Britain in the early 1980s was a time full of disaffection. Maggie Thatcher had won the Falklands Conflict - or so it was made to seem - and on the back of that she won an election landslide, despite the fact that almost everyone under 30 didn't agree with her policies1. One in ten of the working-age population was unemployed, and most of the rest were feeling the squeeze of mortgage payments at 14%. It sometimes seemed that there was only one voice crying out against the injustice; a voice that couldn't pronounce its Rs, a voice singing poetry set to music, accompanied by a lone guitar. The distinctive voice of Billy Bragg, the Bard of Barking.
Billy and Politics
Billy Bragg's career has been defined, and to some extent limited, by his political convictions. His early life in working-class Essex left a deep impression, a feeling that his was a generation with few choices. From his school, you either went to work for Ford or joined the army2. It is no surprise, then, that two recurring themes in his work are the quiet heroism of the working man and the nobility of the ordinary soldier - and how both are exploited and oppressed by the twinned forces of capitalism and nationalism.
On Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy (1983), his short first album3, the track 'To Have and To Have Not' spoke directly to his careerless contemporaries:
At twenty-one you're on top of the scrapheap
At sixteen you were top of the class
All they taught you at school was how to be a good worker
The system has failed you, don't fail yourself
A year later, on Brewing up with Billy Bragg, his politics had become more radical and he targeted the 'popular' press - then overwhelmingly supportive of Thatcher - for particular criticism:
Those braying voices on the right of the House
Are echoed down the Street of Shame4
Where politics mix with bingo and tits
In a money and numbers game
It was also on Brewing Up... that Billy sang his tribute to the soldiers who died in the Falklands, 'Island of No Return'. In it, he was quick to point out the irony that these men had died, not in the ideological struggle waging at the time against the reviled Russians, but in a territorial squabble with a right-wing country to which, only a short time before, the government had been encouraging arms sales:
I never thought that I would be
Fighting fascists in the Southern Sea
Saw one today, and in his hand
Was a weapon that was made in Birmingham
The mid-1980s were the height of Billy's party political involvement. In the wake of their demolition by the Tories at the polls, the Labour Party wanted a fresh idea to attract young voters; Billy was a founder member of the resultant 'Red Wedge', a coalition of musicians and comedians, from Paul Weller to Ben Elton, who lent their support to the cause. Sadly, it couldn't disguise the fact that Labour were an unelectable mess and they were hammered again in 1987.
The Red Wedge disintegrated, but probably its finest legacy was the Between the Wars EP (1985), a Socialist rallying cry on which Bragg contrasted the building up of the military with the running down of industry in the title track; remembered the roots of the Labour movement in 'The World Turned Upside Down'; and finally challenged Britain's youth to rise up in support of the striking miners - a favourite cause - in 'Which Side Are You On?'. Britain's youth decided it preferred a nice sit down with the mild melodies of Phil Collins' and Philip Bailey's 'Easy Lover', and the miners were crushed. A tiny bit of Billy was crushed with them.
In 1987, radicalism was still very much on Billy's agenda. Talking with the Taxman about Poetry contained tracks such as 'Ideology' and 'There is Power in a Union', but Neil Kinnock had started the process of dragging Labour towards the centre ground, and Billy's brand of radical socialism was falling from grace.
By the time Worker's Playtime came out (1988), Billy had shifted perceptibly from party politics to specific issues of social justice. The issue of prisoners held, untried, in police cells was highlighted in the bitter 'Rotting on Remand', while the high-profile row over homosexuality in the armed forces was given a twist in the exquisite 'Tender Comrade'. In this a capella track, Billy described how soldiers under fire have always forged strong emotional - and sometimes, shock horror, physical - relationships in the pressure-cooker of war.
Will you say that we were heroes
Or that fear of dying among strangers
Tore our innocence and false shame away?
And from that moment on, deep in my heart I knew
That I would only give my life for love
The Internationale (1990) seemed to signal a return to full-blooded left-wing politics, but in reality it was a death-rattle and a lament; Billy's beloved Labour Party had abandoned him. The party of Tony Benn5 and Michael Foot6 was giving way to 'New' Labour. Bragg retreated into the bubble gum pop music of Don't Try This At Home (1991), though his personal commitment to worthy causes continued, this time in the form of the AIDS charity single 'Sexuality', while the small-scale human tragedy at the heart of war was evoked to great effect in 'Everywhere'.
Billy Bragg's political convictions have moved more slowly than those of the world around him - possibly to his credit, but certainly not to his profit. On William Bloke (1996) he was urging people not to desert Labour in 'From Red to Blue', while mouthing the unfashionable S-word7 in 'Upfield', but he seemed most stuck in an historical backwater on the Bloke on Bloke EP - consisting of tracks which didn't quite fit on the album - by railing against the 'Thatcherites' seven years after the Iron Lady (as Thatcher was known) was deposed.
