BILLY BRAGG: Content Over Style

“The irony is that somehow I’ve built an entire career on working to change the world,” states Billy Bragg. Irony? That thankless job is what Bragg is known for. His two-pronged commitment to music and democratic socialism has led him on a 30-year journey from working-class London to a handshake from the Queen, from D.I.Y. three-chord punk to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (for which he penned lyrics in 1999). But I have asked him about a phrase in one of his best known songs that perplexes me. The chorus of “A New England” plainly states, “I’m not looking to change the world / I’m not looking for a new England / I’m just looking for another girl.”

Illustration: KK Kozik.

It was 1984 and for Bragg it was a rare moment of despair. Since the ’70s, punk, with bands like the Clash and X-Ray Spex as its moral conscience, had lit up a path for a generation looking to vocalize its angst—angst generated not just by the churnings of teenage souls but also by the perception that the Thatcherite establishment’s divide-and-conquer strategy was fanning racism, sexism, homophobia, and economic repression. It was a time before blogging, tweeting, and social networking when, if you were angry and wanted to speak to your own generation or your parents’, the way you would do it was by writing songs.


Things came to a head in the spring of 1978. In London, thousands marched six miles from Trafalgar Square to the East End for an open-air festival organized by Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League and featuring the Clash, the Buzzcocks, and Steel Pulse. For Bragg, this was the galvanizing moment. He had been working in an office where the hate-filled language of his superiors was directed at minorities of all kinds. Bragg shuddered and disagreed but said nothing. Joining the march, he found himself with “100,000 kids just like me. I knew then that this discrimination of all kinds…this was going to be our Vietnam, the issue that we defined ourselves by. In Victoria Park with those kids, we cheered the same things, we sang together, we punched the air together, we stood with the gays, we stood with the women, we stood with the blacks. Whatever the side was, it was our side and they were part of it.”

Bragg’s activism had begun, but the jubilation would soon fade. It was not only the era of Rock Against Racism and Artists Against Apartheid; it was also the era of Reagan and Thatcher. While Bragg was trying to catch the music industry’s ear, Maggie was declaring war on the working class. By 1984, Bragg had a successful album and British coal miners had gone on strike. The nationalized mines were widely seen as unprofitable, their workers’ jobs as “subsidized.” Thatcher wanted them closed. Facing massive job losses, the miners’ union went on strike and the music community responded with benefit concerts.

As Bragg told the BBC in 2009, “Any money you could raise was very positive. The best, most practical way to help out was to raise money for the families so they could carry on the fight. I had a reputation as a political songwriter…When the strike happened I felt I had the opportunity to find out if these songs that I was writing—this position I was taking—had any relevance whatsoever to what was really happening in and around Britain.”

The strike ended in 1985 with the miners’ defeat, their union permanently broken. Bragg found it hard to bear. “I came from the radical side of punk. We tried so hard and pushed for so long, and all that transpired was a Flock of Seagulls. I’m a content-over-style man, and when it went back that way, ‘A New England’ was my way of saying, ‘Look, I tried my hardest and it’s come to nothing now. I just need a hug.’”

The “dark nights of the soul” that ensued soon passed, however, and Bragg rose to fight another day. Releases such as Between the Wars and The Internationale were almost entirely activist, but others were peppered with love songs. The enduring if not terribly touchy-feely “Greetings to the New Brunette” (“I celebrate my love for you with a pint of beer and a new tattoo”) was a single from Talking with the Taxman about Poetry (1986). That album takes its title from a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky, the Soviet writer and artist whose work was imbued with the fervency of his revolutionary beliefs. Bragg, by virtue of his leftist leanings, subsequently became one of the few Western popular music artists invited to tour in the Soviet Union.


In the recent past, Bragg’s conversation with the taxman has taken a different turn. In February 2010, he brought a small stepladder to Speakers’ Corner in London’s Hyde Park. His aims were less ideological than those of earlier speakers, Marx, Lenin, and William Morris, and more pointed. Bragg’s sole goal was to “embarrass the Minister of Finance” into exercising his veto of 1.5 billion pounds in bonuses for Royal Bank of Scotland bankers just one year after a massive taxpayer bailout of the 84-percent-publicly-owned bank.

Bragg declared on that day that, in protest against the rewarding of the grossly incompetent performances that had led to the bailout, he was not going to pay his income taxes. He added, “This is not something I undertake lightly, and not just because of the hundred-pound fine I will immediately incur. To me, paying my income tax is an expression of social solidarity and a means of making a contribution to the common good…a way of recognizing that in every society we all have some degree of responsibility for each other.” I ask what happened next. “I got fined by the I.R.S. Of course I paid my fine. I’d made my point. That’s the thing about principles—they have to cost you something or they are not really principles, are they?”

