How Time Changes A Song: Billy Bragg's "A New England"
In 1983, Billy Bragg released "A New England," a young man's song that began with the lyrics:
I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song
I'm twenty-two now, but I won't be for long
People ask me, "When will you grow up to be a man?"
But all the girls I loved in school are already pushing prams...
Bragg's original rendition had him singing solo, backed only by an electric guitar -- a pretty unusual arrangement in any era, but decidedly odd in the musical climate of the early 80's. The studio version was dripping with reverb, sounding a bit like Bragg was performing in a bathroom. Here's a live performance from the 80's (when Bragg was in his mid-twenties) showing the song's early, punky sound:
Read how the song changed over the next twenty-five years after the jump.
In 1985, Kirsty MacColl released her cover of the song and reached #7 on the UK charts. Bragg had slightly rewritten the lyrics for her, changing the narrator's perspective to be female and adding a verse. MacColl's version was a hit, but was decidedly cheesy:
By 1988, Bragg was in his 30's and the song was very well-known. The song had become a sing-along:
In a 2007 show (at age 49) in Berlin, Bragg performed the song as a jokey sing-along, frequently stopping and chatting with the audience. Like in many modern performances, he also included the extra Kirty MacColl verse, in memory of her death in 2000.
At 2008's NME Awards, Bragg and Kate Nash performed a medley of Nash's "Foundation" and Bragg's "A New England" with Bragg now 50 years old and Nash aged 21. Bragg's guitar is now acoustic, and there's a full band in evidence, but the song's "I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song" introduction is still intact:
I still think I prefer the original (widely available on the Bragg compilation "Back to Basics"), but he sure has kept things moving over twenty-five years playing that song. It's nice to see that the song's original lyric and perspective still make sense decades after their debut. All hail Billy Bragg!