Interview: Billy Bragg

(NS 13.09.1996)

(On cover)
Splits! Paddy Asdown predicts them and if they happen it's OK with Billy Bragg

(On p3 Contents)
16 Interview: Billy Bragg
The Barking Bard On Socialism, William Blake, Larkin and Oasis. By Ian Hargreaves.

(On p16)
Interview: Billy Bragg

His fans read Q these days, and he may be a "heritage artist" in the US, but some things don't change: the Barking Bard will vote Labour.
(text, pp16-18)  
For an entertainer, it is the spotlight of truth. Billy Bragg has just stepped on the stage at the Reading Festival, five years after his last album and tour. He made his name in the 1980s thrashing his solo electric guitar against Margaret Thatcher, but will anyone remember that today? Now he is 38 and for the last hour it has been raining.
    "I thought to myself: here's where we find out whether anyone gives a shit any more." Politics, he tells the 200 damp stragglers in front of the stage, is all about soundbites these days, so here's a soundbite: "Clare Short for Prime Minister!" That gets something resembling a roar and by the time Bragg is halfway through his set, the field is full right back to the mixing desk.
    This week he has delivered a new album, William Bloke, and he has a single in the charts, based upon William Blake's vision of angels on Primrose Hill (note the wordplay; not for nothing does Bragg describe himself as a pun rocker), and he is out to renew his conversation with an old audience, or to find a new one.
    "No one knows who the audience will be," he says. "The promoters don't know what kind of halls to book. Even the magazines don't know. There's a difference between the inky papers and the glossies. Q magazine, I'm right in its ballpark. NME, where I've been most of my career, is saying: 'Bill, you're 38.' That's fair enough, but I'd like to think that what I've got to say still has a resonance for people who read the NME, since so few of the new bands think about politics."
    The thing that most people know about Bragg's politics is that he has fallen out of love with Labour. He left the party at the time of its support for the Gulf war and has since inveighed against the lightness of new Labour. His finest hours, politically speaking, were singing for the miners during the strike; even in 1994, the year his son Jack was born and his time of lowest profile, he turned out at Tower Colliery for a benefit.
    With the Berlin Wall and Thatcher gone, "we need to find new ways of articulating what we believe in," he says. "I'm trying to focus back on the basis inspiration of socialism. My socialism doesn't come from Marx or from school. Margaret Thatcher made me a socialist, but really my socialism is a manifestation of basic, humanitarian beliefs; we have to go back to the human spirit where it starts."
    Hence the chorus line of the Blakeian single, "Upfield": "I've got a socialism of the heart." The phrase, he says, came to him in 1989, driving with members of his band across the New Mexico desert to a concert in San Francisco, but it was Blake and the idea of anti-motorway protesters as angels in the trees that brought the song together.
    He has trouble, he admits, defining this new "trademark slogan". A five minute version for the benefit of NS touches on family values, where we learn compassion, forgiveness and rehabilitation, and then mentions the motivations of those who make sacrifices for good purpose, whether they are teachers of protesters against the meat trade. He can't compete, he says, with the cleverness of Geoff Mulgan (the director of the think-tank Demos, who worked with Bragg in Neil Kinnock's youth and music campaign Red Wedge) "who I greatly admire", but he's stating a direction, insisting that "socialism isn't an economic theory, it's a way of organising our humanitarian beliefs."
    I point out that in his maiden speech to the House of Commons in 1983 Tony Blair said something rather similar to this. This provokes an attack—which strikes me as distinctly ideological and factional—on Blair's recent endorsement of the term social democrat, and a warning that Labour is losing the enthusiasm of those who ought to be its most committed supporters. "John Prescott's aware of this," he says.
    Much of Bragg's litany is familiar stuff from Labour's left&151an appeal for more progressive taxation and action on old-age pensions. But Bragg is also ablaze with scorn for Jack Straw and Labour's shortcomings on the cultural front. "When did you last hear anything from Jack Cunninghanm [shadow heritage secretaty]?" he asks. "I'm aghast at Labour's lack of knowledge. What has it said about the lottery? Or Channel 4? Or massmedia ownership?" And, he adds, Tony Blair should be seen on picket lines (like Bill Clinton, about whom Bragg speaks warmly on more than one occasion), not on the set of Coronation Street. "At least Neil Kinnock knew where the picket lines were," he says. "And it doesn't cost anything to protect Channel 4 or say we believe in public-service broadcasting. It's all got a bit too statesmanlike."
    For all of this, Bragg say he will be voting Labour at the election and has no intention of signing up with Arthur Scargill's Socialist Labour Party—that would be pointless until proportional representation offers us all "a better targeted vote". Rather than the SLP he fancies the SNP, should Alex Salmond fancy running a few candidates in greater London. He sees great potential in devolution, stemming, he hopes, from a new settlement in Ireland, greater autonomy in Wales and Scotland and hence an ability for those who live in England to start defining themselves.
    "We have to start talking about this because if we don't the right will just take that ground and define who's English for us. They've been telling us for years that we're British, but the Scots and Welsh don't believe that any more. And we're not the British either, we're the English. The British are the people who rule over us."
    As far as Bragg is concerned, the glories of England are "Thomas Paine, George Orwell and the Sex Pistols. Things that have gone into world culture. It's not about where your grandfather came from, it's about trying to make sense of where you are now."
