Sometimes, it’s all about the words.
A long time ago, when I was in Nottingham. Paul McCartney, who was still Wings at that point, released a single called ‘London Town’. I didn’t much like his work with Wings (and this was before ‘Bore of Kintyre’) and I didn’t like this one, and I especially didn’t like its lyrics and I said so with caustic reference to the line about “I was arrested by a rozzer wearing a pink balloon/
About his foot – toot toot toot toot’. No, even forty years later, I still want to bring a priceless Ming vase down on his head. This man is supposed to be a genius, right?
I was gently chided for my vehemence by my best mate, who told me that most people don’t even listen to the words, let alone care about them like I did. I’ve no doubt he was right, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t believe that the words of a song, the bit that makes it a song instead of an instrumental, the bits you bellow out in drunken chorus, the part that breaks your heart, are so unimportant. And I will never be able to forgive what to me is an insult to the listeners’ ears like McCartney’s lyrics there and elsewhere.
The exact opposite applies to this early Billy Bragg song, the opening track on his second album, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg. This was the pure Bragg, the hoarse-voiced, unmusical troubadour with the lone guitar, slashing and burning, spikey punky in inspiration if not quite sound, yet capable, musically at any rate, of some of the most tender and heartfelt songs ever.
Like I said, sometimes it’s all about the words.
‘St Swithin’s Day’ is a love song, a love-gone love song, sung to a former lover with whom it’s all died, but who still hopes, still cares, still wants to get back together and relive it. And it’s a song about saying no, not without regret, but a final no, because there’s nothing to go back to, and the third and final verse, each of which obey an eight line pattern, though the first two employ an extended seventh line that breaks into two on the page, especially when the latter of these employs an internal rhyme, the final verse breaks that news with the gentleness of inevitability.
It begins with Bragg thinking back to what was, as it happened, a terminal quarrel. At this distance he’s prepared to concede that it began as just a difference of opinion, as meaningless ultimately as the weather or the Battle of Agincourt. But nevertheless it was the end, of a love both hoped would last but like a train went by so fast, and left them unmoved.
That’s Bragg’s decision, though the fact of the song immediately brings into question whether he can speak for her with the same confidence. She’s still a pleasant memory on one level, as he still masturbates to thoughts of her (though Bragg puts it rather more elegantly, and better disguised, than that). But his hands aren’t the same, for he misses the thunder and the rain, the metaphors he uses to speak of being with her. And the fact that she doesn’t understand him, and by implication never will, casts a shadow over the land that was theirs: the sun is elsewhere, beyond that shade.
But there’s that third verse that is the true ending. She’s written to him, subject unknown but still easily guessed at. He won’t reply, because her honesty touches him like a fire, the fire of her retained love for him, perhaps.
And then there are the words that, every time I have ever heard them, have burned their way up my spine and set a frisson to the back on my neck, the irreversible pronouncement of death. The polaroids that hold us together will surely fade away, Bragg sings, like the love that we spoke of forever, on (pause) St Swithin’s Day.
St Swithin’s Day when, it is popularly supposed, whether it rains or shines it is the start of forty days of constant weather. And love spoken of on that day that can only live for the same forty days.
I am in awe of that line, as I am of so many more, written and sung with a precision that goes into the heart and tears its own, fine little hole. So many ways of putting words to the feelings that pull us from pillar to post, and so many times that writers of widely differing generations have enacted those feelings in words never put together before but once divined are literally unforgettable.
So no, I can’t subscribe to the idea that lyrics are unimportant, and not listening to them, and I resent someone with McCartney’s ability spewing out idiotic rubbish when he has – or had – the inspiration to do more. God knows why he couldn’t do it any more, maybe it really was because he no longer had John Lennon to sneer at shit like that. But Billy Bragg had the Muse whispering in his ear that day, though from his voice you might not believe it. St Swithin’s Day is not a day to fall in love upon.
Sometimes, it’s all about the words.