"I think love and ideology overlap and sometimes things that politically occur have ramifications for people's relationships and that to me, they are the best kind of song," Billy Bragg told The 7.30 Report in 1999.
In 1987 – following his huge disappointment over Margaret Thatcher’s election for a third term as UK prime minister – Bragg delivered his most cohesive, melodically and lyrically tender and most loved album of the decade, Workers Playtime.
Bragg was heavily involved in the Red Wedge Collective, organising tours and gigs in support of the UK’s Labour Party in the lead up to that 1987 election. He’d already made a name for himself as a staunch and vocal left leaning political artist through his first three albums. For his fourth record, he wanted to shake things up a little.
"I didn’t want to make another album full of ranting about Margaret Thatcher,” he told triple j in a 1989 interview. “I wanted to make an album that was a bit more personal, to reflect the fact that I felt I was getting a bit one dimensional, in England anyway, through all the political work."
"Although you can’t ignore political work or do gigs without addressing those sort of issues, you have to try and strike a balance. So I was quite pleased with the result."
And with good reason too, given the shaky start to the making of the album. Bragg began recording with John Porter and Kenny Jones, who’d worked on 1986’s Talking with the Taxman About Poetry.
Then, Porter stopped turning up to the sessions.
Kenny continued, contributing lovely guitar parts but not in a producing capacity. In his podcast, Bragg recalls that Norman Cook made an appearance at the studio. But eventually it would be revered 60s producer Joe Boyd – who’d made albums with Nick Drake and Fairport Convention – that would sympathetically steer this collection of songs.
In his 1989 interview, Bragg revealed that he and Joe Boyd argued a lot over the making of the album and the treatment of certain songs.
‘It’s about male bonding, particularly, in England anyway, where the topic, especially sexuality and people who are attracted to members of their own sex is being attacked by things like Clause 28,” he said of a capella song ‘Tender Comrade’.
“The so-called moral majority using the AIDS issue as a way to bash the gays, when it’s not something that’s confined to any one group in society. I wanted to take part in that debate so it was important for me to get that [song] in.”
Boyd was keen for extra instrumentation on the track. But the sombre and solitary tone of Bragg’s unaccompanied delivery renders the song with a mournful air, like a lonely bugle slowly sounding off at the end of a long and sorrowful day.
There’s no shortage of sadness, heartbreak and disillusionment to wallow in on this album, but with Bragg’s poetry, insight and wit there’s always a hint of hope on the horizon.
This is most evident in the ideally positioned closing track, one of Bragg’s most enduring tunes, ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards’.
“It was written after the election defeat in 87. Like any idealist who’s trying to achieve anything – not necessarily in a political sense – I thought, ‘Is this doing anything? Am I actually achieving anything?’
“I wrote that song and felt it was worthwhile. It’s not going to change the world overnight, but it is very important to attempt to put these ideas across through this medium.”
It’s while hearing a song like this, that we can all be gratefully reminded that, despite the bleakness of life’s disappointments and despair for the future, ‘the Revolution is just a t-shirt away.’