Billy Bragg – Waiting for the small steps forward
“I was so invigorated by that experience. I knew I wasn’t in the minority. That moment revealed to me how the process worked. The world remained the same, it didn’t change on that day. But my perspective on it changed forever. That was the birth of Billy Bragg as we know him.
“I know now that it’s possible to engender that,” he adds. “The crucial thing was the audience. The Clash got me there, but it was the experience of being in the audience that made a difference. That’s what I try to do now, every night. Inspire people, send them away feeling as if they are not on their own.”
Bragg threw himself into a solo, one-man, one-electric-guitar career, which made him an appealing and flexible opener for acts ranging from Echo & the Bunnymen to Stevie Ray Vaughan. Between 1984 and 1991 he released scores of singles and EPs, plus the full-length albums Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, Talking With The Taxman About Poetry, Workers Playtime and Don’t Try This At Home. He gradually added more instruments and richer production to his percussive guitar attack and spiky, Essex-accented delivery.
Those early albums form a conversation, often angry, often hopeful, a dialectic between two poles of passion, the political and the romantic. They give voice to a constant tension between personal desires and global urgencies. Songs such as “Ideology” and “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” couldn’t have been more different, yet Bragg brought them together with the untutored energy and honesty in his voice.
His early recordings, as well as his wide-ranging, international (and internationalist) touring, transformed Bragg from the bloke whose band washed up to an icon of a musical movement (anti-folk, it was sometimes called) and a new generation of progressive activism. Bragg’s involvement in anti-racist, anti-war and labor issues spiraled, and all along the way, he made sure to secure ownership over the fruits of his labor.
“I was 25 when I signed my first record deal,” he stresses. “I wasn’t a kid. I felt like it was me against the world. I found my own manager, found a record label, did my own plugging. Hanging on to my rights seemed like the sensible thing to do. Anyway the [first] record company only signed me to one record. They didn’t think I was gonna go anywhere. But I’ve become almost evangelical about it, telling bands to keep those rights. But it’s hard. The kids in those bands, they’re 19 or 20, they think that they sign that paper, and their dreams are going to come true. They’re not going to work in the car factory. It’s hard for them to step back and think about it.
“With the tectonic shifts in the industry,” he adds, “these issues have to come to the fore. People have to know what ‘life of copyright’ means. It means as long as you can make any money on this song. If you sign that away, you sign it all away.”
Bragg’s favorite author is George Orwell; his favorite novel is Orwell’s 1984. To compare Bragg to St. George is fairly ridiculous, except that, like Orwell, Bragg is not a genius and he is not a consummate master of his craft. But like Orwell, he’s possessed of a transparent integrity and courage and, in his best work, a pretenseless gift for saying clearly and honestly what he believes must be said. If his insistent dedication to a politics based in historical materialism sometimes spilled into stridency, a sacrifice of music to message, his artistic perspective, like his politics, has never really stopped evolving or raising questions, mostly for himself.
Just like Rock Against Racism and the 1984 miners’ strike in England, his involvement with Nora Guthrie and Wilco on the Mermaid Avenue projects was a turning point. “The last ten years have been marked by making Mermaid Avenue,” he says. “I discovered that it’s more fun to collaborate on an album than to record as a solo performer.”
It’s gotten around that Bragg’s association with Wilco soured at the end, especially over the mixing of the first album. Bragg disagrees. “The film [Man In The Sand] makes it out that it ended badly,” he says. “But when it came to Mermaid 2, Wilco didn’t have enough tracks. They could have said, you’ve got plenty of Billy Bragg tracks, why don’t you just make it a Billy Bragg album? Instead they went back into the studio at their own expense and recorded five extra tracks which were really great, and that tilted it in their direction. I think that was a good thing. The fact that we never toured together, was that they were finishing Summerteeth, which was really the most important album in their career. I respect that.”
Bragg even suggests a Mermaid 3 is likely and a tour together isn’t out of the question. “Who knows? It’s Woody’s centenary in a few years, maybe we’ll tour then. There’s at least twelve tracks in the can. Maybe we’ll pull it all together.”
In recent years, Bragg has reflected back on the changes in British politics, and what it all means for a larger English national identity. In 2002 he released England, Half English, and in 2006 he published The Progressive Patriot, an argument for facing the reactionary side of nationalism and rechanneling the debate over national identity. In his written and sung polemics, Bragg has continued to balance an unflagging commitment to a cause with a sense of individualism, striving, if not always absolutely succeeding, to keep the cause from overtaking an honest, pragmatic point of view.