A Punter’s Perspective
Random observations on the wide, weird world of folk from the side of the stage
#37 Billy Bragg interview
First published on the Timber and Steel blog on 12 September 2012
Second published in Trad and Now magazine, September 2012
Getting this interview was in some ways a 25 year odyssey, in other ways a two-year process, and in yet another, a 17 day exchange of emails.
But on a clear, crisp early Spring Friday night in Canberra, and god knows where Billy was – I never did find out – two Bills had a chat about music, assumptions (grr!), death, life, the moon, first words, and giving the punters what they want.
Now if reading great swathes of text is not your thang, do here undereth clicketh:
Bill Quinn: He’s coming to Australia in a couple of months’ time but we have him here telephonically; it’s hello and welcome, Billy Bragg.
Billy Bragg: ‘ey, Bill. ‘ow are you?
[I’ll eschew the phonetics from here on, but even just these five words made me smile.]
BQ: Billy, I’m going to start and finish with a slightly clichéd question, and in between, we’ll see where we go.
Your signature song is “Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards” which is a bit like a snowflake, never the same thing twice, always evolving and grabbing the zeitgeist. In 2012, are you just a little bit spoilt for choice with subject matter for that song?
BB: Heh! Unfortunately I am, yeah.
That’s the problem with being a topical songwriter; sometimes things just keep popping up, y’know? I’ve got a week or so in New Zealand before I get to Australia. I hope I’ll be able to zone in a little on what’s happening in Australia. And see if I can shape some of the lyrics of “Great Leap Forwards”.
I mean, some of the verses are universal, but one or two of them are specifically about the UK. Maybe I might just be able to Australianise them if possible.
I’ll see what I can do!
BQ: I’ll always remember when you were on the Andrew Denton show years ago and you slipped in that reference about a certain politician who was put into prison:
“The international reputation of Australia has risen
Since we noticed you decided to put Pauline Hanson into prison…”
That went down a treat with certain sections of the community.
BB: Well, it always does. I mean, that’s the great thing about that song. Particularly in the end in the repeat verses. I was just singing it the weekend that Pussy Riot were put into prison, and I was able to slip in – just off the top of my head:
“Some people say people should be quiet
I say, ‘Free ‘Pussy Riot’”’
And audiences just love that. If you can hit something that’s in the news that day, that’s the great joy of being a topical songwriter.
BQ: Well, I’ll give you a couple of things to go on with. Gina Rhinehart, the mining and the Fairfax newspapers – that’ll start you off.
BB: We’ve heard a bit about Gina up here already. Another media empire coming out of Australia.
BQ: Yeeeessss, we’re still trying to get over the last one, just quietly.
BB: Aren’t we all? Aren’t we all, Bill?!
BQ: On that point, or sort of related, one of my favourite songs of yours is “I Don’t Need This Pressure Ron” where you’re not having a go, but questioning people who do question your own motives. Do you find that even after at least 25 years in the business you’ve still got those people “firing those assumptions” at you?
BB: Yeah, yeah, of course you do. And it’s not just me; it happens to other people.
When people decide you are a person of the left, they assume that you will have a particular set of views. Often those views are incredibly dated; their views that were current in the 1960s and 1970s.
When it turns out that you, for example, feel quite patriotic about the Olympics, people get upset about that. It’s almost like, “ You’ve got no right to do that, you’re a socialist.”
Well, yeah, I am, mate. Just because I’m a socialist doesn’t mean I don’t love my country. It’s because I love my country that I want state free health care. I’m very patriotic about the welfare state.
But you know, people try to put you in a box when you’re doing political song-writing and stuff like that. But part of the job of being Billy Bragg is to try and confound people’s expectations of you. And I get the opportunity to do that.
I usually jump at it.
BQ: Having listened to your music for a long time, when you came out with”The Space Race is Over“, I thought, “That’s interesting; that’s not a song I would have expected to come from Billy Bragg“. But it’s something that you feel quite strongly about.
BB: Yeah, it’s something that I related to with my own son. It was actually inspired by the fact that the first word he said after “mum” and “dad” was “moon”.
BB: He saw there was a full moon one night and he was looking up there saying “moon”. And I thought, “Wow! It’s the pull of the moon; it’s even affecting him”.
And it made me think of when I was a kid, and going to the moon and the space race and all that kind of stuff, and I ended up writing it. And the chorus:
“The space race is over, it’s been and it’s gone
And I’ll never get to the moon…”
When I first wrote it, I would sing it when he was in the bath, and we’d get to the last word and he would sing the word “moon”. It was really great.
It’s about a kid’s fascination with the moon.
So not everything I write comes from a political place. I mean, if it did… I know people who only see the world through an ideological prism. And the reason I know them is they’re always arguing with me on the internet.
They’re boring people who should get a life or at least a sense of humour.
BQ: I noticed there was that thread – I actually chimed in at one point – on the thread where you’d put up the Olympics medal tally with Yorkshire coming ninth.
BB: [Laughs] That’s right, yeah!
BQ: And somebody just jumped in and I loved your response which was along the lines of, you’re the sort of person that expects for me to be a socialist, I need to do a gig for free in your backyard and do the washing up afterwards!
