speed, Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy hit the UK charts, reaching Number 30. Today’s selection comes from that debut album but in typical Billy Bragg fashion, yet another story comes attached.

The idea for “A New England” (not to be confused with “our” New England) came about when Bragg sighted two satellites flying side by side and considered it to be rather romantic. Eventually the notion changed direction, especially after he borrowed the melody from Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song.” You may also recognize a touch of Paul Simon (who Bragg cites as a major influence) as the song’s opening two lines were taken verbatim from Simon and Garfunkel’s “Leaves that are Green.”

None of this “sampling” mattered to Kirsty MacColl who was already a BBC “Top of the Pops” regular.  Nevertheless, she did think that today’s (original) version was too short, so Bragg wrote an additional verse just for her (the additional lyrics are bracketed below) and MacColl’s cover reached Number 7 on the UK charts (her highest charting ever) in 1984.

Upon learning of her death (she was struck while pushing her son out of the way of an oncoming speed boat in Cozumel), Bragg included the additional verse in his next performance and has done so, as a tribute, ever since.

LISTEN TO TODAY’S SELECTION – Tuesday 3 April

A New England

 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

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)

 {My dreams were full of strange ideas

My mind was set despite the fears

But other things got in the way

I never asked that boy (girl) to stay

 Once upon a time at home

I sat beside the telephone

Waiting for someone to pull me through

When at last it didn’t ring, I knew it wasn’t you.

 I don’t want to change the world

I’m not looking for a new England

I’m just looking for another girl

(Are you looking for another girl)}

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