has never been a pop star but his songs, both political and personal, have more than once caught a moment or touched a national nerve. Simon Jones spoke to him on 6 June 2003.
Photography: Andrew Firth
I first saw you play in the little Welsh mining town of Aberdare during the 1984 miners’ strike. I think you say it was that strike that politicised you.
It was really, yeah. If you look at my first album, which was recorded in early 1983, there is politics on it but it’s very personal: it’s all social comment. But by the next record it’s starting to sort of firm up and become more ideological. By then, I was aware that the sort of things that I had grown up taking for granted – free health care, free education, those kind of things – were actually in danger and it was worth doing something about it by voting and by writing songs and taking part. (In 1979, the first time I could have voted, I didn’t, because I thought there was no difference between Jim Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher. How stupid can you be?)
In 2000, you said you felt a sort of suspended cynicism about Tony Blair’s first government. Is it still suspended?
I’m managing to hold my cynicism back. It’s difficult, believe me! After this war [in Iraq], incredibly difficult. But I’m more interested in trying to encourage the best in people, you know. Blair said that our enemy in making a better society is conservatism. I don’t agree with him. I don’t even think it’s capitalism. I think it’s cynicism. I think cynicism is the enemy of everybody who wants to create a better society. We must do everything we can to fight against our own cynicism, and cynicism in general.
So, I try my hardest, whenever I have the opportunity, to encourage the Labour Party to do the right thing. Now, sometimes that encouragement is verbal, sometimes it’s written, sometimes it’s the toe of my Doc Martens; but I refuse, having spent a third of my life, from 1983 to 1997, fighting the Tories, to immediately go into fighting Labour just because they haven’t delivered everything I want. Anyone who says they’re no better than the Conservatives has a very short memory.
I’m not saying that I vote for them with joy in my heart, and sometimes I have to hold my nose; but I think the important thing is to remain engaged while things are still possible. I don’t want to look back in 10 years’ time when the Tories are in power again and think, ‘I didn’t do my absolute utmost to try and get those buggers to deliver.’ You know?
We are all supposed to be post-ideological now. Do you still think of yourself as a committed socialist?
I don’t really know what ‘socialism’ means – if I sat down and had an argument with another socialist today I’m not sure we would agree any more. But I can say that because I don’t come from a Marxist tradition: I haven’t lost my faith in that sense, because I never had it. My politics don’t really come from reading Marx or any political tract; they are basically an ideological manifestation of my fundamental humanitarian ideals.
And where do those fundamental ideals come from?
I feel I have a moral debt to the generation that went through the Second World War, because out of their suffering and their sacrifice came the welfare state
In me? That’s a really good question, that. My family wasn’t particularly political, and I never really spoke to my father about politics much. But having been born just as the welfare state was really getting its act together in the late Fifties and having enjoyed its sort of high watermark in the Sixties, I feel very strongly that it should be around for my kids and, if they don’t need it, for my brother’s kids and their kids, and my mum, who is now a pensioner. And so I feel sort of morally obliged to…
I’ll tell you who I feel I have a moral debt to: the generation that went through the Second World War, because out of their suffering and their sacrifice, not just in the war itself but in the years before it as well, came the welfare state. What was [the war] about? Ultimately, it was about defeating fascism and making a better world.
But now that world has changed –
Oh totally, yeah. You couldn’t be Billy Bragg today: some kid writing songs about ‘There’s power in the union’ I doubt would succeed. I’ll tell you why: I think you can’t make political art in an ideological vacuum. The [US] civil rights movement didn’t happen because Bob Dylan wrote ‘The Times They Are a-Changin’’; it was the other way round. Dylan was reflecting what was happening. So, in the kind of non-ideological society we’ve lived in for the last 10 years I think a young Billy Bragg would struggle…
To find something to kick against?
No, I think there’s lots to kick against, and I think young people are engaged in their own way; but I think it would take a huge amount of courage to write those kind of political songs now – whereas when I did it I was just striking a chord with what people were feeling.
You once described the Beatles song ‘All You Need is Love’ as one of the all-time great pop songs on the grounds that as well as having a hummable tune it touched on the great truths of human existence. Can we still address those great truths in pop music or is it now just all ephemera?
No, no, no, we still can. We still can talk about the great truths, but – Again, ‘All You Need is Love’ is of its time. It’s come to represent all the ideals of the Summer of Love, that everything is possible providing you open your heart, and I think that’s a very positive idea. But since then people have realised that you can’t actually change the world by, you know, growing your hair and wearing a kaftan.
Do you think that music can change the world?
