“I’m great, you’re shit, do you like my socks?” As summations of pop music today go, few cut through the superficiality of the mainstream quite so effectively. But over nearly three decades, Billy Bragg has established himself as a folk troubadour for the everyman, an active bastion for left-wing politics and of the most highly renowned songwriters of his generation, consistently challenging of the failings of the establishment. Lauded and lambasted in varying measures, Bragg’s devotion to socialism and his punk rock ethos have remained constant through changing governments and political agendas. Despite his unfettered commitment to change since the release of his first album in 1983 in a period of Conservative austerity (ring any bells?), Bragg still has plenty to be angry about.
His recent article, “Why Music needs to get Political Again”, written in the aftermath of the August riots, calls for music as a means for young people to “start spreading their anger in a positive way”, as Bragg puts it. “The problem we had was a real lack of communication. People may have just wanted to go out and nick stuff, but until we hear from that generation, we won’t know if there were any other reasons”.
Referring to the 1976 Notting Hill riots as another event which “seemed like society gone mad”, which Bragg sees as the “stirrings of what became our multicultural society”, his urgency to engage with the youth of society in order to establish what was stirring in August is understandable. “We need them to start talking to us”, Bragg insists, “we need to hear from those under 24 years old who have the highest unemployment out of any group at the moment, the highest it’s been for 15 years, from the first generation to grow up worse off than their parents”.
“In some ways your class remains, whether you manage to suppress it or not. You have a choice whether you want to be true to it or not”
For Bragg, music is the solution to this communication breakdown. “Music inspires people, legitimises people, gets them out in the crowd”, he says, his unwavering faith in the power of music as a medium for expression endearing. Although recognising the role of the internet in the providing of a platform for new musicians, and allowing anyone to engage in political activities like the global Occupy protests, the London incarnation of which the singer appeared at to show his support, Bragg criticises the passivity of some social media when compared to the community of music:
“Music strengthens your own convictions. Rather than just sitting at home clicking a like on Facebook, you’re actually there with your neighbours, or the people you go to work or college with. It makes you realise you’re not the only person who gives a shit about this stuff”.
However, the musical climate for new politically minded artists is undoubtedly different today than in the 80’s. Fresh from the anger of the punk movement, engagement with music, and politics was more visceral for young music fans. Bragg acknowledges that “a young Billy Bragg wouldn’t come through in the same way now – so I’m not worried that there isn’t some little Herbert out chasing me around trying to replace me”. Indeed, the singer’s first radio play, on John’s Peel’s show, resulted from Bragg rushing to the BBC with a mushroom biryani in hand for the DJ, having heard he was hungry. His first successful contact with the record industry came after pretending to be a television repairman to gain access to the Charisma records offices.
To try and reignite this devotional punk spirit, Bragg will next month embark on a national tour of student towns, entitled Leftfield In Motion. Borne of the Glastonbury tent that the singer has curated in recent years, the tour will attempt to recreate the fusion of music and politics that the tent encourages on a national scale.
“We have to encourage people to engage in the process…and not be passive,” says Bragg of his ambitions for the tour. “That’s why we’re going to dominantly university towns, speaking to the people who are most conducive to the message we have, to not give into cynicism, and do something about the situation – not just waiting for David Cameron to sort it out.” His irony is evident, but his vigour makes his ambition all the more enticing.
It is part of Bragg’s charm, and potentially the lasting power of his career, that for every revolutionary political polemic he pens, a love song is not far behind the barricades. Asking him about whether he has ever felt written off as a political musician, Bragg is clear – “all the time. I’m proud of my convictions, but people seem to think, oh I know all about Billy Bragg, I know what he’s got to say, and that really annoys me. There’s more to me than just the politics.” However, “the producer of Strictly Come Dancing won’t have me on”, he jokes.
“Music becomes political when it speaks to power”, says Bragg, when I ask him what defines political music as a genre. “It could be about government or capitalism, or about parents, teachers, or schools and bullying”, he continues. “Although I don’t believe all music should be political, I think there has to be room for music to be able to do that”. His approach to songwriting encapsulates his political stance perfectly – the angry egalitarian.
