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Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg
March 17, 2008 | Author: Christopher King

Billy Bragg was in town plugging his new album, Mr Love & Justice. AM’s Christopher King was in town too. A chat sounded like a good idea!

billy-bragg-007I bought a T-Shirt on your workers Playtime tour in about 1990 and it shrunk after two washes. Very disappointing.

Oh…get out!  Well otherwise people will keep wearing them and won’t buy one on the next tour.

I also got Billy Bragg cufflinks. Who came up with that idea and why on earth did I buy them?

Well actually on the last tour in Britain we sold kitchen drying up cloths which had something to do with brewing up and making tea. It was just before Christmas and we sold loads of them. They must have ended up in so many Christmas stockings.

Your arrival in Australia has coincided with the installation of the new Rudd Labour Government. The Howard Government probably ended up contributing to it’s own demise by impaling itself on its own unpleasant Industrial relations policy.

We had the same sort of thing in Britain with a deregulated economy designed to make us more competitive. Just bullshit really. You’re in danger in Australia now of … your expectations are now so high. What you’ve got to do now is hang on to your faith. You’ve got to fight your cynicism and hang on to your faith because soon people are going to be saying that Rudd is the same as Howard and they’ve got short memories if they start saying that. At the same time you have to make sure you don’t give in to that type of negative cynicism because the cynics have all the answers and they’re all negative.

So how did you approach that when a Labour Government, who you endorsed, took over in Britain? Even though you supported them as a Musician, did you also criticise them?

Yeah sure, I criticised them when they deserved it and supported them as well. Things like Laws Reform, they’ve done more than any other Government in the last hundred years. They’ve got rid of Hereditary Peers. They’ve had a vote now in the House of Commons. They got a majority eighty, ninety per cent elected chamber. By the same token, they’re bringing back nuclear power stations. So on one hand I’m fighting them on that and the other I’m going to be working with them.

The Nuclear option has returned to the agenda again, but now under the guise of a supposedly green power alternative.

But the real answer is we need them for nuclear weapons. That’s the real argument. So the unfortunate reality of politics is that the circle is never quite squared. If you’re waiting for it to all go one way, it won’t ever do that. So you have to make sure that for the time they spend in Government you’re engaged in pushing them along rather than sitting on the fence carping and whinging because that wont achieve anything. At least now you have opportunities to engage and you should take those opportunities.

You were quoted in an interview with the Melbourne Age saying that Midnight Oils Peter Garret had stepped over the line now he had entered politics and could no longer be regarded as an artist and a politician at the same time.

I don’t think you can.

But someone has to step over the line and act…put a plan into action.

Of course and I’ve got total respect for him. He was at the Sydney show. The line is between activist and politician. Between an artist and an activist there is no line. But there is a line when you become a professional activist and you have constituents and you’ve got responsibilities and you’ve got a portfolio, which he has. Now he is under the greatest pressure because he’s got to deliver.

He can’t save every tree. He is part of a Government and to get things done he has to compromise.

I know…exactly. That’s what I’m trying to say to people. I’m not criticising him. What I’m saying is, I don’t envy him. Because he’s now got to live out not only the expectations of those people in the Labour Government, but the expectations that people have in him as the lead singer of Midnight Oil and that is the pressure that other politicians don’t have. They haven’t inspired people by writing great songs and doing politics in such a high profile way and because of that he’ll be under much higher pressure….and all power to him for picking up that particular ball and running with it, but I don’t envy him. The Politicians that I’ve worked with in the Labour Party, Back Benchers as well as Government Ministers….they’d never see their families and they don’t have the time to have the same sort of life as the rest of us and in the end whether or not they’ve made a difference is ambiguous anyway. I’ve got great respect for them.

We see a lot of celebrities and people with public profiles supporting political candidates or using their image to endorse various campaigns. As someone not short of a word on issues of conscience, who do you believe has earned the right to speak?

I think everybody has the right to speak. It’s how you articulate what you have to say. Whether you articulate it in the way that’s conducive to making change or whether you’re just belligerent about it. I don’t think belligerence gets you very far. You have to sort of in some ways work with the flow. There’s still people in my country who want to do politics using the language of Marxism and that’s over. Forget it. The issues that Marx addressed still have to be addressed but the language of Marxism….people don’t want to know about Marxism anymore. They want to know about compassion. They want to know about how society is going to fit together with so many diverse people coming in.

I think it’s reasonable to say that the well being of our society was an issue during our election. Work place reforms and the like. People were starting to be concerned about their families, neighbours and friends. The refugees in detention centres, the fairness issue.