BB: That’s right! And then still complain!
There are people like that in the world. That’s the joy of the internet. There are loads of people out there, but I find it sharpens my arguments, the internet. It helps me.
Because the dumb, stupid, narrow-minded questions that people ask me on the internet make people like you seem so convivial. There’s nothing you’re ever going to say that’s going to be more stupid than some of the stuff I deal with coming out down the line.
It’s all grist to the mill, mate!
I don’t normally feed trolls. If someone’s just trolling me and having a go, I just block ‘em. And I think everyone should do that.
But every now and again there’s someone who’s got hold of a subject such the wrong way around.
A big one during the Olympic campaign was people on the left who found the flag-waving disturbing.
And my point to them was, look, there is a difference between flag-waving in the Olympic stadium to celebrate Mo Farrow, a Somali immigrant with our flag, than when a racist party like British National Party – a whites only party – flies it.
There’s two different contexts there. Flag-waving is all about context. But it’s more comforting for some people not to see it like that. They have an absolutist view.
And I went through my period of having absolutist views as well. Fortunately, my parents beat that out of me. And I suddenly realised that the world is a bit more of a complicated place.
My mum and dad explained it to me over the dinner table so I’m someone who delights in nuance. So when I’m writing a song, if I can find a bit of nuance, I’ll put it in there. They’re the tools I use to build my arguments.
So when I come up against someone who has a completely blinkered, black and white view of the world, things can get a bit…. through the looking glass.
BQ: I can tell you that it’s very much a point of contention here in Australia because it is the anti-immigration groups who really embrace the flag, and they put it on the backs of their cars and on tattoos and they have this slogan, “Aussie Pride”.
And it’s not pride in our Australia – it’s not a nationalistic thing – it’s more like pride in white Australia. Do you see a parallel there with the National Front and British National Party?
BB: Of course. And that’s EXACTLY the reason why I got into trouble for being proud that I’m British. For exactly that reason.
People get so attuned – and I include myself in that – I’m attuned to the nuances of racism. We’re all attuned to them. But unless we start expressing ourselves about how proud we are of that diversity – and the Olympics and the Paralympics is a good expression for us of our pride as a nation in our diversity – unless we begin to embrace that, we’re creating a vacuum in which only the far right are proud.
Only the “Aussie Pride” people are proud. And they ultimately define what it means to be Australian or what it means to be British.
I’m still an internationalist; I still believe in humanity. But I’m no longer prepared to allow the British National Party to define who does and who doesn’t belong.
I want to say the parts of the country that I’m proud in and the aspects of society that I’m proud of. And I say that with the intention of denying them any grounds on which to define their divisive idea of what it means to be British.
BQ: I’ve got a killer anecdote where I found how to start off by agreeing with an older gentleman wearing a Tyrolean hat who was espousing some views about Muslims as a way to engage with him and question his thinking, but I’ll hit you up on Facebook later.
Moving on. Your music; it really resonates with a lot of people. I’ve heard so many people say that they have a connection with a certain song for a certain reason for a certain time in their lives. I’ve got a very good friend who was living in England at the time that “A New England” came out, and she heard it on the radio for the first time and her automatic reaction was: go down to the record store and get the album.
Do you find that yourself, that people have tight connections with your back catalog?
BB: I’m always glad when they do, yeah. Because I have certain connections with songs like that myself. I’ve had that reaction myself, like when I first heard Elvis Costello. I was in a record shop when someone put the record on, and I was like, “Wow!”
And I love that feeling when you get a song and you take it away and it retains its power to lift you and that’s always great.
So I’m ever so pleased when people say my songs have that kind of effect.
I mean you can’t write songs with the intention of doing that. “A New England” – I wrote that when I wasn’t even in a band. It was just a throwaway little term based on the fact that I’d just seen two satellites flying over side by side and I just thought it was a lovely metaphor. So I just constructed a song around that.
But it took on a huge meaning. And I don’t know how to do that! If you asked me to do that again, I wouldn’t know where to start. But I’m really glad it did.
Particularly ironic in that it says, I don’t want to change the world and I’m not looking for a new cultural identity – because that’s exactly what I’ve spent doing for the last 30 years. There’s a wonderful irony in that being my best-known song.
BQ: I am going to throw in a personal indulgence here, and that’s that my little brother Greg introduced our whole family to your music. And he – sorry, a little bit of intellectual property infringement here – he had a little business card made up with an image of himself leaning on his Maton guitar and it said, “Greg Quinn: the Big-Nosed Billy Bragg Busker”.
BB: Well, tha’s brilliant, man! That’s great!
BQ: And he got us all in. Sadly died 14 years ago last Wednesday.
BQ: But this is when I first heard about “Tank Park Salute” because I was looking at the eulogies that people were putting in the paper and one person put in a verse from “Tank Park Salute”. So those resonances do happen.
BQ: Well, that’s my hope, especially when you talk about “Tank Park Salute” which is a song about my father passing away. My father passed away in 1976, and before I wrote that song, oh, I’m guessing now, in 1991. It’s on Don’t Try This At Home so it’s about that time. Until I’d written that song, I’d never spoken to anyone about my father dying, which was something I couldn’t face.
