Billy Bragg’s The Internationale Imagines a Fairer world

Bragg’s most earnest and political album remains surprisingly relevant 30 years later

Billy Bragg The Internationale, Utility Records 1990

Greed was good in 1990. The Berlin Wall had fallen late in 1989, and the U.S. was about to embark on its strongest sustained period of growth since World War II.

Around the world, repressive forms of government were falling – the Soviet bloc was crumbling, South African apartheid had begun to loosen, Vietnam was bustling with commerce. Capitalism was triumphant everywhere. 

It was not the most auspicious time to record an album of lefty covers, leading off with a slightly altered version of communism’s greatest hit, “The Internationale,” but this is exactly what Billy Bragg did. Always engaged, Bragg had, up to that point, leavened his political broadsides with human interest. The Internationale was unadulterated agitprop. In a world preoccupied with making good, making partner, making bank, it didn’t go over particularly well. 

Christgau gave it a “bomb” rating. People magazine grudgingly admired his chutzpah, observing that, “Even devout liberals have been known to nod off during Bragg’s earnest between-song speeches, and as a bright guy, he must know it. So, what does he do? He fills his seventh U.S. release with seven of the most political songs ever written. Take that, you cynics!” The Chicago Reader’s Bill Wyman (not that Bill Wyman) hoped it was a detour (it was). 

The Internationale Side A

And yet, in his own way, Bragg was ahead of his time, a good 20 years ahead of Occupy Wall Street and 30 in advance of a certain U.S. presidential candidate who asks us what we would do for people we don’t know. Here he is in the LA Times in 1990 explaining socialism, “The way I see it, socialism is another word for caring–allowing someone else into your life. And the most basic example of this is when you love someone. To let a complete stranger into our lives and care for them, that, multiplied by xxx million, is what socialism is all about.”  Chuck in a few references to billionaires and our revolution, and you’re at a Sanders rally.

Bragg had, of course, always been political. He was radicalized by the Miner’s Strike in 1984, and his song “Which Side Are You On” from Brewing Up With Billy Bragg explicitly dealt with the strike. He formed the Red Wedge a year later to enlist musicians in engaging young people in politics. His best and best-known album, Talking with the Taxman about Poetry from 1986, included “There Is Power in the Union,” alongside more personal, lyrics material like “Greetings to the New Brunette” and “Levi Stubbs’ Tears.” 

But The Internationale was a heavier dose of political activism—seven songs, six of them covers, decrying capitalism, war-mongering, interference in Nicaragua and the indifference of popular audiences towards politically-minded art. It begins with a bombastic, fully-orchestrated version of the Communist Party anthem, Bragg’s cracking tenor riding brutalist surges of strings, horns and Russian opera choruses. At the urging of Pete Seeger, Bragg reworked the words somewhat to reflect a post-Soviet reality. For example, the second verse references the fall of the Berlin Wall but cautions against capitalists taking a victory lap. “In our world poisoned by exploitation/Those who have taken, now they must give!” he sings. 

Billy Bragg’s The Internationale At 30 (Art: Ron Hart)

Bragg is well aware of his place in a continuing tradition of protest music, and in “I Dreamed Phil Ochs Last Night,” he re-imagines an old labor movement song as homage to the folk singer Phil Ochs. The song was originally about labor organizer Joe Hill, who was most likely framed for murder and executed in 1915. Interestingly, Hill was also a songwriter, the author of “There Is Power in the Union,” referenced above. But Bragg makes the singer Phil Ochs the protagonist of his song, working artistic disappointment and government surveillance into his verses. You can imagine Bragg identifying with Ochs, a songwriter too radical for mainstream success.

A spare, a capella rendering “Nicaragua Nicaraguita,” originally by the Nicaraguan writer Carlos Mejía Godoy, reminds us of Bragg’s work for the central American country’s political autonomy. About a year before The Internationale came out, Bragg had served as a UN observer monitoring Nicaraguan elections.  Other cuts make a less specific case for peace and equality. “My Youngest Son Came Home Today,” perhaps the most compelling track on the album, is wrenching and universal. Its narrator is the parent of a boy killed in the Irish troubles, but it could be any loss, any country, any war. 

The Internationale was reissued in 2006 on Yep Roc, as part of a larger Billy Bragg retrospective, and this expanded version included 12 additional live and unreleased tracks (a wonderfully raucous “Help Save the Youth of America,” for instance, recorded in Russia). It’s a bit more than you want of this sort of thing—even the most agreeable and justified kinds of propaganda become tiresome after a while—yet it highlights the spare, heartfelt conciseness of the original EP. Billy Bragg took a long break after The Internationale for marriage and family life, and when he came back, his bite and commitment had softened. This is him howling at the universe at the unfairness of it all, too late for the 1960s protest movement and too soon for the millennials’ socialist revival, but still right all the same. 

 

 

 

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Jennfer Kelly

Jennifer Kelly has been writing about music since the early aughts, beginning at Splendid and Neumu and more recently at Dusted, PopMatters and Aquarium Drunkard. She likes garage rock, psych, acid folk, guitar pickers and punk rockers, and she's a sucker for any band that shouts "hey!" in the middle of a song.  

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