Billy Bragg Goes To Washington.
A feature-interview with Billy Bragg, written after I’d joined him on some dates in Washington DC and Long Island in late November 1986. It appeared in Q, March 1987.
You can read my 1984 NME interview with Billy here.
BOUND FOR GLORY?
He sings with more spit than polish. He wears pullovers only a mother could love. He dreams, not of storming the barricades, but of working majorities to be won on the municipal waterworks sub-committee. Where now for Billy Bragg?
By Paul Du Noyer
“Whuup! Oh what?” Billy Bragg is on an aeroplane.
“Whoah! You know what? I don’t like this.” Billy Bragg doesn’t like this.
The aeroplane, which Billy Bragg is in, is encountering a spot of turbulence. The aeroplane has just taken off from Washington DC in an appalling rainstorm, and all those Buddy Holly quips he delivered so blithely in the comfort of the airport lounge are turning sour in his mouth. Worse, by a curious irony, the aeroplane is directly above the Pentagon, lurching unsteadily heaven-wards with a CND member’s conception of hell just a moment’s plunge below.
Others might reach for the sick-bag, the rosary beads or, in the worst extremity of fear, the in-flight airline magazine. But Billy Bragg puts on his headphones and pops in a cassette of the Soviet National Anthem, in all its soaring choral glory.
It seems to work wonders for him. One only hopes they’re not picking this up on some device in the five-sided nerve-centre a few hundred feet beneath. Nothing would mar an otherwise successful tour of the United States like accidentally starting World War III on your way to the next gig.
Billy Bragg is a singer/songwriter from Barking, Essex. A solo performer, his voice is not technically perfect, being a gruff sort of thing that aspires to tenderness but has to wade through thick puddles of East London vowel-sounds to get there. He knocks out rudimentary riffs on electric guitar, played with more spirit than finesse. He is, to coin that tactful phrase, not conventionally handsome, and his hairstyle looks more imposed than chosen. He wears Doctor Marten boots, jeans that cost all of £6.50, and pullovers that only a mother could love.
He is 29, and a former goat-herd. He was also a painter and decorator, a bank messenger in the City of London, and worked as a Saturday boy in a record shop. Once, for 90 days, he learned to drive tanks in the British Army. He founded a punk rock band, called Riff Raff, who made a couple of records that nobody liked very much, apart from Riff Raff.
His earliest musical roots are in East London family sing-songs, like at Christmas when his gran or his Uncle Stan played Lily Of Laguna on the piano, or on jaunts to Southend, or hop-picking time in Kent, or knees-ups at Dagenham Working Men’s Club. His real name is Steve.
In all, not the most promising material for rockin’ immortality.
It’s all the more remarkable, then, that in four years this Steven William Bragg has attained such venerated status in at least one corner of the British pop market. His three albums, recorded on minimal budgets for the small west London label Go! Discs (home of The Housemartins), sell well and steadily; the newest, Talking With The Taxman About Poetry, is edging up to the 100,000 mark.
He is not primarily a “singles artist”, but he went in the Top 20 with a 45 about socialism, called Between The Wars, and the song is now a standard in folk clubs around the country. Perhaps his best song, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, has just been awarded a fulsome full-page article in a New York art magazine, hailed as a modern classic by America’s most prestigious critic Greil Marcus. Bragg likes to describe himself as The Big-Nosed Bastard From Barking, but a new generation of fans takes him very seriously indeed.
These fans tend to approve of Bragg’s lack of pin-up appeal, and his general absence from those glittering parties at which pop stars gather to celebrate their own fabness. Bragg supporters admire his rough-hewn authenticity, his apparent integrity, and his ready Cockney wit. Or they’re attracted by his left-wing political commitment, expressed through numerous interviews with the music papers.
In fact you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone with a bad word for Billy Bragg. If fellow-musicians find anything to complain about, it’s either the fact he works so cheaply (so under-cutting their rates) or the way he gets on so well with rock journalists. His story is annoyingly devoid of scandal. Nobody who’s met him, though, can evade some grudging admission of his homely charm. Some have even gone so far as to use the term “diamond geezer”.
Possibly there is a wider public, who either don’t know his music or else consider it a sickly whingeing din, whose foremost notion of Billy Bragg is that of a funny bloke who gets his picture taken with Neil Kinnock. He is a leading light of Red Wedge, a loose association of pop artists dedicated to a Labour victory at the next election. He’s been seen at benefits for causes ranging from the GLC to the striking miners. He’s been arrested at demos against apartheid and nuclear arms.
Billy Bragg says of himself, “I am a moderate. I am not a revolutionary.” This is almost certainly correct. Jaded Labourites will warm to his vaguely old-fashioned, robust proletarian decency. He is of that English socialist tendency which dreams, not of barricades to be stormed, but of working majorities to be won on the municipal waterworks sub-committee.
“Here we go, here we go, here we go…” Billy Bragg extricates himself from an American taxi cab and marches into the night’s gig carrying his entire equipment: one small amp and two guitars. It’s hardly Deep Purple On The Road, this operation.
