While many artists of a certain age have comebacks, Billy Bragg never went away.
I first saw him live at Reading Festival 1989, back in the days of Thatcherism and the anti-poll tax movement. Watching him that day wasn’t intentional – I was positioning myself ready for The Wedding Present later that afternoon but when he played a set that included A New England and laid into the heavy rock stall holders for selling Confederate flags, his blend of the personal and the political had me hooked. In the three decades since then, he’s gigged all over the place, given us numerous self-penned albums, added music to Woody Guthrie’s lyrics, ventured into Americana and written a few books to boot. His songs have been covered by artists as diverse as Kirsty MacColl, Dubstar and the Dropkick Murphys. I caught up with him ahead of the first Birmingham night of his One Step Forward Two Steps Back tour, which had accidentally coincided with the build up to a general election.
SCB: The election has conveniently timed itself for your tour, hasn’t it?
BB: Yes, it means that everyone is thinking about politics so it gives me something to pitch what I’m talking about. I don’t talk in terms of specific policies anymore. I talk of much broader ideas, such as empathy, cynicism, accountability. I’m trying to look beyond ideological notions of politics and try to get a handle on the forces that are at play that lead to those ideas.
Would you say that those notions go all the way back to the French Revolution notions of liberty, equality, fraternity?
Yes, in one way it takes its roots from the idea that freedom isn’t one single thing. But I think that the lack of accountability in our politics is a modern phenomenon. It has its roots in the way that neoliberalism has stripped away agency that ordinary people have over their lives. They’re in a situation where they might elect a government that they want but that government, in the last forty years, will defer to the market. That’s not really how democracy is supposed to work. I’m of the opinion that democracy and accountability are not synonymous. Their relationship is more like a Venn diagram and there are times when there is a lot of overlap and there are other times when they’re quite far apart.
“playing music does help people with mental health problems”
When you’ve got an election that is really based on Brexit, and I saw a poll today saying 50% Remain, 50% Leave, trying to find enough consensus to make accountability and democracy come back together again is going to be a real challenge. I’d rather try to get my audience to start to focus on accountability so that they get an idea of who is actually in good faith and who isn’t. The Prime Minister this morning on the TV spend the whole interview not taking responsibility for anything that has happened; trying to defer and deflect everything towards the Labour Party, even policies that were enacted during a Conservative government over the last nine years. He’s not interested in taking any responsibility at all. I find that very, very troubling.
Do you feel that you can have any form of effective socialism for people under neoliberalism? I know that you’re not a Marxist…
No, I’m not, no, no. Yes, I think you can. I think you can if you have a system that holds capitalism to account. What’s a trade union if not a method for holding capitalism to account. That’s the basic way people have always organised. How do we get agency over our lives, over our community, over our workplace – by organising. Not necessarily by revolutionary means but by means of gaining agency over the environment that they live in, they work in. I think those methods are still valid.
Obviously it’s more difficult for unions to organise these days with zero hours contracts and a move away from an industrial economy.
Regulatory capitalism would be a word that I might throw up. Capitalism that works for the people rather than purely for the profit motive – a responsible economy that looks at its impact on the environment, both in terms of the ecology and also social environment. I mean, these are broadly Labour ideas. I think that the Labour Party has a good tradition of this. They are the party of devolution. They’ve devolved power away from the centre before. I can’t help but point out that they’ve only devolved power to places where they thought they’d always be in power – London, Scotland, Wales. But devolving power away from Westminster would be a response to the Brexit vote which seemed to me to be more of an anti-Westminster vote. I would have an economy that is accountable to society rather than just accountable to shareholders.
The Labour Party manifesto is the most ambitious for some time. If they were to be elected, what faith do you have that it would be possible to enact it given the power of corporations and other powerful interest groups?
A manifesto is always a statement of aims. Whether you’re able to attain that in the terms of one parliament I suppose depends on the size of the majority you get and the economic conditions behind that. Among other things, it includes the new green deal and this is really new territory for the Labour Party and I find that really encouraging. It’s starting to move away from its industrial focus, from its own tradition, towards a more 21stcentury focus.
