Protest And Occupation: Billy Bragg Interviewed On The Future Of The Left

In between the Occupy movement and the Left Field In Motion Tour, the Bard Of Barking is as busy as ever. He talks to Kevin E G Perry about a life of resistance

On Saturday (Oct 15) I was one of thousands of people packed into a tight knot outside St Paul’s Cathedral. The heavy-looking wall of policemen made it abundantly clear we’d get no closer to the London Stock Exchange, but that didn’t seem to matter all that much. We’d settle for occupying the home of the old God rather than the new. It was difficult to ignore the sense that anger shared across generations at how corrupt, how selfish and how venal the banks have been is now coming to a head in a long fine flash. A sense of relief, too, that there is international momentum. The occupation which has remained on the steps of the Cathedral since then is just one of hundreds which have sprung up across the world like franchises of the protest on Wall Street. And why not start franchises? After all we are all children raised by multinationals, and this is a protest for a globalised age.

Billy Bragg was there too, but as a supporter, not a leader. "That’s not my role," he’d told me over coffee a few days earlier. "What I can’t do, despite having been asked by some people, is go down there with my guitar and become Che Guevara. My role is to try and reflect what’s going on. Write about it. Old geezers like me, with our perspective, hopefully we can help to inform. Connect it with what happened in the Thirties, with Woody Guthrie, stuff like that, but they don’t need me there. They’re doing fine. They need me to help spread the word, through the internet and through writing songs. That’s my role, and it’s important that songwriters remember that. Some of the young bands say to me, when I ask them why they don’t talk about this sort of thing in interviews: ‘Oh, I don’t know enough about politics.’ How the fucking hell do you think I learned about it? I left school when I was 16! I didn’t know shit about socialism until the miners’ strike, but you know enough to write the songs."

We were sat in a house on Cable Street, opposite the mural which commemorates the street battle of October 1936. Anti-fascist groups fought the Metropolitan Police after preventing the British Union of Fascists, led by Oswald Mosley, from marching through Jewish communities in the East End. As the banner painted across the mural reads: "Mosley shall not pass. Bar the road to British fascism." Popular resistance to heavy-looking policemen is nothing new.

For Bragg as a teenager in Barking in the 70s, writing songs of any sort was a political act: "When I was starting out playing, if you wanted to say something about the state of the world there was no Facebook. There was no Twitter. You couldn’t start up something like The Quietus. The press was controlled by mainstream publishers. There was an alternative press, of course, but people in Australia couldn’t read it like they can read your stuff. The real way to get your ideas out, if you didn’t have those connections, was to form a band and write songs and make records. That was the way of communicating both with one another and with our parents’ generation, to send them the message that we felt strongly about things that were going on in the world."

Were they listening?

"Who gives a fuck whether they’re listening or not? You don’t care whether people are going to read this, do you? You’ve gotta do it, who gives a fuck? So that impulse had to be channelled, for most people really, down that avenue. Now things have changed quite a bit. There are other ways to communicate, but I just don’t think that getting a load of Facebook ‘likes’ is the same as getting a spontaneous reaction from an audience who are moved by something that you’ve sung about or put out there. You’re not only making a statement, you’re also creating a sense of community around that moment. That’s what I think young people are missing when they think that by having a presence on the internet they’re communicating. The Occupy movement knows that it goes beyond that. They understand that the internet is just a tool by which you spread the word about what you’re doing. Music can do that too, but because it involves performance it has the ability to generate momentum."

Bragg’s defining experience of the power of community came in the spring of 1978, when thousands of people marched from Trafalgar Square to the East End for an open-air Rock Against Racism concert. He says that standing there in a crowd of "100,000 kids just like me" gave him the confidence to stand up to the casual racism that he witnessed every day at work: "I realised I wasn’t in a minority. Not in my generation. When I went back to work I felt like I could start pushing against that. It didn’t change the world per se, but it changed my perspective on the world. That was the audience that did that. The Clash were great, and Tom Robinson played, it was good, but it was being in that audience that made me realise that my politics were part of something. We defined ourselves, my generation, by our opposition to discrimination of all kinds. We stood up for gay rights. We were the 2 Tone generation. We had Artists United Against Apartheid. Ultimately we backed the Labour party with Red Wedge. We stood with the miners. We were of that generation."