The implied dichotomy between political music and popular music is one that could have clouded Bragg’s career. However, asking him which of his personas he is more suited to – the romantic “Milkman of Human Kindness” or the political “Bard of Barking”, he laughs. “I’m Mr. Love and Justice”, he says, clearly unfazed, “that’s what it says on the tattoo on the back”.
He does agree that a tricky inherent link exists, however, in the problem that “people think music should just be entertaining, but politics can be entertaining.” Referring to the public interest of popular political events, such as the News of the World scandal, Bragg recalls the first time he played “Never Buy the Sun”, and the audience “cheered every verse. There was an opportunity there for people to articulate their anger and express their revulsion publically”. Though, referring to the “dilution of mainstream politics to a group of centrist parties” since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, the increasingly neutral opinion of Britain’s youth seems normal to Bragg. “When you live in a political atmosphere where the boundaries are so narrow, you can understand why kids don’t want to engage with it. It doesn’t speak to them about their lives”, he says.
Having grown up in Barking, as the son of a hat maker, Bragg has since moved to Dorset with his family and “middle class missus who is always taking the mickey out of [him]” – admittedly a “completely different life from the one [he] was brought up to.” However, Bragg describes the 25 years of his life spent there as his “formative years”, that “the values of that experience are still the values that shape my view of the world”.
Although disagreeing with a specific association between genre and class, short of a mild jibe at the excess of “floppy haired boys with guitars”, the nature of Bragg’s working class upbringing has clearly “shaped [his] world views”, as he puts it. “If I was born in France, lived there for 25 years years, moved to England, had an English wife, English kids, spoke English, it wouldn’t make me English. I’d still be French. In some ways your class remains, whether you manage to suppress it or not. You have a choice whether you want to be true to it or not”. However, his approach to music remains unprejudiced, as he adds that “I think music at its best transcends class, race, gender, your surroundings. I’d keep class out of it if I could”.
This discussion sparks a debate that has driven much of Bragg’s activity in the last decade. Notably with the release of his 2006 The Progressive Patriot, Bragg has strongly advocated his belief in a multi-cultural Britain, and his recent “Battle for Barking” campaign represents a peak of his attempts to combat any fascist party attempting to appropriate an English national identity for their own gain. As he puts is, “anyone who tries to wrap themselves in the flag is dangerous. The flag belongs to everybody, or nobody, and I for one refuse to stand idle while people try to intimidate others with my flag”. Bragg’s belief in the “vibrancy” of an English national identity stems from the elusive, ever-changing nature of its definition.
“It’s a hard thing to define, it’s not just a list. Top of mine would be Marmite, which excludes half the population immediately – which obviously isn’t right. If it’s anything, it’s where you are rather than where your grandparents are from. Englishness has to be about place, rather than race. I think it’s more England-ness than English-ness”, Bragg cogently argues.
However, his opinions on the future of progressive politics lay north of the border. Clearly invigorated by the success of Scottish liberalism, Bragg calls for an “independent Scotland” and a “progressive form of civic nationalism” as the only way to “beat the Tories.”
When asked about his opinion on the biggest failing of the coalition government, the socialist in the singer rears, referring to a “broken world system,…that needs to be reset so it’s not based on the globalisation agenda, where capital has no borders or loyalties, so we can change it into a more sustainable economy”. And the Liberal Democrats, who Bragg tactically supported in the last election? “I’m as pissed off as everyone else, trust me.”
Throughout, Bragg is as convincing as he is charged, and whether his punk spirit provides a practicable solution is yet to be seen. But we need people like Bragg – a vastly talented songwriter and musician, committed to making the world a better, more equal place through communication. His music and activism provides an accessible voice for the everyman, touching people’s minds as well as their hearts. But the last word on who Bragg is should fall to him – in the way he traditionally ends his live shows. “I’m Billy Bragg, I’m from Barking, Essex”