by carl wilson

He's Got a New Spell:
Billy Bragg Seeks a Post-Marxist Language

Billy Bragg live in Toronto, photo lifted from Chromewaves.

Because I've been too busy getting ready to move house to do anything else, and because I keep seeing him pop up on radio shows and in the press all over North America this week, I thought I'd run the full text of the Billy Bragg interview I did a couple of weeks ago on the occasion of his new, early-years, nine-disc box set Volume 1 and accompanying tour, for a short piece in the Globe. And I do mean "full." The boy does go on. (Can we still call him that, now he's pushing 50?) But he's really a joy to interview, as you might suspect from his live patter. This is especially for Frank Chromewaves, who requested it (and also reviewed his Toronto show).

Topics covered: James Blunt, British National Party, Bob Dylan, Clash, "Spandau fucking Ballet," nostalgia, Bragg's upcoming book on multiculturalism, July 7 subway attacks, Marxism, class analysis, social antennae, fatherhood, Miner's Strike, Red Wedge, Live 8, resemblance of Sudbury to moon, productivity, Connecticut car parks, cynicism, role of the artist, Suzi Quatro, The Weakest Link, suntanning at Lake Tahoe, where the answer is.

Warning: May contain unreconstructed rockism. (See comments about "Roxy Music fans.") Nobody's perfect.

You can download his new song Bush War Blues (an adaptation of Leadbelly's Bourgeois Blues) here, and some mp3s of a recent gig in Massachusetts here.

Now, finally, on to the interview...

This new box set [Volume 1] is at least your second retrospective in the past few years. [His last release was a best-of called Must I Paint You a Picture.] Is that your idea or the record company's?

It was about time we put out some kind of a best-of, which was a couple of years back. And then Elektra in the US got lost in the corporate shenanigans ... someone folded Elektra into themselves. And the end result was that I ended up with my entire back catalogue in a big hole. My rights reverted to me. The good people at Yep Rock, which is a label down in North Carolina, said they'd like to put out my back catalogue. So I got a new deal for my back catalogue. So that really was the way I turned this out. This year I've been writing a book on the subject of identity politics, carried on from the last album [England, Half-English], and it was an election year. So as there was nothing else coming out this year, they offered to put it out now.

When you listen back to those early albums, what do you think of the guy you hear?

It's the alternative James Blunt, isn't it? No, look, I can't apologize enough for that, you can only take so much, we had to retaliate in some way for Jack Johnson, we had to retaliate.

Really, I listened to the first couple of albums in my car when they first sent the re-press down to me and I thought they were as powerful as anything. They've still got that edge to them. And I stand by the sentiments. I think probably because I didn't go in for that big 80s hair and clothes and production, because I did do it the way I did it.

I can remember the first time I heard Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, it was in the middle of Glam Rock. I swapped a copy of the Jackson 5’s greatest hits with a mate for it, and it was a complete revolution. I’d never heard anything so raw and so empowering. So I’d like to think a 15 year old or 19 year old hearing what i do against the backdrop of - or someone who’s into the alternative singer-songwriter thing that's going on now, Devendra Banhart and those guys, would hear what I do as an urging to get back to the strength and power of song rather than production.

Do you miss the passion for songwriting, the songs just pouring out, of those early years?

I think when you're trying to break out, to get a career, you have to have a fever, you can't do it any other way. You've got to fire it up. You've got to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. I was so angry - looking back, Spandau Ballet seems like kind of a stupid thing to be angry about. But I'd been in the audience at Clash gigs. I thought we were going to change the world, and it had come to nothing. A bunch of Roxy Music fans had taken over. And I really knew that if I was going to hear the songs I wanted to hear, I was bloody well gonna  have to do it myself.

But writing the book this year has been a similar sort of thing. It's been a real challenge. I had the same feeling about it, that I must do this, that I felt compelled. The British National Party, a fascist, racist party, suddenly won a council seat in my home town. I felt compelled to not just make an album, that wouldn't suffice, I'd have to go further. It's a completely different discipline. It took me a year or two to figure out how to picture it. It's a lot of similar feelings.