Although he describes Rock Against Racism as "the first political thing I ever did", he had learned a lot of what he knew about the world from pop music: "I kinda had humanitarian politics, which I’d picked up from listening to American soul music in the Sixties. If you listen to people like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and those guys you couldn’t fail to learn a little bit about what was going on."

I’ve always associated his music more with the singer-songwriter tradition, the likes of Bob Dylan and the aforementioned Woody Guthrie. Was he listening to them as well?

"I did listen to Dylan as well. I listened to the singer-songwriters, but the idea of pop and politics really came through songs like ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ by Marvin Gaye, ‘Movin’ On Up’ by Curtis Mayfield, ‘Young, Gifted and Black’. These kind of songs, you couldn’t help but understand. It was about emancipation, which a lot of reggae is about as well. So really it was black music. Then the singer-songwriters taught me how to do music as reportage, which sometimes works but not always. I had a reel-to-reel tape machine which had Tamla Motown Chartbusters Volume 1 on one side and The Sound Of Silence by Simon & Garfunkel on the other side. It all goes back to that, basically! Then Punk came along and shook everything up, brilliantly."

At the time of the Rock Against Racism concert Bragg was still trying to make it with his first band Riff Raff. After several years of going nowhere fast the band broke up and Bragg found himself with limited options. Inspired partly by the growing Cold War rhetoric in the press and partly by a desire to emulate his father, a tank driver in the Second World War, Bragg joined the Army in May 1981. After three months of basic training, having continued to write songs in his free moments, he bought his way out for the sum of £175. He calls it the best money he’s ever spent.

His first album, Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy, was released in May 1983. Tracks like ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’ and ‘A New England’ showcased a mature songwriter with a gift for an ear-catching turn of phrase. "Well, I was 25. If you heard the songs I was writing when I was 17 they weren’t quite so focused!" he tells me. "It took me a while to work out how to write a Billy Bragg song. What it was that made me different. The way that you write is to take all of your influences, mix them all up and then throw something else in. In my case it was a slightly wry view of relationships and the world, and a message to the listener that although I am writing songs that are quite political I’m not completely convinced that this is going to change the world. You hear that in stuff like ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forward’. I felt I should articulate those concerns. I’m not the singer-songwriter who’s going to solve all your problems. So that was how I found myself: just that slight perspective, a sideways look, like a sitcom character talking directly to the camera."

He got his first radio airplay by buying a mushroom biryani for John Peel. He was playing football in Hyde Park when he heard the DJ announce that he’d kill for a curry. Bragg turned up at Broadcasting House with a takeaway and persuaded him to play a track from Life’s a Riot With Spy Vs Spy in exchange. He says now that he worries automated music recommendation miss the point of shows like Peel’s: "The idea of Spotify, which tells you what music you might like based on what you’re already listening to, is the absolute antithesis of John Peel. Things like your website, which act as filters, are what artists need. The first time I heard The Sex Pistols I’d tuned in to John Peel to hear a session by a Northumbrian folk band called The High Level Ranters!"

As the 80s wore on, Bragg began to realise that music wasn’t enough to change the world. It needed activism to back it up. "I learned that from how The Clash did politics. They talked the talk but they didn’t walk the walk. When it came to Margaret Thatcher that was why it was really important to me to connect to mainstream politics, because The Clash daredn’t go there. So let’s see if that works."

His determination to translate rhetoric into action led to the formation of Red Wedge with Paul Weller and Jimmy Somerville of The Communards, a collective who actively backed the Labour Party in the 1987 with the goal of ousting Margaret Thatcher. As he now concedes: "It didn’t work, so the next generation has to find another way and learn from our mistakes."

What are the lessons that he takes from his activism and from movements like Red Wedge?