This cherished social safety net would be called into play in Bragg’s own life within a year with the illness and death of his mother. Britain’s National Health Service provided for her, giving her and her family the support they needed in her last days, and Bragg adds, “I know that when I pay my taxes those types of people are doing the same thing for another family, and I’m glad about that. I can’t be there for that family to hold their hand, but to know I’m paying for someone to be there to hold their hand—it is something almost sacred.”

Bragg is experiencing the common repercussions that the death of a parent can bring. “I feel like I have to live up to certain things she believed in. She wasn’t interested in the music industry or politics per se, but she believed in her independence, she believed in speaking her mind, and she believed in family. Now I have to ring up my aunties more and give them pep talks, invite them down to stay with me.” Then he paraphrases for me: “The great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci speculated that his effectiveness as a radical had been damaged by his inability to love his immediate family. You know, if you can’t love your family, how can you love humanity? In that sense, you have to love those around you and build on that.”

This feeling of brotherhood telegraphs clearly in person and on stage. No doubt this was what appealed to Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora when she saw Bragg perform in 1995. Guthrie’s estate includes thousands of lyrics for songs that lack music—Guthrie kept it in his head—and Nora had in mind finding contemporary musicians who could carry on her father’s legacy in today’s terms. She solicited Bragg and, after responding, “Shouldn’t you be asking Bob Dylan?” he accepted and then coaxed Wilco to join him. In partnering with Guthrie’s ghost, Bragg found mirrored a songwriter who not only voiced his commitments to unions but wrote of love and life with passion and wit. The result was the highly successful pair of albums, Mermaid Avenue I and II, after the Coney Island street where Guthrie lived his last years. Volume III is reportedly in the works, scheduled for release in 2012 to coincide with Guthrie’s 100th birthday.


For Bragg, now 53, possibly the personal and the political have fused. Perhaps before the fall of the Soviet Union one could make a case for the regimentation of emotions and belief, but Bragg’s definition of socialism in this post-ideological era is as organized compassion. “One of the things we’ve experienced in our lifetime, which our children may not recognize, is we lived in an age where the world was separated between left-wing and right-wing. Political figures were either one or the other.” Today’s young protesters, he recently pointed out in an interview with Marxist Update, “don’t need the [Socialist Workers Party] to tell them what they are fighting for…they are making their own connections and at the bottom of them all is an absolute sense of unfairness. That’s what politicizes them, not some abstract interest in dialectical materialism.…You have to ask yourself, in a time when socialism seems to have lost a lot of its meaning, what do we actually believe in, instead of a word or an ideology?...Compassion does mean something; empathy does mean something. They’re the roots of a caring society.”

Bragg’s recent New York sojourn addressed another “urgent human need”—for people to be together. The Big Busk, an evening outdoors at Lincoln Center, was an event to which all were invited to bring their acoustic guitars and sing and play. Requests were solicited via Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. The most requested tune reflected the citizenry’s sour mood during the debt-ceiling posturing in Washington: Cee Lo Green’s “Fuck You.”


As Bragg begins his set on his last night at City Winery, he warms up the crowd with a folksy anecdote about drinking in Newcastle. He is on stage alone with a guitar, exactly as he performed when he first began recording. He starts with an early song, “It Says Here,” an anthem that bids listeners to question their predilection for the tabloid press. He follows with “Never Buy the Sun,” penned two weeks previous in response, of course, to the Murdoch Empire debacle. Despite the catchy alliterative chorus—“tabloids making millions betting bollocks baffles brains”—in contrast to the prior song it seems less angry than sad, as if Bragg were sobered by the corruption of the Australian Murdoch but also disappointed with his fellow Britons for making News of the World one of the most-read English language newspapers on earth.

This is the middle-aged Bragg speaking—more philosophical, less hormonal—and “Never Buy the Sun” is a better-crafted song. But still the phrase that hangs in the air is the cautionary last line of the tune written by his younger self. As Bragg silences his guitar strings, he exhorts his listeners to think critically: “When you wake up to the fact that your paper is Tory, Just remember there are two sides to every story.”

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Contributor

KK Kozik

KK KOZIK is an artist and writer who lives and works in Sharon, Conn. and Brooklyn, N.Y.

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