The only thing that I would say is that I would have liked to have seen more devolution and more electoral reforms to make people’s votes count. These are the things that are needed to restore a sense of agency in people – devolved power, abolish the trade union laws that stop people from organising. There’s not enough focus on that in the manifesto. I know that there is a lot of other stuff going on that has to be addressed and I appreciate that but I would like to see that aspect of it enhanced as well. In the 20th century that was seen as a fringe interest but when you’ve got Trump out there and you’ve got Boris Johnson, these issues are absolutely crucial now to defend what we have.
“Boris Johnson has acted with impunity all his life”
Authoritarianism doesn’t begin when your neighbour disappears in the middle of the night, it begins when powerful people feel that the rules are so lax that they can act with impunity. Boris Johnson has acted with impunity all his life. He’s never been held responsible for anything in his political life, in his professional life or his personal life. He’s shameful. Trump as well. They’re two of a kind and you can see that he doesn’t really care, he doesn’t think the rules apply to him.
You can see that this week when Channel 4 replaced him with a block of ice after he didn’t join the environment debate and then he threatened Channel 4.
Yes, it’s unbelievable. It’s the idea that he can just get everything his way. The most insidious thing Boris Johnson ever said was: I’m pro having my cake and I’m pro eating it. That shows a man who wants to write the rules but also break them whenever it suits him. That’s very dangerous in a democracy, very dangerous. The whole point of democracy is not only that we are able to elect people but also that we are able to hold them accountable for their actions. Johnson is absolutely opposed to that. It’s a very dangerous moment for our democracy.
The other news headline at the moment is the London Bridge incident and that’s already been used to argue for increased prison sentences and going against any idea of rehabilitation. You’ve done work in prisons, haven’t you?
Yes, I’ve done a bit, getting guitars into prisons. The idea is to support people who are seeking to rehabilitate prisoners through musical therapy, encouraging them to learn an instrument, encouraging them to express themselves through writing. Low confidence is quite a big cause of reoffending. There’s an argument that if you come out of prison with a new skill, particularly one that’s going to be recognised in culture as being a positive skill, such as playing the guitar, you have an opportunity to rejoin your community with a higher status than someone who’s just thrown their life away.
It’s also clear that playing music does help people with mental health problems. When I started doing this, almost all the guitars were going to people who were either working in the chapel, who were looking for someone to play their hymns for them, or education. It’s been 12 years since we started doing it and slowly the focus has moved to the health department, so clearly someone somewhere has sussed out that music has a therapeutic role to play in the prison environment. I’m very pleased about that. I wish we could have started there but every prison is an empire unto itself and you can only deal with the people that are there and what they’re trying to do. We get into about 6 prisons a year, which is not a bad rate when I’m on the road most of the year. If I was off the road, we could probably up it a bit but at the moment it’s more about finding those people and making those connections.
London Bridge is a failure of the probation service, I think. Underfunding of the probation service is a really serious problem for people who come out of prison. Prison is where people end up when they have nowhere else to go in the system. All the other checks and balances have stopped. The NHS, the schools, the other social services can all say no now. Prison can’t say no, but it can say, we’ve got too many people, we’re going to have to let some of these people out. In the end it all comes down to lack of resources, certainly with the probation service. I think that’s where people should start asking questions.
The whole terrorism debate is very skewed and the murder of Jo Cox seemed to change the debate very little compared to other incidents.
Yes, I think that’s a shadow over everything that’s happened since, the murder of Jo Cox. The anger and the threat from the far right are still not taken seriously enough. Whatever happens with Brexit, one way or the other, those people are only going to get angrier. That’s something that really needs addressing.
On the subject of the far right, one of the things that you wrote recently was in relation to Morrissey’s support of For Britain. As you pointed out, it seems ironic given that many of his lyrics were directly influenced by A Taste of Honey, which was so ahead of its time in relation to anti-racism and relationships.
It’s heart-breaking really for those of us who are Smiths fans. No band did more, I think, to show empathy towards people who are outside, who are marginalised, who are needlessly mocked by society. Morrissey was their redeemer, so for him to turn out like this is just heart-breaking for all of us who loved The Smiths. Me personally, having worked with him in Red Wedge as well, it’s a bit of a hard one to take.
I initially started off just taking the piss out of him. I was saying things at gigs like, shame Morrissey turned out to be a gammon of all people, just for a laugh. But once he wrote that For Britain badge, he’s doubling down. He’s not saying, you’re misunderstanding what I’m saying or it’s misconstrued. We all say things online on social media and then someone points out that it’s offensive and I’m like, it wasn’t my intention and I’m really sorry, I apologise. But when people double down like Morrissey does, you have to accept that it probably was his intention. I find that really troubling.