A problem has always been the suggestion that the individual is running free from society and not connected in any. Where the truth is that without free health care….

(At this point we’re interrupted by a bloke coming over, ordering a coffee and signalling to the waitress that it should be billed to our table)

This is my Producer. He produced the album. He is also living off my you can see. He’ll just hang around and hope it all goes on my bill. That’s his breakfast…that and a fag. It’s a sheep shearer’s breakfast. A smoke, a fart and a good look about…It’s one of the Australianisms I’ve picked up.

We’re a classy country. You were saying…

We learnt a long time ago in the broad labour movement that individual freedom depends on the collective provision of free health care, free education and decent affordable housing. Now despite what happened during the Howard years, Australia is still a country that believes in principle and the ideas of the fair go. We all know that that’s an aspiration rather than a reality but you’ve still got something to build on there. We like to believe in Britain that we believe in fairness and tolerance. Again it’s not true but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try and press that issue and move that issue forward in the name of fairness because I believe that fairness means more to people than the idea of socialism.

You touched on this in your book ‘The Progressive Patriot’. You referenced a survey which stated that British people rated their countries supposed history of fairness as the second thing of which they are most proud (second to WW2 heroics). Coincidentally, Australians have long thought that fairness is our national trait and probably ours alone.

It’s not something that exists only in one nation. There are many fair minded nations around the world.

Sure but we’ve tended to believe that fairness is an Australian trait….exclusively. Even to the ridiculous level that both the left and right of politics here love to define countering view points as unAustralian.

Who defines what it is to be Australian. Identity is personal …ultimately. It’s what you conceive of it to be. That’s why it is difficult to fit everybody into one particular idea of what Australia day should be. Australia Day has to mean everything or nothing. It has to accommodate everybody. I’m saying for the people who have a narrow definition of it…the nationalists…they have to accommodate everybody in Australia because Australia is not something that’s fixed. It’s changing all the time.

Your book tackles this very question of patriotism but from an English perspective. Basically how do you define being English when the country has continued to evolve through both migration and political change from day one. On reading the book you can’t help but notice the similarities to the same issues here at the moment. It has enormous relevance to the Australian reader as well.

Thank you very much. The issues that seem to be to the fore in the newspapers over Australia Day weekend, at least in the ones I read, seem to be trying to deal with that ambiguity of .how do we deal with the new wave of immigrants when we ourselves are immigrants. How can we face up to this?  I think that ambiguity about the new wave of immigration and how to deal with the fact that it is greater than before, even for us who applaud immigration, have to recognize that the numbers moving around the world are dramatic and we need to change the way we deal with the people that are coming, in order to be able to deal with it. I suggested in the book that the problem in Barking where I lived is not a matter of race, it’s a matter of resources, and those places that are the poorest often have to deal with the greatest influxes. That’s where the houses are cheaper and that’s where the immigrant population is and you need to rebalance the distribution of resources in society in order to do that. So it’s definitely an issue. What happened at Cronulla is happening all over the Western world. It’s because the pressure of people trying to get a piece of a lifestyle, where if you hit the switch the lights go on or if you drink water it doesn’t poison you or if you have a baby the chances are it will live. For those things, those basics, people will swim the Tasman. Never mind putting themselves in the back of a lorry where it’s freezing cold or they’re going to be boiled alive. Immigration for many people is a matter of life and death. It’s not because they want to live in a nicer country or isn’t Australia lovely. It’s more a case of if I don’t get to somewhere, or if I can’t get to somewhere and earn the minimum wage and send that back to my family….my family will die mate. So I’m not going to be put off by some technical restriction. I will find a way. And while our economies are willing to exploit workers to the extent that the Australian and British economies do….the black economy will always underpin the kosher economy.

Many people have the view that our previous Prime Minister created divisions between some sections of Australian society and the more recent arrivals. He tended to demonise refugees, particularly those who had taken a less orthodox means of entry, referring to them as queue jumpers.

I’ve heard similar stuff at home. And what is keeping the service charges down in the UK? It’s the people coming in. When I was a kid it was all the Spanish and Italians. What happened interestingly is the Spanish and Italian economies are now better than ours. Is this what will happen to Romania and Bulgaria? Poland is already on the improve. The Poles are already going home so now we’re fucked. We’ll have no plumbers or plasterers.

When I was in London and Wales 18 months ago I noticed the huge influx of Polish workers in the service industries as compared to a couple of years earlier.

