Billy Bragg: Alive and Dubious

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Peter Thomson interviewing Bill Bragg

Peter Thomson: It’s been quite awhile since you were last out this way. What have you been up to?

Billy Bragg: Loads of stuff since then. We went through the miners’ strike, and we’d been doing more and more political shows. Consequently when we ended, people who’d been doing miners’ gigs formed Red Wedge, which is kind of a collective of musicians, politicos and artists who want to remove the government of Margaret Thatcher and replace it with a democratically elected socialist government.

To that end we’ve been working with the Labour Party, but not for the Labour Party. We work alongside them; we don’t take orders from them. We encourage them when we can, and we criticize them when we have to. We also had the general election last year, which we lost, but we learned a lot of things during that campaign, and we carry on.

PT: Musically, you put out one album and two or three EPs.

BB: That’s right; the new album’s just recorded. Well mostly; I’ve got to do the vocals when I get back-if my voice holds up. The new America and Canada only release, Live and Dubious EP, is like something we’ve been doing in England for a while. We make specifically political EPs to address a specifically political stance or issue I’m working on. Of course, this being an election year in the U.S., this new EP addresses that situation, which is why it’s all political, whereas the new LP has like maybe two political songs on it The rest is about relationships and the human condition and all that other scuzzy stuff.

PT: Early on in your career, at least in this country, you were compared to a mix of Bob Dylan, the Clash and Joe Strummer, but clearly your records and your live shows have shown that your influences are a lot broader than that. What would you say are your main musical influences? Do you see yourself carrying on any particular tradition?

BB: Obviously I admire songwriters because, being a songwriter, when I listen to stuff it’s the lyrics that catch me first-any music, really, that has a strong content rather than just style, whether it’s someone like Elvis Costello, who I greatly admire, or Holland-Dozier-Holland from the Motown period. Even when it’s music from other countries, the lyrics of which I don’t understand, you can still feel that the music has more feeling and emotion than just electronic wizardry. That’s why I find a lot of AOR rock very bland, despite the technological wizardry of it. I think technology is something that people write weak songs and hide behind.

PT: You and your guitar are still clearly the focal point of your records and your live performances, but particularly on Talking to the Taxman … you’ve started to branch out, bringing in other instruments, other voices. How would you characterize your development now as a performer and songwriter?

BB: When we first started, playing solo and making the LPs solo, the live performances and records were more or less just the same. But I thought it would be interesting, when I am in the studio, to try and use other instruments to broaden the songs. I began writing songs that were a bit less basic, that would obviously hold a bit more instrumentation. But I’m always still constrained by the fact that live, I’ve got to play these songs solo, more or less.

Although on this trip, for the first time in North America, I’m using a piano player [Cara Tibey] on a few of the songs to add a little bit of color. And certainly, in the studio with the new LP I’ve been using a piano player on some songs and a guy called Danny Thompson who plays upright bass and percussion.

PT: You said last night that Smokey Robinson was reading your mind…

BB: Reading my mail!

PT: I often feel Uke you’re reading my mail, or my mind. You seem to really capture some crucial aspects of relationships — mostly from the point of view of the man.

BB: Yeah. Well that’s partly because of what I have between my legs, that I capture it from the point of view of a man. But what it also proves, I think, is that although we’re all obviously individuals, all in different situations and all have different things happen to us, what it makes us feel-the emotions it brings out of us-are very similar. We’re a lot closer to each other in our situations than perhaps we think. When you have been hurt emotionally or physically, you feel you’re the only person who feels this way and you’re never going to be the same again.

It was listening to Smokey Robinson’s music that made me realize that I wasn’t the only person in the world who cried about girls, when everybody else was macho and hard at school and I used to come home totally wiped out Listening to Smokey Robinson made me feel that there was someone else who felt that way. And that’s what I want to write in songs.

A good song to me is one that touches a common chord. I may not go about it in the same way-burst in the front door and put it on a plate for people; I may come around in a different way.

I find it’s the smaller things in relationships that are much more interesting, if you expand on them a bit, than the massive things-small things, like a song I sang yesterday called “The Short Answer,” about being in love with a girl and then falling out of love. At the end of the song she still has my front door key, and the fact that she kept my front door key, she’s not throwing it back in my face, means there’s a chance she might come back-she might still have the key to my life.

I don’t mean to be too deep about it, but in some ways it’s a bit like cinematography. In the West anyway, we all write very visually. Springsteen writes like Hollywood, kind of, and everybody else does as well. Perhaps I just write with a bit more attention to finer detail than normal.

PT: You often paint a pretty bleak picture, though, of relationships.

BB: Relationships can be bleak. I mean the outcome of relationships so often is not fireworks and wonderfulness. It may be to start with, but then it goes. The saddest thing about relationships is not necessarily when they end, but when they become normal, you take them for granted, and you don’t wake up in the morning feeling it really matters. Sometimes you have to do things to make it matter again; you have to go away, or you have to go through something that restates how you felt about that person in the first place.