No, I don’t believe it can, and I think it’s foolish to suggest to people that they can do their bit by buying a Billy Bragg record. I’d be mortified if I thought people were copping out like that.
However, what music can do is change your perspective on the world. The first political activity I ever took part in was a Rock Against Racism march in 1978. I went along because I was a fan of The Clash and a committed anti-racist (I’d grown up in a very multicultural area and we’d had a lot of trouble with the National Front when I was at school). Now, Tom Robinson came on after The Clash and when he sang ‘Sing if You’re Glad to be Gay’, a load of geezers standing around us suddenly started kissing one another.
I’d never knowingly seen a gay man and it really shocked me. My initial feeling was, ‘Why are these gay men at this anti-racist gig?’ and I really had to think hard about this. It took me a while to come to the conclusion that actually, you know, this isn’t just about black people, the fascists are threatened by anyone who in any way diverges from their narrow definition of what the world should be – and from that day on I promised myself that I would try to stand up and be different, because that was what the fascists were most afraid of. And so I came away from that gig with my perspective completely transformed.
You have to be very careful that it doesn’t all become just emotion. You’ve got to know where to draw the line, so you’re not just rabble-rousing
You’ve written that Joe Strummer [of The Clash] believed in the righteous power of rock’n’roll. Is that just a matter of perspective, or of passion as well?
Oh, very much so. If you go and see someone like Joe or [Bruce] Springsteen, you know, there are very, very powerful emotions that are expressed there. I think left-wing politics lends itself to that. You have to be very careful that it doesn’t all become just emotion – you’ve got to know where to draw the line, so you’re not just rabble-rousing but you’re actually challenging people.
At the end of the song ‘England, Half English’ I say, ‘Oh my country, oh my country, what a beautiful country you are.’ And people said to me – long-term fans – ‘You’re just being ironic, aren’t you?’ And I’m, like, ‘No, no, I’m not. I do love this country.’ That was great for me, because I knew I was challenging their perception not just of who I am (which is always good to do) but also of the way you can look at national identity. Because I believe if we don’t deal with the issue of national identity, then a vacuum will be created that the [British National Party] and the Norman Tebbits will fill and they will decide who is and who isn’t English.
Is there something distinctive about Englishness that every English person can share?
I’m not a great believer in the uniqueness of nations and I’m not a fan of putting particular characteristics on nationalities either. I happen to think that identity is quite personal. You know, it depends on who you’re talking to, it depends on how you feel…
I think what we have in common in England is a sense of belonging that is actually more to do with the space that we share and we’ve grown up in and live in. I’m more interested in where you are rather than where you’re from or where your parents or your grandparents were from. Where you are and how you interact with that community, how your kids are going to get on with my kids.
I don’t think you can have Englishness without multiculturalism now. If our most popular meal is chicken tikka masala…
On your 2002 album England, Half English, you spoke approvingly of George Orwell’s conception of Englishness, and yet the Englishness you take pride in is very different from his.
I think it would have to be, because Orwell grew up in a completely different England to the one I grew up in. If you went back to England before 1940, there’d be no Indian restaurants, no pop music, no TV. You’d grow up eating English food, listening to English music, wearing English clothes. How awful would that be? Think about it! Think of what the Beatles would have sounded like if they’d only listened to English music! You know?
But the thing about Orwell, why he is really important, is that he tried to articulate a positive sense of English identity from a progressive point of view – and at a time when the country was under great pressure. The Lion and the Unicorn, which he wrote in 1940, to me has got to be your key text.
The lineage of political pop, I suppose, runs from Woody Guthrie to Phil Ochs, and then Dylan takes it on further – but he also goes off in other directions.
Dylan was definitely changing people’s perspectives – and he was arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century: I would put him up there somewhere. But, you know, he never wrote a song about the Vietnam War – this great thing that was totally distorting America in the mid and late Sixties. It doesn’t make him not a political songwriter – my favourite Dylan album is The Times They Are a-Changin’, which has all those great political songs on it. But he went somewhere else, he followed his muse – and he follows it still, I think, which is to his credit.
I’ve never looked for the divine in my music and I’d be a bit loth to. But where I see the divine is in the way songs I’ve written touch people
After Dylan you come to The Clash, who are painting anti-fascist slogans on their guitars like Woody, and from them it’s just a short hop to me. But it all goes back to Woody.
Apart from Dylan, all those artists have been rather marginalised. Do you think that was because they were prophets and prophets are marginalised?
I think that people who try to challenge conventional wisdom on any issue will often find themselves marginalised. If we were all in the mainstream, we probably wouldn’t be doing it right. The one time I got a number-one hit single, it was doing a Beatles cover, by accident. I don’t want to keep doing that.