Billy Bragg is now deeply unfashionable, and delights in being a thorn in the flesh of the party that he has so long supported - hoping against hope to shame it into restoring some of its egalitarian ideals. He was made for a different age.
Mermaid Avenue, in New York's Coney Island, is the street on which legendary folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie lived for the decade which followed the end of World War II. Unable to get a recording contract because of his left-wing views and the prevailing Cold War paranoia, he wrote down lyrics to more than 1000 songs which were never performed.
In 1995, Woody's daughter Nora Guthrie approached Billy Bragg and offered him Woody's lyrics if he would like to write tunes to fit them. He jumped at the chance. In his unique 'collaboration' - with a man who died when Billy was only ten years old - by the American alternative country band Wilco. The result was a brand new album with an old-time quality, widely regarded as one of the finest recordings of any type to be released in 1998, and followed by a second album in May 2000.
The songs range from the Beatle-esque nonsense of 'Hoodoo Voodoo' to the political idealism of 'I guess I planted'. The whole is highly recommended.
Billy and Love
The reason that Billy Bragg's music was so beloved of teenage boys was that the politics gave it credibility, and that meant the albums could sit without shame on their shelves, yet in between were many more songs about what really concerned them - girls. What is more, he sang about all the soppy things these young men couldn't discuss with their mates without appearing dangerously effeminate - relationships, love, tears, and the messy, sticky business of sex.
He described what it's like to be a schoolboy, in love with a girl who's out of your league:
In the end it took me a dictionary
To find out the meaning of unrequited
While she was giving herself for free
At a party to which I was never invited
- 'The Saturday Boy'
He sang of the intensity of first love:
Walking in the park, kissing in the dark
And my head against your pillow
Late at night a lover sings
Adam and Eve are finding out all about love
- 'A Lover Sings'
He sang of the pain and guilt that results from infidelity:
For the facts of life are not Man and Wife
But Man and Woman, sadly
And the apple that doesn't want to get eaten
Will still fall off the tree
- 'The Myth of Trust'
And of the despair when love dies:
In public he's such as man
Punching at the walls with his bare and bloody hands
He's screaming and shouting and acting crazy
But at home he sits alone and cries like a baby
- 'Little Time Bomb'
Billy Bragg voiced the feelings of a generation of men who had been told to keep all that nonsense locked up inside - yet he was still a good bloke, he'd been in uniform, he drank beer. It was okay to like him. Get a group of Englishmen together who were born in the late 1960s, and there's a good chance they'll be able to sing along to 'A New England'8 - but only if you get them sufficiently drunk first.
Words and Music
As a lyricist I still yearn for that one line that strips it all down and gets right to the core. I hope people still want that. If not, it's back to the Job Centre, with or without a dance mix.
- Billy Bragg, Vox, November 1991
Billy Bragg is an accomplished guitar player with a distinctive style, but he's no Eric Clapton. Nor does he have Britain's finest singing voice. His songs are pleasantly tuneful, but it is in the lyrics that the magic lies. Were it not for his left-wing leanings, he might have made an ideal choice as a modern Poet Laureate9.
Singles chart success has almost always eluded Billy. The Between The Wars EP was his only top-20 record (peaking at Number 15), with the exception of the charity Beatles' cover 'She's Leaving Home'10. His peripheral status in chart terms does at least allow his fans to feel they are 'in' on something rather more discerning than everyday pop.
Billy's musical influences range from folk to the punk which was so in vogue when he started out, and which he has to thank for opening the record company's doors to acts with more energy and ideas than polish.
When a folk club artist goes out with his guitar, he might think he's James Taylor or Bob Dylan. When I go out, I still think I'm The Clash.
- Billy Bragg, NME, 1984
But Billy is basically a rocker, as he demonstrated with a loving and hilarious pastiche of 'Route 66', in which he described the delights of Essex's major highway, the A13:
If you ever go to Shoeburyness
Take the A-road, the OK-road, that's the best
Go motoring on the A13
- 'A13, Trunk Road to the Sea'
Humour, and especially wordplay, is a key element throughout Billy's lyrics:
We passed very fast, like ships in the night
Or cars in a contraflow system
- 'From a Vauxhall Velox'
One of these day's you're going to get caught
It'll give you a pregnant pause for thought
- 'Accident Waiting to Happen'
How can you lie there and think of England
When you don't even know who's in the team?
- 'Greetings to the New Brunette'
Whether funny, touching, or bursting with righteous indignation, Billy Bragg's lyrics are delivered in a strident voice which is never pretty, but works perfectly with the clanging chords of his guitar. The more backing he gets, and the smoother the production, the less well the formula works - which is why the reader is strongly urged to catch him performing live, if at all possible.
After all, how often do you get to see a genuine relic of the class struggle in these days of bland centrism?
More About Billy
Billy Bragg was born on 20 December 1957 in Barking, Essex. The Official Billy Bragg website provides news and information of upcoming performances.