In Conversation with Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg banner

In the early evening of Remembrance Sunday our Senior Editor, Gary Raymond, spoke with legendary singer-songwriter and left-wing activist Billy Bragg as he prepared to sound-check for that evening’s gig in Hamburg, Germany. Running just a few minutes late, Bragg began by giving a more than reasonable explanation in his warm East London brogue.

Bill Bragg: Sorry I’m late – it’s a weekend of anniversaries here – it’s the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht and there was an exhibition at the museum in Hamburg so I wanted to go and check that out. They have an entire floor dedicated to the Jewish community in Hamburg that explains what happened to them in the 1930s. They don’t really do anything like our poppy day over here, not in Hamburg anyway; so it seemed the right thing to do – I thought I’d better do something to commemorate the victory against Fascism so I thought I’d go and take a look at the exhibition.

Gary Raymond: No need to apologise. I wanted to start with talking about your most recent album, Tooth and Nail – a return to a traditional roots ethic; a strip-backed style – what was the reason for returning to that process at this particular time?

It’s cheaper. The days when you could go into the studio for a month and not worry about the budget are long gone. I looked on the back of some albums by people who I consider my contemporaries, like Steve Earle and Tom Morello: all recorded in a week. I couldn’t help but notice that. And so my dear friend, Joe Henry, who’s a great American songwriter, but also a producer of some note, said to me he could record an album in a week – five days in fact – so I went out and did that – went over to his house. Didn’t even take any instruments. He gave me an acoustic guitar and we sat in his basement with four of these guys – y’know, these very talented Los Angeles guys – and after three days we had ten songs and I was absolutely amazed. So I wrote a couple more and came up with an album – much to everyone’s surprise; myself included.

So it wasn’t planned as an album – but the process kind of forced one out.

It was supposed to kick start the process. I wasn’t really sure – it probably could have gone one of two ways. I could have ended up with a series of demos, the basic ideas for songs on which to build. Or we could have ended up with a complete album, and that’s what we did end up with. And I was very pleased about that.

Interesting you say about a cheap way to record. I noticed recently my copy of Worker’s Playtime still has the ‘Pay No More than £2.99 for This Album’ sticker on the sleeve.

It said ‘Capitalism is Killing Music’ on the front of that as well didn’t it, if I remember rightly?

That’s right, it does.

And we saw a bit of that this week when I was commenting on the Spotify debate, when I made the point that it’s the record companies that are the problem, not Spotify. I’ve always felt that and that’s what I was trying to say. ‘Capitalism is Killing Music’ ironically was a response to their ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ bullshit, which I never bought at the time.

You’ve always been involved in activism and awareness campaigns as a musician and artist, such as Love Music Hate Racism and Red Wedge etc. and I wonder if the record companies have become involved in this area too over the last thirty years, and now ‘causes’ are used just as much to promote the acts as they are to promote the cause.

I have no problem with mainstream acts getting involved in issues. I’m always happy to see that. There are clearly some artists who have a long term commitment to that role rather than something they do when asked. That’s the difference, really. I’m always looking for opportunities to do something to engage beyond my own experience. I run a thing called Jail Guitar Doors, getting guitars into prison. In fact just a couple of years ago we got a dozen guitars into HMP Parc, down your way. And I’m always on the lookout for doing that. I’ve managed to get to about four prisons this year – not as many as I’d like, but I’ve been on the road most of the time. But it’s a long-term, on-going commitment. But I think making those commitments is slightly different from the mainstream, not to detract from their involvement as I think it’s important. Politics should not only be left to me and Crass.

That’s a fair point.

That idea of celebrities highlighting political issues has of course taken an interesting turn lately with Russell Brand promoting political disengagement. What was your take on that?

Obviously I’m not someone who has ever subscribed to that. We should vote. But I do accept that the choices are not as exciting as they used to be. In the 80s when I was involved in Red Wedge, Kinnock was the opposite of what Thatcher was. There was a clear distinction and different view of society. Whereas when the opposition goes into the election saying that they will match the government spending plan, which is what Labour did in ‘97, the Tories did in 2010, and probably what Miliband will do next time – where’s the real choice? And I speak as somebody who didn’t vote when he first had the choice in 1979 because I didn’t see there was any point to it, so I have been there. My sense of it is if Russell will come into the ballot box with me when it’s time then I will come onto the streets with him when it’s time. It’s not either or, you know?

What he’s saying is what a lot of people feel, and that it’s a pretty unappetising choice at the moment.

Essentially what he did was he made this a mainstream conversation which it wasn’t before. The media is not really all that interested in the disengagement of the electorate.

Yeah, I agree. But it’s easy to say the dog has shat on the carpet because everyone can smell it. What’s more important is who is going to clean it up and how are we going to make sure it doesn’t happen again. So Russell’s played an important part in pointing this out and now we have to move on to the next part of what do we do about it.

When I come to Cardiff (St David’s Hall, November 22nd) I’ll be talking about issues like accountability – how do we hold the bankers to account, how do we hold the power companies to account? Those are the big questions for the 21st Century. And one that will resonate with people more than talking about socialism as an abstract.

The idea of Political disengagement has been through an interesting experiment in my home town of Newport recently – I don’t know if you saw the furore over the demolition of the Chartist Mural in the city centre?

I did see that, yeah – I picked it up on twitter. Very disappointing.