But is it a matter of deliberately moving out of the mainstream to escape the constraints of having to sell so many records or whatever, or are you pushed out because you refuse to accept those norms?
It’s the road less travelled, isn’t it? There’s a fork in the road and you consciously choose the road less travelled – and you’re aware that it may be a more difficult road. You accept that there won’t be, you know, so many bridges, you may occasionally find yourself cutting through brambles or going through mud. (I’m talking purely in terms of career.)
That reminds me of Jesus’ image of the narrow road as opposed to the broad road – but that is a contrast between truth and falsehood. Is it a commitment to truth that keeps you on that path?
Whether it’s as strong as truth, I don’t know – but certainly values. You find that the thing that keeps you off the well-trodden path is that you can’t express your values there – it’s too glitzy, the light is too sharp, the style totally swamps the content.
In his book 31 Songs , Nick Hornby talks about a Rufus Wainwright song that convinces him of the divine because suddenly, in the harmony or whatever, the whole seems greater than the sum of its parts. Is that something you can identify with?
You know, I’ve never looked for the divine in my music, I’ll be perfectly honest with you, and I’d be a bit loth to. But where I see the divine is in the way songs I’ve written touch people. I don’t know how it works and I don’t really care to think too much on it, because it’s about individuals; but when someone tells you how powerfully they’ve responded to one of your songs and it’s given them an emotional high or maybe some comfort – which I’ve had from other people’s songs – I think there’s an element of the divine in that, somehow. It may be in a sort of fellow feeling, or a sense that you’re not the only person in the world who feels this way.
Is there a difference for you between writing a love song and a political song?
No. I try and write songs that bring a different perspective to any issue. Whether it’s politics or relationships, I’m trying to cover an angle no one else has covered – and the best ones to me are the ones where politics and love overlap. If I can do that in a song, I’m really pleased about that.
So, you’re aiming for some kind of transcendence?
Yeah, I think you’re right. I’ll be honest with you, a lot of the time these are things I really don’t think about. A lot of song-writing, I think, is intuitive. Songwriters are able to tune their intuition, perhaps, and where those kind of things really, really begin to flow is – I don’t know, the only word I can think of is that it is a bit spiritual, I suppose. Something that previously has been difficult, if not impossible, to articulate suddenly begins to flow onto the paper – and that to me is where the best songs come from. I can sit down and force myself to do it, but when something has moved me, if I can get all that emotion down onto paper in a way that’s communicable to other people, I feel I’ve done my job.
I think your personal relationship to God is much more important than how often you go to church
If we’re talking about a spiritual sense of what I do, perhaps we ought to talk about where Christianity and socialism overlap. For instance, why I sell fairtrade T-shirts – that sense of humanity is present in those kind of decisions and I think the sense of responsibility, of your actions having an effect, negative or positive, is something that is bound up in Bible teaching.
You’ve always been ambivalent about the church – ‘The clergy dazzle us with heaven/Or they damn us into hell’ – yet you’re happy to sing Guthrie’s more religious songs, such as ‘Christ for President’ –
And [William Blake’s] ‘Jerusalem’.
I’ll be perfectly honest with you: I’m not a great fan of organised religion. I think that your personal relationship to God, in whatever form you see it, is much more important than how often you go to church – and I see resonances in that all the way through the great English radical tradition, back to John Ball,1The Lollard priest who played a prominent part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Diggers obviously2The group of Protestant radicals who emerged after the English Civil War, who argued for the abolition of private property and common ownership of the land. According to them, ‘the earth was made to be a common treasury for all.’ and…
Songs like ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ I see as a way of, you know, expressing the sense of humanitarian – I don’t like to use the word ‘moral’, because these days it’s a bit of a tarnished word: it always suggests someone trying to stop something, you know. You’ve got that problem with the Puritans banning Christmas (what they actually meant was banning everyone getting pissed at Christmas) – that was really bad public relations. But there is a really important moment in English history where everything changes fundamentally, and that’s when the Bible was printed in English; and I recognise the importance of that moment and of the influence the Bible has had. We’re still part of that change today.
You know, I didn’t really come from a very religious family. My mother comes from an Italian family and was brought up as a Roman Catholic, but we never went to church as kids. My father was a Protestant, but once he died my mother reverted to her faith and she got great strength from it, and I think that seeing that made me understand a lot more of the importance of faith and how it can be both a comfort and a guide through life.
I guess you feel ambivalent about the Bible as well. It’s been an influence for good in many ways, but it has also been used to very negative effect.
