Artist: Billy Bragg
Title: Tank Park Salute
Description: album track, Don’t Try This At Home
Label: Go! Discs
Release date: 1991
First heard: 1991
I closed my eyes and when I looked
Your name was in the memorial book
I have not cried to that many songs in my lifetime. When I have, it’s likely I’ve been sad about something else and the song has induced tears that were already desperate to get out of their ducts. It’s stirring and miraculous that a series of chords and the deft rearrangement of the English language can do this.
I’ve willingly and perhaps even self-indulgently massaged my own doom and gloom downwards with doomy and gloomy music, especially during my difficult teenage years, and I still have a soft spot for melancholy and infinite sadness. Trust by The Cure is as good as on standby on my iPod for when clouds are gathering, the dry leaves are on the move, the darkness is drawing in, or if I just feel like being windswept and interesting on a deserted train platform. (It goes, “I love you more than I can say, why won’t you just believe?”, a chest-beating declamatory cry for help that has not literally applied to where I find myself in life for quite some time and yet it feels so cathartic to have Robert Smith wail it between my ears.)
I once sat in my office at home and put Tank Park Salute on repeat, almost unable to stop listening to it, and it brought me to tears. I can’t quite contextualise it. It was about seven or eight years ago. It guess I might have been feeling my mortality – and it’s definitely a song about mortality – and I had moved outside of London for the first time in my adult life and may have been experiencing a profound sense of disconnect, but I don’t recall any kind of slough of despond. I cried, in a private way, because the song is really, really sad, and moving. And it got me right here.
My relationship with Billy Bragg, as it well documented, began as a remote one, between artist and listener, then became professional when I had found my calling at the NME and we became artist and journalist. But out of that, through turning artist and biographer, we became friends. Man to man. We remain so. However, I have never stopped being a listener. I love the way his delivery has developed over the decades, and I ought to feel hard pressed to select one song to sum up my appreciation of Billy’s 30 years in rock’n’roll, but Tank Park Salute makes it easy. Its position within the brightly colour-coded Don’t Try This At Home, the forced “pop album” intended to shower Billy with chart success and mainstream acceptance (it didn’t), feels more poignant with every listen. Not that the album lacks depth or content among the hooks and breeze; just that the deep, personal near-existential melancholy of this delicate, haunting requiem seems courageously at odds.
It is essentially the point of view of an 18-year-old boy remembering his childhood while dealing with the debilitating illness and death of his father – namely Dennis Bragg, a tank driver in the war, who died of lung cancer in 1976, aged 52. Because Dennis was housebound for almost 18 months after being diagnosed, Billy described the period to me as “being in slow motion”, and hence, one assumes, the references in the lyric to “darkness” at “the top of the stairs” where once Dad had left the light on.
Floated on musical confidante Cary Tievey’s plangent piano – that’s plaintive rather than funereal, and all the more touching for that (Trust is also piano-led) – Billy’s voice is far from the Essex bark that got him noticed in the mid-80s, yet raw in a different way. It’s not a new observation that his voice has matured, and Tank Park Salute was hardly the first time he demonstrated its halting delicacy, but the personal subject matter and the simple arrangement provide the perfect showcase for its emotional range.
It’s a very clever structure, sung to his father from three points in time: he regresses to childhood (“kiss me goodnight, and say my prayers”), then jump-cuts to the funeral (“I accepted the commiserations of all your friends and your relations”), and ends in the present day (“I offer up to you this tribute”), where “photographs of a sunny day” fill the adult narrator with nostalgia for childhood. The three ages of man, if you like (and there’s no doubt that his father’s early passing made the 18-year-old a man).
You don’t have to have lost a parent at an early age to feel the pain. You just need to have a parent, or to have had one. Or, let’s push the boat out, be one. Billy’s compassion lies at the heart of his politics (“socialism of the heart”), so to draw a line in the sand between his protest songs and his personal songs is reductive; blood pumps through them all. There’s some great pop on Don’t Try This At Home, too (You Woke Up My Neighbourhood, North Sea Bubble, Sexuality).
But Bernie was right: sad songs say so much.
Got something in my eye.