Yes; it wasn’t simply the destruction of the artwork, but it was disappointing because of the way the Labour council went about demolishing it. But the upshot has been another example of celebrity involvement making the waves. Newport Council had little time for the concerns of the people on the matter, but now the Hollywood star (and Newport-born) Michael Sheen has become involved things are moving in a positive direction – the council leader talks about Sheen like they’re old golfing buddies. Sheen is going to be a founding member of a Chartist memorial trust and everything is going to reach a relatively happy ending by the sounds of things.

More power and respect to Mr Sheen for doing that. But we can’t rely on celebrities to hold people to account. We have a role to play in helping people to focus their ideas. Tonight (in Hamburg) I’ll talk about how in our country it’s a day of Remembrance, and it’s also the anniversary of Kristallnacht, and I’ll dedicate a song to that and hopefully the audience will get behind that, and maybe some people who are there, who live in a town where there is a lot of racism, will think, ‘Oh I don’t feel quite so alone now. I don’t feel like I’m the only person who gives a shit about this stuff. There are other members of the audience that are behind what’s being said.’ So that’s the role we can play. The way that Michael Sheen has done that for the protesters in Newport; but beyond that there has to be ways that citizens can have greater accountability, and with it not just political power but economic power as well.

In Newport, only a few weeks after the uproar over the demolition of the Chartist Mural there was by-election in Pill which Labour won by a landslide.

But who’s going to challenge in Newport? Would Plaid challenge in Newport?


Yeah, but I’d imagine Newport’s like Barking and they could put a hamster up as a Labour candidate and he’d get in.

But maybe it would have been nice to have seen something other than a landslide on a very small turnout just a few weeks after all the public chagrin at a perception that the council go about their business with contempt for the electorate.

It’s disappointing, but people obviously don’t seem to see any options. I think what Brand was doing was he was trying to prize the lid off the argument so he allowed people to see what the options might be. And that’s what celebrities can help to do. The next step is there needs to be more than pop stars and actors sorting this shit out.

The mainstream media really don’t seem that interested in bringing many important issues into the public debate. I’m thinking again of Charlotte Church giving her Peel Lecture recently on the exploitation of women in the music business.

I think there’s a rise in understanding about this. There’s the Page 3 campaign and the Everyday Sexism campaign, and there is a rise of that. The mainstream media isn’t really reflecting these causes, but a lot of young women I know, and who I follow on Twitter, write about that all the time, and I’m learning a lot of shit. The line of what I thought about sexism is moving – I mean those of us who formed our ideas in the 1980s have to adjust our perceptions of what constitutes sexism and what doesn’t. And I think that’s good. Because a new generation has come along and they want to set down their parameters now. Just as we did with Red Wedge.

I saw Savages in Bristol last week, and it was great to see an all-female post-punk band with that early-eighties aesthetic and sound, but yet it was interesting the gig didn’t feel as subversive as I thought their look suggested it might. The nostalgia was in the style rather than in the message.

I think young artists have a bit of a problem there as there simply isn’t the ideological discourse that there used to be. During the Miners’ Strike it was pretty easy for me to learn the language of Marx and talk it and start articulating myself ideologically, but I needed the Miners’ Strike to learn that. You can understand why young artists aren’t lining up to talk about these things as they haven’t really had that kind of experience.

Thinking back on that generation of artists who had something to say, have you any plans to bring out a Penguin Classic autobiography in the near future like Morrissey? I’d imagine you have more interesting stories to tell than simply going over old court cases.

Yeah – I was disappointed in that part, but I thought the first part of the book, where he writes about his childhood in Manchester was very evocative of my childhood growing up in a female-dominated family, working-class suburb of London. And the music he was talking about; I found that all very evocative. And The Smith’s stuff was interesting because I remember all that and all those people. But using it to settle scores – I don’t think you should use it to settle scores with people.

No. But he’s always been a bit like that, hasn’t he?


I was listening to Vauxhall and I the other day, and even though Morrissey is seen as a Manchester artist, his evocation of working-class London on that album is very strong.

Yeah, he’s always had a strong thing for that. But he’s such an outsider, he’s observing from outside, even when it comes to Manchester. ‘Weird Stephen’. He didn’t mention that in the book, but that’s how they all used to refer to him. Even in the band. ‘There’s that weird Stephen again.’ And I sympathise with that as I too was a weird Stephen, as you may know; William is my middle name.

Well, that’s interesting because you’ve played with some fantastic bands, from The Blokes to Wilco, but you’ve always been the solo lonesome troubadour figure.

Bob Dylan was the guy who spoke to me. So when the Miners’ Strike came along I thought this could lead somewhere and this is the time to see if politics can really make a difference. Red Wedge in relation to the Miners’ Strike was an experiment and I took it as far as I could to see what happens. And it does have an important role to play, but not as much as the actual agency of change, and the agency of change is and always be the audience; but we have a role to play, and as long as we’re aware of that and we don’t try to put ourselves down as people who can change the world if you buy our records then I think we can have an important role to play. The problem is that back in those days music was our only social medium, and now there are other ways for a nineteen year old, as I was, to make a contribution, so I think you don’t see so many angry guitarist solo singers – there are some out there – but there’s other ways to engage now.

With the chords of ‘California Stars’ echoing on the stage behind him, Bragg went to sound-check with his new band, to continue with his own tried and tested inimitable way to engage.

Billy Bragg will be at St David’s Hall, Cardiff, on November 22nd.

Banner illustration by Dean Lewis