Speaking of making mixes: when I was working on the second mix I ever did, an 80s mix that, with minor changes, I am still quite happy with, I was faced with a choice. I wanted to use something off the Billy Bragg reissue Back To Basics. I’d gotten it a while back, I didn’t know much about Billy Bragg and he wasn’t somebody that any of my friends were listening to. I hadn’t particularly liked the album, but I was starting to realize that there were some real gems.
I was ultimately trying to decide between, “A New England” and From a Vauxhall Velux.” I picked “A New England” and it was a success — that was one of the songs that people to whom I gave the mix tended to single out as one of their favorites. I later found out that it’s one of Billy Bragg’s more anthologized song, showing up on a variety of “80s independent music” or “80 alternative” collections, and with good reason. It’s smart, sharp, and directly emotional in an affecting way.
I wanted to speak up for “From a Vauxhall Velux,” however, which has always struck me as an extremely funny song. I can’t quite tell you why I think it’s so clever, but it has a couple of lines that strike me as just sarcastic perfection.
Start with the title of the song, it’s about a large family car from the 60s and the song is about awkwardly having sex in said car. From the opening lines, you know that this is not going to be a great romance, “She said, ‘Do these seats fold down?’ / I said, ‘If you pull that handle.'” That isn’t necessarily funny, but it’s already apparent that the song will be about logistics rather than emotion. And there are more logistical problems to overcome, “Her mother read her mail / And her Dad was a Policeman / Which I must say worried me / But some things have just got to be.” Which sets up my favorite line from the song, “So we passed very fast like ships in the night / Or cars in a contraflow system.”
What makes this so good? First off the internal rhyme of “passed/fast” gives a burst of speed and syncopation to the line which propels you past the familiar metaphor of ships into the night and into the modern equivalent. The entire thing seems to suggest that it would be overly romantic to suggest that they “passed like two ships in the night.” Ships may not communicate at all but, at least, they tend to not pass each other “very fast” and they aren’t part of an anonymous crowd like cars on a freeway. It becomes just about the least romantic metaphor possible. It calls to mind the cliched shot from movies of endless stream of headlights signaling urban alienation. But it manages to be supremely sarcastic without being cruel. It doesn’t say anything about the woman that he’s involved with, just that neither of them were interested in anything more than a little excitement.
Looking on youtube I see a video of a performance around the time that the song was released. You can see that Billy Bragg clearly had a lot of experience playing pubs and knowing how to keep the attention of an audience. He also presents a familiar image of the young artist who is creative, producing and performing good work and still not quite sure where it will lead. I get the feeling from the video that he’s in the position of getting positive reaction to his music but not knowing what of it will actually make an impact. He looks great, handsome, smart, and really personally present in the performance. Seeing that gives me a different sense than the album of why his fans would be so committed to him. I will also note that the performance of Which Side Are You On from the same concert is vastly better than the album version which never felt very strong to me.