I don’t think the songs are depressing; I think they’re just an attempt to be honest. That’s something that a lot of people find a bit difficult to do without flinching, but I think there’re already enough people suggesting that if you meet Mr. or Miss Right everything in your life will be solved. Usually it’s yourself that’s made your life the mess-up it is, and you shouldn’t be going around looking for someone to solve all your problems for you. You should be looking for someone who you could get into a working relationship with that makes the burden a little bit less. That’s what I try and reflect in the songs. And when that turns nasty, when it turns belly-up, it’s a very, very painful thing, and I want to reflect that pain as well.

PT: The point of view in your love songs, for lack of a better word, seems to have evolved a lot over the course of your recordings. In particular, in “Valentines Day is Over” and in “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” and “The Passion” from Talking to the Taxman …, you’ve really put yourself almost in the first person feminine.

BB: Now you’ve hit on a chord that’s very important to me. I don’t intend to write about the female experience, because obviously I don’t know as much as a woman would, of the female experience. But I think it’s valid to write from first person female, because I want to try and put things in a language that young men will understand — particularly like “Valentines Day is Over,” which is about the use of violence in relationships. I think women should write more about this, but I also want to write about it, in perhaps more the language of young men. I don’t think that violence against females is something that females alone should write about.

I think it’s all our responsibility, particularly when you grew up, as I did to some extent, in a peer group where it was pretty cool to slap females around. It used to disgust me, and it still does. I’m not a person who comes easily to violence, but I can’t bear to see a woman be abused in a public place. So in writing those songs, first “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” and on the new LP “Valentines Day is Over,” I did want to get that across-particularly in a time when there is an incredible pressure on men to be the breadwinner.

There’s a line in “Valentines Day is Over” that goes, “Brutality and the economy are related.” If men have lost their job because of the economy, they have to true it out on someone — whether they take 1t out on their kids, whether they get drunk and come home and take it out on the missus; it’s something that’s happening increasingly at home. Since the unemployment figures have gone up there’s been this huge increase in child abuse by parents in England. It’s something that has to be underlined, and that’s what I wanted to do through that song.

PT: There’s a real different impact from your performance on stage than came through at least on your first couple of records. What would you say are the differences between those two aspects of your performance?

BB: When I make records, I’m sitting in a comfortable studio in West London with a cup of tea in me hand, quite relaxed, and when I’m on stage I’m really scared, frankly, of the audience. So it makes me want to come across. I think what the difference is; a record’s like writing a book. You give it to someone, and they go away and use their mind to put the pictures together, whereas when you’re playing live it’s like having a conversation with someone, or it should be. Consequently it’s bound to have a broader aspect to it I enjoy performing; I think this job is about doing gigs; it’s not about making records.

PT: You said yesterday that you don’t consider yourself a political songwriter.

BB: Not really, no. I think politics is a facet of what I do. Since there’s not so many people doing overtly political stuff it is much more a focus-it gives people like yourself the opportunity to talk about something other than the latest LP and my haircut and stuff like that. I don’t mind talking politics; I’ll talk politics with anybody. But it does sometimes overshadow the rest of what I do as a songwriter, I’m often aware of that. But I can’t separate it from what I do, I’m afraid.

PT: Certainly in your performances, and also on your records, you make no bones about your politics; it’s a big part of what you do. And you get a certain amount of flak for it. What would you say for yourself is the relationship between music and politics, culture and politics?

BB: You can’t make any kind of political statement without getting flack, for that’s what politics is about for every political idea I have you may have another idea, and we learn things by challenging those received ideas. Whether we’re challenging racism, or whether we’re challenging the attitude toward the Soviet Union, or, when we’re in the Soviet Union, whether we’re challenging the attitude of the Russians towards the USA and the West, you’re always going to get people arguing with you.

The relationship between pop and politics has always been ambivalent, because plenty of people in popular music would like to tell you that it’s an entertainment industry only. That’s like saying that you can only write funny books, or you should only have good news in the newspapers. It would be great if we did only have good news in newspapers, but the world isn’t like that. And the world is not all pop music. Any great pop group will eventually have gone through something that reflects that I think that’s why the Beatles were so lasting, because as they progressed, they progressed politically as well as musically. People don’t just like John Lennon because he was a great songwriter; they like him because he attempted to draw his songwriting and his experience so that the two were indivisible. That’s what the problem is when you do write political songs-you have to come up with the action to match them. Otherwise they’re worthless.

PT: Does it bother you that a lot of people might miss or be hostile to your political message and yet still like your music, your love songs?

BB: No, it doesn’t bother me at all, because I don’t want to exclude people from enjoying what I do. If people want to just come along and listen to the love songs that’s fine. I have just as much to say to them through love songs as to the people who are interested in politics.

And more importantly, it’s those people who aren’t interested in politics who I really want to play to. I hope that my music inspires people who are already politically aware, but I also want to play to people who don’t already agree with me. So that’s why the gigs aren’t political rallies — they’re just gigs

PT: During the miners’ strike you allied yourself closely with the miners, as you have with the Labour Party, but the miners’ strike in particular seemed like something of a watershed for you, as well as for the country.

