In a hot and humid New York August, 1984, I spent a week with Billy Bragg, to write this NMEfeature. We shared a room at the Iroquois Hotel, which was in those days a rather louche favourite of touring British rock bands. The interview eventually ran in NMEon 6th October 1984.
You can read my 1987 Qinterview with Billy here.
The Selling Of Billy Bragg’s Bottom
Panic grips the New York commodity markets as Barking’s biggest export – a one-man Clash with very cheap trousers – arrives to do battle with the Yankee dollar. Story: Paul Du Noyer.
No limousines or screaming teens to meet Billy Bragg at New York airport. No straining blue police lines to hold back baying, sobbing knicker-throwing hordes.
His first footfall on American tarmac, and not a soul greets the arrival of this man – he who proclaims himself “the new Melanie!”. The Milkman Of Human Kindness! The one they call The Minstrel That Does Not Melt In Your Mouth. Or alternatively The Big-Nosed Bastard From Barking.
Billy Bragg slips into town unknown and un-noticed. In his hand the electric guitar he’s already hauled the length of Britain; in his heart, the songs that made his album ‘Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy”, the outstanding debut disc of last year. At his side, his manager and his record company man come along, in their words, to sell the boy’s bottom around the US music industry.
“I think,” says Bragg, once ensconced in Manhattan’s Iroquois Hotel, one foot nonchalantly squashing a cockroach, “that a lot of people who come over here, in rock’n’roll, to them America is the Jewel in the Crown. Here we finally get to grease our hair back and wear our really tight jeans and do a load of drugs. Whereas I haven’t really come over to do that. I’ve come over to play a few gigs and have a look around.”
Pale, freckled, tall with the upright walk of the soldier he (very temporarily) was, wearing jeans of the least prestigious brand-name you can imagine, almost teetotal, non-smoker, not conspicuously promiscuous and certainly drugless – no, I’m afraid that as a visiting Brit pop star, Billy Bragg is a miserable failure. He just does not fit the part.
What’s worse, he shows every sign of being a bit on the intelligent side. Hasn’t this person ever heard of Spinal Tap?
To his name he has no video, nor synths or big name producer. His “crossover dance potential” is probably zero. He’s never made a single, hit or otherwise, and doesn’t plan to. He keeps sticking politics in his songs. His capacity for “extended demographics” (US music jargon meaning you can sell to whatever market categories they dream up) remains open to serious doubt. By conventional wisdom, Billy Bragg is a walking disaster.
On the other hand…
He’s got plentygoing for him, has Billy Bragg. You might remember ’77, and the apocalyptic promise of punk, the ideal that music could be vital again, honest and passionate, and fun, and all that stuff. Well, meet the mug who believed it all. Stillbelieves it all. There can’t be a large-sized UK town that hasn’t watched Billy Bragg; just a voice and guitar giving it loads, simple songs at breakneck speed (“last one to the end’s a cissy”), songs that brim with wit, or warm with poignancy, or spit with disgust where only disgust is deserved.
He can’t just be tagged as the Angry Young Man: love songs like ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’ stand, for me, with the most affecting examples of that type. Just as, say, ‘To Have And To Have not’ qualifies among the sharpest committednumbers of recent years. When the NMEhad its Critics’ Poll last year, I didn’t hesitate to vote ‘Life’s A Riot’ my own number one. But even I’m surprised, all these months later, how well that record stands up.
This, then, is the true life story of Bill Bragg on his quest for world domination.
THE SMALL EFFICIENT FIGHTING UNIT
The Bragg biog is brief. In between being born and turning 26 years of age (time served largely in Barking, East End overspill country on the outer edge of the London A-Z), he followed up school with various jobs, bank messenger and painter and decorator included, before forming an early punk band called Riff Raff.
They cut a few singles, and a swift swathe from obscurity to oblivion. Then they split up. On the rebound, a bewildered Bragg signed on for the Army: a 90-day term driving tanks in the Royal Armoured Corps. Somehow, it wasn’t him. More beneficial was his time working in an East End record shop: already a passionate investigator of music, he delved through racks of everything from Bengali MOR to Mississippi blues. Inspired more than anything by the ratchet guitar and raw soul rasp of John Lee Hooker, Billy came out the other end with freshened resolve and a sense of solo mission.
He got a foot in the music industry door, literally, because Charisma had a faulty TV set one day and they thought he was the lad come to fix it. Before he left, he was on his way to a record deal and a debut mini-album, ‘Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy’, waxed in just three days for less money than many bands spend on, say, their drummer’s trousers.
This was early ’83, and the waves he made were not big ones. As months went by, and Charisma prepared for a merger with Virgin, Bragg and his manager Peter Jenner had doubts about the future.