“I’m ashamed to say that George Osborne is a Billy Bragg fan”
Has it stopped you listening to The Smiths? They are great songs.
They are great songs, they are great songs, yet. I do listen to them when they come on, on my i-tunes in the car. I still listen to them but it’s kind of undermined the context of them a bit. You can separate the singer from the song undoubtedly.
I’m ashamed to say that George Osborne is a Billy Bragg fan. Well, at least he knows all the words to New England. You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your fans. But it’s not the fans that are the problem, it’s Morrissey that’s the problem.
When you wrote Sexuality, the line “Just because you’re gay, I won’t turn you away, if you stick around, I’m sure that we can find some common ground” was a progressive statement but now, even though we have Trump and Johnson, gay rights have advanced so much that it would seem perhaps unnecessary to write a line like that today.
Now, I sing that line in the first verse but in the third verse, I sing “And just because you’re they, I won’t turn you away, if you stick around, I’m sure that I can find the right pronoun” because I recognise that we’ve moved on. I don’t want to change the original dedication because I appreciate that has a meaning to the gay community and I want to be an ally to the gay, lesbian and bi community. But I feel that I have to bring it on to the transgender community as well, and to be an ally to them as well. So I do tweak the lyrics as I recognise that we’ve moved on. Although there are still cases of gay bashing out there. Just because the LGBTQ community are broadly celebrated, it doesn’t mean they’re accepted. That’s two different things. But at the same time, I recognise that it needs to be more inclusive.
Of course, there are issues within the feminist movement in relation to transphobia.
Very much so. Obviously there’s a really important debate to be had there but to focus purely on the idea of what happens in ladies’ toilets – it’s like years ago, when you wanted to talk about gay rights, it always came down to something that’s nothing to do with gay rights: paedophilia. For some reason, the two were always associated. I can’t help but hear an echo of that in the way that some people, instead of engaging with the complexities and the nuances of the debate around gender, go immediately to the worst case scenario and use that as kind of a crowbar to get the debate around just that and nothing else. So I feel that we’re back where we started.
It’s almost analogous to using domestic violence as a reason to be against heterosexuality.
Yes, or generally being against masculinity when what you’re actually complaining about is misogyny. Masculinity has many different aspects, it has many different expressions. It’s not a single thing. Misogyny is a single thing, it’s a fundamental failing and wherever it’s found out, it has to be addressed and attacked. But to suggest that all masculinity is misogyny, which is never stated but that’s the underlying context about masculinity. We have to encourage our men to feel that they can be men in a compassionate and tender way. That’s as much an aspect of masculinity as anything else.
“We have to encourage our men to feel that they can be men in a compassionate and tender way”
When you change the lyrics of songs at gigs, do you get many fans saying, can’t you just sing it as it is?
Yes, with Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards, I change completely the lyrics, they’ve all gone. I don’t sing the original lyrics hardly at all. I have verses now referring to Trump and Johnson, and it really annoys the shit out of people. On the three nights of each leg of the tour, on the first night I’ll sing the new lyrics, but on the last night when we’re on Workers’ Playtime, I’ll sing the original lyrics, although I have been adding a couple of the new lyrics on the end.
One of the things that you’ve got to be careful about with these songs is that people don’t get nostalgic for the good old days of the miners’ strike. I stopped singing Between the Wars in the 1990s because I felt people were missing Margaret Thatcher and I didn’t want to be part of that. I do sing it now; I think it has a context now, particularly with the line “sweet moderation” so that’s back in but it’s not one of those songs that you can just drop in any old time. I’ll put it in tomorrow night because it’s in those first three albums.
There are some songs where you never change the lyrics, like Valentine’s Day is Over.
Oh no, I don’t think there’s anything in Valentine’s Day is Over that needs improving. I think more so in a post-MeToo environment, it comes into focus again. It’s not a distant thing. So no, I wouldn’t mess with that at all. I didn’t play it for a long time, only because you can’t have Must I Paint You a Picture and Valentine’s Day is Over in the same set, it’s quite hard to have two big songs like that as they cancel each other out a bit. But now with Valentine’s Day is Over, it’s about accountability. The bottom line is that although obviously the song is not about accountability, the absolute bedrock is about men being accountable for their behaviour to women.
