Great Division: An Interview With Billy Bragg

Musician and Activist Billy Bragg spoke to us ahead of his appearance at Long Division Festival – the only performer to have ever appeared on both the Friday and Saturday of the event.

“My son used to say to me ‘when are we going to have our punk rock, dad? When are we going to have our miners’ strike?’ And I’m like, ‘son, pick up your guitar and get to work’.

RB: Without being too bleak… you turned 60 last year. What did that mean to you?

BB – Well, I think it’s about trying to keep on top of the incredible changes in the music industry. You need make sure that you’re not making records the way that you did in the 20th century and wondering why they’re not connecting. I’m never gonna be popular in the charts again but remaining relevant is possible. Just don’t expect people to find you, you’ve got to make some accommodation that music has changed and in order to do that you have to kind of suss out where you think it’s going.

RB: Do you think that was NME’s failing, not recognising that?

BB – I think NMEs failing was down to something that we all have to deal with, that music no longer has a vanguard role in youth culture that it used to. In the 20th century there was only one social medium and it was music, and it had to encapsulate everything that young people wanted to talk about, all the way from love to politics and everything in-between. The music press was where we debated those ideas, where we spoke to one another, where we compared notes. And now you can do that in so many different places. You don’t need to go out and buy a Billy Bragg album to identify who you are. There are other ways that are more personal now, so I think the music press has suffered greatly from that, but conversely more and more people now want to go to gigs, and festivals like Long Division are proof of that.

“It’s like different tools to get different responses really isn’t it?”

RB: Would you say your music is just a means to get a message across?

BB: If I’ve got something hard and punchy, I’m going to crank it up… y’know something like ‘Why We Built the Wall’. Then if the message is a little bit more laid back and a bit more soulful I’m going to try and find a way of playing that in. I’ve always looked back to my old records, I’ve always messed around with styles, I’ve never been just one particular style. I’ve always found that to be a strength of what I do.

RB: And do you have a similar approach to the live sets too?

BB – Well festival set that I’ve been doing by its nature tends to be a bit shorter as you only get to play for an hour. You’ve got to try and connect with people and I’m doing some shows over the summer with Paul Heaton and Jacqui Abbott, and I think I’m only playing for 45 minutes. I really have to be on my toes and if I start rambling I’ll lose the songs, and I don’t really wanna do that. I have a little bit more scope with my show at Long Division. I’ve been working with a guy from Stoke, CJ Hillman and he plays pedals and jangly Rickenbacker, and he’s pretty good at getting on top of the Americana side of songs but also the songs country-style, Johnny Cash, he’s really good at playing that kind of guitar. He’s quite a versatile asset for me to take out on the road, and I find in festivals that really helps to connect with the audience.

“We’re in a time of great division”

RB: It feels that through my lifetime we’ve had this pendulum swinging back and forth; things are terrible, then perhaps not so bad. And you keep asking yourself, are things getting better or worse? But over the last 2 or 3 years, the decline feels absolute and inarguable. With your wider perspective, where are we at right now?

BB: I think we’ll look back on the day of the referendum as the most divisive day in our post-war history. I think the country is more divided than it was in the miners’ strike. And that’s the only time I can think of in my lifetime when there‘s been a stark division. The miners’ strike was a struggle, a physical struggle, but there was an end-point that we all knew would come one way or another. The government would win, or maybe the miners would win like they did 10 years before. With Brexit, you don’t know, because once it happens we’re into this situation where things can continue to get worse. So, I think these are dire straits we find ourselves in, and at the same time as Trump in the White House and Putin in the Kremlin, we’re really between a rock and a hard place here.

The whole sense of how we’ve kept a kind of stable government and economy is starting to slide, and with the case of China, where they’re delivering tangible improvements to the majority of their people without having a liberal democracy, then they can go around the world and say ‘well, if you have democracy then the economy gets messed up. Whereas if we were in charge, it would get better and better’. And that’s not actually true because in a way they’ve crashed their economy too. But the days when liberal democracy was seen as a cure for everybody’s problems and a way to get a secure stable environment, to bring up a family in the knowledge that your kids will be better off… that’s starting to fade away, and I’m very concerned about that. Very concerned. Because it only takes that to move a few degrees and you start seeing the kind of far right racist, anti-immigrant rhetoric which is sadly all over the UK, and everywhere at the moment. So, yeah, I think these are the most challenging times I’ve lived through.

RB: It’s twelve years since your book The Progressive Patriot which (among other things) looked at the left taking back the ideas of being patriotic and finding the positive in that. It feels more pertinent than ever.

BB – Yes, very much so. I don’t think the left has really got to grips with the ideas of patriotism and identity. I think it still has a problem with that. And we need to clearly state what we think it means to be English, so that we can have our own sense of belonging to challenge the narrow definition of belonging that the far right use that’s based on race, rather than place. You could be talking about place and community and bringing people together, and with Brexit it’s been hard to do that because Brexit is a specifically English nationalist project. So it’s tough to get the left to look at it in that way.