Enter Andy Macdonald, young supremo of newly-formed indie label Go! Discs. He’d heard Bragg on Peel, got besotted and resolved to hound the hell out of him. Finally Jenner went up to Go! Discs’ office to talk business. Just to create the right impression, Macdonald had arranged for accomplices to interrupt the meeting with a bombardment of phone calls: “All nonsensical stuff. ‘Oh yes, really? We’ll send another 5000 over. Certainly, another 750 boxes on the way,’ seriouslygood news, all bullshit. And apparently Jenner went back to Billy and said, It’s got the feel of a new Stiff, it’s really buzzing there!
“But it wasn’t just that. He understood that we understood what Billy was about.”
In November ’83, ‘Life’s A Riot’ got re-released on Go!Discs, the contract with Charisma having been bought up and severed (though Charisma do still get a cut from the record). And suddenly, thanks not least to Macdonald’s hyper-tireless PR mouth and legwork, media interest blossomed and Bragg’s LP did a blitzkrieg over the indie charts.
Meanwhile, somewhat unfashionably, the bugger did gigs, millions of them. Solo inter-city efforts, pack the guitar and a toothbush, kip on a floor in Newcastle.
Macdonald recalls: “He’d play with anyone. He had some dates in Edinburgh, he took a break in between to go play a half-hour set in Cornwall with Chuck Berry and Meatloaf.” The small efficient fighting unit – economically feasible because you’re not dragging a symphony orchestra with you.
Now he’s done tours with Icicle Works, The Style Council, The Redskins, (with whom he’s apt to encore a rousing rendition of ‘Back In The USSR’). “His attitude,” says Macdonald, “was, I just wanna go out, do gigs, and nick their audience. He still wants to do it now.”
‘Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy’ has now reached sales of 50,000 – a runaway success story, really – and it’s not stopped yet. “Which is definitely all right,” Bragg says, not bragging, “for something that I thought we’d just have in my bedroom, a pile of 2000 copies, gradually selling it to all me relatives.”
Some time around now, the world will hear his follow-up, ‘Brewing Up With Billy Bragg’ – so named, I learn, because the first thing you do when you climb inside a rank is make a cup of tea. Or something like that. Unlike its predecessor, this is a full-length LP, if only because he’s got such a backlog of songs to get rid of. In line with his and Go!Discs’ policies, it sells for only £3.99 (“which means,” observes the ever-alert Macdonald, “that your average Bragg song is ever cheaper this year than your average Bragg song last year”).
According to Billy, the new album took “a magnificent ten days” to make. There’s a producer, Ted deBono, and a couple of tracks feature some extra instrumentation, such as organ or trumpet, to embellish the framework of voice-with-guitar. “It’s a bit of a progression, but not to the stage of the Bill Bragg Big Band sound.
“It’d be very easy to get over-precious about it, y’know: This is Bill’s sound, mustn’t mess with Bill’s vibe. But if I just stood still at being, I’m Billy Bragg and I play electric guitar and everything else is bullshit, then I’d get bored. I was quite open to using anything other than bass and drums – because if I’d used them, I’d have to go out live using bass and drums. And I get so much back out of playing solo.”
HE OWES IT ALL TO SPANDAU BALLET
What’s the difference between you and James Taylor?
“The difference between me and James Taylor is… when a folk club artist goes out with his guitar, he might think he’s James Taylor or Bob Dylan. When I go out, I still think I’m The Clash. And I think I’ve got a band behind me, and I should make as much fucking racket as that.
“So when people say to me, why don’t I use an acoustic guitar on stage, they just don’t understand the dynamics of the thing. That electric guitar is the one thing that makes me different to all the other solo performers.”
Are you surprised at your success?
“I was at first, yeah. Two years is not a long time for a band to achieve 50,000 sales on a debut album.
“And I put it down to, one, I do have this feeling about gigs, that that is the job. If you don’t play gigs you’re not really doing the job. I’m very willing to do gigs. It was never a money thing: it was a need within me to do it. So I did the lot.
“The album had three false starts from when it was first released, but right through those false starts Peelie was playing it and getting me in for sessions. His role in the whole music scene cannot be underestimated.
“So I put it down to the gigging, to John Peel playing it, and more by luck than judgement ending up with Go! Discs and finding in Andy Macdonald someone who genuinely wanted to see a bolshy little bastard like me succeed. A mixture of that and a large dose of luck.
“It was never by design. We never sat down and said, Right, there’s a gap in the market for a Spokesman For His Generation.”
