Billy Bragg: Don’t Try This At Home

The 6th in the series revisiting classic albums and old favourites.

It’s hard to believe that more than two decades has passed since Billy Bragg’s album Don’t Try This At Home was released by Elektra. The 1991 album still sounds relatively fresh and it remains the finest blend of the personal and political that the English singer/songwriter has come up with to date. Words have always been a vital element of any Billy Bragg song but the 16 tracks on this album also contain lots of fine melodies and arrangements. His voice and guitar is complemented sometimes by a full rock band and at other times with a sympathetic sprinkling of different instruments including piano, mandolin, trumpet and flugelhorn. It all adds up to an album which is not just his most accessible but simply the best he’s made.

Back in 1983, when Bragg’s first recordings were released, he came across as a left-wing political activist, influenced by The Clash, whose do-it-yourself attitude meant that he usually performed alone, accompanied only by an electric guitar. By the time Don’t Try This At Home arrived on the scene the commitment to causes and activism hadn’t softened at all but had broadened to include a number of other themes and developments in both singing and writing and the album has the best of both worlds.

‘Accident Waiting to Happen’ which starts off the album is a fine polemical song in the great Bragg tradition but this is immediately followed by ‘Moving the Goalposts’ a love song of real quality. The poignant ‘God’s Footballer’ refers to Wolves player Peter Knowles who gave up a successful career to become a Jehovah’s Witness. The most haunting song on the album though is ‘Tank Park Salute’ a tribute to the singer’s late father, while ‘Sexuality’ (co-written with Johnny Marr) is a catchy pop song with an instantly memorable chorus. Some of the words of the songs address racism, patriotism, and capitalism and ought to sound dated by now but are sadly still relevant in today’s world – for example ‘North Sea Bubble’ which contains the lines: “You keep buying these things but you don’t need them / But as long as you’re comfortable it feels like freedom”.

I saw Billy Bragg live in London in the early 1980s and then again in Japan where I finally met up with him and his manager at Osaka’s Club Quattro after a concert not long after the release of this album. Since those days he has taken an increasing interest in folk and roots music and has also created some important new songs by setting original music to some lyrics left by American folk legend Woody Guthrie. His 2002 album England, Half English even shows an Okinawan music influence on one song, ‘Jane Allen’. But Don’t Try This At Home remains the high point for me… and I have long since forgiven Billy (a West Ham United fan) gently mocking me for wearing a Norwich City shirt during our brief encounter in Osaka.

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