It fits in because the arguments in my book are not just about politics, they’re also about how we conduct our social media discourse but also about our personal relationships in relation to accountability, equality, respect, consent, all these aspects should be in relationships, and that comes down to accountability again. That’s why I realised that I needed to write a book rather than just a song. I started to see it everywhere. This great big elephant in the room, in the street, in the car, on the plane, every time I looked at my Twitter feed – the same lack of accountability.
Do you think that the anonymous nature of the internet is part of that?
Yes, it is a real problem. People want to have a go at you, they want to say nasty things about you. I inadvertently made a comment last year that implied that the Jewish community needed to do more to help the Labour Party. It wasn’t my intention. I was actually talking about the request of the British Board of Deputies to work with the Labour Party but the way I phrased it, I recognise that I’d implied that the Jewish community needed to work more with the Labour Party, so I apologised. Now, when people bring it up, understandably when they discover the original Tweet, they are outraged. I just say, look, this is the context, I apologised then, I’m happy to apologise now. Generally people come back and say, thanks for apologising. I’m only trying to be straight with them, I’m not trying to start a fight.
Again, perception trumps intention so often with the internet. You’ve got to think through what you’re saying. You’ve got to imagine how it looks to other people because you’re liable to cause offence when you’re just trying to make a point. If you’re doing that, you don’t want to get a reputation as a bad faith actor.
What I’m trying to do with the framework of liberty, equality and accountability is give people a framework in which to look at the person they’re talking to on social media – is this person giving me equal respect, is this person accountable for what they’re saying to me, are they attacking me without any reason, are they personalising this, so that people can use those parameters to work out if the person they’re dealing with is going to be a good faith or a bad faith actor. If they’re a bad faith actor, there’s no point in dealing with them, you’re better off ignoring them or blocking them or muting them or whatever. If they’re a good faith actor, you might disagree with them, but at least you can have a civil discourse. There’s not enough discourse anymore, I’m afraid.
Do you think that Jeremy Corbyn should have apologised in relation to anti-Semitism?
I don’t think it would have done any harm for him to have apologised. I can understand why he finds it difficult to constantly apologise for things other people have said but he has apologised before. In those circumstances, he obviously didn’t feel he could. The point to me is that the Prime Minister refuses to apologise for things he’s actually said. That’s the real character issue for me, whereas Corbyn is constantly asked to apologise for things he hasn’t said. That seems understandable to me, when people want him to apologise for those things, but when he’s not actually said them himself, that is a bit of a lesser responsibility I think.
How difficult is it for Labour in this election campaign with almost all of the media against them?
It could be worse – Corbyn could be photographed eating a bacon sandwich. This is not a new thing. It would be the same whoever it was running. Yvette Cooper – they’d make mincemeat of her. They’d have played the woman card as well. Sadly, it comes with being part of the Labour Party. With Corbyn, it would be very easy for him to say whatever people wanted him to say on Brexit. The fact that he’s not willing to say that – you have to understand that he has certain principles and he’s not going to move on those. He’s going to hold onto that position. Trying to find a balance between Leave and Remain is absolutely crucial, particularly if you want to win another referendum we’re going to have to win over some Leave voters. I saw a poll the other day that was 50/50. I mean, you just think how the fuck have we got to this situation.
If you look at the European election results, the majority of people voted for the extreme idea of no deal or the other extreme which is to revoke Article 50, which the LibDems are offering. Labour, who are in the middle and trying to make some sense of it, got trounced. It’s just heart-breaking because something like Brexit is all about nuance. It’s all about the nuance of the Irish border, the lives of the 3.1 million EU citizens in the UK. So it’s a hard time for a man like Corbyn to be able to come out in the way he did.
But the trouble is, the sort of person who cuts through all that kind of stuff like Tony Blair, does so because they have the sort of absolute self-belief that ends up with us invading Iraq. Trying to find someone who is both principled enough and compassionate enough but also able to cut through, that’s almost like looking for someone with three arms. It’s a tough, tough one to get. Everyone says, Blair won three elections, that’s because he was willing to say and do anything.