Apart from those things, do you think there was a need for someone like yourself in pop, someone to cut through the big, blobby blancmange-ness of it all?
“I definitely, very consciously, moved in the opposite direction to everybody else. From deciding to do it, wanting to play solo, it took me a year to get the bottle up to do it – writing songs in me bedroom, thinking, How am I ever gonna get up and do this in front of people on me own, it’ll be stupid!
“And the thing that finally spurred me on, this is the truth, was seeing Spandau Ballet on Top Of The Popsand thinking, Fuck Me! The fact was there was nobodyany more. Everybody seemed to be playing the majors’ game, all wanting hit singles.
“All the bands I’d thought were going to do something different: Joy Division, I had great hopes for The Skids, they became just another singles band, The Clash, the content of their songs seemed t disappear out the window. It was definitely necessary to me to do gigs, cos there was something missing from my life.
“That’s why I went for ‘Fear Is A Man’s Best Fried’ (the John Cale song that Bragg did on the recent NME‘Dept Of Enjoyment’ tape). Fear is a great motivation, and that got me wanting to gig again, the adrenalin. It’s the things you don’t like that you should try and do, the things that scare you most.”
What were the roots of this need?
“It was something to do with the whole punk rock thing, which everyone thinks is such a cliché now, 1977. But as far as I’m concerned, my attitudes towards making music, the industry, the whole fucking thing, were changed in 1977 and I haven’t seen anything since to change them back again.
“All the punks seem to have gone back the other way again, the class of 1977. And the only people who seem to have benefited in the end were the Spandaus, the second wave, New Romantics and all that crap.
“And I’d got into it all in the first place because I thought here was a chance to do something genuinely satisfying, and not just for the money or reasons of ego.. You could do tis out of, not a moral concern, but a belief. You could be in the music industry, have beliefs and keep them, and reflect them in your songs. Which we did in Riff Raff, on a small scale, andhad a laugh.
“And when all that broke up, something was missing in my life and I didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t until I was actually inthe Army [laughs] that I realised I’d probably joined because I wasn’t getting the stimulus of doing gigs any more.
“I needed to do something that was, y’know, Fucking ’ell! Jumping in the river! Oh shit! Grenades, oh no! I can’t bear this!Y’know? I needed to something like that again.
“Which is what doing gigs is like. Oh fuck, look at this audience! They’re all Hell’s Angels, oh shit! That’s all part of doing gigs. It wasn’t until I’d committed meself to the Army that I realised it was something to do, still, with doing gigs. So the most scary way of doing gigs was to do ’em solo [laughs]. I thought, Fuck it, it’s gonna be down to me. This thing that I wanna do, it’s gotta come from me.”
NASTY, HORRID POLITICAL BIT
“You shouldn’t play to your own audience all the while. If you’ve got any content in your lyrics, there’s no point writing a song that makes any attempt to make a point – about the Falklands war, the Welfare State or whatever – then continually play it to people who agree with you. Surely if you write a song like that, you want people who don’t agree with you tio listen to it.
“Hence I found myself doing gigs like supporting Dave Gilmour at the Hammersmith Odeon for 3000 Pink Floyd fans who’d never buy a Billy Bragg record.”
Ironically we can thank the National Front for Billy Bragg’s interest in politics. It was when they were selling papers outside his school gate, and down at Barking station, that he first became aware of the whole thing. Curiosity aroused, “it was in the face of these right-wing revolutionary Tories who have come through since 1979, that I began to think of Labour as the only real alternative.”
Nowadays, every other gig he does plays to be a benefit job, such as the recent GLC appearances. He’d like to see the Labour Party wake up to the possibilities: “It’s obvious. I mean, draw me up a list of bands who’d be willing to play for the Conservative Party. And when I think of all the bands who’d play for Labour, they’d be foolish not to do it.
“It’s not a case of the Labour Party wanting to be hip: it’s a way of drawing attention to their policies. If the Conservatives have got control of the daily papers, and the Labour Party has to skirt around to get to people, then putting on gigs is as good a way as any.
“At the same time, I know that by continuing doing gigs for the Labour Party you can be preaching to the converted. It’s the guy who doesn’twant to know, who isn’t particularly interested, who just wants to come along to the gig to meet some women or whatever… It’s not like that Prince film [he means the finale of Purple Rain], I don’t think people are converted to socialism by eye contact with me [laughs].
“If I didn’t think the message in some of my songs was getting through, then obviously I wouldn’t do it. Not that the message is storm the Winter Palace or anything. But the whole thing is, there’s more to it than making lots of money and selling lots of records. There are things above that which are important to me.”
