Punk-rock balladeer Billy Bragg first picked up the guitar after seeing The Clash perform live. But whereas hard core’s essential emotional range tends toward rage (Circle Jerks: “I’ve got the world up my ass!”) or hopelessness (X: “We’re desperate, get used to it!”), Bragg’s is expansive: bittersweet love songs, songs of exhaustion and misery, and, yes, songs of passionate anger at injustice. But even a raging Billy Bragg is somehow affirming.
He’s also unashamedly ideological—a socialist, a trade unionist—and many of his songs sound as if they are intended to be sung on the picket line, which, in fact, they are.
A new seven-CD box set of his music from Yep Roc Records serves up all of the above and includes remastered classic albums of the 1980s, as well as previously unreleased original songs and covers (a sweet cover of the Smiths “Back to the Old House” stands out). Also included are DVD clips of concert footage from Nicaragua, Lithuania, and East Berlin. It’s on stage that the music really comes alive; the studios tend to grind the burr off his playing.
Bragg’s heyday may have been the Reagan/Thatcher years, but after 25 years of conservative government (from both parties, mind you), we find ourselves in desperate need of someone who will stand up on the broad cultural stage and voice our outrage, pain—and values. It’s what Billy Bragg did then. Here’s hoping he will do it again.
Joseph Hart: Was it weird to go back and listen to stuff from 20 years ago?
Billy Bragg: Not really, I wouldn’t say weird. I play these songs solo, so they still sound like they did on the first record. I’m still in touch with that vibe. Also, those first few records defined me politically. I often find myself in a context where I’m called upon to play some of those old political songs. It’s not easy being a leftist when you’ve got a Labour government.
H: But at least the Labour Party professes to represent the values of the left, so you can hold them accountable.
B: Well, tha’'s really one of the problems we have: the values of the left. How is that defined in the kind of postideological society that we live in? It’s one of the things that worries me. We’ve got so far away from the notions of what socialism could be, partly due to the end of the Cold War. I think we’re in danger of losing any form of principled ideas. The left just reacts to things as they turn up rather than having an overarching ideal for what society could be. It becomes a matter of pragmatism.
H: We’re struggling with that in this country, trying to define the core values that we’re fighting for.
B: It’s that chestnut argument, which unfortunately does have some weight to it: The antiglobalization movement is a positive thing, but what is it for? You want someone to come out and say, “Another world is possible.” And tell me what values that other world is based on. What is our alternative to globalization?
H: Well, what do you think?
B: In the old days, we would have talked about abolishing capitalism. Now we have to approach from a different angle. I would like to start aspiring to a world based upon cooperation rather than competition. That could be the slogan of the antiglobalization movement. I recognize that it’s not an ideological idea, but it’s as good as “Workers of the world unite,” isn’t it?
The social justice agenda is important, but it has to include economic justice as well. It’s all very well for people to have their human rights, but what good are they if they can’t get an education or feed their families? It is, unfortunately, still the economy, stupid, with regard to making the world a better place.
We’re trying to find a political manifestation of the altruistic feelings that we all have toward one another. By talking about cooperation, not competition, we’re making people understand that the rights of the individual can only be guaranteed by the collective responsibility of the rest of society. Human rights are reciprocal. You have no rights if I don’t and everybody else doesn’t respect your rights.
H: You’re talking about power in the community?
B: Or the reciprocity of life. All of us have rights, but our rights are limited by our responsibilities to our fellow human beings. For example, no one has the right to fly an airplane into a building or put a bomb on the London Underground. We need to be restating those values, because since the late 20th century, those ideas have been in a dangerous state of flux.
H: What role does the union have in a world where manufacturing takes place thousands of miles away?
B: If we’re going to talk about cooperation, not competition, the unions have an important role to play. The reason jobs disappear to other parts of the world is all about competition, about trying to bring the American economy down to a competitive level with the Indian economy or the Chinese economy.
Unions really are about community. They seem also to be one of the few places where you can still find that basic fundamental urge to create a better society. In my hometown of East London we have some problems with a racist political party that won a seat on the local council, and it’s been the unions that have gone over there and flushed these people out. The Labour Party is moribund.
H: Have you been involved in this fight?
B: I have. In fact, I’m doing a tour that specifically targets both places where the British National Party may well win council seats, including my hometown. It’s sponsored by several of our big unions. We’re going out and trying to put down some hard antiracist ideas.
H: Do you still have contact with people you grew up with there?
