Billy Bragg Interviewed: "Bands Need To Get Political Again..."

Singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg speaks about his new tour, Glastonbury and most importantly why music has to get political again...
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Singer-songwriter and activist Billy Bragg speaks about his new tour, Glastonbury and most importantly why music has to get political again...

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Billy Bragg has always had a presence as an activist as much as he has as a singer-songwriter in his career. Although he has written a lot of love songs he has often had a political message to put across as well. Now he’s back with another message - and he’s fighting. His Leftfield in Motion tour sees him team up with The King Blues, Akala and Sound of Rum and his message is clear: music has to get political again. I caught up with him in central London, enjoyed a cup of tea and got him speaking on Leftfield, Glastonbury, the NME and trending on Twitter…

Billy Bragg on the reasons for the ‘Leftfield in Motion’ tour…

It’s unknown territory, it means something – it’s focused on an issue and we’re going to towns where there’s a lot of students. And I haven’t really done anything like this since Red Wedge, which was from ’86 until ’87. I’m trying to generate debate in the media about whether you can use music as a platform for talking about things other than just, you know, hoes and bling. If you make music the way I make music it’s not just making records and doing gigs – you’re trying to advance ideas. In the 1980s I did a thing with the Labour party called Red Wedge and really our main aim in that was just to get a debate going in young people who were reading magazines like the NME about whether or not the Labour party was worth voting for. We weren’t telling people to vote Labour we were trying to stimulate a debate. A lot has changed since then and people don’t think of music first as a medium for putting out these kind of ideas any more – there’s so many other ways of doing it. You’ve got the Internet, you’ve got Facebook and you’ve got Twitter, you can blog.

What’s lost in the Internet is the idea of people coming together. The first time I played Never Buy The Sun at a little festival in a place called Garforth just outside of Leeds was the day before the News of the World closed and it was the week in which the revelation of the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone had become news. And when I sang the first verse people cheered – when I sang the second verse people cheered. The fact that they cheered wasn’t that it was a great song – the reason they cheered was that the anger they felt about what had happened had been anger in isolation. They probably hadn’t had a chance as a community to express their anger - so my singing that song gave them a chance to do something you can’t do on the Internet which is be with your community and together express your anger about something. That’s the thing I’m trying to remind people of.

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On why young bands have to get political again…

After the student demos last year and perhaps more so after the August riots, even though we had this tour ready before the August riots, there’s a need to hear from that generation.  Don’t ask me why those kids did what they did – I don’t know – I’m their dad’s generation, I want to know. I want to hear from them and if they want to communicate in a way that connects with a lot of people and particularly connects with me, then it’s not a blog, it’s not Facebook, it’s not Twitter – it's writing music, it’s writing songs that express the anger that led to that. I don’t want to hear a justification for it because I don’t think it can be justified but I want to hear the anger behind it – I want to hear why. Even if they are just a bunch of thieving little herberts I want to hear something about that. It’s a genuine what the fuck moment. Which is what my parents thought in ’76 when black youth for the first time confronted the police on the streets of Britain everyone reacted with a what the fuck moment, even myself at the time – I didn’t understand exactly what it was about. By choosing to go on tour with The King Blues, Akala and Sound of Rum I’m saying look there are people from this generation speaking. Why don’t you do it as well mate? Why don’t you stop being in the audience and start articulating this stuff?

On Akala…

He’s cool he does this thing called hip-hop Shakespeare, it’s very thoughtful – lovely bloke as well. Working with a rapper will be very interesting.

On The King Blues and their singer Itch…

The King Blues have been fighting this political corner for a while now and Itch has got the spirit of The Clash in him. They came out of the squatting scene from my understanding. What’s different between me and him is I come from an ideological time and he comes from a post-ideological time and so his politics are coming a different way slightly.

On his favourite King Blues song…

Five Bottles of Shampoo. For someone like Itch to make a feminist song is so powerful man – it’s not what you expect. And the first time I saw him do it he did it between songs – it blew me away.

On collaborations on the tour…

We’re going to do a cover we’ve already talked about it. The Clash? Too easy – it’s what people would expect. I’ve chatted to Itch about this and he’s thrown a few ideas out there – we will be doing something.

Something you can’t do on the Internet is be with your community and together express your anger about something. That’s the thing I’m trying to remind people of.

The King Blues have been quoted as calling themselves “activists first, musicians second” – where would you put yourself?

I couldn’t do what I do if I wasn’t writing songs and doing gigs. I’d still be just some bloke selling newspapers outside a tube station if it wasn’t for the gigs. So I can see where they’re coming from when they say that because you want to put that forward but first and foremost I’m a songwriter. And I don’t only write political songs – I write love songs and I would argue Five Bottles of Shampoo is a love song. OK it articulates itself in a political way but it’s basically a love song.

