SXSW – Billy Bragg Interview: don’t form a band, get a blog!

The Blurb: “Billy Bragg comes to Austin on the occasion of the reissue of four albums: Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, and The Internationale, on Yep Roc Records. Always fighting the good fight, Bragg has addressed political and personal themes in his music with an unblinking honesty.

Billy Bragg
Rick Karr neuUNIT(US) Inc”

Q: I;ve been just been talking to Chrissie back stage and she said to say hi.
A: I’ve been a fan of Bob Dylan for years…and did not go to see him live…and Chrissie dragged me there…and beforehand went backstage, to arrange a meeting..but I could not do it..could not meet him and say I love your records..so I ran away. I got my first Dylan record by swapping the Jackson 5 greatest hits..a hightly produced record for something so shocking and raw..I could probably bang out all the songs out now..then I spent a lot of time listening to singer-songwriters..up to punk I was listening to not much else. When singing, I was trying to marry the urgency of punk with the single intensity…that focus of the entire audience on a single figure.

Q: But that can’t have been an easy marriage?
A: no, it was not..and if you listen to my first album..(re-released) with the new one with un-released songs…which were mostly tracks from after the band and trying to be solo…they did not have that edge…I was trying to do this at a time the New Romantics were coming to the fore..I needed to do something that cut through the lacquered haircuts..so singing acoustic songs did not work..they needed intensity..so I wrote New England..that got audiences attention..(both of them!) I thought that it may be worth exploring.

Q: Your guitar technique is really interesting…you are almost trying to be the drummer and guitarist.
A: In the punk band I was in..the rhythm guitar was only noticed if I stopped…you would hear the gap…I was a big fan of Wilco Johnson..he played a rythmic lead guitar…I think of guitar as a percussive instrument..when I play live I provide melody from my voice, the percussion from the guitar. Yesterday, I tried to play the first album in 15 mins…not quite but I got through it in 17 mins..I could play my complete box set in 2 hours..I’m sure i could do it.

Q: How do you relate to material a couple of decades after – have you listened to it?
A: Not really..if I’m going to a gig at which I may want to play a particular song I will. But context is everything in a topical song. When I do use a band..I need to listen and deconstruct..but when playing solo not hugely different to recording the record. The difference is about 30lb and grey hairs, but I still play it the same way. What was nice that I felt listening is that they would sound as out of place now as they did in 1983..not really any scene just the outgoings of this mad guy who would not let go of punk rock.

Q: I was listening to these records at university. With my peers there was an a-ha momen…you can make a political record that does not beat you over the head..that was not boring. How did you think people in US would take those records?
A: They are very english. I was opening for Echo and the Bunnymen…I was vaguely hip..and cheap…no fuss…no gear to take down…they gave me this incredible intro to America… I went to places I’ve never been back to…I went out on stage and played…the shock of one guy with an electidc guitar and a london accent repulsed 85% but really attracted the 15%, who then went out and bought the record. The second tour I opened for the Smiths..which was good..the English press had a better impression in the US by then..those who were reading the Uk papers…i fitted into that..but I had little in common with Smiths or Bunnymen. But if you are in the US and you wanted to be a bit strange to your parents..I was high ‘turn that shit off value’ to the parents.

Q: may parents rebelled when you recorded the International
A: I recorded it ‘cos Pete told me to…I went to Canada in 1989..Pete said I want you to come on and sing the English lyrics..but they are just shit, I didn’t know what thay meany. So Pete said just write a new verse; he translated the French version and gave me that to work on. And you can’t say no to Pete, so I went and wrote one verse..and tried a few more..and tried it out on a few people…they all said go for it. Now left wing choirs in England sing my lyrics..they want me to go and sing but I can’t remember the words.

Q: Did the audiences in US understand the politics
A: They did; the US politics were less idealological than in UK. We had gone through the miners’ strike and I was fired up by that. The gay campaigns, Nicuaragua..these single issue movements, these people just found me out. I’d go to a town and local activists would find me. So when I come out on stage and talk they think I’m so clued in..but people have briefed me. In the US it is a different kind of activist; so I plugged into all that kind of stuff. One thing was being able to buy records of groups I did not hear in UK; the political stuff..I kind of found that political America that was there…that it is there. I played at the soup kitchen this morning and met this guy; he played some passionate union songs…there’s a lot of people out there doing that.