    Talking at what seems like several hundred words per minute, Bragg certainly seems to have recovered his energy. After the 1992 election defeat he was, he says, "numb for a couple of months". "Being beaten by the grey man was very hard to take. The realisation that the people on the bus the next day to work had more faith in him than in us and all the things that we wanted to do. Very hard to take."
    This has not, he adds, made him doubt his place in the labour movement ("I'm still part of that, let me assure you"), though he says he has more faith in trade unions to do good for ordinary people than he does in the Labour Party. He doesn't think Red Wedge—which worked for Labour among young people in the 1987 and 1992 elections—would be possible now. "The whole idea of letting people go out who weren't just going to blithely follow the party line. That's not something Labour would do again with the dark forces in control—it's more of a closed shop," he says.
    It can all sound very pessimistic, but I comment that I don't find his new album pessimistic at all. "You're the first person to say that," he says. "and you're right. It's true that change is coming. I see hope and good ideas around all the time. Clinton getting a minimum wage through Congress, that's good. The Labour Party putting its manifesto to the membership of the party, that's good, too, for democratic socialists."
    On the albums, it's not only the strikingly upbeat "socialism of the heart" song, but the constant references to the importance of personal relationships, family and loyalty. Apart from Blake, the inspirations here are Kipling and Christina Rossetti, both manifestations of more confident societies than our own. Poetry and history have always been among Bragg's reference points—as you might expect from an Essex boy who wrote poetry at 14 and left school at 16. Surprisingly, he's not so interested in contemporary poets, although he reveals a lot that's nice about himself by preferring Adrian Mitchell's parody of Philip Larkin's overquoted This be the Verse to the original. Mitchell's version starts: "They tuck you up, your mum and dad" and ends not with a call to universal infertility but with: "Man hands on happiness to man. It shines out like a sweetshop shelf. So love your parents all you can and have some cheerful kids yourself."
    "Fuck you, Larkin", says Bragg, as if addressing the Reading audience. In one new song, he sings of bathing his baby, Jack, commenting: "I used to want plant bombs at the Last Night of the Proms."
    At times, this mellower Billy Bragg starts to sound a touch mystical. Is he in danger of getting fashionable pre-millennial religion? "No, not me," he says. He could understand the re-emergencve of his mum's lapsed catholicism when his dad died, but says the St. Christopher's medallion round his neck is "because I come from Essex." In pursuing his historical interests in the Celts, he has steered clear of "all that new age bollocks," but is "all for people finding enlightenment and getting strength from spirituality." He prefers the word mystery, "but for myself, I'm happy just to get a bit of perspective every now and again and having a kid gives you that by the bucketload."
    The perspective of fatherhood also seems to have added to his determination to develop his career. His current re-emergence, he says, is not temporary. He means to go on making his living as a live performer of his own music. The records, of which he typically sells 100,000 in Europe and the same number in the US, are the way he adds to his repertoire.
    Bragg's relationship with the music industry is a story in its own right, since he pursued a one-man campaign in the early 1980s for lower-priced records. He has always insisted upon retaining the copyright of his own work and recording only for independent labels, even though this means putting up money himself for each project. "It gives me control," he says. Go!Discs, the record company that released his last album (Don't Try This At Home in 1991), was recently taken over by PolyGram, but Bragg's back-catalogue is safely in his own hands. "It's a question of whose pension it ought to be," he says, "mine or theirs."
    Just how handsome that pension will be, this autumn should start to reveal. If Bragg can re-establish himself in a world dominated by Britpop and which lacks Thatcherite Manichean clarity, it will be quite an achievement. "You have to au fait with Oasis to be able to find out where you are in the tapestry of pop," he says, before adding that Oasis's lyrics don't give him "any sense of knowing," by which I think he means they are naive. His own preference among younger bands is for Pulp, Supergrass and S*M*A*S*H. He still, he says, looks up to Elvis Costello.
    "I think I may be in a unique position and I'm quite enjoying it. There was a Friday recently when in the morning I was miming "Upfield" at the Radio One Roadshow in Bournemouth and in the evening I was on Newsnight. It feels like a niche and I just hope it's not a rut, but no one else has got coverage like that. I want to be interviewed by Loaded and the New Statesman. If you're trying to say something, it's selfdefeating to confine yourself to one corner. It's that old Malcolm X saying: by any means necessary."
    The point about Billy Bragg is that unlike most long-established figures in pop music, he actually enjoys performing. A Bragg concert is not a polished, take-it-or-leave-it thing, it offers the interaction of the best stand-up comedy, or stand-up politics, if we had that any more. Bragg is there for the argument.
    Preparing for his American tour, he has been warned that he is now classifiable in two ways for the biggest entertainment market in the world. The first is as a Triple-A radio station act ("No one's explained it," he says "but that's where we're going to be") but may be heading for "heritage artist"—older, respected, but doesn't have hit records. Q magazine has just called him "a listed monument". Eventually, he says, he'll be in a category of his own, Triple-B: big-nosed bastard from Barking.

"William Bloke" by Billy Bragg is available on Cooking Vinyl, along with re-released versions of earlier albums. He will be touring the UK from October.

Interview by Ian Hargreaves

[a fullpage ad appears on the back-cover, promoting WB and the five reissued albums]



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