I can remember the first moment when someone in the music industry, a journalist, said my songs were good. You got this feeling, “I can do this.” And I've had several moments like that with the book, when someone else makes you feel justified you've got something worthwhile to say. Whether it's in a song or in a book. In that sense I think I am as driven. Still in the barrel, still looking for Niagara Falls.

Your albums do come slower now. Is it harder to write about marriage and fatherhood than about dating?

I tell you what I think it is: My focus on doing things I think are really worthwhile are much broader now. I knew that the election was coming last year, and realized I'd have to go out - because I'd been campaigning with parliament on trying to get constitutional reforms in the House of Lords, and I knew the time the labour party would be most conducive to that was before an election. And then the BNP had won this council seat so I've been out doing gigs against the BNP.

Then in September there was a song I wrote with a woman in a hospice, for a charity called Rosetta Life. They sent me into a hospital to write songs with terminally ill women, hospice users. We got some local musicians, including Robbie Mcintosh who plays with Norah Jones. And it got to no. 11 in the charts. And that's just as worthwhile. There are these things to do. But back then, I only had one focus, to tour and make records, and consequently everything else in my life suffered to do that.

I am definitely as engaged as I was back then. But making records is not - and never really was - my main concern. Doing gigs, engaging with local politics and national politics, has been my concern. And trying to work out ways to do that - not just ways that were different but ways that engage me as well. The song we recorded and got released - that was just a product of six weeks of songwriting workshops at the hospice. But when it got going, the response was so powerful, people contacting the radio stations who had faced similar poblems and so on. That took up a big chunk of my time as well.

Have you become less idealistic, and more pragmatic?

The world has become less ideological, whether I like it or not. The great watershed for me was in the early ‘90s - whether that was because I became a father, or because the Cold War ended, or because Thatcher was assassinated by her own party. Any one of those would have changed me. But still, if you look at the box set, the ratio of love songs to political songs is 2 to 1 or 3 to 1. But I still have lots to write about with regard to relationships.

Is it harder to be a poet from that less assured point of view?

As a communicator, you have social antennae that pick up what's happening that make you want to write about something. The reason I wrote about Thatcherism in the eighties and am writing about identity now, that's because that’s what the antennae were picking up.

With England, Half English, it was hard because traditionally the left have shied away from any sense of belonging, or those kinds of abstract things. My fans are internationalists, and I'm an internationalist. But the end of the Cold War freed us from the language of Marxism, which I think is redundant now, and leaves us to try and find new ways to articulate the way we'd like the world to be.

Your audience has grown older along with you - do you worry about being a point of nostalgia for their own idealistic youths?

I do, especially in England. You know, when the audience wants me to play Between the Wars, sometimes I do play it. But as with all topical songs it’s the context in which you play it, and sometimes there is the right context. But I always remind them that I don’t miss the ‘80s, I don't miss Thatcher, Reagan, the Soviet Union and Spandau fucking Ballet. I want to look forward. The essence of a culture that's vibrant is to respect the past, but live in the present and concern yourself with trying to make a better future. Doubly so when you're a parent. The whole reason I want to write about identity and make a case for an inclusive sense of it is because I don't really care about where you're from or what your background is. I care about how my kid is going to get along with your kid.

What happened last year on July 7 was incredibly divisive in that sense, of multiculturalism.

I was going to ask what effect you thought that had on the social climate in England.

One of the responses was the question put forward by reactionary newspapers, that this was somehow the fault of multiculturalism - which was their coded way of saying if these people weren’t here we wouldn't have this problem. Their answer was to try to restore “British values.” But nowhere could I find a definition of what British values were or are, and neither could I find a real definition of what multiculturalism is. These two leviathans are set against each other in a way that no one can agree on what they mean. The debate has been warped in that sense.

By the same token, I may not have anything in common with the men who did it, except that we both have British passports. So I have to address that: Why did someone who grew up in the same culture as me feel so marginalized? What made them feel so outside of our community? They didn't just blow up anglo-saxons. They blew up young Muslims on that train too. So if they're against diversity, then maybe i'm against them, too. Maybe they're just like the BNP. We have to discuss that with the people who feel angry at how they are treated in our society.