Yeah and now they’re going home. Think about it. You earn five times more on the basic wage in Britain than you do in Poland. I don’t know what the basic wage is here but in England the basic wage is twenty five grand a year right. So you’re 25 years old and you’re in this country flipping burgers and they’re paying you the equivalent of 125 thousand to your country. Unless you take that money back to your country it’s peanuts in the UK. If you take it back to Poland you might be able to start a business, you might be able to buy a house, get married and get a car. That’s what they do.

But people prefer the story that they are flooding in, staying and taking over.

Well twenty per cent of them are marrying up but the vast majority of them are taking the money and going back. When I left school kids used to go and work on the lines at Ford for 3 years for 100 pound a week. This was in the 70’s. They’d get so much fucking money and they’d fuck off to America. My brother was a Brick Layer and in the 1980’s he working in Germany. What did he do while he was in Germany? Did he ever meet any Germans? No. He laid bricks and he slept and he sent his money home. He never met any Germans. He never learnt any German. He doesn’t know anything about it. I go to some of the places he worked and he says, I did some building there and I said where and he says, I dunno. What was the town like? Oh I just wanted to work. I had to go there. I had to feed my kids. It’s no different.

I have friends who run a business in Aberystwyth in Wales and they now employ newly arrived Eastern blockers. It’s all been fairly positive, but at the same time migration from other parts of Europe to some of these smaller towns wasn’t all that common until recently.

Look at my brother. Everyone who’s now mixing his mud is from Eastern Europe, Albanians, Romanians and they’re conscientious. They come in and they do the work and if they can’t come in they send someone else in and they just want to learn. He says every time I turn around this little sods picked up my trowel and I say wait, watch for a couple of weeks and then I’ll let you have a go on the trowel. The people he was working with 5 or 6 years ago are tradesman now because they’re hungry for it, where as young kids leaving school don’t want to lay bricks. They want to go on X Factor.

I think we have to finish. (Time was up. Looking around for Record company folk)

No they’ve gone. They’ve cleared off. My handlers.

Sometimes when one of my mates gets in a moral dilemma he asks himself, what would Billy Bragg do?

Upstairs I’ve got a t-shirt which says, What would Woody do? I was wearing it at the Big Day out. The guy in the hotel, when I was wearing it the other day says …A tennis fan are you?…..I thought what the fuck are you talking about. He obviously didn’t get the t shirt.

When I first heard your music in the late eighties it was a great relief. As for political content at the time, it was hardly 1967.

That aspect of what you said about it not being 1967. The younger generation out there now are looking for music that says something and they will find us. Whether it’s Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly (British Band) writing about fascism or those of us writing political songs. There will always be people like yourself looking for more in their music and when they find you, they haven’t been force fed what you’re doing with car adverts or being on TV all the time. You become so important to them. That’s like what happened with me and Bob Dylan. I came to Bob Dylan sort of through Simon and Garfunkel and when I was into Bob Dylan no one else, no other teenagers in the 70’s, no one I new anyway, were in to Bob Dylan.

Your voice especially when you first came to prominence was confronting. How did you go from singing along to Simon and Garfunkels the ‘Boxer ‘and ‘Scarborough Fair’ to belting out songs in that take it or leave it accent. How did you find your singing voice?

Punk. Punk. Punk gave me the legitimacy to sing in my own voice and say it’s not how you say it but what you say.

How did you sound when you were singing with Riff Raff? (BB’s first band)

When I was singing with Riff Raff I was hugely influenced by Elvis Costello but it was still a bit Mid Atlantic. Toward the end of Riff Raff I finally found my own voice. It takes a while you know. It takes a while to find that voice and consequently when I started playing as Billy Bragg it was important to me to be as I was and not to be someone else when I was on stage. So the accent then came right to the fore and punk had sort of legitimised that for me.

You must have had a bit of an ego to get up and sing…not covers but politically motivated music. When did you think you had something to say?

Well I always thought that. I always thought I had something to say. The key thing was doing it solo. Have I got the balls to do it solo or am I too afraid to be knocked back. I tried to give up being a singer songwriter. I joined the British army because I didn’t want to be a singer songwriter and it still wouldn’t go away. So I came back and I just wanted to do it. One last try. Death or glory. Solo. See what happens. See what happens. And I happened to just hit the right place at the right time. I guess I was zigging when everyone else was zagging and you’ll always find that if you do that you’ll always find that people will cleave to that. People who are bored by the way things have gone.

So where were you playing?