BB: For my generation, really, because it was the first time that any of us had seen what it was like to be involved in a genuine political struggle. There hadn’t been anything like it since the early seventies. And a lot of us who’d felt that we had to make political music suddenly found the opportunity to see if our music had any relevance in a political struggle. It was an incredible watershed.

PT: What do you think of the current political situation here?

BB: Well, an election year is always going to be quite interesting for a student of politics like myself. I think the candidacy of Jesse Jackson proves that there are a lot of people who are fed up with the idea that these are the Democrats and these are the Republicans, and there’s not much difference between the two. Jesse Jackson represents a totally different kind of political thinking, I think, than we’ve seen in an American presidential race since I can remember. Since the early seventies I can’t think of anything that’s been this interesting.

PT: A lot of your songs, and this whole tour and new record, are explicitly directed at people in the United States-they’re both subtitled “Help Save the Youth of America.” Some people would probably say it’s presumptuous of you, a Brit, to come here and tell us what to do.

BB: I quite agree, it is presumptuous, but the Reagan administration’s been telling us what to do for the past eight years, so I don’t see why we shouldn’t give some of it back. We live on a very small planet now, and I feel much the same as Thomas Paine, who was born an Englishman, who took part in the French Revolution, who took part in the American Revolution. He said he was a citizen of the world. When you live in a colony of the United States as we do, it matters who is on the throne. Whoever becomes president becomes president of the western world, and we don’t have any say in that process. So I think at the very least you can let us come over and say: When you go to the voting booth, as well as thinking about all your domestic things, and what’s going on in your wallet, you should also perhaps think about what’s happening in the world in your name, because it does make an incredible difference to people all over the world.

Because your country leads the world economically, you also have a moral responsibility of leadership.

And without wishing to put a great weight on your vote, you do have to dispense that responsibility from a moral point of view. You can’t just go running around propping up dictators, and when they tum a bit wobbly, like Noriega has done in Panama, suddenly pull the carpet from under him. There has to be a consistency. Not like you have in Iran and Afghanistan, where there’s two Muslim fundamentalist nations struggling for survival. You’re supposed to be having an arms embargo against Iran, and at the same time you’ve sent $600 million in aid a year to the Afghanistan rebels for the last five years.

You have to think much broader than that, because the Russians are changing their position rapidly, and I think unless we in the West change our position — not to suit them, but just to come to a different level of relationship with the Soviet Union-then time’s going to pass us by and we’re going to be left in the same position we were in 1945.

PT: Your new record speaks clearly to an American audience on overtly political and American cultural terms. How did you choose what to put on those records?

BB: Well really just by the thin bit of experience we’ve had over here, just talking to people. Outsiders always have a different view than people who are inside the situation. Particularly being from Great Britain, the closest ally of the United States, we have a duty to try and explain to you how it feels to be treated like a colony, and how it feels to be in between two superpowers who seem determined on crunching up each other. There’s nothing on any of those records that’s anti-American, or that presumes to come up with loads and loads of answers. It’s just a challenge to responsible, feeling people that when November comes, whoever they vote for — and again, I don’t presume to tell anybody how to vote-they think about that person’s stance on foreign policy, as well as domestic policy.

PT: You’ve taken a more internationalist position recently as reflected in your cover for Sweet Honey in the Rock’s “Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto” — it’s a gorgeous song and you did a really moving version of it.

BB: That’s a very important issue. What’s happening in South Africa concerns us all, and I wanted particularly to cover it. This song likens what’s happening in Chile to a sort of similar situation and was written by an American woman, so I thought it would be fitting to have it on this record.

PT: So what’s up for you in the short term? You’ve got another record coming out in the fall and you’ve got this tour.

BB: Yes, and who knows, the nurses might go on strike again in England. Of course, we’re supposed to wait another four years to have another chance to get the Tories out of power, but I’m hoping for something before then, something maybe a bit more catalytic. Maybe we can rustle up a general strike or something to get rid of them before that. But we’ll have to wait and see, see what the outcome of your election is. I have this lovely vision of Margaret Thatcher having to deal with Mikhail Gorbachev and Jesse Jackson. It would be fabulous; it would be great.

Bill Bragg Discography

Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, Go! Discs, U.K 1983

Brewing Up with Bill Bragg, Go! Discs, U.K, 1984

Between the Wars E.P., Go! Discs, U.K, 1985

All of the above compiled on:

Back to Basics with Billy Bragg, Elektra, U.S., 1987

Levi Stubbs’ Tears E.P., Go! Discs, U.K. 1986

Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, Go! Discs, U.K., Elektra, U.S. 1986

Help Save the Youth of America: Live and Dubious, Elektra, U.S. 1988

Workers Playtime, Elektra, U.S. 1988

Also appears on:

Let the Children Play: A Benefit Album for The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Panic Records, U.K, 1985 Sgt. Pepper Knew my Father: A Benefit Album for “Childline,” A hotline for battered and abused children, NKE Records, U.K. 1988.

November-December 1988, ATC 17

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