Figures such as Gordon Brown have made an issue of Englishness, and I'm glad about that. But people like Brown have to understand that Englishness means absolutely nothing without social justice. If you want an inclusive society where people are at ease with each other, you must first have social justice.

What does social justice mean to you - is it economic justice?

I think it can only be delivered by collective provision, as a society. You say, “We as a society believe everyone should have free education, free health care. Everyone should have access to decent affordable acommodation, housing.” As a society we all have to contribute to that. And there is such a thing as society despite what Thatcher said. This is what Britishness means.

(He excuses himself to kiss his son goodnight.)

Education, health care, housing. That’s what I was writing about in Between the Wars. That's what the miners’ strike was about. Those are the things that make me proud to be British, about what my country’s achieved. Those three things, though Thatcher tried to destroy them, and they're still hot potatoes in politics.

I think they’re the big political issues anywhere.

I don't expect these to be uniquely British problems. I'm fortunate. I get to travel, I've seen things, I've been places - to Sudbury, Ontario, or to Penticton or up in Newfoundland. I’ve seen a great deal of Canada and I feel fortunate in that. I’ve seen parts that are unspeakably beautiful and other bits that are pretty mesed up. I've been wowed by it and taken aback by it. When I say I love my country, it doesn't mean i hate your country. I can admire it socially and topographically... Although there are places like Sudbury, Ontario, I can’t say I’ve ever seen nothing like that - Sudbury looks like the moon. And this one place in Connecticut. At least Sudbury has an excuse, it has the nickel mines. This place in Connecticut was just a car park. It didn't have that excuse.

Do you hear a new political music coming from younger musicians now?

I think there's a willingness to address issues, but not capital-P politics in the way we did in the 1980s. That was of a time, because of the miners’ strike, the pressures Thatcher was putting on. We were forced to go perhaps beyond the reaches of where pop music sometimes goes. Rock bands that aren't necessarily political will have stalls in the foyer for causes they support. They'll do gigs for stuff that's political. But it's humanitarian-political rather than ideological-political. You couldn't do it the way we did it.

Well, surely there are ideological pressures in America right now.

Yes, well, in America there's a tradition - this meeting of show biz, rock’n’roll and politics. The last tour I did there, though, was in support of a campaign against corporate ownership in media ownership, and there was politics in that. I was there to say, “This is bad for international artists as well.”

I'm going to be on tour in April sponsored by the unions in Britain, going to towns where the BNP could win elections in May. I'm not sure you could put together a Red Wedge anymore. But I came into politics through Rock against Racism in 1978 so I keep faith with that issue. I keep faith with the Clash, in some ways. And you know, there's young kids who get involved in that too.

At this point do you still think political music is still able to have meaning, or has it become kind of rote? A lot of people are cynical about celebrity activism.

Over the years I've come to the conclusion that the enemy of those of us who want to make a better world is not conservativism, nor is it capitalism - it's cynicism. And unfortunately the Labour government go around stirring up cynicism. I know I have to choke back my own. I know from experience you can't change the world by singing songs on a stage. Only the audience can change the world. But you can draw their attention to an issue, as we will in April against the BNP. Or you can draw people together in solidarity, to express their solidarity with like-minded people so they don't feel they're on their own.

But most importantly, wherever you are on a given night, in any context, whatever the subject - love or politics - you can offer the audience a different perspective. That’s always been my criteria for writing a song. If I’ve got something to say that I haven’t heard said in a debate, then I'll write about it. Or bring it from another place into a song, which is what you do as a troubador. But I think that's the most you can do.

I know that's what happened to me when I went to Rock against Racism. The world was the same as it was when I was coming over on the train, but it had changed my perspective forever.

How did you feel about the Live-8 concert as a rallying point? Is it useful for all these rock stars to come out on stage like that, is it neutral, does it put people off?

I don't think it sets it back. If people expect to solve world poverty by having a few gigs in Hyde Park, that's obviously ridiculous. But people who expect that have overblown ideas of what can happen. But if you accept the role of the performer, to drum up a crowd and for that crowd to feel they're not the only people in the world hwo feel like this - I think it's been proved popular culture can be used to set the agenda, not to solve the problem but to set the agenda. That chimes in nicely with the role of the performer, to ask the right question rather than to deliver the answer. Because as we all know, the answer is blowing in the wind. That's already been sorted!