(Bragg already betrays signs of US tour fatigue. When he asks his manager, “Have I ever been to Pittsburgh, boss?” you know the strain is showing.)
“We’re here because/We’re here because/We’re here because…” Still singing softly, he surveys the darkened nightclub. At his side, with a change of clothes and a third guitar is his assistant Wiggy, lifelong Barking pal. They’re a two-man team who carry their lugubrious British humour, terraces-and-trenches stuff, like a protective shield around the world. They confer about microphone heights and house PAs, or exchange mysterious Essex banter that ends with uproarious cackles and lines like “So I sez, get yet smackers round me knackers! Ha ha!”
An hour later the club is full and Bragg is onstage, in a Fred Perry shirt, delighting his American audience with songs of awkward romance like The Milkman Of Human Kindness, or lengthy soliloquies about their country’s involvement in Nicaragua. His delivery would be the envy of many a stand-up comic; he sends his “punters” laughing into a radical re-alignment of their views on the international Bolshevik conspiracy. They listen spellbound to a lesson in 17th-century English political dissent. Whenever he mentions the Labour Party, it raises the sort of cheer you’d sooner expect for some exotic liberation movement.
Backstage, afterwards, in the dressing room, he’s surrounded by rather earnest young people who seek yet more enlightenment. One chap, from Yale University, is trying to start a college branch of the socialist party. He’s finding it tough going, he says, and looks a bit depressed about it.
Late that night, when they’ve all gone home, Bragg walks the empty streets of Washington in a Russian hat, and reflects: “It does happen here, yeah. I get these people round backstage who want serious discussions about the Bomb. They turn their eager, shining little faces up at me and I say…”
“Get yer smackers round me knackers?” suggests Wiggy.
“Yeah! Ha ha! Bill, they say to me as they break into tears, we thought you was different…”
Billy Bragg, however, is different, and wouldn’t really say those horrid things to his fans. In truth he cuts a somewhat puritanical figure in the twilit world of rock’n’roll. He drinks but little, does not smoke and never touches drugs. “My mum always asks me, You don’t do any of them drugs, do you, Steven? No, not many, Mum, I say. Oh Steven, she says, don’t say that.
But the image of austere political troublemaker does bother him.
“It can be uncomfortable, to be honest. But as a means to an end, as a way of getting the Labour Party’s policies across to wider audience, I don’t see how I can pussyfoot around it.”
Where will that leave him, and Red Wedge, if Labour lose the election?
“Certainly defeat would mean disaster for Red Wedge – apart from disaster for millions of people up and down the country, more importantly – it would be a bodyblow. But if the Tories win next time then we’re gonna find ourselves a small European colony of a superpower, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. And the ideal of a caring society, that we all grew up with, will be right in the dumper.
“Just thinking about it overcomes all my worries about working with the Labour Party, frankly. Sometimes I think, God, people aren’t stupid, they can see through this Labour Party stuff and by allying myself with it I’m making things difficult for myself in interviews or talking to the punters. But the thought of the Tories winning fills me with more fear than a few smart-arse journalists pinning my arse to a wall.
“That’s part of the job. If they don’t get you for your politics they’ll get you for your haircut.”
What disappoints him more, he claims, is that his political reputation leads people to overlook all his other songs.
“Well over 50 per cent of my stuff is not about politics. And the personal stuff is more important to me, and that area is where I have more understanding. I wish I could write a song like Levi Stubbs’ Tears about socialism, the way that dissected the bits of a relationship and tried to make sense of them. I wish I could do that about socialism, but I don’t understand it enough. My interest in politics only goes back a few years but, I mean, I’ve been interested in girls since I was 13, falling in and out of love and making an idiot of myself enough to be burned and learn lessons.
“Maybe when I’m 60 years old I’ll be able to look back from my seat in the House of Lords and understand the socialist ideal more than I do now – bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and believing it’s the great cure for our problems, as I once believed love was.”
Just before this, Bragg’s fifth visit to America, he went to give a speech at, of all places, Eton College.
“This geezer wrote and asked me. Said the only speakers they ever get there are generals and back-bench Tory MPs. So I went, and there they all were in their suits and tails and dickie-bow ties, and by the time I got up to the lectern I decided the subject of my talk would be Why Public Schoolboys Are The Class Enemy.
“Consequently I began by telling ’em that when the next Labour government takes power we’re gonna begin by putting the crossbars back on the lamp-posts, so we can hang public schoolboys from ’em. That was my opening gambit. When they all laughed I said, Only joking, lads. It’s your PARENTS we’re gonna hang…”
Billy Bragg’s own education came courtesy of Barking Abbey Comprehensive, and terminated at 16. His only awareness of politics, in those days, came out of pamphlets the National Front gave out at the school gates. Unimpressed by that body’s analysis of Britain’s imperial decline, the young Bragg sank his energies into rock’n’roll.
He and Wiggy, infatuated by The Rolling Stones and having learned the entire Rod Stewart songbook off by heart, decided jointly that rock stardom was the job for them, and to this end set about inflicting all manner of hideous noises on the neighbourhood. A sighting of the early Clash occasioned some re-appraisal of their style, and together they formed the punk band Riff Raff.
