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Music

The five best covers of Billy Bragg song 'A New England'

@josephtaysom

The prominent political viewpoint of Billy Bragg can occasionally make it seem as though his songwriting skills are nothing but a side gig when, in actuality, he remains one of the generation’s most masterful lyricists. While politics has been a constant inspiration through his material for decades, on ‘A New England’, Bragg shows his expertise on the topic of unrequited love in what is an undeniable British classic.

‘A New England’ has become a love song for the ages since its release in 1983, despite the material being a plea from Bragg to find a soulmate as he dreams up his perfect girl. The song sees Bragg depict a sense of loss in a hinterland as he descended upon a journey to adulthood, offering a cold reflection on outgrowing that once special person he used to love.

The heartbreakingly brutal line of “I don’t feel sad about letting you go, I just feel sad about letting you know” remains the finest lyric that Bragg has ever produced and one that will never age.

Allegedly, the song arrived at the consciousness of Bragg while on a drunken walk home from the pub, where after seeing two satellites flying in tandem, the musician realised that he was longing for something similar. The singer then scribbled his intoxicated thoughts on a scrap of paper in a moment of inspiration, and his magnum opus was born.

Such is its gravitas, countless acclaimed artists have attempted to put their own spin on ‘A New England’, offering their own unique ways in which to pay homage to one of Britain’s very greatest artists. Here, we explore five of the best.

The best five covers of ‘A New England’

Kirsty MacColl

There’s no other place to start than with Kirsty MacColl, a singer who put together ‘A New England’ cover in 1984. After seeing Bragg live in concert, MacColl felt inspired to release her own version and soon after asked him for permission.

Not only did he agree, but Bragg also wrote an additional verse for the late singer as she was worried the original was too short. MacColl also put a gender twist as she changed “I’m just looking for another girl” into the pertinent question, “Are you looking for another girl?”.

Since her passing, whenever Bragg takes to the stage to perform ‘A New England’, he includes the verse he wrote for MacColl in her memory.

Blink-182

Blink-182, a band now very accustomed to playing stadiums, offered a change of pace in 2016 when they performed in a much more intimate setting in Kingston-Upon-Thames. With that, the band rolled out a delightfully stripped back take on ‘A New England’.

Mark Hoppus and Matt Skiba were in the UK to play two acoustic shows in one day at the Rose Theatre to promote their then-new album, California, and surprised the crowd by including the beloved Billy Bragg effort.

The pair share vocal duties on the track and swap after each verse, a decision that adds an intriguing new dimension to ‘A New England’ that gives their cover a conversational spin.

Billie Joe Armstrong

During the summer of 2020, Billie Joe Armstrong envisaged that he would be embarking on a world tour with Green Day, but like the rest of us, he found himself locked within the four walls of his home amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Armstrong used this spare time to start the ‘No Fun Mondays’ series, a project in which he’d cover one of his favourite tracks at the start of every week. His take on ‘A New England’ sees him bring the song into the pop-punk realm and deliver a rollicking two-minute version that bears much more of a similarity to Bragg’s original than MacColl’s. “I love this song penned by Billy Bragg. Also a great version by Kirsty MacColl,” Armstrong said about the cover.

Jamie T

Jamie T’s heartfelt cover of ‘A New England’ is one of those covers that feels so raw and direct that despite hearing the song hundreds of times — it has the capacity to trick you into making you believe he wrote it.

When he covered the classic in 2007, Jamie T was appropriately 21-years-old and likely going through similar stark changes in his life as Bragg was when he penned it all those decades before. ‘A New England’ is a timeless epitaph of a relationship and one that will continue to strike a chord with generation after generation.

Kate Nash & Billy Bragg

Admittedly, this one is cheating a little, especially considering that the song’s creator is involved with the performance. However, technically it’s still a reimagination, and I’m the one making the rules here.

The two first shared the stage at the NME Awards in 2007, where they sang a version of ‘A New England’ combined with Nash’s hit ‘Foundations’. There was instant chemistry between the pair, who bounced each other magnetically. The following year they toured together in the UK and performed ‘A New England’, which they also aired at SXSW and Australia’s Big Day Out.

The boy/girl dynamic of this candid version blends their two songs awe-inspiringly while making you feel like you’re eavesdropping on a couple on the next table at the pub whose relationship is teetering on the verge of collapse.