SHOCK SEX SECRETS OF PUNK ROCKERS ON THE ROAD
“The trouble about touring with Billy Bragg,” says the lead singer of a well-known Bolshevik skinhead group, “is that backstage after gigs we’d get blokes with beards coming round for a discussion on Marxism, and he’dget a gang of friggin’ schoolgirls…”
THE MANAGER’S TALE
Peter Jenner is the manager; the man who must go to market and sell Billy Bragg’s bottom.
Aged 42, Jenner runs Sincere Management (motto: “It’s in the post”), his other artistes being The Hank Wangford Band and The Opposition. A middle class lefty, freely self-confessed, he taught at the LSE in the student revolution days of 1967; in fact his support for the students finally got him the sack. At that point he was already busy at nights, managing an underground group called Pink Floyd.
From there and through the ’70s, his career took in: putting on The Rolling Stones at Hyde Park, spells of managing Tyrannosaurus Rex, Roy Harper, Edgar Broughton, The Clash and Ian Dury, and a stint as A&R man at Charisma – which is how he met Billy Bragg, the boy who had not come to fix the TV set.
Impressed by Billy’s demo tapes, he went down to a pub gig to find out more: “I saw this gig and I thought, Wow, there was such an excited atmosphere in the air. It was only later I discovered the reason there was such an atmosphere was there’d just been a fucking big punch-up in the pub! Ha ha! I’d thought it was the magnetic personality of Billy Bragg.”
What he liked about Bragg was “the personality. He got on with things. He wasn’t conceited or precious, he was practical. It was a classic example of a rough diamond. As an A&R man I could either say, Here’s our rough diamond, let’s spend £50,000 cutting and polishing him. Or I could say, Fuck it, I like it, let’s put him out as he is.”
So they made ‘Life’s A Riot’ – quick and cheap – and kept away from doing singles because, says Jenner, the world was flooded by singles from young hopefuls. “Being of an academic bent, I started thinking this didn’t make sense, that the competition to get singles played and reviewed was so intense, it was virtually impossible.” Back in the ’60s, an age of pop singles, Jenner had taken the revolutionary step of getting Pink Floyd signed for an album deal, and he remembered the value of albums in getting attention from industry and media.
He got hold of designer Barney Bubbles and together they packaged the record with a theme of economy and quality. Hence the old Penguin book look for the cover, and the label Utility – based on the 1940s government wartime programme of cheaply produced goods of a guaranteed standard.
The LP came out on Charisma/Utility, with expected sales of 5000 at most. Jenner, meanwhile, left Charisma and became Billy’s manager. And they gigged, and the gigged, and they gigged.
“You could put him on with anyone, from Hank Wangford to Dave Gilmour. He wasn’t wearing clothes that could alienate him from anybody, except up at the Camden Palace. Here was I, an old hippie, and it appealed to me, and I could see his punky/ne wave appeal, I could see bits of Ian Dury, the chirpy chappy sort of vibe.
“He was fun to be with and I knew – and this was very calculating – that journalists and DJs would like him, and that he would be willing to go in and nobble them. I know that journalists find it much harder to resist the artist than a PR man when they’re asking you to review the album.”
If Jenner’s experience had taught him anything, it was the ruinous horror of being in debt to a record company, via the advance, and then amassing further expense through extravagant tour and recording costs. He’d seen careers crippled by it. With Bragg, he set out to prove “that you canorganise things so that you make your living as you go along.”
Of course, that’s not all he’s learnt: “There’s a built-in pressure for novelty in the pop business. It’s built-in obsolescence, everything has to have ‘new’ on it. And I’ve always reckoned that the best way of coping with this is to have something original. If you’re original, then this is much the best form of novelty because it’s not such an effort. If your novelty is a stupid hairdo then it’s like, OK, you’ve had your stupid hairdo, what are you gonna do next time around? Another stupid hairdo?
“There was this consistency all the way through the Bragg thing: what you read about Billy and what he was like as a geezer, you could see at the gigs he waslike that, and on his records, and the packaging was like that. There was a consistency saying, This guy is what he is, there is not a lot of bullshit.
“It was a conscious effort to get away from bullshit in an era when everyone was talking about stylists; who’s the producer? Who’s the hairdresser? These are the questions they ask in A&R departments. Bill was appealing , because I don’t think the public are stupid, I think they know at the moment there’s all this manipulated bullshit coming down at them… I think it’s disgusting that the records are so bland, that it’s all technopop and hyping records into the charts.
“The timing was right. If Billy had come along two years earlier, he might not have been nearly so effective, because we hadn’t had as much of the Ultravoxes then, kids being sophisticated and all that bullshit, the lounge lizard thing. If everyone’s been rushing around being a lounge lizard, a Man Of The People is bound to have a reaction-appeal.