And I think it’s made it harder for Jeremy Corbyn that he’s been an activist all his life who hasn’t had his eye on the leadership so he’s never been conscious of his image.
Yes, that’s the whole point. He’s come to this with no plan. Blair had a long term plan and a team. Jeremy just has a set of principles that he’s always believed in. He’s kind of become accidental leader and galvanised so many people in doing that. If he’d just won the leadership but no more people joined the party that would be one thing but he represents something that people really believe in. I don’t think that this is a Michael Foot situation. Michael Foot didn’t force the Tories into a coalition government like Corbyn did in 2017. But what’s going to happen on 12th December, I think it’s just impossible to say. The prism of Brexit makes everything strange and I have no idea what’s going to happen but as a West Ham fan, that’s not an uncommon experience so I’m kind of living with it.
“Blair had a long term plan and a team. Jeremy just has a set of principles that he’s always believed in”
Do you regret voting LibDem in 2010?
No, I don’t regret voting tactically to stop the Tories. What I regret was that the LibDems betrayed all of us who voted tactically for them by putting the Tories in and they got rightly punished for that in 2015. In my defence, I spent the 2010 election in Barking and Dagenham campaigning for people to vote Labour to defeat the BNP in defence of Margaret Hodge but more importantly in the council where the BNP had won 12 seats. Really up until the night before, we thought that they’d win the council but they didn’t win any more seats and lost every seat they had. The facts that voters in Barking and Dagenham dealt the BNP a terminal blow is something that I’m very proud of and only because of the time that everybody put in there. It’s my home town and it’s not nice to have people think of your home town as the racist capital of Britain, it’s really not nice. My home town is no more racist than your home town it’s just we’ve got these arseholes knocking on doors winding people up, setting neighbour against neighbour. That’s how I spent my election so I don’t feel that I have to apologise to Labour supporters for what I did.
Although the far right are still there, they aren’t the electoral force that they looked like being at one point.
No. It’s doesn’t need to be, though, does it if you’ve got an English nationalist party in the form of Johnson’s Conservatives. Clearly Brexit is a nationalist project. It’s a very naked attempt to socially cleanse the country of EU citizens so the BNP can all go and join the Conservative party now.
And it’s a way of dismantling the NHS.
The fact that so many older people voted for Brexit, I mean who do they think is going to wipe their arses in the old folk’s home, you know. It’s just going to become more difficult, harder to find, more expensive for them. It’s heart-breaking, really. I’ve no idea how we’re going to get out of this situation either. Apart from getting another referendum but even then, if it’s still 50/50 then that’ll be pretty nasty. The last one was pretty divisive. I’d rather see, if I had a choice, a citizens’ convention spend some time taking evidence from everybody, from experts and submissions from the general public, and all broadcast online so everyone can feel that their views have been aired, then do whatever they come up with. At least if they then said, we should have a referendum, it will have come from a place of consensus and deliberation rather than that we can’t think of anything else, which is the current position on referendum, a hand brake turn.
Which of your songs do you most enjoy playing live?
Usually the one I’ve most recently written, generally. It’s the ones that are talking about where we are now that give me the most buzz, being able to write a song like King Tide and the Sunny Day Flood. I should probably write another song about accountability but I’m just riffing on that at gigs.
You must find it flattering when other artists cover your songs – what is your favourite cover?
Yes, of course it is very flattering. My favourite cover is when The Redskins covered Levi Stubbs’ Tears live and someone taped it, it was on a record. I loved that because they did a great version but also all their songs were about politics, they didn’t have any songs about compassion, any songs about the basic fundamental sense of togetherness that comes via relationships. I was always saying to them, you know, it’s got to be about more than politics mate, you’re into soul music, can’t you see that. But they were SWP so they had quite a narrow view at the time of the way things were. So I kind of liked that cover because it was nice to hear them sing a love song and they did do a really good version of it.
Despite their various issues, do you feel that without the SWP and Militant, we wouldn’t have had the mass movement of non-payment of the poll tax, the Stop the War campaign and the Anti-Nazi League? They were the backbone of those things.
They were, indeed.
Are we missing that now on the left?