Of course, yeah. You could say the same about Das Kapital, couldn’t you, really? I think that one of the great problems with the Marxist worldview in the end is that it denies absolutely that people have any spiritual need. I think people do have spiritual need and it’s not something that can just be ironed out.
I happen to think they also have material need, and what I don’t want is either a society based purely on materialism or one based purely on theology. I want people to be able to practise their religion freely, without impinging on the freedoms and the beliefs of those people who don’t agree with them.
Is that spiritual need something you see only in other people?
No, I accept that need in myself.
And where do you go to satisfy it?
Well, I’ve been wearing a St Christopher now since I was 15 and that’s not just something I wear.
When I look beyond existence, into the void – you know, is that all there is? It seems to me there’s too much mystery involved in the whole process for it to just be a void
And it’s not just because you’re from Essex?
No, exactly. It does have a spiritual dimension, and living out in the [West C]ountry you do actually get a bit closer to the church and to the older role it had in the community. Our neighbours are farmers and every year in the week before Christmas they have a carol service in their barn. Everyone sits on the bales and the animals are there and they don’t have anyone play anything, they just hand round songsheets and we all gather in there and the farmer leads the singing and it is one of the most powerful religious things I have ever experienced, and if I miss it I get really upset. It is a very, very spiritual thing.
You’ve also talked about some of the ancient chalk carvings and standing stones and your feeling that there’s more to them than just archaeology.
The intuition I was talking about, you can sometimes tune that in to the past and get a vibe. When you go to the big stone circles, you think to yourself: ‘Whoever these people were, whatever they were like, they may have nothing in common with me but they were trying to make sense of this space that I’m standing in.’ You know, you can sort of get a bit of a sense of it. Or if you go to any of the great cathedrals, or sometimes just a small parish church or graveyard, it will give you that sense.
One problem that many Christians have with socialism – or Marxism – is that it claims that humankind can achieve some kind of heaven on earth by itself.
Of course. And unfortunately Marxism in particular has rather been anti-religious in its manifestations. But in the end both the ideology and the religion are promising to make things better for people, so there obviously is some sort of common end there, if not a common route. You know, when you go to Greenham Common and find you’re chaining yourself to the fence next to some little old lady who’s a Quaker, you don’t say to yourself, ‘Well, that’s against socialism.’ You rejoice that the two of you have found one another. She’s there because of her firm belief and I’m there because of my firm belief and we’re finding common cause.
Does your sense of the spiritual extend to the reality of evil?
No, I think I’m more ‘Who knows what evil lurks in the minds of men?’ I think that evil is part of existence, I think that’s the best way for me to say it. But when I look beyond existence, into the void – you know, is that all there is? It seems to me there’s too much mystery involved in the whole process for it to just be a void. I’ve never felt very comfortable with that. And things like September 11th are all part and parcel of that mystery, unfortunately.
What did you make of the reaction to Diana’s death, which some people called ‘pseudo-religious’?
Well, I think we’re back to that fellow-feeling thing – people still want to come together and feel things. I suppose in the olden days the communal coming-together in a church had that purpose. Now you can get that in other places, like off the telly or the internet or going to football. But, you know, society doesn’t really deal very well with death. It has an absolute inability to deal with anything that suggests that we may not be immortal.
So, when death does occur – and it’s one of the absolute, essential realities of existence – we can’t deal with it. Where do we go? Where do we turn? What do we do? And if it’s something like the death of Princess Diana, the shock of realising that even she is mortal, it’s no surprise people came together. It may not be religious in the strict sense but there is a spiritual feeling there and I don’t think we should dismiss that.
I had a lot of time for the Diana phenomenon, because I think if we want a better society we need a society in which people can feel compassion for other people. So, standing around weeping about it, that sort of fellow feeling, is really, really important.
I find myself at a place called Compassion, and I find that the church – at its best – is also there
To be perfectly honest with you, on the Monday when they started laying all those flowers at Kensington Palace I was very cynical about it; by the Friday I was down there. Woody Guthrie’s daughter asked me about it on the phone and I said, ‘Well, Nora, I don’t know how I’m going to tell you this but I’m going down there tomorrow. I really want to go down there – and the missus and the boys – because we really feel something is happening there that we feel part of.’ And she said to me, ‘Will you take a flower for me?’
It really surprised me, the sort of people that were there, the sort of power of it.
And that power lay in what? Its collective nature?
The collective sense of our own mortality. And isn’t that what the Christian church is based on?
I think it has something to offer to that collective sense of mortality, certainly.
