After half-an-hour of talking music and politics with Billy Bragg, Weekend surprises the singer, songwriter and activist by asking what his interests are outside of those two things.
‘Er,’ he says, as if it’s not a subject that comes up often. ‘I do quite a bit of walking. I’ve got some Nordic sticks, and I try to keep vaguely fit. And I like reading.’ Though it’s possible, he concedes, that some of that reading might be about music and politics.
As, indeed, is his own new book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World – an engaging, impressively comprehensive overview of the post-war musical movement that saw British teenagers reinterpreting American folk, blues and jazz songs in rough and ready fashion on largely home-made instruments.
By the late 50s, it’s estimated there were as many as 50,000 skiffle groups performing in scout huts and church halls across the UK, with Van Morrison, Jimmy Page, Barry Gibb and, most famously, The Beatles among the future rock royalty who served their musical apprenticeship playing the washboard and the tea-chest bass.
‘It was music that came from teenagers themselves’, says Bragg, who once had dinner with Lonnie Donegan – aka the King of Skiffle – in the canteen at BBC Broadcasting House while an awe-struck John Peel looked on, uncharacteristically lost for words in the presence of his teenage hero. ‘There are strong similarities between skiffle and punk rock. The idea of punk was: don’t wait for someone else to do it for you. Well the skifflers made their own instruments with stuff from the ironmongers. What could be more DIY than that?
‘And it empowered people to become a performer. Punk broke down the barrier between audience and performer. It said, “anyone can do this”. Skiffle was the same. Ultimately, I would like skiffle to have the same credibility and respect as punk.’
It was watching punk heroes The Clash play a Rock Against Racism gig in 1978 that first set Essex boy Bragg on his twin careers of protest singer and political rabble-rouser. After five, frustrating years – and a brief, ill-fated stint in the Army – he managed to get a demo tape to former Pink Floyd manager Peter Jenner by pretending to be a TV repairman. A short while later, hearing John Peel mention on air that he was hungry, Bragg rushed round to the BBC with a mushroom biryani, a gesture the DJ repaid by playing a track from Bragg’s debut album, Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy – albeit, in classic Peel style, at the wrong speed.
‘It was really my last chance,’ says Bragg. ‘In my mind, I saw myself as the guy storming the machine gun positions who’s run out of bullets and is trying to finish the enemy off with his bayonet. It was do or die.’
Today, having built a devoted following mixing impassioned political anthems such as Between the Wars (about the miners’ strike) with heartfelt romantic declarations like A New England (memorably covered by Kirsty MacColl), Bragg remains as committed as ever both to music and social justice – as evidenced by the title of his upcoming tour, Bridges Not Walls.
There’s a widely held notion that people’s politics move further to the right as they get older. Why, at 59, hasn’t it happened to him?
‘I’m not sure,’ he laughs. ‘You’ve got to try to hold onto your ideals. We’re all prone to cynicism, myself included. But that’s the biggest enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place. If we can’t defeat our own cynicism, what’s the point? If you’re going to be a leftist, you’ve got to be able to recognise the glass is always half-full.’
In the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 election victory, a disillusioned Bragg wrote Waiting for the Great Leap Forward – an attempt to square his dismay with that glass half-full optimism that a change, eventually, was gonna come. But three decades on, does there come a point where he has to accept that Britain, as a nation, just shows no appetite for socialism?
‘It depends how you define socialism,’ says Bragg, speaking before this month’s General Election. ‘What is socialism, if not a form of organised compassion? I think, fundamentally, the British people still support a fairer society, but from time to time there rises up an anger, and people appear and exploit that anger.’
Following the surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn at the election, Weekend calls up Bragg again to ask if, with the benefit of hindsight, socialism might not be quite as dead in the water as the original question implied.
‘Like everybody, I was a bit pessimistic on election day,’ he admits. ‘So after the exit poll came out at 10 o’clock, I was glued to the telly, and went to bed trying to take on the ramifications of what had happened. I think, really, the big take away from this is that there’s an urge for change. People want change from the idea that ultimate decider of government policy will be the markets, and not the electorate. And hopefully young people will now understand that, if they turn up and vote in significant numbers, they can bring about change – even if they don’t win the election.’
Jeremy Corbyn’s first act following his election as Labour leader was to appear onstage with Bragg at a rally. Even before the election, Bragg told Weekend that Corbyn still had his support, but added: ‘The party does need to get on with a 21st century agenda, and form progressive alliances [and] I’m not sure the leadership is going in that direction.’
‘That seemed to be the only way ahead, and in some ways still does,’ he reflects, post-polling day. ‘The other take away from the election is that our electoral system isn’t fit for purpose any more. We need an electoral system that creates a clear mandate for us to go forward with. That might not always be the mandate I want, but at the moment we’ve had three elections that haven’t been decisive, or delivered a consensus.
‘I’m not interested in retribution at all. But [the election result] does give me hope that we’re moving away from a period where the worst right-wing newspapers can set the agenda. If you look at where politics has gone in the last few years, there’s an idea that the Farage megaphone has come to represent Britain as a whole. And I think we found out at the election that it doesn’t. Whether this means a change for Brexit, I’ll be very interested to see. I hope a space has been created where we can have a rethink on where we were going with Brexit.’
While the decline of the music industry means every record he makes these days costs him money, Bragg admits he ‘makes a really good living playing gigs’. ‘I couldn’t afford not do that – I’ve never been rich enough to give up the day job. But why would I do that anyway? I get paid to do the thing I love. If that’s not a definition of success, I don’t know what is.’
Four decades on from that Clash gig, it’s clear that singing rebel songs still excites Bragg as much as ever. But in other ways, the Bard of Barking, who raised eyebrows when he left London’s cosmopolitan melting-pot to settle with his wife Juliet and son Jack on Dorset’s Jurassic coast, is a respectable elder statesman – a man who’s as comfortable on the BBC’s Question Time panel as he is on stage and who, in 2007, was commissioned to provide a new lyric to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy for a concert to mark the re-opening of the Royal Festival Hall, to be attended by the Queen.
‘There aren’t many things in my job you can do to impress your mum, but having the Queen come to your gig is one of them,’ he says. ‘I’d just spent three years writing a book about what it means to be British, and the opportunity to meet her after the show – to look her in the eye, just out of curiosity… I don’t think any of us who have grown up in Britain could resist that.
‘So she came along the line, and when she got to me, she gave me a look that said, “what the **** are you doing here?” It was brilliant. She totally got me.’ A short conversation followed, in which Bragg made a joke, and Her Majesty laughed.
‘And that was it. Then, about an hour later we got a phone call from her head flunkey saying, “would it be possible to get a copy of the score signed by Mr Bragg?” And I get stick for this, but let me tell you, a lot of people hang around after my gigs to shake my hand and get my autograph. Why should I treat her any different? Who does she think she is,’ he adds, with a cackle, ‘the Queen of England?’
Published in Waitrose Weekend, June 29, 2017
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