I think you need within society a group of people who are trying to organise, that are outside the Labour Party and organising from the left. I think that we now have Momentum doing that. I think that they’re doing a much better job. The trouble with Militant and the SWP was they were pretty divisive and they were horribly macho. That’s not been my experience with Momentum, quite the opposite actually. So I don’t miss those comrades. They were too tightly controlled. I once said to X. Moore from The Redskins that if the Labour Party had the sort of control over Red Wedge that the SWP have over you, I’d resign from Red Wedge, I wouldn’t do it. They had to write a mea culpa in Socialist Worker when they folded The Redskins and it’s like, come on guys, you know, you’ve got to be bigger than that.
I think more people are more politically engaged now. What’s gone is the revolutionary fervour. It’s arguable but I feel that was a 1960s knock-on; the idea of a revolutionary movement that could overthrow capitalism. I think now it’s more about people trying to work out how to curb the worst excesses of capitalism, that sort of gradualist approach. It’s frustratingly slow but my concern was always, let’s not smash everything down until we’re absolutely clear what we’re going to build in place of it and how quickly we can do that. I never really heard from my Socialist Worker comrades exactly how the society that they were going to put together was going to work, and what the role for dissident musicians was going to be in that society because if it was going to be anything like what I experienced in East Germany, I was probably going to be in a pretty bad place in it. I think that in the end, you’ve got to take the people with you. If you don’t, sooner or later you’re putting them up against the wall.
What do you think about the recent incident by Extinction Rebellion at the tube station in Canning Town where they were attacked by members of the public for trying to stop the tubes from running?
Autonomous movements will always go to weird extremes. It’s a plus and a minus of having an autonomous movement. When you touch a nerve like that, all sorts of things come out. I think that if the movement as a whole had more control over it, it wouldn’t have happened.
It’s like how responsible can the Labour Party be for people who aren’t Labour Party members who are anti-Semitic and claim to support the leadership. It’s like, if I make a statement online and someone responds to that, I’m talking with them in a civil way but all my followers are ripping the shit out of them, should I take responsibility for all of those followers? Are they my responsibility or is it my discourse with you that is civil – where is that line? I think that’s the thing that Corbyn is in – he’s trying to have a civil discourse about these issues but people who are claiming to be his supporters are making things more difficult and in some cases, in the name of supporting him.
Chris Williamson was a good example of that, he just didn’t understand how the things that he was saying were offensive to people within the Jewish community. It didn’t matter whether they were overtly anti-Semitic, the very fact that they were seen to provoke, and I think were disingenuous as well, was causing offence, of course it was causing offence. He and his supporters had a complete blind spot about that. Thankfully he was not allowed to stand in the election. At least we have something to say to those elements within the Jewish community who doubt our sincerity – we are trying to act on it, we are trying to deal with this.
And people have to be free to criticise Israel in the way that they have to be free to criticise any nation state.
Of course, of course, of course. That’s fine, in terms of you’re allowed to criticise Israel and the pro-Israel people have to accept that as well.
I believe that the friction in the Labour anti-Semitism debate comes from the fact that, at its most belligerent, it is a dispute between people who believe that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, and another group of people who believe that they can’t be anti-Semitic because they are left wing. In my opinion, both are wrong and both positions make it harder to deal with the genuine problem with anti-Semitism that the party has.
I think that whatever your views on Palestine and the way that the Palestinian people are treated, when discussing Israel you need to have some awareness of, and sensitivity to, the history of the Jewish people, particularly the Holocaust.
You do, you do. If you’re going to have a civil discourse, you have to accept that there are parameters, we all have to do that. One of the positive things that may come out of this whole terrible situation is that a lot of people on the left are now more aware of where the sensitivities are around that, which they may not have been before. They’re aware of the use of the word ‘Zionism’ in certain contexts and those kinds of things that they weren’t before. I know it’s a small crumb of positivity but that’s a debate that needs to be had as well.
Going back to Red Wedge, recently we’ve had Grime for Corbyn.
Grime for Corbyn is Red Wedge, you know. Every generation has to find its own way to deal with the problems it faces. Red Wedge was our generation and it came out of a specific set of circumstances. Other generations will find other ways. In the 1980s, the voice of youth per se was marginalised so music was our social medium which we used to speak. Red Wedge was a way of getting our voice out there in the music press and allowing us to thrash out the ideas. Youth aren’t marginalised anymore – you can blog, you can make a film on your phone. But young black men are marginalised and that’s why grime has an important role to play for their community. If they have something to say, if they want to get in my timeline, they have to make some great music. I think that the grime community and black youth are still using music in the way that we used music, as a way of talking to one another and to the rest of the world that doesn’t understand them. Mainstream youth – they’re mainstream.
