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January 31, 2002
Billy Bragg: Still Suitable for Miners
In retrospect, I'm not sure why I bothered reading this. Andrew Collins, the author, is mainly interested in charting developments in British socialism from the late 70s onwards. He doesn't seem to be particularly interested in any other topic, including (and perhaps especially) Billy Bragg's music. He's certainly a weird choice for writing a biography about a musician.
There is almost nothing here about what Billy goes through to write a song or record an album. They just suddenly appear, with Collins dutifully recording what chart position they got to. There are pages and pages and pages about Red Wedge - which is of zero interest to anyone outside England - and nothing about, say, the development of Bill's guitar playing or singing.
That, to me, seems a wasted opportunity, especially given how good a songwriter Billy is. This is the guy who gave the world "Levi Stubbs' Tears," one of the greatest songs ever written. Collins calls it a "wonderfully sad song," which is about the only musical discussion in the book. The only other thing he can tell you is when it was released as a single and what chart position it got to. He misses the point, repeatedly, and at great length.
Collins also has a very noisy writing style. In addition to being earnestly politically correct, he's constantly quoting bits and pieces of popular songs. Initially this seemed cute, but he does it so much that it rapidly becomes infantile. Collins tries very, very hard to show off how much he knows and how many songs he's heard. My interest in this started out low and soon dropped to zero. I just wanted him to tell me, in a calm, interesting way, about Billy Bragg.
So the most engaging parts of the book were about those parts of Billy's life I knew nothing of: having his father die when he was still a teenager, going off to live in a sleepy country town with his first band during the heyday of punk, how being in the army changed him. But these sections were over way too soon and then it was back to the history of British politics from 1977 to the present, with a particular focus on Thatcher, Kinnock, Blair and Billy Bragg. There's so much of this that Collins just runs out of room. As a result he only devotes a measly six pages to the Mermaid Avenue album. He then finishes on an embarrassingly hagiographic tone, with several pages of quotes about what a great bloke Billy is. This entire section is unnecessary.
Not highly recommended. Better to listen to the songs, or to see Billy playing live.Posted by Sean Hegarty at 12:10 AM in the Reviews category | Comments (0)
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