“if everybody’s ‘above politics’ and just into ‘having a good time’ and being decadent, then clearly the reaction’s going to be towards someone who ispolitical, who isconcerned with what’s going on in the world. Because, obviously, fiddling while Rome burns gets a little unattractive sometimes for a lot of people.”
BILLY BRAGG’S JOKE
Q: How many A&R men does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: Look, I’ll get back to you on that one, OK?
HEY! LET’S SHIFT SOME UNITS
Held this year in the sumptuous plushness of Manhattan’s Hilton Hotel, the annual New Music Seminar has become the major meet of the mainstream US record industry. From a fringe gathering, a five years ago, of American independents and oddballs, the Seminar’s grown to a sleek and prosperous affair. Men from the majors converge to compare suntans, hear guest panellists, exhibit their wares and talk dollars.
The “new music” of the title refers to little except the date of the product. However, they did invite Billy Bragg to play at one of the Seminar’s showcase gigs, and since it coincided with his plans to come over to support Echo & The Bunnymen’s tour, and since the Bragg camp need to sound out the chances of getting his music out in North America, he came and here he is.
Here he is, indeed, in a side room off the convention hall, getting some fool NMEjournalist to help him strap on his “portastack”. The portastack is a £500 home-made contraption comprising an amplifier on a rucksack frame, with two speakers projecting from behind either shoulder, and a microphone curling around his gob. He looks like a busker from outer space.
When the signal’s given, he strides unannounced and monster-like into the crowded exhibition area, punishing his guitar to the approximate tune of ‘Gloria’. Behind him there snakes a fascinated camera crew from the cable station MTV. Between riffs, he’ll howl out lines like, “I’m Billy Bragg! I am the new Joan Baez! The video age is dead, you bastards! Live music is back!”
Some onlookers applaud warmly, charmed and astonished in equal measure. There’s a lot of diplomatic grinning being done, especially by the personnel on the video company exhibit stands – who don’t want to look toouncool by shrieking out the panicked question which has gripped their minds: who the hell is this madman? Who let him in here?
Security staff descend, perplexed, unsmiling: into their walkie-talkies they plead, desperately, for guidance from above. Which duly comes and so, soon after, Billy Bragg is obliged to continue his historic busk outsidethe Hilton Hotel – regaling passers-by on Sixth Avenue with selections from his repertoire and amplified demands that somebody come and arrest him, because “I need the publicity! Arrest me, please!”
Nobody does. Billy Bragg? In New York? He couldn’t get arrested.
Later he will ponder: “Perhaps I should have shot someone. Or told them I was a communist plot.”
The sequel appears that night, as we watch the city’s Channel 5 News. They show a clip from Prince’s lavish ‘Purple Rain’ video, followed by half a minute of Billy Bragg making a prat of himself with his portastack, and the newsman’s voice says, “What do these two men have in common?”
And we sit through the adverts, agonising over the answer. After all, what the hell doesBilly Bragg have in common with Prince? Enlightenment comes in part two of the news bulletin, a report on the day’s Hilton seminar, when it is revealed that rock’s newest sex. Symbol – and Prince – are “both New Music”.
But what exactly is“new music” enquires the newsman. To which an industry expert is wheeled in to explain that New Music means three things: it’s made by people under 25, they make videos and they use synthesisers.
It’s a sobering thought, then, that by this definition, the Big-Nosed Bastard From Barking fails to qualify on all three counts.
THE HEARTWARMING END BIT
“It’s a good crack,” is Billy Bragg’s final thought on it all. “You can still do things for the crack of it, and not just for the money.”
Not for the fame either, it seems. He remembers he once did an “in-store personal appearance”, standing around in a record shop with a pile of his LPs to sign. Eventually a punter did approach him: “Excuse me,” he said, “have you got a copy of the new Simple Minds album in?”
It’s his own fault, really, wearing jeans like those.
“I try and keep well out of the way of pop stars. If you mix with them you get a rock star view on things. People who are ‘celebrities’, what does it mean? What have you done? All I’ve done is to make one seven-track LP and done a load of gigs, and as far I’m concerned that doesn’t give me the right to think I’m better than anyone else, that I should be able to go to the Camden Palace and swan around with the young cognoscenti.
“Much nicer that you just do gigs, and people come round to you later and say they liked the gigs – rather than walk around with a T-shirt saying, I Am Billy Bragg. You Bastards.”
I realise such modesty, in cold print, can look just like its opposite, a subtle sort of vanity. But I don’t think it is. I think he means it all, does Billy Bragg.
May his bottom remain forever unsold.