Now that everything is more dispersed, people don’t have those same collective cultural experiences as when we all watched Top of the Pops on a Thursday night and talked about it at school on Friday. On the other hand, the internet opens up the world. Do you think that it’s easier or more difficult to develop a sense of collective experience now?
Easier – I think that the school strikers have shown that social media can help people to organise and it motivates people to spread the word. But like all medium, it’s a reflection of the people that use it. There are a lot of angry, frustrated, belligerent people online because there are a lot of angry, frustrated, belligerent people in society. They used to have these conversations about television in the 1950s and 1960s, about the problems of it, but it’s only a reflection of who we are. It doesn’t make us any different.
John Peel gave airplay to you and bands such as The Smiths and The Fall back in the day. Although you can’t attribute too much to one person, it was a real blow to music when he died.
It was a blow but I think we’d still be in this position because the fragmentation of culture has been brought on by the digital revolution both in terms of how music is consumed and how audiences have become fragmented. The thing about Peel was that he had a kind of monopoly on edgy music. There was nobody else playing that shit. If you wanted to hear The Fall, if you wanted to hear Billy Bragg, if you wanted to hear African music, there was only one place you could hear that – it was Peel and it was national so everybody kind of gathered there. Half the stuff he played was mad, and half of that was weird, and half of that was interesting, and half of that was amazing, and half of that was life changing, and half of that you went out and bought.
Music has lost its vanguard role in youth culture, and I think that would have happened anyway. There was no medium available to me when I was 19 other than learning to play guitar, write songs and do gigs. That was the only way I was going to get my voice heard anywhere. It’s different now.
But music still has a very important role to play and I find that I’m talking about this a lot at gigs now, about the empathy that music promotes. I think that empathy has been the currency of music no matter what type of music you make. It’s not about political music, it’s about what you can get from music. It allows you to experience emotions that you yourself may never have felt, to connect with people in situations, not named individuals but imaginary individuals, or walking through a scenario. There’s always been, from the storytellers in the caves, there’s always been ways of taking the individual and imagining themselves in that situation. Music still has that power.
When you get a load of people together like I will tonight, and we sing these songs, whether they’re the political ones or the emotional ones, there’s a solidarity in that, there’s a social solidarity that you take from that. There’s not many places you can get that. You can’t get it online, you can’t get it through a screen. So that’s why I think people are still coming to gigs. Although music is cheap as chips, you can get it for nothing, people still want that live experience. So I think there’s plenty of opportunities out there for people who want to try to make sense of the world through music. In the 20th century, it was all we had so it had to refer to everything, it had to deal with all the things that were happening. Now, not so much. The big selling stuff tends to be back towards entertainment as it was before the 1960s but that may change again.
Your gigs are now around £30 to get in – is that really accessible to the average working class person?
Albums are £30 or £20, proportionately they’re more or less the same as they always were, I think. But I’m not making music just for working class people. I’m just trying to reach out to whoever’s out there. In the end, you have to rely on broadcast media to reach people, take whatever opportunity you have to use your platform to get your ideas out there to people. Gigs are the only real way that musicians can make any money anymore. If everyone wants to go back to paying £14.99 for an album, perhaps we can go back to charging £10 for a gig and not sell tea towels and water bottles and t-shirts. The industry has changed so much. For those of us who have the great privilege of getting paid to do what we always wanted to do, just managing to hang on and keep doing that is getting harder and harder, so things are bound to get a little bit more commercial.
“I’m not making music just for working class people”
Do you think that you’ll ever make a Christmas album?
No, but I did do a Christmas song a couple of years ago which I think we just put it up free online. But that’s where the money is, apparently, making big Christmas albums.
Everyone’s doing it.
Yeah, yeah, think of the amount that Mariah Carey makes from All I Want For Christmas is You. No wonder she only wants you if she makes that amount of money. But no, I enjoy playing live more than making records. Making records is all cost and not much comeback now whereas live is not only lucrative, it’s also visceral, particularly when you’re up there on your own. There three shows are really interesting because the first one is a balance of ballads and what we refer to as chop and clang, whereas for the other two gigs, one is all chop and clang and the other is all ballads. It’s a real challenge for me to get my ideas across within those two formats. I don’t have a big light show, I don’t have no dancers, but I have a narrative. I’m trying to take the audience on a narrative arc to make sure I hit my bullet points that I want to send them away thinking about.