Happily for the town of Barking, Riff Raff chose the Midlands to rehearse in (at which point Bragg found part-time employment minding goats in a nearby field). The singles they made are nowadays more remembered for having naked women on the covers than for any intrinsic merits. The musicianship has been described as belonging to the “Well it was in tune when I bought it” school. Riff Raff duly collapsed.
Their failure was more traumatic for Bragg than one would expect. Feeling at a loss, he signed on for the Army, fully expecting it to be dreadful. In this he was not to be disappointed and he left at the first opportunity, three months later.
Two events, at the dawn of the 1980s, were to shape his destiny. One was the election of Margaret Thatcher, whose energetic style of heavy metal Conservatism shocked the lad into political consciousness; the other was his realisation that you could go out and do gigs without forming a band.
And so he gigged, obsessively, relentlessly. He tried the record companies. One, Charisma, let him in the door because they thought he’d come to mend their TV set. And they ended up signing him for his first LP, Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy. Soon he transferred to the independent label Go! Discs, for an advance that comprised the first six volumes of Motown Chartbusters, and a tin of Beatles talcum powder.
As Bragg’s fame grew, so did his attachment to left-wing causes. In 1985 he toured the country in the company of Labour MPs, whose task it was to “meet the kids” at each concert. Backstage at one, in Southend, the MP Robin Cook said, “Is it all right if we have a drink at the bar, Billy?” To which the minstrel said, “Only if you don’t spill it down your fuckin’ shirt fronts.”
Though by no means a communist, he has twice taken up invitations to play in East Germany, and has just toured the USSR: “The food is terrible, the people are lovely. The government asks me over because I’m anti-Thatcher, and they think that must make me pro-Soviet, which is an equation they misunderstand, I’m afraid. But I’m willing to go over there with an open mind… They do have a problem with Trotsky: he just doesn’t exist. He’s gone – like Don Revie.”
Nowadays, he hob-nobs with the Leader of the Opposition. “Not often, only now and again. We have a laugh and a joke. But occasionally it’s not just Hallo how are you? We talk about specific things like Labour arts policy, or radio or the blank tapes levy.”
How seriously do these politicians take him?
“Some of ’em are still sceptical. Who do we represent? Everybody else in the labour movement is there because they have an electorate behind them, or a union or something. But who do I represent? The Billy Bragg Fan Club of Great Britain? No wonder they’re sceptical.”
Also sceptical is Bill’s mum. “She doesn’t like me getting mixed up in politics at all. She says to me, They got John Lennon, they can get you.”
Billy Bragg likes Marmite, Nastassja Kinski and West Ham United. His favourite song is probably William Blake’s Jerusalem: I’d make it the national anthem, I really would. Well, either that or I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles.”
How contrived, or calculated, is this “diamond geezer” image?
“Hmmm. There is – what can I say? – a certain laddishness I’ve cultivated, by being larger than life. You have to be a bit larger than life to do this job. Even your shyest stars are very good at being shy. So you take a basic idea and you amplify it as much as you can.
“Most of my style is an attitude, rather than a visual thing. It’s that go anywhere, play anywhere attitude rather than a style. I think I still rely on content to get me by. I mean, I wear these DMs cos it’s cold in winter and they’re comfortable. I wear these jeans cos the pockets don’t go when you’re carrying keys around. And I wear these jumpers cos they keep me warm. I think this jumper looks quite tasty, as it happens.
“But I’ve never been any good at style. I always thought that people who did this job had someone to tell ’em what to wear, and how to have their hair cut.”
A lot of them do.
“Yeah, well fuckin ’ell, I don’t! Ha ha! People are still seeing me turning up at gigs and they’re going [covers face in hands] Oh my Gawd Bill, you’re not gonna wear that, are you? It’s terrible! And I’m saying Wot? What’s wrong?
“I do sometimes wonder what colour Fred Perry to wear onstage, but that’s about it. I always used to wear Hush Puppies onstage, until one time at a big GLC gig in Battersea Park, I couldn’t find ’em. And I told my manager and he went Oh fuck! And he pulled the whole gig to a halt, EVERY stage hand was looking for my fucking Hush Puppies! And I thought, Oh this is stupid, I’ll do it in these, it’s not important. I just wondered where they was, y’know?”
What does America make of Bragg? Settled in a bar during “Attitude Adjustment Hour” (ie the time when you can get pissed cheap – Pentagon-speak infects the whole town) he considers the question. They probably see him as a sort of “Jackson Browne on glue,” he feels. He will be “well-naused” if all this touring doesn’t bring him some solid recognition. If nothing else, he’ll be remembered as the guy who went round giving the waiters Lenin badges with their tips. Attitude Adjustment Hour, for sure.
Why does he talk so much onstage?
“Better than just standing there. People still shout. Get on with it! I know it must bore ’em sometimes, but I’m a compulsive communicator. Know what I mean? I’m one of those geezers you sit next to on the train and something goes wrong and I’m all [makes frantic rabbiting signals], know what I mean? Ha ha! And you’re going, Oh fuck…”