Billy Bragg’s ‘A New England’ vs Patti Smith’s ‘Waiting Underground’

Posted: January 14, 2013 in Uncategorized
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I find it quite difficult to compare an American godmother of grunge-punk, and an English alternative musician and left-wing activist in the same piece of text, but I’m going to do it anyway, because Patti Smith and Billy Bragg aren’t so different when stripped down to basics.

A trait that both these amazingly talented musicians have in common, is the fact that their lyrics are like a tale set to music. Billy Bragg’s beautifully expressive poetry has always brought out the emotional side of me, and equally, Patti Smith’s raw and haunting ballads can often take my breath away; as they do in ‘Waiting Underground’.

My favorite thing about the way that Patti Smith and Billy Bragg write songs is that, the situations and feelings that the artists describe, sometimes aren’t obvious, or have different meanings to different beholders; this is something that Chris Martin from Coldplay does as well when writing lyrics, and I love the imagination that arrives when I listen to the words of these really gifted vocalists.  It’s like each song is a short story, or a chapter in an autobiography.

The intro to ‘Waiting Underground’ is quite simple, but effective, there is great comparison to the opening bass and drums and the grungy electric guitar with elements of ‘welcoming’ piano. Patti’s voice rings in with strength, and lingers with every breath she takes. As soon as she’s finished the first few lines, listeners already understand the mysterious message behind her lyrics.

There by the ridge be a gathering beneath the pilgrim moon,
Where we shall await the beat of your feet hammering the earth,
Where the great ones tremble,
In their snow-white shrouds,
Waiting underground.

“Pilgrim moon” and “The great ones tremble” gives us the feeling that she’s describing some sort of magic or witchery occurring in this story that she’s trying to tell us, and she seems to be talking about a grim experience or even death when she sings

If you believe all your hope is gone,
Down the drain of your humankind,
The time has arrived.

Her voice reminds me of a tamed lion, it’s calm, but underneath the placid exterior of her vocals, there is something wild and passionate, shaking with life and soul. Everything about Patti Smith just seems to get better and better, and at 66, I don’t think she’s ever been stronger.

The boyish charm in Billy Bragg’s voice really compliments ‘A New England’, because it emphasizes the fact that at the time he wrote the song, he was a dazed and confused young man who, didn’t really know what to do with his time on earth. The intro starts with a rhythmic guitar beat, and then something magical happens, Billy Bragg’s voice announces itself in the song with:

I was twenty one years when I wrote this song,
I’m twenty two now, but I won’t be for long,
People ask when will you grow up to be a man,
But all the girls I loved at school,
are already pushing prams.

And suddenly, we’re off. Listeners have already learned that Bragg’s younger self felt under the pressure of his piers to grow up, and let go of his childhood. When he says “All the girls I loved at school are already pushing prams”  we know he felt under even more pressure to settle down, because girls that were his age, are already mothers and have families.

I saw two shooting stars last night,
I wished on them but they were only satellites,
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware,
I wish, I wish, I wish you’d care.

These are probably my favorite lyrics in the whole song, because they instantly paint a picture of this guy who’s yearning for a lost love or something. Suddenly, beat changes and the guitar seems to take over in a head bobbing solo, and after that short marvel, Billy Bragg fades out leaving us in awe.

Let me know what you think,

Roseby.

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