Many pop stars have affectionate nicknames, many of which they don’t give themselves. Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, Cliff Richard was/is the Peter Pan of Pop, Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul and Paul Weller is known as The Modfather – a name he hates. This week’s subject is known as the Bard of Barking, a political poet from east London with a message in most of his songs and this week’s suggestion, Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards is no exception. Even a recent review of his current tour in The Guardian had the headline, ‘From bard of Barking to golden voice.’
Born in 1957 with the birth name Stephen William Bragg, it was at a Clash concert in 1977 that Billy was influenced enough to want to become a full-time musician and later the same year formed the band Riff Raff with Wiggy. They did a stack of gigs in London and in various part of Northamptonshire, but not making much impact they returned to Barking – then in Essex, and split up. Bragg then took a job in a record shop. Still keen on being a musician, he went busking on the streets of London under the alias Spy vs Spy. He managed to get a deal with Chappell Music to record some demos and had them pressed as Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy. Over at Radio 1, John Peel famously once said, “I mentioned on air one night that I was hungry and this bloke turned up at the BBC with a mushroom biryani that the commissionaire brought up. He also had this 12″ record given to him by the same person who brought the curry, so I listened to it an played it. Unfortunately, it was at the wrong speed because a lot of indie 12″ singles were pressed at 33⅓ rpm but this was at 45.” The track was called The Milkman of Human Kindness and Peel then played it again at the right speed.
He eventually got a record contact with Go! Discs and his first hit was the Between the Wars EP which reached a respectable number 15. His biggest hit came in 1988 when he recorded a cover of the Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home for Esther Rantzen’s charity Childline. It was issued as one half of a double A-side with Wet Wet Wet’s version of With a Little Help From My Friends and it topped the chart.
The follow-up was the politically charged Waiting for Great Leap Forwards which is the closing track on the top 20 album Workers’ Playtime and makes references to revolution but more so his own struggles as a political musician.
Bragg began writing it after being disappointed by the result of the 1987 General Election in which Margaret Thatcher was voted in for the third time, he said, “It’s my way of owning up to the ambiguities of being a political pop star while stating clearly that I still believed in Sam Cooke’s promise that a change was gonna come” He explained in Andrew Collins’ biography, “the song pulls off the difficult trick of boiling down the whole pop-and-politics-don’t-mix argument.” This is highlighted in the opening line of the fourth verse – ‘Mixing pop and politics he asks me what the use is, I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses.
The first verse opens with, ‘It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline but on the Che Guevara highway filling up with gasoline’ which is a reference to, as Songtell perfectly puts it, “a mythical kingdom symbolising idealism and prosperity. However, the song quickly contrasts this notion with the harsh reality faced by the characters. The Che Guevara highway, associated with the revolutionary figure, becomes a symbol for failed aspirations.”
The third verse opens with the line, ‘In the Cheese Pavilion and the only noise I hear is the sound of someone stacking chairs and mopping up spilled beer’ which is another real life reference, this time to a gig Bragg did in February 1988 when he played at the beautifully names Cheese Pavilion at the Bath & Wells Showground in Shepton Mallet, “not a lot of people know it’s real place,” Billy said.
Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards was originally a longer song than we know it, but as Billy found out accidentally, it was shortened. Apparently, Billy caught Go! Discs label boss Andy McDonald with a car boot full of seven-inch promo singles that were all marked DJ edit. On checking closer he found out that the first verse had been ‘chopped’ out which angered him saying, “I was angry from an artistic point of view that nobody asked me about it. They thought that chopping off the first verse would get it played on Radio 1 which it so ridiculous. The only way we would’ve got it played was to get Trevor Horn to produce it at an incredible cost and cut the politics, but the first verse? Really fucking dumb.”
The final verse highlights Bragg’s frustration with the notable lines, ‘One leap forward, two leaps back’ and ‘Will politics get me the sack?’ and realising there is nowhere to go, ‘Well, here comes the future and you can’t run from it.’ There’s even a reference to Mott the Hoople’s All the Way From Memphis with the line, ‘Well, it’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n roll.’ and listing reasons for the great lap forwards like, ‘From Top of the Pops to drawing the dole’, ‘You can start your own revolution and cut out the middleman’ and ‘So join the struggle while you may, the revolution is just a t-shirt away.’
The parent album, Workers Playtime (or Worker’s Playtime as it is on the label) made the top 20 and Leap was the first of two singles lifted from it, but it petered out at number 52. Not surprisingly as the majority of Billy Bragg fans are album buyers and gig attendees. The second single was She’s Got a New Spell which figured nowhere in the charts.
Back in 1988, when Bragg was touring the album, he often introduced the song with a story and at one particular gig he said, “I know that today it’s not very cool talk about Maoism. Everybody says, ‘Maoism! Oh, no! How gauche!’ But this next song is called Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards. Now, the Great Leap Forwards was a plan by Mao to modernise China. There was going to be a huge burst of activity and development for 18 months, and then China was going to be fully developed to compete in the modern world. Well, it didn’t work, and then things deteriorated into the Cultural Revolution, which was a very bad thing indeed. But Mao once said a very interesting thing. Someone said to him, ‘What do you think the effects were of the French Revolution in the late 18th century?’ to which Mao replied, ‘It’s too early to tell.'” I wonder how many shouted, ‘get on with the song?’
Billy Bragg still regularly tours and often adapts the lyrics of this song who whatever illegal goings on there are in the world and whichever corrupt politician is being revealed with monotonous regularity. Either way, the song is as relevant now as it was when it first came out.