I think that one of the things that excited people about you early on, especially maybe in North America, was that you talked explicitly about class, which is kind of an unspoken subject here. It was there in your accent and your sense of humour, and for some people it may have been the first time they’d thought in those terms. Now that you’re less of a traditional socialist, do you think class analysis still matters?

I think social background does define so much of your life, what your expectations are, still. The language of Marxism, I don’t think really makes sense to people anymore. But the issues that it tried to address still need addressing. Although the idea of class is unfashionable, the reality is that the education that you're likely to get, your prospects of standards of living, even your length of life, all are affected by your social background. As long as that's true, class will always be an issue.

But the debate about multiculturalism is where those of us who want to create a better fairer society are now engaged. By standing up for diversity, equality, egalitarianism, we're opposing those people who demand a hierarchy, a racial hierarchy, a gender heirarchy, a social hierarchy. These are much broader strokes than we used to use. But we're trying to construct a new language to deal with these problems.

If capitalism won, then why are so many people starving in China? Why is the North American steel market still not open to European steel? These issues are still to be resolved. But I think writing about a “socialism of the heart” is as potent as writing, “There is power in a union.”

If you were to say to someone you want to live in a socialist society, you'd have to spend a lot of time explaining. But if you say you want to live in a compassionate society, I think everyone would understand. They'd still want to know how it works, but as an idea, compassion perhaps has a stronger resonance with people at the moment.

So, what are you up to next, besides this tour?

The book comes out in October, at the same time as Volume 2 of the box set, which brings it all up to date. And then I suppose I'll have to make another record. It's all been a bit of a sabbatical from songwriting, so when I do pick up the guitar now I have new ideas. I'll be trying some of them out in Toronto. I'd also like to come back to Canada in the autumn and start in Vancouver - I'm aware it's been a while since I've been done some shows across the country.

Last year my son changed from junior school to high school and I really wanted to be there for that. A good part of parenthood is just being there. So I thought it would be a good time to write the book as well. I'm really fortunate that people are still interested in what I have to say. I feel very very privileged. I would hate to lose that. It's just a question of trying to articulate that just because I haven't been in town doesn't mean i'm playing golf with Lord Cub or living at Lake Tahoe getting suntanned. I'm doing what I do, but it takes on different shapes, and I think it should.

You try to refine what you say and say it in a way that's more precise. I'm a communicator, and songwriting is the main way i do that. The book was a monumental challnge and I kinda needed something like that. Partly because if I’d done another record then, I would have just made England, Half-English volume 2, because that was still the main thing that concerned me, and I don't think that was the way to go. But until I dealt with this issue, it was where the fire was and I had to go address that. I was getting quite confident i could articulate it, because I’d been going around explaining where the album was coming from, explaining why this is important now.

(Billy tells me there’s a show on TV in the other room about glam - Slade and Suzi Quatro. He starts to make a joke, then stops.)

No, don't write anything bad about Suzi Quatro. I went head to head with her on The Weakest Link - and I beat her. So now every time I see her I feel guilty. ... I did it because my mum watches that show, and it's not every day, when you're Billy Bragg, that you get to do something your mum is gonna care about. And finally it got down to Suzi Quatro, me and this opera singer. And it occurred to me all of a sudden that I might win. My wife said she could see the moment: “You were just breezing along and then all of a sudden your eyes got wider and you gripped the lectern.”

And you know, nothing I've ever done got more comments at the school game the day after it was broadcast. You wave the red flag incessantly for 20 years, not a peep. Go on The Weakest Link, and suddenly everybody knows you. It's a fucking strange world we live in.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, April 01 at 12:47 AM | Linking Posts | Comments (2)



...or did Mr. Bragg bring out the best in Carl?

Posted by originalspin on April 1, 2006 8:53 AM



What an excellent subject to interview. Not a single word of bullshit in that whole transcript. Nicely done, Carl, you brought out the best in your guest.

Posted by Steve on April 1, 2006 2:20 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson