Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Billy Bragg interview: “We need more opinionated women”

Photo: Michael Barbour

After 30+ years as one of our most-respected protest singers, Billy Bragg has never been more relevant than now. In these turbulent days of mass occupations in major cities, industrial strike action and deep-rooted recession, Billy’s no-nonsense approach to trying to change the way we operate makes a lot of sense.
This Sunday and Monday, Billy was in Bristol – primarily for a sold-out gig at the Fleece & Firkin on Monday, but also to perform at the Occupy Bristol camp on College Green, and a spontaneous gig at the recently opened Occupy UWE camp. Throw in getting some rhyming slang for shit on BBC Radio Bristol, and Billy was kept busy on his flying visit.
He also kindly made time to talk with me, and I had the pleasure of catching the end of his soundcheck before his gig – which included a chorus of Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want: an extra treat for me as it never made it’s way onto the final playlist.

With a career as enduring as Billy’s, it could seem depressing that his songs warning of Thatcherite hell are so relevant again. But he takes it in his stride, saying: “That’s the trouble if you write topical songs.” Bringing it into a more recent perspective, and linking to one of his newer songs (Never Buy The Sun), he adds: “When the Milly Dowler phone-hacking scandal broke, people were saying ‘You’ve got to rewrite the lyrics to It Says Here’, and I thought I probably should. So I looked at them and thought, ‘Actually, you know what, I don’t have to rewrite them at all’. That’s the sad thing about being a topical songwriter – shit comes around and goes around.”
And while that’s true, this has been a particularly busy week for the population concerned with standing up to the shit that’s doing the circuit. Today (Wednesday), Billy was in London supporting the mass public sector industrial action. “Our political discourse has become so shameful that the leader of the Labour party – the LEADER of the LABOUR party – can’t even come out and support public sector workers when there’s industrial action.”
All being well, Billy’s plan was to record vox pops for Radio Five Live… “I’ll be talking to Tories,” he laughs, “Trying to be impartial.” There’s a pause before he wryly adds: “We’ll see what happens.”

What’s been happening since October are the Occupy camps, which are growing in number weekly. The main Bristol occupation on College Green is the second biggest in the UK after St Paul’s, and is gaining in strength all the time – despite concerns from some people that the demands of the camps are unclear, and that women’s issues have not been fully engaged with.
Yet Billy insists he’s seen no evidence of women being sidelined at the Bristol camp or any other. “All I can say is a woman introduced me on stage, a woman sorted me out when I got down there, a woman showed me where to go and what to do. That’s not uncommon. But I think there always is a male thing going on, and as night falls it becomes more macho.”
Expanding on this, Billy adds: “I was down there last night [Sunday] after dark and it was quite Neolithic. People come out of the woodwork after dark, people who may be sleeping on the streets and are tempted by a fire and maybe some beer… There’s bound to be people who are not completely signed up to the programme who want to come for a bit of warmth and company.”
For all that, the Occupy movement has fired Billy with enthusiasm, not least because the spirit of the movement is so closely aligned to his own reason for becoming a protest singer. “The reason I’m here is that I work for a man called Woody Guthrie,” Billy explains, referring to the American protest singer who died in the 1960s. “Woody Guthrie never did a gig like this where he had a dressing room and a rider and someone selling t-shirts. He played schools and picket lines and occupations. So I have to do that, too.”
In reference to his performance at Occupy UWE that afternoon, he added: “I was saying to the students: ‘I’m thanking you, I have to be here because of who I am and what I believe in. But you’re students, you don’t have to be here. So salute you, never mind me. I’m supposed to be up here, I’m Billy Bragg, I’m doing Woody’s work.”
There are many people who have called the Occupy movement wishy washy and complained it is unclear what the demands are, but Billy simply says it depends what expectations you have. “The globalisation movement smashed shop windows and burned cars. You can smash up branches of McDonalds all day long, nothing’s going to happen,” he states. “What’s happening now, though, is different. While all those demonstrations were going in the 1990s, and with the miners’ strikes in the 1980s, capitalism was rampant. Now capitalism is flat on its arse and something has got to change because we’re all up against the wall.”
When pushed on what that change might be, he says: “In a very broad sense, it’s all about accountability. Those who have economic power over us – the bankers, the multinationals, the lobbyists – those people must be held to account. If it was down to me, I would have publically funded political parties and have all lobbying be transparent. Nothing should be done behind closed doors. Why do our politicians want to say things that are off record? We employ them! They are our employees. They should be accountable to us.”
Yet his faith in the current Occupy movement is clear: “I have confidence in them to articulate a compassionate ideal in a way that’s not tarnished by totalitarianism, in a way that’s not held back by what happened in 1917, that looks forward to 2017 and what kind of world we want to live in. Not how Lenin did it, or Trotsky did it. That doesn’t work anymore. Marx isn’t the problem: Marxists are the problem. Those sour old bastards! They need to stop lecturing and start listening.”

