Friday, 27 February 2015

Billy Bragg 'Greetings To The New Brunette'

Chart Peak: 58
His previous single 'Levi Stubbs' Tears' was a Top 30 hit... 'Greetings' was released as the follow-up in late October.
OK, a couple of things to mention early on. Firstly, some discographies list this track as "Billy Bragg with Johnny Marr and Kirsty MacColl" [also how it was listed on the chart] so for consistency with earlier posts I'm continuing to credit them even though they're not mentioned on the sleeve of Now 8. Kirsty MacColl sings a prominent backing vocal towards the end of the track and Johnny Marr, he plays guitar. And as for that video, since it's been copied from VH-1 I have to assume that it's official, even though the combination of stock footage and home movies of Bragg not singing give it an oddly posthumous feel.

Billy Bragg is of course still very much among us but despite his high profile he's never been a consistent singles chart performer so Ashley Abram was taking quite a risk placing this track on the album. It of course didn't pay off as this is one of two singles on Now 8 that missed the Top 50. Interestingly both of them are the only solo appearances in the series by performers who had Top 20 hits that were uncompiled; Bragg can technically claim that his next chart appearance after this was at Number One with 'She's Leaving Home', though inevitably it was Wet Wet Wet's flipside that made it to Now 12. It's a bit of a cliche to say that most of Bragg's best writing deals with the personal rather than the political, but it's not entirely untrue; not least of course because the emotions he's discussing here are eternal. Throughout the song his protagonist addresses the unseen "Shirley" with whom he evidently has a testy but enjoyable relationship - not an over-the-top Burton/Taylor kind of thing, the sort of relationship normal people have. Though Bragg possibly thinks of himself as cleverer than his narrator he still leaves him and Shirley as sympathetic characters and throws in perhaps his most-quoted lyric "How can you lie back and think of England when you don't even know who's in the team?" Although this doesn't quite have the same emotional impact as the aforementioned 'Levi Stubbs' Tears', neither does it have the hectoring tone of some of his songs, and the conversational tone of the performance is safely within his limited vocal range. A good song that could even have been a hit were it not for the confusing title; Bragg did eventually give in and re-record the song as 'Shirley' a decade later. If it seems out of place here, at least Bragg is sometimes better enjoyed in smaller doses.

Kirsty MacColl also appears on: Now 10 [with the Pogues], 15, 31
Available on: Must I Paint You a Picture?: The Essential Billy Bragg

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