Billy Bragg – Waiting for the small steps forward
The year must have been 1991, the Gulf War was on, and Billy Bragg was giving a concert at Washington University in St. Louis. I was studying English literature but spent most of my time on a campus campaign against the war. It’s a lifetime away. I do remember setting up tables outside Graham Chapel, distributing leaflets and talking to students as they filed in for the show. Bragg stopped by the table and chatted a while. Inside, the opening band was just starting. They were loud, unintelligible outside the stone walls of the chapel. I didn’t care, as I had a petition to circulate. The band was Uncle Tupelo. The war made me miss their set.
Bragg played soccer with the trio out back of the chapel, and some seven years later, he would record with the bass player what many (myself included) consider his finest musical hour: a collection of Woody Guthrie lyrics turned into songs called Mermaid Avenue. Before and after that, there are years and years of singing, speaking, marching, writing, benefiting, debating, thinking, and living. And a body of work that expresses it all with fervent politics (of course), but with fervent humanity as well.
Mr. Love And Justice, released April 22 on Anti- Records, is Bragg’s seventh full-length studio album under his own name, and first in six years. It’s also his most human album. What I mean by human is that its best aspirations, musical and lyrical, can’t be summed up by ideas or arguments or feature-length articles. Backed up by his regular band the Blokes (including the brilliant Ian McLagan on keyboards), Bragg sings with nuance and vulnerability, drawing on themes of commitment and endurance, love and work, justice and war, in many ways the same themes that have always driven him. Only now, on songs such as “I Keep Faith” and the title track, he sounds more comfortable with the voice that sings them, and more responsive to the band that brings them to life.
Stephen William Bragg was born in Barking, Essex, a working-class county just east of London. His neighborhood was defined by rows of Victorian terrace houses, a Ford factory that drove employment, and a park where Bragg spent most of his childhood running free. His father worked in a warehouse; his mother cleaned at a college.
“It was apolitical,” he says of his youth and family. “My mom came from a big Italian family, so there were a lot of cousins around. It was pretty uneventful until I was 18 years old and my father died of lung cancer. It all came to an end and I went off to become a punk rocker.”
Despite a handful of singles and numerous gigs across England, his punk band, Riff Raff, burned out quickly. Bragg returned home, chastened and unsure of his future. “I was going to be that guy forever whose band had failed,” Bragg says. “I had to press eject on my previous persona. The British Army is one of the things they suggested I do when I said I didn’t want to work in the car factory.”
He joined up, but didn’t last long. He bought his way out of the military and took up different jobs, including one in a record store, where he had the time and materials to clarify for himself just how albums held together, and what it was he had loved about songs since he was a boy.
From age 12, Bragg had been writing songs and poems, and connecting with music. In his youth, Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water album was a favorite. “When I was 12, I heard ‘The Boxer’, and I really locked into it,” he says. “A friend of mine’s big sister had a reel-to-reel tape of that, and she also had Tamla Motown Chart Busters, Volume 3, which had ‘Tracks Of My Tears’ and ‘Behind The Painted Smile’ by the Isley Brothers. Those records summed up my childhood years. Simon & Garfunkel led me to Bob Dylan. Motown Chart Busters led me to the Jackson Five. And then I swapped the Jackson Five Greatest Hits for a friend of mine’s father’s copy of The Times They Are A-Changin’. That’s when I thought about becoming a political songwriter.”
Though raised in an apolitical home, Bragg had political instincts, a social consciousness nurtured no doubt by the poems of Rudyard Kipling his father read to him, and by the books of Ray Bradbury and George Orwell. His first political act, however, was Rock Against Racism in 1978, an event held in London’s Victoria Park that featured the Clash, a band he loved.
“I was a big Clash fan, but it was more than just music,” he recalls. “I already had anti-racist feelings. But I kept them to myself. I worked in an office where there was a lot of casual racism, sexism and homophobia. But I never said anything because I was the office junior and in the minority. But when I went to that gig, and saw 100,000 kids just like me, all come together for this one issue, I realized that this was where my generation was going to make a stand — on the issue of discrimination.