And I wrote that, and it just came out in a huge flood. And I got it down on paper and looked at it and thought, “D’ya know what? If I sing this song, I will have to talk about what happened.”
And I went and showed it to teach to my keyboard player to show her part, and she said, “Wow, that’s about your dad, isn’t it?”
And I thought if she gets it, anyone will get it, and it obviously works as a song. And I’m really glad when I find someone who it’s helped because I can tell them – honestly – it helped me too. It had the same effect on me; it helped me to deal with losing somebody. So more often than not these days I find myself playing it at gigs, because more people are getting to the age where we’re losing loved ones, so it’s become a really important part of my set now.
BQ: Well, I hope you play it in Canberra because I’ll be in row four looking up your nostrils, basically.
BB: That’s always good! I’ll see what I can do!
BQ: I have this theory that strong emotions, like the ones that song draws out, are best diffused by great humour, and there’s a brilliant piece of Youtube clippage of you doing that song. And then you’re re-tuning and the clip keeps going and you start to talk about Jimmy Hendrix-style histrionic guitar playing and how it’s wasted energy, best saved for the purpose it was intended… um, er, I don’t know if I can say this on air: [sotto voce] masturbation.
BB: Well, you can. And you have!
BQ: I have too. It’s a pre-record!
BB: I think when you’re trying to put across powerful ideas, whether it’s about mortality or socialism, a little bit of humour goes a long way. That’s very true for me. It’s very true for Woody Guthrie. If you read Woody Guthrie’s stuff, he had a wicked sense of humour.
But it was run through with a steely determination to make the world a better place and to inspire to try and make the world a better place too. That’s the sort of pitch I want to make too. One minute I will be goofing around and laughing – often at my own expense – but then I’ll be, once you’re relaxed and laughing, getting you to connect with something that perhaps you hadn’t thought about before.
BQ: You also talk often of the fact that you keep faith; there’s the song “I Keep Faith” where you have faith in the ability of people to organise and take action, as recently as yesterday with the Quebequois students protesting over tuition fees. Are there so many fights against power now that we have to celebrate all these wins, do you think, and see the interconnectedness of them?
BB: I think there is an interconnectedness. The economic collapse of 2008 is still reverberating around the world. So what’s happening in Canada with the student fees there has its reflections here in the UK on the same issue. But elsewhere around the world in Greece, and Spain, and across the Eurozone, the realisation that depressing wages over the last 30 years has led us to a situation where the economy has ground to a halt. People can’t live on credit forever.
So that plays back into songs like, “There Is Power In A Union“, and that becomes more pertinent to people these days when I play that song, helping to make that connection. Whereas before perhaps they only really thought about unions in terms of an issue with a specific job. Now we’re finding our economic problems in the UK are about a lack of demand. People aren’t spending their money because they’re concerned about the future, which is understandable.
And the government are doing everything they can to help, except say, “You know what? It might help if we just pay people more.” They would then feel confident, they wouldn’t have to borrow.
Nobody’s saying that yet. No one’s got around to that yet. Except for the unions.
And when they come around to that connection, it’s like … It’s like the economy is a giant steam train, and the government are trying to do everything: pushing it, pulling it, oiling the tracks. Everything but firing it up and making more steam. And that steam is the wages that give people confidence to spend and to make the economy grow.
And that’s what we’re lacking in the UK at the moment. It’s a demand problem more than anything else.
BQ: It’s a full on job you have. So much out there to be protesting and talking about. Is there ever a time when you wish you were a three chord basher playing covers down The Parson’s Nose three times a week, and leave the politics to someone else?
BB: I think the next Billy Bragg songs will be more love songs than political songs. I think I just have to remind people every now and again that I do write love songs. I’ll never stop writing political songs and issues songs.
But the thing with issues songs is that you can write them on Friday, record them on Saturday and put them up for download on Sunday. Like I did with “Never Buy The Sun” which is the song I wrote about the News of the World closing and the phone hacking scandal. I wrote it on Friday, played it for the first time on Saturday, some bloke filmed me playing it in the dressing room and gave it to me on a stick which was very kind of him, and I was able to load it up onto the internet immediately.
And for a topical songwriter, that’s great. There’s an immediacy to it, and it works best that way.
The songs about emotions, the songs about love, the songs about the human condition that I also write, when I make an album, those songs come to the fore. They’re the songs that stay with people longer than political songs and I’m glad about that.
Political songs can end up being a bit like reportage.
Whereas the emotional songs; they need to be like a hug. Or a slap in the chops!
One of the two!
BQ: Before we get wound up by Mr Phone Operator, I’d just like to say, thank you very much for your time.
BB: A pleasure, Bill!
BQ: And I look forward to seeing you, up your nostrils, row four, dead centre, in Canberra.
BB: I’ll see yer in a coupla weeks, I ‘ope!
BQ: Cheers, Billy.
BB: Cheers, Bill. All the best, mate.
[Clunk. Click. Brrrrr.]
BQ: [Low guttural rising to high pitched elongated scream of something.]
[Beep! Beep! Beep!]