It would be impossible for me, as a feminist activist, not to ask Billy where he stands on equal rights for women and feminism. “How would you define feminism?,” he muses. “I’m a socialist but there’s a lot of different definitions of a socialist.” There are a lot of different definitions of a feminist, too, I say. “I believe that women should have equal pay with men. Does that make me a feminist? I believe that childcare should be provided free. Does that make me a feminist? I do the washing up at home. Does that make me a feminist?” I laugh and say that I don’t think it’ a question of ticking boxes! “In that case, in the sense that I believe we should live in a fair and equal society, then I’d like to think I’m a feminist. But I’m also a disablist, a gayest…” Well, I think they all go hand in hand… “Yes, that’s true.”
But when talking about the history of union membership, Billy stresses it was thanks to women’s suffrage in 1928 that the election of 1945 saw the roots of the NHS being planted.
“In 1945, we had the first election where women’s votes really counted,” he says. “A lot of people say that the 1945 election was about soldiers. It wasn’t. Women under the age of 30 first got the vote in 1928, and then there wasn’t an election between 1931 and 1945. So an entire tranche of young women with children had come in, and it was their votes that set up the welfare state. Not the soldiers’.” He’s quick to add: “The soldiers did vote for a better world, but the significant thing was the untapped bulge of young women of childbearing age who did not want to go through what their mothers went through. That was the vote that made the welfare state.”

When the UK riots kicked off in August, Billy was in America and he says it was extraordinary hearing over the wires what was happening at home. “I couldn’t get a handle on it. What was it about? It was weird,” he says, still sounding baffled and saddened by what happened. “I saw rioters had burned down the Westbury Arms in Barking where I come from, and I couldn’t understand that. What would they do that? It was totally illogical in the sense that previous riots had been focussed on some sense of social anger. And although it began with the death of Mark Duggan, it quickly descended into a free for all. It didn’t have a focus.”
What was highlighted at the time, and is the only thing we can salvage from the riots, were the volunteers who selflessly cleaned up the mess. “The anarchy to me was the people who came the next day and swept it all up without being organised. That’s real proper anarchy. That’s what anarchy is in a political sense.”

With the clock ticking towards Billy’s time on stage, I was anxious not to keep him too long. But I wanted to know if he thought it would be possible for a new protest singer-songwriter to enjoy the same longevity that he has? “Five years ago I’d have said it’d be really difficult, because any kid starting out would have been going against the tide,” he says. “But now, with the Occupy movement…”
I ask if he worries that the Simon Cowell-ification of the music industry – an industry that synthesises an unidentifiable, characterless, soulless puppet for a TV series, who is then forgotten three months later – is deadening our ability to recognise real talent. “Abba were number one all the way through punk,” Billy states. “The only punks who got anywhere near the top of the charts were Blondie. The Sex Pistols, The Clash… forget it. They never got anywhere near the mainstream.”
Returning to opportunities for new talent, he adds: “I think the time is coming when you can make political music again, because it’s hard to make it without political context. I’ve managed to keep going because I’ve found an audience that connects with it. I’ve spent my time looking at issues and connecting with things like Woody Guthrie.
“The thing that worries me now is that what supported what I did is no longer there, which is the NME, Sounds and Melody Maker. When I was making political music 30 years ago, the editors of those three papers were children of 1968, they believed that music was the alternative lingua franca. That was how we talked to one another, it was how I talked to my parents’ generation as a working-class person. The only medium available to me was to buy a guitar and learn to play and write songs. But that’s all gone. Even the NME pours piss on anyone who’s political now.”
And it’s not just the printed music press, as we also have a whole world of online commentary to deal with now. And Billy is not a fan of Facebook: “People think they’re engaged but they’re not in the way that the audience will engage with me tonight, I promise you that. Facebook likes are not the same as coming together.”
I ask if he gets much abuse online. He says he doesn’t, adding: “You know why I don’t get as much abuse as you? Because my genitals are outside my body. Women with opinions get a lot more shit. Some people cannot stand the idea of a smart woman voicing an opinion. But we should stand up to people who are abusive to women online. Your freedom of speech isn’t freedom to be abusive.”
It’s time to wrap up and for Billy to grab some food before he goes on stage, but as a parting shot he says: “The younger generation are in the throes of discovery and energised by everything. And we need more opinionated women.”

The Bristol gig was the last night of Billy’s tour, and his set closed with him calling on stage both of his support acts – Sound of Rum and Akala – and the three vocalists performing an extended version of the 1931 union anthem Which Side Are You On? With lyrics rewritten to take in our contemporary situations, the affirmations from the audience were overpowering but not nearly so much as Akala’s repeated opening chant of “We are the 99%” – truly spine-tingling. 
If the future is in the hands of women and men now, as much as the creation of the welfare state was in 1945, then women and men need to jointly keep fighting in solidarity to ensure we keep the NHS and don't let the bankers grind us down. 


  1. Billy Bragg - still such a breath of fresh air, rock of sense and reservoir of humility. Above all he sounds like a decent bloke - nice interview - well done.PK

  2. Thanks, and yes - he WAS a very decent bloke!!

  3. Good feature. Billy is a superb lyricist and performer.