Q: We were talking about UK politics..and how they shook out in the 80s…there was a political edge to pop in different levels that seemed to go away in 90s.
A: when Thatcher went in 1990, the way of going, assassinated by her own party, it robbed those who opposed her of a victory..it was a pyhrric victory. I was in Belfast and I walked onto stage and said Thatcher had resigned and the place went bonkers. We thought we would win the next election but it was an anticlimax. For a lot of people Major was the final straw. We were so exhausted both emotionally, physically and mentally; Thatcher was gone and we were not in…people went to find another way to find a compassionate society. Me and my partner went to start a family; it had been a very heavy time. For someone like Major..in some ways he was a placebo politician..nobody knew much about him…then he was followed by Blair..another placebo…he was pretty. We are in same situation now..what does the Labour party stand for. All these things have been privatised; Labour has not pushed it back and connected with their collective ideals. Now the conservative party are moving to the centre..the liberals are in the centre…we are in danger of moving to what you have here..politics as a matter of bumbling along..,not a huge difference. Voter participation was less than 50%…from post war to ’97 we averaged 75%..never below 70%; in 2001 it went to 59%. That was shocking..the Labour party said everyone knew we would win..but people are switching off;they have lost the belief that politics can change things and I find that troubling.

Q: Why do you think your peers (clash, Paul Weller etc)…why is there a tradition of political activisim and it is so stunted here?
A: See the differece between the Ramones and the Clash..they stood for something, world-class posers. It seemed to me that the Ramones were a product of a back-to-basics movement; rejected mainstream in ’70s..they decided it was anathema..they went back to the garage…back to ’60’s and they were impersonating the British; the way they looked was important. The Ramones went back to that and tightened it..they were incredibly disciplined. The Clash were also a product of back-to-basics..a rejection..but London in 1970s was different to New York in ’70s. The UK had the National Front..they were picking up votes in council elections, in my area they picked up 100000 votes. Punk when it first started had a kind of ambiguously fascist vibe to it..to outrage people. In the August Bank Holiday (77?), things came to a head. On the Friday, at the Reading Rock Festival a white English audience bottled off two reggae acts. The audience had taken sides. Then on Saturday night the Sex Pistols played in London; the fans danced on stage wearing swastika armbands and brown shirts. I saw a burgeoning fascist movement. The next day was the Notting Hill Carnival. That night they had 200 police to deal with it (the year before there had been a lot of drunkeness). They were in the black area..there was a standoff between black youths and police; the first time, black youth born and bred…they were standing up and saying you are not going to push it.

Strummer had gone down to the Carnical..in the melee they joined in and threw stuff at the police. They found themselves cornered by a group of black youth who then tried to mug them. But in their pockets they had bottles and rocks,; the youths realised they were there for the same reasons. Joe and Paul realised whose side they were on..they came away convinced they had more in common with black youth than the police. They wrote White Riot; it was saying that white youth should fight alongside the black one. They connected politics and punk in an important way and the main outcome was Rock against Racism. The first one in ’78, I went to see the Clash play..there were 100000 people – one for each NF vote. And I realised that despite the racism I saw everyday, I realised that I was not alone and there were a lot of people against racism. That is when my generation took sides..in favour of multiculturism..of a mixed society…when Thatcher came in we had already been politicised. There were other factors.,..but that one weekend..thanks to the Clash it did not go that way, that was a crucial time for my country and for punk rock..that connection with reggae stopped it being a narrow white urban thing.

Q: But bands in NYC were listening to hip hop etc, they knew that scene
A: The black and asian groups had not made their claim to be part of the society. We had not had a Civil Rights Movement. It took that first black generation to stand up, and punk went along with this. It was the time..a lot of us were pissed off with the hippies who promised to change the world and they did not. They left us with long hair and trenchcoats. The ’50s etc were the last generation to grow up without rock in the mainstream; when the image of Bowie could outrage our parents..it’s harder to upset people and make a difference and stand out now. ‘Cos we had that difference..we remember our fight..why we had to fight to get it heard…we feel…people play be alternative music..and I’m like, I remember what this is supposed to be alternative to..don’t play me this shit…that’s just metal speeded up.

Q: You’re working on a book?
A: I’ve been writing it for the last year and a half. Inspired by what we were talking about. It touches on the Anglo-Saxons..the Celts and the Romans..it touches on belonging..the debate about Britishness or Englishness. Multi-culturism is now mainstream. London is the main multi-cultural city and we are proud of that, but everyone has a different definition but no one defines Britishness. So how can you have a debate when no one defines things. It’s a big issue to us. When something happens like the July bommbers, the right wing press say these Muslim bombers with British passports..it is the multi-culturism, it’s your fault. This is happening at teh same time as a rise in fascism in europe..Netherlands. In the UK, the British National Party, they are winning seats again, they won a seat in my home town; no-one saw it comong, they won 52%. This really shocked me..made me think who am I, where do I come from..my mother/sister still live there. I’m proud of where I come from…it’s an industrial town..high immigrants..cheap housing..unemployment high..the forces of globalisation have rent havoc in my home time invisibly..(Barking). These new comers..unfortunately become a manifestation of these forces of change and the British National Party is stirring it up. I thought thought I could do another album…or try and define it and write a book. It’s been a challenge and I’ve never done this before, hopefully it will be done by Easter. When I get to the summit and see what I’ve written and I will think back to that day in ’78…and how hard and high I have climbed. And think that flame that Strummer lit still burns and I’ve stopped writing those little songs and I’ve written a fucking big book..after 80000 words I’m sure I feel that way.