“It should be about people in Yorkshire making those decisions.”

RB: I wonder alot about devolution and whether devolving power further and further and splitting us into smaller and smaller communities is a good idea. I identify more as a Yorkshireman than an Englishman, but I do worry about Yorkshire Devolution as an idea.

BB – It’s your prerogative, and nobody should be able to tell you who you are; that’s your personal identity. But, having said that, it should be possible to devolve power closer to people in England on a similar level to what they have in Scotland, with the same tax for power, and those kind of things. But on a regional basis, the happy thing for that in Yorkshire’s terms is Yorkshire is constituted as a region in the European Union. Most of the English regions including Yorkshire are around 5 million, which is the same as Scotland, which makes it viable. Where I live in the South West we have a lot of old people, so the idea of free care for older people or something like that down here, and other places would have other priorities. But Yorkshire could be a leader in the idea of regional devolution, because we live in a very central country and y’know, Wakefield city council is probably suffering from cuts from the centre. So having those decisions made closer to you would surely help, because of course you would have proportional representation as well, so everybody’s voice would be heard. So, you wouldn’t end up in such a divided situation where the DUP are more or less keeping them in power now, so electors in Northern Ireland are guaranteeing cuts to council service users in Wakefield, and it shouldn’t really be like that. There is one absolute key difference that you have to understand in Yorkshire though.

RB – What’s that?

BB – You can’t have a team in the World Cup like Scotland. I know you want it! That is one precedent that has gone too far. You can go off and play and still have a Cup with Catalonia and all these weird places.

“I’m one of those people who believes the glass is always half full.”

RB: What are your beacons of hope?

BB – Oh, there are plenty of signs if you want to look for them. The fact that the Tories didn’t win the last election outright when everybody was putting the boot in on Corbyn and even the Labour MP’s saying it’s gonna be a wipe-out. What happened was a lot of young people turned up to vote. And I’m encouraged that they will remain engaged, and that their view of Brexit is that they’d like to reverse it, so it’s not over yet. And in cultural terms, there is also a lot of positives going on by the #MeToo movement; we could do with that in the music industry, it shouldn’t just be confined to the film industry. We perhaps need it more in the music industry because in the music industry there’s much more kudos to people who misbehave. It’s as if rock n’ roll gives you a licence to be an arsehole, and unfortunately sometimes the media celebrate that arsehole tendency so we have a lot of work to do there. So the way that women are responding and taking control on those issues, I find that very inspiring.

And Stormzy at The Brits talking about Grenfell, for him to stand there and speak out like that on live TV, I found that very encouraging. And the fact that number 10 felt they needed to respond. Number 10 never used to respond when I said shit on TV. It never happened. I think it’s a mixture of Stormzy’s courage to get up and say that and the way the audience reacted in the O2. Those two things combined both forced the government to respond and gave me cause for hope.

And I refuse to give in to my cynicism, which I find coming up in the back of my throat all the time. Because I look at the telly and I read the newspapers. But I think if you’re gonna believe in a compassionate society, if you’re gonna believe in a progressive idea like socialism you have to be someone who believes in humanity, you can’t think that everyone’s out to get you. You’ve got to have a more broad sense of humanity than that. So I work very hard at keeping my cynicism curbed. And when I see people letting their cynicism run away with them, it disappoints me. I try not to shout at them. I try and say ‘look man, curb your cynicism, we’re on the same side here, we’re trying to be positive’. And at the next election we may have the opportunity to vote for a genuinely radical government.

So all these things together give me cause for encouragement not to give up. So that’s what I’m trying to put out that vibe when people come to see me. That’s probably the most you can do with music; music can’t change the world, only the audience can change the world. It’s all of us together. Just a person on stage leading from the front. A person on stage is like a lightning rod, he’s trying to throw back the responsibility to the audience.

“That’s an interesting festival y’know, it’s not just turn up and play. Get engaged with it“

RB: How are you feeling about joining us in Wakefield for Long Division Festival?

BB – There’s a difference between turning up in a field or people corralled in an auditorium where you play your song and you go home. When you come into a town and you engage through the record shops and a debate, doing a gig, a few things, that’s much more interesting. I don’t know if other bands are like that but I find that much more engaging for me because I’ve been doing this for a long time. So consequently if someone has an interesting way to do a gig I’m much more likely to connect with that if there’s time. You’re putting down some interesting possibilities with your festival and I think that’s a really good way to bring interesting people to Wakefield.

Dean Freeman

Billy Bragg will appear at Wakefield Town Hall on Friday June 1st at Write Place, Write Time, an In Conversation event alongside journalist Laura Snapes (Guardian / Q, Pitchfork). He will also perform on June 2nd at Wakefield Cathedral.

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