It’s a challenge and it’s very interesting. On this tour, with regard to the election, the last thing I talk about is my sense about why we’re still in the European Union and we haven’t left yet – because the ERG are not willing to pay the price of Brexit and making it an unpalatable compromise for them by voting for Theresa May’s deal. They could have had it then, we’d have been out, this wouldn’t be a matter for debate. Likewise, the DUP weren’t willing to pay the price of Brexit by voting for Boris Johnson’s deal. The question then is, for those of us who would like a second referendum, are we willing to pay the price of a second referendum by making the unpalatable compromise of voting tactically. I’m trying to really challenge my audience to think about what’s at stake and most nights, they get pretty pissed off that I’m saying it, they get really angry that I might even suggest that but I’m not here to pat everybody on the back and say, well done. I’m trying to challenge them as much as inspire them. This is my take on where we are, this is my twopenneth. There have been some interesting reactions to that.
You got the Trailblazer Award for Americana last year. How much did that mean to you, to be recognised in that genre?
Well I was disappointed that it wasn’t really a blazer. I like a nice blazer. Yes, it’s nice, Americana is kind of where singer songwriters go to meet up with old friends again. It’s a nice genre, it’s like classic singer songwriters with cowboy boots. I don’t quite fit with that but my work with Woody Guthrie and Wilco, and more recently with Joe Henry has given me a connection with that scene. When I go out to summer festivals, I take a guy out with me who plays the pedal steel guitar. It fits in really nicely with my back catalogue.
I think that people forget, with Trump and everything, that America has that very progressive folk tradition.
I’m fortunate, I get to go over there quite often so I’ve never had that kneejerk anti-Americanism. Consequently it’s led to me having a few arguments with friends on the left. If you’ve not been over there and not experienced the people and the great sense of community that most places have, you can’t just be so dismissive.
Of course, it spawned much of the civil rights movement.
Yes, the inspirational music of the civil rights movement. That’s how I was politicised, listening to Motown chartbusters albums and I then gradually, gradually got more political. That’s how I picked it up as a 12 and 13 year old. Music should say something more than just, I love you.
Most of your fans are of a certain age but are you attracting young people to your gigs too?
Seems to be, yes. I was out on the school strike for climate on Friday in Cambridge and the organiser of that was an 11 year old. There were a lot of students on it who knew my stuff that were talking to me, obviously not the 11 year olds. You’ve got to remember there’s not that many people writing those kind of picket line songs anymore so I still fit into that category for some people and if I end up being a bit like Pete Seeger, I’m cool with that. I have a lot of respect for him.
Do you think that you’ll ever do Cambridge Folk Festival again?
I think they were after me this summer, but I’m in America doing anti-Trump stuff. I’m always up for that. I like folk festivals. The folk festival audience are a lot more open minded and they actively encourage you to grow old. If you’re grey and whiskery and have got a beard, they like that. I’ve always enjoyed playing folk festivals.
What do you see yourself doing next?
Home after Birmingham! I need to change my socks and boil my hankies. I really enjoyed making the record with Joe Henry on the train, that was a lot of fun, and writing the book as well. It’s trying to find things after you’ve been making records and touring for 35 years, to find things that are interesting and challenging. Writing books and making albums around a theme, that kind of stuff I find very engaging.
Do you think that you’ll have a big farewell tour one day or will you gig until you drop?
I’m 61 now, I do enjoy it. The three night thing is a way of touring where there is less pressure on the environment and less pressure on the poor old artist. I’m thinking of ways of touring that are more conducive to being the age I am but I do enjoy live performance and it’s the way I make a living, so I couldn’t really just stop altogether. Pete Seeger was still gigging when he was 90. That’s a thought! We’ll see what happens in the next 25 years.
Billy Bragg News HERE
Billy Bragg Merch’ – Perfect for Christmas HERE
Interview by Sarah Corbett-Batson on 1st December 2019 in Birmingham during the One Step Forward Two Steps Back tour.
Photographs copyright Carl Byron Batson – not to be reproduced or used without express prior written permission.