The Streets, Billy Bragg
May 25, 2002
ORIGINAL PIRATE MATERIAL, The Streets (679 Records/Warners)
ENGLAND, HALF ENGLISH, Billy Bragg and the Blokes (Festival/Mushroom)
The Streets would make a great name for a band. In fact it’s just one guy – 22-year old Birmingham-born, Brixton-based Mike Skinner.
The Face called him “undoubtedly Britain’s Eminem”, and several others couldn’t resist reaching for the all-purpose “new Dylan” tag, but rest assured he’s neither. For a start, those two Americans create characters in their songs far larger than themselves, while the narrator of Skinner’s detailed, street-level monologues could hardly be more ordinary. His day in the life is typified by lines like: “Whose round is it? Down that beer quick/smash my glass back down, fall over the table all rowdy and pissed… putting off walking home on my own to the phone/to empty takeaways, ashtrays, the remains of the day stoned…”
The bed-sit, the pub, the dole-queue – these are the backdrops for Skinner’s social studies, which he delivers in a Brummie accent, sounding laddish yet oddly detached; as much observer as participant. His humdrum dramas climax in occasional outbreaks of violence or sex, yet even these are striking in their banality. In a typical scenario, Skinner contemplates violence when he spies – through the smoke of a poolroom - his bird, laughing, joking and tonguing with another bloke.
It’s like a Mike Leigh film set to a dance track. The backings, which are homemade, raw and lively, are played and programmed almost entirely by Skinner himself. One pictures him beavering away with his beats and samples in the type of solitary, dingy environment evoked by one of his songs; the only difference might be the flickering computer screen in place of his anti-hero’s omnipresent TV. And the music evokes the kind of soundtrack Skinner’s Everygeezer might hear as he shuffles about Brixton; hip-hop beats bouncing out of a doorway, some Saturday night garage, a blast of horn-led ragga.
Though Skinner is no banner-waving ideologue, there is a thread of morality that runs through these tales. “Geezers need excitement/if their lives don’t provide it, they incite violence/common sense, simple common sense” is the closest he comes to laying out a manifesto; it’s also one of his catchiest choruses. More complex is “The Irony Of It All”. Though hardly Ian Dury, it’s the album’s funniest lyric, contrasting two English archetypes: the beer-swilling hooligan and the dope-smoking student, each with his own appropriate musical motif. Skinner sets up the conflict, then stands back, leaving you to decide your own moral position.
The longstanding global domination of American rap might account for the slavering excitement about the arrival of an authentic English hip-hop voice, expressed in the quarter-inch pile of English press that came with my copy of Original Pirate Material. Still, in many ways what Skinner is doing is nothing new. It’s simply the most eloquent expression of geezerdom since the Specials’ “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”.
Billy Bragg has been having some thoughts of his own about English identity. In England, Half English, his first album of new material this millennium, he uses his breakfast as a slightly unappetising metaphor for Britain’s cultural melange (“a plate of Marmite soldiers washed down with a cappucino”), and serves up the title track with a musical fry-up of folk-rock, bhangra and mardi-gras.
Unlike Mike Skinner, Bragg doesn’t mind beating you over the head with a banner. While the best of his new songs mix poignant wit and agit-prop in roughly the right proportions, others feel clumsy and forced. However much I concur with the sentiment, I’ll never be persuaded that “no power without accountability” is a catchy chorus.
For all Bragg’s endeavours to define Englishness, the most English thing about this album comes with the least effort: the rollicking backing of his band, the Blokes. With the keyboards of former Face Ian McLagan decorating a vaudeville-soul fusion somewhere between the Kinks and Dexy’s Midnight Runners, I’d have picked these guys as Poms long before Bragg even opened ‘is marf.