Q: I’ve always got the sense that there is a kind of patriotism
A: Well the book is called The Progressive Patriot.
Q: Take back that word.
A: Nothing wrong with patriotism..but it’s too narrow a definition for many people. Both our country’s have benefited from diversity. That’s what kept our culture vibrant..how bad would have the Beetles been if they only listened to English bands. Our great skil is taking influences from everywhere, repackaging and selling it to the Americans. You have to reposess these words and these symbols. I come to austin, and everyone’s view of the US and Texas gets turned upside down. All the worst things in the US seem to manifest itself in Texas and to know that Austin is here, a beacon for weirdness, is in my heart. When I think about America, I think about places like this; a community..collectivity and compassionate and caring – there is another America out there. The difference between the 2 parties at the last election is so close. It’s all still to play for. America has not yet worked out what it is going to be like in the 21st century. You need to reconnect with radical convention. And that is what the book is about. We chopped our king’s head off long before Europe and the US got there. We were seeking to hold our kings to account. The Magna Carta, George Orwell, Tom Payne. You need to reconnect. It explains what we do today, that what we are doing is not in isolation. In the miners’ strike I was going out and singing. And there were all these old guys who were more radical than I was. It is a 200 year old tradiiton, the tradition carries on. It’s great to know that you are not working in isolation.

Q: How do you get more…mainstrean artists involved. Is there ever going to be another Clash? a British pop band being political?
A: You can’t make great political music in a vaccumm. The Pistols to bring out God Save the Queen in a Jubilee year. When you live in that, so clearly defined you can push back. It was them and us..there is still a them but the are many us’s. If I was a kid today. and wanted to change the world..I would not go all to the touble of a song and a band etc..you can get a blog easliy..get on the web..make a community..nurture your ideas. You don’t need to form a band for activitism today. There are other ways of doing the activism. But there are people; Pete Docherty in his more lucid moments, Hard-fi, Kaiser Chiefs…we live in a different age. Politics moves in different ways; punk was not as organised as Live Aid. Punk was a brawl rather than a debate..I’d like to think rock music could start that brawl again, but probably not by using the Clash template. You can’t go round kicking 19 year olds and asking them to go change the world.

Q: What about in the US? Is the political situation in US worse now than when Thatcher was at her darkest? Which is worst?
A: Not been here in 18 months and I live in a kind of bubble; but appears worse than in ’80s; Society is more polarised. In ’80s there was resistance to Reagan but he was not embarassing. The war has disfigured the politics; even Republicans are being embarrased by Bush. I think the opposition to Iraq is starting to build up..and what happened in Katrina is starting to open people’s eyes. In the UK it was the Second World war, when urban kids were sent to the country to stay in houses that people realised how poor the poor were. As a result we got education, heath care.

The welfare state had its roots in a meeting Churchill had with Roosevelt. Roosevelt was having trouble getting the Senate to support the war; he wanted to know the War Aims, why was Churchill fighting; what was he fighting for. He had to put something together; the aims included social security, we could not go back to the ’30s. There was a vision of access to healthcare/security and education. And it was widely reported – the Atlantic Charter. The countries all signed up to this charter and people in Britain started to work out how to do this; not Churchill,as he, undertandably, wanted to win the war. But the Beveridge Report set out how to do it. They produced a little summary report for 3d..and my grandfather collected all this stuff for my father. There are still in his house..I have the 3d copy of the Beveridge Report. As far as my father thought, this is what they were fighting for. That was what made a difference to my life, I benefitted from that. The case in the book is a case for that collective provision, a compassionate society ‘cos of the sacrifices in the war. And we are betraying that promise, that generation, they fought the war for democracy and that delivered that compassionate society. It is a great irony that it was Roosevelt that made Churchill do it, even if the US did not benefit from it. You can’t get to Britishness without going to the Second World War. If I could do this in a song I would!

AudQ: The song Sexuality? Can you give us more information?
A: It was written with Jonny Marr from The Smiths; he bought a completely different sensibility to it. He went off to other places..his pop sensibilities made it playable on the radio. It is based on experiences with working with the Gay and lesbian community. They played an important part in Hackeny and Rock against Rascism. Tom Robinson was top of one bill; he had a song Glad to be Gay; and during the set all the blokes started kissing. And I’d never met an out gay man It did not take long to realise that fascists were opposed to anyone who is different. So that was why there were gays there even though I thought it was for the blacks. I did it as I realised that anyone could have their world changed as I was. They, by their example , changed my perspective. That is the highest thing you can do, challenge the perspective of the audience. The truth is if you want to change the world only the audience can do it, not the performer…together, collectively, we can change the world.. I’d always wanted to write a song about this political issue. I needed to step out of the blokey space to where we were in the same struggle and the song was an attemopt to do that. It was at the height of homophobia and I wanted to write a song that was a marker like that and wanted it to be a celebratory song. Sometimes people sing it to me in supermarkets and it can be embarassing.

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