The bands that bother me are the ones who write political songs that don’t do the gigs that match up. You meet the political bands whenever there’s a balloon goes up against the BNP or the EDL you meet those bands. That’s how I met all the Red Wedge bands because we all did gigs for the miners. There are some bands that don’t and just sing about it and there are some bands that get their hands dirty.

On his own stage manner…

I’m talking about politics - but it’s kind of a wry sort of look because otherwise it can be a little bit too much. And also I tend not to like music that doesn’t have any hint of self-awareness. It’s really important to be humorous as well because when people laugh they open up but you can get your politics in there. If you come straight out with it – it’s like throwing a bucket of cold water over the audience. If you want to talk about those serious things you’ve got to level it with a bit of humour. And I enjoy it especially in music hall venues like Bournemouth - there is a bit of Max Miller in what I do that sort of cheeky chappy thing and I like that.

On the Leftfield stage at Glastonbury…

In 2009 the old Leftfield got a little bit stuck in a corner because it was plugged in by the trade unions rather than the main Glastonbury organisers. So although we had a tent that we paid for we weren’t actually in the big plan we were kind of like an add-on. In 2009 they said we don’t think you fit in this space any more and they put the Queens Head there and our feeling was “Fair enough we accept what you’re saying, we’re not going to scream or stamp our feet, let’s regroup we’ve been doing this for eight or nine years - let's think about what we’re doing now.” Around Christmas [before the last general election] Michael Eavis got in touch with me and said there’s a very strong chance the next festival could be under a Tory government - so we need to have Leftfield. So I said Michael plug me into the festival, give me a budget to pay the bands and I can do the business but you’ve got to plug me into the festival. And he said “No problem”. So now when everything else is considered, we’re considered as well, so we get into the guide and the programme and the website and Michael takes an interest in what we’re doing and both years he’s got down to the new Leftfield.

On his other festival memories…

I was live on the second stage at Glastonbury in ’86 during the ‘Hand of God’ when Maradona punched the ball into the net - I was actually on stage. I have a lot of admiration for Eavis – you’ve got to respect him. I think it’ll last more than another three or four years when you think about how much money it makes and what a big deal it is. How many other festivals can you name that can take a year off to let the field grow back?

I took my godson to Leeds Festival after being to Glastonbury seven times when he was a kid because he wanted to see Metallica. So I took him to and said, “Look this is where I’m playing – whatever you do, you’ve got to be back here by midnight. I’ll see you later, here’s twenty quid don’t get drunk, have a good time and don’t get hurt.” Two hours later he’s back! I said, “What’s up?” and he said, “It’s not like Glastonbury is it? This is just like a gig in a field!”

You are in danger of becoming the first generation since the war to grow up worse off than your parents so now it’s back to fighting time and we need to hear some fighting songs.

On the U2 protest at Glastonbury…

The actual event didn’t really matter – the fact that we’re still talking about it four or five months later shows it worked. They generated all the press beforehand. Even if they just had a little balloon with “Fuck U2” written on it and put that up it wouldn’t have mattered. By the time they got down there the job was done. They generated publicity for their cause and they put Bono on the spot. They got the headlines – that’s the nature of modern activism. UK Uncut are very clever at those kind of stunts and I have a lot respect for them.

On trending on Twitter after Question Time…

For the very first time – how great is that? I’ve done Question Time maybe half a dozen times in the last 25 years and that’s the first time I’ve sat there and thought “I wonder if I’m trending on Twitter?!” The good thing is firstly that the Twitter generation are watching Question Time. And secondly a lot of the stuff that’s written about people on Twitter is really derogatory and I did pretty well. There’s always a few having a go but most people were positive. It’s nice that people get it - because with Question Time you haven’t only got to try to work out what the questions are going to be but you’ve got to try to work out something to say that everyone else isn’t going to say. I kind of stepped back from the questions about the economy and tried to talk about the fact that people aren’t being paid enough and it allowed me to not sound like a politician. It’s very important on Question Time that you don’t sound like a politician and you don’t look like a politician – you’re not there in a suit and tie.

The woman in the audience who was having a go at the human rights act – I found that was unbelievable. I mean you could hear people in the room were shocked. There’s a pause there when he says “Billy Bragg” where I wait for the noise to die down so I can put the nut on her. You’ve got to take your opportunities to make a point on there.

On Joe Strummer and The Clash…

I played with The Clash in 1984. It was just Joe Stummer, Paul Simonon and three other geezers and I’d actually been going round slagging them off saying “I’ve not been such a fan of The Clash since they dropped the ‘L’ from their name”. And Simonon had read it somewhere and wanted to have a word with me about it and I was like “Fuck!”. But I saw Joe Strummer a few times during the Mescaleros era and I saw him at Glastonbury and really enjoyed it.

On Kirsty MacColl and her birthday last week…

They always gather on her birthday by her bench in Soho Square because of the song she wrote – they always ask me if I’m free to go along but I haven’t managed to do it yet. They always gather on the 10th of October.  I was a huge fan of her stuff – I was buying her records long before I was making records so to get to work with her was just brilliant.