B: Yeah, I do. The guy who taught me to play guitar lived in the house next door, Wiggy, I spoke to him today.
H: You still work together, right?
B: He compiled the box set. It was actually he who went into the archives and found all this shit. Because he knows where it all is. He’s got a better memory than me, if anything, for what we recorded back in those days. So the box set, the last couple of years, has been his baby. But my mom still lives there, too. I was there the night before last. My brother lives there with his three kids and his wife. He’s a bricklayer. So, I am over there quite often.
H: People who grew up in a working-class background and go on to fame and fortune sometimes face a personal dissonance—or people from the old neighborhood look down on you for having left that life behind. Have you ever felt that?
B: Yeah, I do get that. Obviously, when I come over and talk to people about living in a community with all different kinds of people living together, some people attack me because I live in an area where there aren’t too many people of color. They say that I should try living there. Well, my mom lives there and she manages to get on with people. My brother lives there. He and his South Asian neighbor have worked together to get a gang of abusive kids who were hanging around their alleyway to move on. They worked together to do that. They got the council to come, and the council spoke to these kids’ parents. They got them talking together.
H: Accent is such a class marker, such a distinctive way to sort people into categories. You’ve really turned your accent into a signature. Was there ever a time you tried to hide it?
B: No, but I’ve gotten a lot of complaints about it, all of them, exclusively from my mother.
H: What does she say?
B: The first time I ever let her come to a Billy Bragg gig there was a guy there from one of the English music papers, and he said, “Who’s that old woman in the back?” I said, “That’s me mother.” “You don’t mind if I talk to her, do you?” “No that’s fine, I’ll introduce you to her, you can have a chat.” I said to him afterwards, “What’d she say.” “Oh, she was indignant. When you were playing and talking she was saying, ‘He doesn’t have to talk like that. He’s much better brought up than that.’”
I’ve got a better one for you than that. God bless her, I love her. But when we were making the Woody Guthrie documentary, they went out to film my hometown. They sat me and my mother on the sofa, and the director said to my mom, “What do you think of your son’s music?” And straight out, she said, “Oh, I’ve never liked his music.” She said, “The school led us to believe he was capable of much better.” The director flipped the camera straight to me, and I said, “What kind of punk rocker would I be if I made music that made my mum happy?” People who see that film say only one of two things. They say, “I love that scene where your mum says what she thinks,” or, “I love that scene where your son totally upstages you.” So, I don’t know. In the end, there’s only one way to be authentic and that’s to be who you are. If you’re being someone else, you’re not being authentic are you?
H: You came out of the punk milieu, and punk is many things, but it has a strong strain of nihilism. But your music is affirming, even when you’re angry.
B: Nihilism is a very potent artistic impulse, but one of the things I came out of punk with was a belief that rock and roll can change the world. I was naïve about that ‘cause it can’t, and I know that. But I was 19 and I saw The Clash. What could I do? My entire career has been trying to prove that even if you can’t change the world that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t at least have a go. To push it as far as you can to see what it can actually do. It is very powerful to stand up there and say these things and sing these songs, or to be in the audience. It’s very powerful. And it can’t just be about selling records—there’s got to be something more to it than that. I’ve tried to put those things together, and my conclusion is, although you can’t change the world, you can change the perspective of people in your audience, so that they look at the world in a different way. That’s the absolute most you can do. That’s what I try to do every night. I try to bring something to what I’m doing that they won’t have read in the paper, won’t have seen on TV, won’t have heard on the radio. And hopefully something that takes them completely by surprise, like talking about Englishness to my left-wing audience is pretty tough on them, because they are internationalists, and so am I. But I’m also a patriot, as was Woody Guthrie. Sometimes the surprises I bring to them can be shocking to my audience. But it’s very exciting to try and do it, and I would be betraying myself if I didn’t try to.
H: Your emotional range is big enough to allow for complexity.
B: And my audience is literate enough to be dealing with those kinds of things. If people are drawn to my music they’ve got to be reading the lyrics, ‘cause there ain’t much else . . . (laughs) One of the great things about punk was the idea of content over style. Maybe that’s what we should have called the box set. But I like to think that people who come to listen to me are in that old tradition where people came and listened to people sing and speak because they were interested in what you had to say as well as what you think. You’ve sung that song, you made a statement in that song, what other ideas have you got to back that up, boy? I also feel that when I hear a song, like, let’s talk about it, talk to me about that. A gig should be a little bit more than playing songs.