First gig I ever did was for a mate of mines band at the Sociology Disco at the North London Polytechnic and you know, I got these songs and you play them and people respond. If they don’t respond? You don’t play them no more.

So people responded even that early on?

Yeah. Just getting in their faces. You know, I was inspired by the clash to write political music as well. Just like the first album. Some of it was political and some of it was love songs.

Despite your ever present politics you’re just as well known for writing raw relationship songs. The new album feels very close to the bone. It sounds very personal and exposed.

It is. I think it is. Writing the book was such a mountain to climb and it was so polemical, the book, that when I finished writing it the songs that came out were songs about my relationship with my missus or generally relationship songs like ‘Mr Love and Justice.’

Sorry to ask, but are you still with your wife? After listening to the album I’m not so sure.

Oh yeah. We’ve been together 15 years. We’ve got a son

There are a lot of conflicting intense emotions throughout some of these songs. Are you re-evaluating your relationships or your commitments?

Every now and then you read a lyric that so speaks to you about your relationship. You think it’s got to be worth trying to write something like that. I emailed my wife the other night …’I keep the ends out for the ties that bind. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. Because you’re mine I walk the line.’  You know…I was watching Johnny Cash on TV and I thought a simple lyric like that, you want to write something like that which says very simply but also beautifully, something that shows your commitment. I’m a very committed person and that commitment extends to my relationships and being able to express that commitment to my partner is very, very important to me. Sometimes I buy her pressies, sometimes I do the school run but best of all is when I can lay down a song that expresses in words to other people how I feel about her and that’s very important to the two of us

The song ‘Mr Love and Justice’ which is also the title of the album is written from a different perspective and obviously not about your own life.

‘Mr Love and Justice’ is a break up song that’s more of a documentary. It’s in a female gender. ‘Mr Love and Justice’ is kind of like a metaphorical figure. I wanted to write something that said it’s not right to leave a woman on their own with kids. Now a woman said to me when I wrote ‘Valentines Day Is Over’ which is about violence towards women and I wrote that in a female gender. A woman said to me, you’ll never know what it’s like to be beaten by a man, so how can you write that song? I said well, I totally agree and I accept that but I’m not writing, with respect, for other women because there are plenty of other songs about women for women. I’m writing to other men to say, as a man, this is not acceptable to leave a woman on her own with kids and ‘Mr Love and Justice’ is saying, “Desertion must mean disgrace.” That’s what I’m talking about. So in ‘Mr Love and Justice’ I’m saying to other men as a man. You can’t do this. It’s not the way things should be. That’s what I’m trying to do anyway.

What about the lyrics to You Make Me Brave, where you sing…”I curl up like a ball on the floor/And no one can know/And the fear wells up inside/I’m just falling again.”

Everyone has those moments of self doubt.

Are we talking about something darker here or just the normal up’s and downs?

No. Just normal situations where you wake up really missing your family. You’re in a beautiful city. The sun is shining but you’re on the other side of the fucking world. You come back to your hotel room, having been at the after show party walking around looking at everyone having a good time and you’re just thinking, wouldn’t it be great if my missus was here and I could go out with my son today and also you happened to have been here two years ago. So there are places you can walk past now where you’ve sat with your family.

You’d enjoy it more if you could share the experience with them.

Exactly. You miss them and it’s only human. And that’s the things I do for them. Why am I doing this? Why am I here now in Australia when my family are at home? You know why? Because my sons at school at the moment and next month when he’s off school, I’ll be home because we’ll already have done the Australian tour. So I left at a time when he’s at school so I can be there with him.

You’ve initiated ‘Jail Guitar Doors’ which buys instruments for prisoners in the UK as part of a road to rehabilitation program.

Yeah it’s about rehabilitation. The guitar is the first step on the ladder back into society. That’s what I say when I supply the guitars. This isn’t a free gift mate. This is a challenge. We want you to come back to society. We don’t want you to be further criminalized. Use this opportunity to begin the process to come back towards society. We’re from the outside and we’ve spent a lot of time getting this guitar into you hand and we want you to accept this challenge and I lay it on pretty thick, so they don’t just think …you know …we feel sorry for them. We don’t. We want them to be rehabilitated.

So you couldn’t find any cute seal pups or whales to save?

There are lot’s of people willing to step up for whales and seal puppies and I’d happily do it myself but they’re aren’t many people willing to step up for people that are in prison for things that you and I would find absolutely appalling. But if you want to make a difference you’ve got to work with people that are marginalised. That’s where the cutting edge is.


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