On playing St Patrick’s night with The Pogues in New York…

It was pretty crazy. I had been doing South by South-West with Kate Nash and brought her along because she’s got an Irish family background so she came up and sang with me and sang with The Pogues but she didn’t do Fairytale. If you sing on Fairytale you have to dance with Shane and sometimes he falls on you!

I’ll tell you who needs to get his arse down there – a 20-year-old Billy Bragg. And he should come with two messages “This is what’s happening” and “Fuck off old man back to Dorset”.

On band reformations…

I’m ambiguous about that. I really enjoyed going to see The Specials when they reformed and when you think about how Madness have managed to keep the money coming in just by doing gigs and the occasional festival I don’t see why The Specials shouldn’t be able to do that as well. Because they’re great songs, they’re real fun and I took my son to see them and he loved it. So I say good luck to them. I saw the Sex Pistols do a Danish festival when they first reformed and they only got to do four songs before they got bottled off but when they did play I saw them for what they were, which is a power trio. The bass, guitar and drums were really locked in and watching from the side of the stage it really took me back to the power of it – I wish I had seen them back in the day now when Matlock was playing with them. So I have no problem with bands reforming. I’m kind of still doing what I did in the 1980s and making a living, I just haven’t broken up and reformed so I cant really have a go at other people for doing that.

On discovering his family past…

Friday I’m going over to Leytonstone to see if I can find my Italian great grandfather’s grave. I’ve been staying in Cable Street in East London and he had a fruit and veg shop down there. Sadly my mum passed away earlier this year but I’ve been talking to her sister about it all. So I asked her “Where are they all buried?” and she said, “I think they might be buried in a big Catholic cemetery over in Leytonstone.” So I rung them up and said have you got anyone there named D’urso? He said they’ve got loads of them there and he said he could show me where they are so I thought I’d get over there. Some of them are in unmarked graves but my great grandfather who died in the 50s has a gravestone so I’d like to see that. Basically with my mum passing away I’ve got all the paperwork so I’ve been trying to make sense of all mum’s stuff and going through photos and letters. The man who’s grave I’m trying to find on Friday, Alfonso D’urso, was born about 40 or 50 kilometres from Almalfi in Italy in the 1880s and he came to this country around the turn of the century and married a girl from his own village although he met her in London. So I’d imagine they gave him an address of someone from the village in London and he went and stayed with her and she’s my great-grandmother.

On Kanye West at the Occupy Wall Street protest and the protests in London…

How fucking great is that? I’m very pleased about him being there. You know who needs to be there in London? I’ll tell you who needs to get his arse down there – a 20-year-old Billy Bragg. And he should come with two messages “This is what’s happening” and “Fuck off old man back to Dorset”. That’s what they need at that protest – they don’t need me now coming down and telling them the way it is. I’ve written some stuff about Occupy on my website, having been involved in that I feel I’ve got something to contribute but they don’t need me on the barricade with them – they’re making the world a new. I hope they’re listening to some of my music if it inspires them then great – No Power Without Accountability – it’s the same agenda that I’ve been writing about but for me to rush down there isn’t needed. Someone like Ed Sheeran needs to go down there, he needs to say, “This is my generation – this is my fight”, Frank Turner – he needs to go down there. Not me. I’m not saying I won’t go - but they don’t need me down there.

On the NME…

I think it’s harder for young bands to talk about politics now. Back when the NME was first writing about me and James Brown was working for them, the editors of the paper then were people whose political views were formed as teenagers by what happened in 1968. The student unrest right across the world - the underground papers and for them being a musician was like being part of an alternative culture and therefore you had to have some kind of idea about how the world should be because you had a guitar and you represented a new way of doing things. So if you came along with political ideas, they took you seriously, they might not agree with you, they might not put you in the front cover but nobody poured piss on you when you stood up and said, “You should do something about this”.  The problem with for people like Frank [Turner] is that the NME, one week it’s got the 30th anniversary of White Riot, six page Clash special – the week after they’re saying “Frank Turner is too earnest because he keeps going on about The Clash” – it’s totally arse about face. In some ways you can’t blame them because we live in a post-ideological world – in the 1980s it was which side are you on? You’re either with the miners or against them – there was no “I’m not really interested in politics”. It’s harder now. You knew what Margaret Thatcher’s politics were because they informed everything she said and did – what were Tony Blair’s politics? I don’t know.

A final word on politics and music

You can’t make political music in a vacuum but that excuse died with the student riots – we’re not in a vacuum any more. Your generation is not in a vacuum. You are in danger of becoming the first generation since the war to grow up worse off than your parents so now it’s back to fighting time and we need to hear some fighting songs. That’s what Leftfield is really trying to set a spark to. To remind people that music is a powerful medium if you can channel it that is capable of inspiring people on other continents much more than a blog or a load of ‘likes’ on Facebook.

With that Billy has to leave. A true grafter of a musician – guitar strapped on his back to play an afternoon event while he’s in London.