Punk's Not Dead

Billy Bragg is back—and boy, do we need him

| March-April 2006

  • billy-bragg

    Image by Flickr user: nic_r / Creative Commons

  • billy-bragg

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.