"I think it’s absolutely crucial that we do things differently. The world has completely changed, economically. The way that we communicate has completely changed, and more importantly the Berlin Wall no longer exists. That to me is a good thing. I don’t miss Margaret Thatcher or the Soviet Union or any of that shit. Some things are still relevant. There’s a very important tradition that we plug into here on Cable Street. That tradition of standing up against racist fascism is applicable when the so-called English Defence League want to march down Commercial Road to the East London Mosque. In 1936 they were trying to march to the synagogue. Now they’re marching to the mosque. People stopped them again, so obviously that’s relevant. The struggles, all the way back to the English revolution and the Diggers, that people have for basically a better standard of living for their children: they’re still relevant. There’s a danger that my generation’s children will grow up to be poorer and worse off than we are, and that’s quite shocking. That is really shocking. What isn’t relevant are the dance-steps that the Marxists worked out in the Russian Revolution. The Socialist Worker newspaper has not enough about what’s on the telly and too much about what happened in Petrograd in 1917. Fuck it!"

Bragg’s message to the Occupy movement is simply not to let themselves become stuck in the quagmire of outdated political rhetoric:

"Your generation now has to do this in a post-ideological political landscape. When we were doing it, it was clear who was doing it and what side they were on. Margaret Thatcher was a radical, and her beliefs motivated everything that she said and did. I don’t know what Tony Blair believed in. I don’t know what David Cameron believes in. I’m not even sure I know what Ed Miliband believes in yet, although that might change. It’s harder to get that purchase in the way that we got purchase. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. In the old days, if you were trying to put forward ideas about a fairer society, a bunch of old geezers would turn up with their Marxist tracts, and if you weren’t doing it their way you were some kind of class traitor. That fucking sucks. I have a lot of respect for Marxists and the contributions they’ve made to our tradition, and I think we have a lot of things to learn from what Marx was saying, but the language of Marxism, the language with which we conducted politics in the 20th century, don’t mean fuck all to anybody anymore. One of the problems that we had with it was that people associated it with a totalitarian idea that was in Eastern Europe, so it was easy to dismiss. Now, that’s all over. My role, and I’ve been trying to do this with Occupy Wall Street and the stuff I’ve been writing on my blog in the last couple of weeks, is to encourage them not to embrace the simplicities of Marxism. There’s an opportunity to create a new and passionate political idea that is not tainted by totalitarianism, that doesn’t have the shadow of the gulag over it. It’s your job to do that!"

Next month he heads out across the country on his Left Field in Motion tour accompanied by a handful of young political acts, like Akala, who make a very different sort of music to his own. Bragg says: "As far as I’m concerned a lot of the sharpest political music is being made in urban music. There’s some very interesting stuff happening, like in response to the August riots. Don’t ask me about them! I’m a middle-aged white geezer who lives in Dorset. Don’t ask me what the fuck was going on! Ask the people who were there. Music is capable of articulating those kinds of things. The riots were a ‘What the fuck?’ moment. We need to hear from those people about what the fuck they thought they were doing. Are they, as everybody suspects, myself included to some extent, just a bunch of thieves who wanted free tellies, which has to be condemned, or is there something else going on there? We need to hear from that generation. They can blog about it, they can put things on their Facebook page but if they wanna talk to me they better write a song. I can still tune into that. They don’t need the front page of The Guardian. Write me a fucking great song like Bob Marley. Tell me something I don’t know! Don’t tell me how great you are, you arsehole! Tell me something I don’t know!"

As well as the tour there are a host of other projects that Bragg dedicates his time to. We talk about Jail Guitar Doors, his initiative to provide instruments to prison inmates so that they can use music as a means of rehabilitation, and about his work with the Featured Artists Coalition and their opposition to prosecuting file-sharers. As he puts it: "Arrest Billy Bragg fans? How’s that going to help me?"

28 years ago he sang that he didn’t want to change the world, but since then Billy Bragg has kept alive the belief that music can both reflect and be the catalyst for the sort of popular movements that do. The message for the people camped outside St Paul’s or on Wall Street or at any of the other global franchises is that writing songs and telling stories is still an intensely political act.

"They don’t have leaders and they don’t have demands, but music will be capable of reflecting some of the things they are doing and saying, and communicating it to people who couldn’t be there. People talk about the great songs of the 1960s, but if you think of ‘For What It’s Worth’ by Buffalo Springfield: not everybody who heard that song actually saw the ‘man with a gun over there’ and all that shit. Most of them were living out in the boonies in the Midwest, but they connected with that sense that their generation was being pushed. I think that time is coming again."

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