And you’d think, when people are even more cut off from that sense of mortality, that the church would actually have a bigger role today, wouldn’t you, because it’s one of the very few places where you can go and get that. I mean, go in almost any church you can think of and you’re just surrounded by mementoes of mortality. We almost bury our loved ones in the past: we sing the old hymns, in the old church and the old graveyard – and yet that’s the only place you go any more, short of the mortuary, where you’re confronted by those thoughts.
The comfort of the church is that whatever has happened to you, look, here’s someone it happened to in 1727. This poor woman died after giving birth to eight children. Reading tombstones or memorials can sometimes be like watching Eastenders, can’t it? It’s all there.
Why do you think the church is a declining influence today?
Because people don’t want to be reminded of their mortality every Sunday, I think.
[But] if I step back from socialism and ask myself, ‘OK, what does this actually mean to me?’, I find myself at a place called Compassion; and I find that the church – or the best elements of the church – is also at a place called Compassion. People are still looking for those compassionate ideas and those compassionate ways to live, and I think the church can have a lot of input into that sort of debate.
People say: ‘No one cares any more, because no one goes to church.’ I don’t agree. ‘No one’s interested in politics. Young people don’t vote.’ Well, go on the marches! Go and find those active Christians who are out there, giving real, physical meaning to the word of Christ. Their testament is to do something, and those aspects of the church are, I think, still for many people the most valid expression of Christianity.
A slightly longer version of this interview was published in the September 2003 issue of Third Way.
[ + ]
|1.||⇑||The Lollard priest who played a prominent part in the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381|
|2.||⇑||The group of Protestant radicals who emerged after the English Civil War, who argued for the abolition of private property and common ownership of the land. According to them, ‘the earth was made to be a common treasury for all.’|
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Billy Bragg was born in 1957 and educated at Barking Abbey Comprehensive School, which he left in 1974 with one O-level to work as a clerk and a bank messenger.
With three friends he formed a punk band, Riff Raff, which released a series of indie singles and enjoyed local success. When they eventually split in 1980, he joined the Royal Armoured Corps, but after completing three months’ basic training bought himself out.
He embarked on a solo career, playing in clubs and concert halls across the country, initially under the pseudonym Spy vs Spy. His first album, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy on the indie Utility label, entered the British Top 40 in early 1984. Two of its songs were quickly recorded by other artists: ‘A New England’, which was a hit in 1985 for Kirsty MacColl, and ‘The Man in the Iron Mask’, which was covered by Paul Young.
1984 also saw his first tour of the United States and the release (now on Go! Discs) of Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, which entered the album chart at 16.
He formed Red Wedge, an initiative to persuade young people to vote Labour in the 1987 general election, and in that cause devoted much of the next two years to touring with the likes of the Style Council, Madness, the Communards and Morrissey.
In 1986, Talking with the Taxman about Poetry reached the Top 10 and spawned the hit single ‘Levi Stubb’s Tears’. The following year, readers of New Musical Express voted Billy Bragg the second most wonderful human being in the world, after Morrissey.
In 1988, he had a number one with a cover of The Beatles’ ‘She’s Leaving Home’, a double A-side with Wet Wet Wet’s version of ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’.
Later that year, Workers Playtime reached the Top 20.
The ‘mini-album’ The Internationale, released in 1990 on the Utility label, was followed in 1991 by Don’t Try This at Home on Go!, which reached number eight in the chart and produced the hit single ‘Sexuality’.
In 1993, Bragg became a father and took time out to concentrate on his family. Three years later, his seventh album, William Bloke, appeared on Cooking Vinyl and reached the Top 20.
In the following year, Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora invited him to write music to some of the 2,500 lyrics her father had left unpublished at his death. The result was Mermaid Avenue, a collaboration with the US ‘alternative country’ band Wilco (and featuring Eliza Carthy and Natalie Merchant) released in 1998. It was listed by Rolling Stone among the most influential albums of the Nineties, and nominated for a Grammy award – as was Mermaid Avenue Vol 2, which was issued two years later.
England, Half English, the first collection of his own songs since 1996, came out in 2002.
He has written music for several films, including the feature film Mad Love.
He has appeared several times on BBC1’s Question Time and has written widely for both the broadsheets and the broadcast media. In 2001, having bought a house in the West Country, he launched www.votedorset.net to encourage tactical voting to unseat the local Conservative MP and also began campaigning for the reform of the House of Lords with the pamphlet ‘A Genuine Expression of the Will of the People’.
He has been with his life partner since 1992 and has one son and one stepson.
Up-to-date as at 1 August 2003