Thursday, 14 November 2013

Music: Interview with Billy Bragg

The political sphere may have changed beyond recognition since the late-70s when Billy Bragg started out, but he continues to use music as a way to communicate his ideas about socialism and left-wing politics.

Being a staunch supporter of traditional Labour values, the singer was dismayed to discover recently that senior members of the Conservative party were fans of his work.


When David Cameron chose The Smiths’ anthem This Charming Man for Desert Island Discs, the Prime Minister was asked by the Spectator magazine whether he was a fan of Billy Bragg.

Cameron admitted to being a fan of Bragg’s A New England, but said he preferred Kirsty MacColl’s cover of the song.

“I dodged a bullet there,” says Bragg. “George Osborne is allegedly a fan of mine, though.

“Occasionally, I bump into people in the media who went to school with Osborne, and they’re always telling me how much he likes my stuff – I’m like, please don’t say that.

“The terrible thing is that you can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your fans.”

His fans in Leeds, however, are held in high regard by Bragg.

“I did a show at the Irish Centre once during the tour for The Internationale,” he says. “In the centre of the room were a couple of skinheads who proceeded to do Nazi salutes – there’s a lot of stupid places you can do a Nazi salute, but one of the stupidest would be at a Billy Bragg gig.

“I put my fist in the air and said ‘this is the anti-Nazi salute’, and everybody in the venue did – then the audience themselves, not in a violent way, just pushed these guys out. I’ve always been really impressed by that, so I warmed to the audiences in Leeds.”

For Bragg, music can be crucial for highlighting important issues, and he believes, even in the age of the internet, musicians still have an important role to play.

“Music used to be the main medium for people to talk to each other – for my generation music was the only way you could talk about the world – it was our only form of social media available,” says Bragg.

“An angry 19-year-old today has a number of options that are a lot more accessible than having to learn to play guitar, having to write songs, articulate your idea for that form, and then being able to get up in front of an audience and have the nerve to perform.

“But nobody invites you on the TV or radio or invites you to write an article in a national newspaper because of your Facebook posts,” he adds.

“Writing songs and performing them in a darkened room doesn’t have same immediacy as clicking ‘post’ on a blog, or putting together a video for YouTube – I can understand why people who feel strongly about the world do that, I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with that – but if you want to see the world, then being a musician is a great way to do that.”

But for Bragg it seems much more difficult today for young people to get passionate about politics - he blames the mainstream political parties for being almost indistinguishable.

“During the miner’s strike, it was absolutely clear which side you were on. It went on for so long that everyone had an opinion on what was going on,” says Bragg.

“A lot has changed since those early days. The idea that mainstream political parties are opposed to one another has more or less disappeared altogether. 
 “If you sat down to have a chat with Margaret Thatcher, the vast majority of people would find out they had nothing in common with her as a person – she came from such a different world.

“At least with Neil Kinnock he had an appreciation for popular culture – he might not have been into punk rock, but he certainly knew that music could be political,” he says.

“But today you’ve got David Cameron talking about how much he loves Eton Rifles – I mean, for crying out loud!”

Bragg believes that political activism can occur outside of the party lines, and that everyday people can make small differences to each other’s lives.

One example of this is the project Bragg has helped set up in the UK called Jail Guitar Doors.

“It’s a well-known fact that our prison system isn’t working the way it should, that we’re not managing to rehabilitate enough people,” says Bragg.

“One of the ways of doing that, and this by no means works for everyone, is to express themselves – writing songs and playing guitar can help people to do that,” he says.

“As a musician, I know that playing music can help you to momentarily transcend your surroundings – music can change your life.”

“You have to find those people, you have to do something that resonates with them – that way you’ll be able to give up your day job and spend 30 years saying how you don’t want to change the world while surreptitiously changing the world.”



This article was published by the Yorkshire Evening Post on November 14, 2013.


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