Songs That I Can’t Get Out of My Head #5 – A New England

I have not done one of these in a while so I have decided to do one on a song not many people in North America are familiar with. The song is called A New England and it was written and originally recorded by British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg on his 1983 debut album, Life’s A Riot with Spy vs. Spy. Another British singer and songwriter, Kirsty MacColl, heard this song and thought she could make it into a great pop song. She felt Bragg’s recording of it was too short and too raw. Bragg’s version consists of just Bragg singing and his jangly electric guitar. The first line in the song, Bragg says he stole from a Paul Simon song due to Bragg’s love of Simon and Garfunkel. He also claims that the melody of the song was stolen from a Thin Lizzy song called Cowboy Song. Regardless of Bragg’s musical theft, the song is beautiful. MacColl did the song justice and introduced Bragg’s music to a wider audience.  The story goes that MacColl invited Bragg to her home one morning to rewrite the song. Bragg hated getting up early so MacColl made him breakfast. He agreed to write the third verse of the song and he now includes the third verse in live performances of the song  in memory of MacColl who died in a tragic boating accident in 2000. MacColl’s version is very different and more commercial. The jangly guitars are there but there is also bass and drums. MacColl unintentionally creates a dream-like atmosphere in the song. Also, the track shows off MacColl’s ability to harmonize with herself. She does it so beautifully and she takes great inspiration from The Beach Boys and girl groups of the 60’s. I just finished watching a BBC documentary on the life of MacColl and I learned much more than I ever knew about her. Her version of A New England was one of her biggest hits in the U.K. and Ireland, but sadly she never hit it big over here. Her biggest hit in North America was actually Tracy Ullman’s version of her song, They Don’t Know, which she helped produce and sang backing vocals on. It was in the Billboard Top 10 in 1983. MacColl’s version of A New England was produced by her then husbend, Steve Lillywhite (one of my favourite producers who produced U2, Dave Matthews Band, The Pogues and The Rolling Stones among others). MacColl left a great body of work behind and it is a shame that she had to die so young and so tragically. She was just starting to enjoy her life again after her divorce. MacColl’s memory does live on and her death resulted in The Justice For Kirsty Campaign which aimed to bring her justice and also shine a light on other human rights causes. I would recommend checking out the BBC documentary on MacColl made after her death. It covers her whole career and features interviews with: Bragg, Lillywhite, Bono, Shane McGowan, Johnny Marr and others. It is on Youtube. Just search Kirsty MacColl Documentary and you should find it. This song should have been a hit in North America. But, that can sometimes be a good thing. Below, are videos for the Billy Bragg and Kirsty MacColl versions:

Billy Bragg version (1983):

Kirsty MacColl version (1985):

and MacColl and Bragg’s version from a BBC Radio session:

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