'I'm still Billy Bragg from Barking'
He may have moved to a mansion in Dorset – and received a load of hate mail – but the ‘Bard of Barking’ says he’s still fighting the good fight. BRIAN BOYDtalks to Billy Bragg
BILLY “Socialist/Leftist/Marxist” Bragg moved out of multicultural London to move into a mansion in Dorset which is just about the “whitest” part of England. The man is a hypocrite to put it mildly. The bilious Marxist singer has shunned the poor embattled English he was raised among to bask in celebrity style in a Dorset village.
So read the anonymous letters sent to Bragg’s neighbours in the village of Burton Bradstock where he moved after selling his house in London. It was quite the most exciting thing to happen in the sleepy village for many a year. It is thought that the letters were written by a disgruntled BNP member who wanted to make life uncomfortable for the “Bard Of Barking”.
“It’s terrible for the neighbours because whenever I do a big gig or go on the radio there’s usually some hate mail directed my way,” he says. “But people have been great about it and they stop and talk to me about what is going on.”
It’s not as if it’s his first skirmish with political opponents. Since first emerging with the still brilliant Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spyin 1983, Bragg has been deified and vilified in equal measures. His uncompromised political principles may make him see a bit of an anachronism in today’s music business but he retains a devout following and with a canon that includes Levi Stubbs’ Tears, A New England, Greetings to the New Brunetteand Between the Wars(his best moment) he is one of the great English singer-songwriters.
For many, though, there’s a difficulty disentangling Bragg from the Red Wedge/miners’ strike era. “Yeah, I do still get dismissed as just a political songwriter,” he says, “but there’s a lot more to the songs than just politics. Agreed, I have made a life for myself as a ‘political songwriter’ and a ‘protest singer’ but there really isn’t that much protest, as such, there. I see it more as an alternative commentary on what is going on around us”. What was going on around him this week was the Occupy Dame Street protest in Dublin, which Bragg visited to show his solidarity. It’s when he merges the personal and political (and it’s always a deft balancing act for him) that his work really takes flight. “A love song can touch people in a different place and it’s getting to that area where politics and relationships overlap that interests me the most,” he says.
It has been pointed out that no matter what Bragg is singing about it always sounds like an argument but that’s to underestimate the dynamic of a vocal that is as much punk/new wave as it is 1960s folk. And it’s viewed through the prism of folk music that Bragg comes into tighter focus and amounts to much more than musical agit-prop.
Earlier this year he was driving to a gig when he heard on the radio that the murdered teenager Milly Dowler had her phone hacked by the News of the World. In true folk tradition, he wanted to write some immediate social commentary about the wider culture of how and why the News of the Worldwas one of the biggest-selling newspapers in the world. “While the parents of the missing girl cling desperately to hope/And the copper takes improper payments in a thick brown envelope/And no one in the newsroom asks where is this headline from/Scousers never buy the Sun” ran the lyrics to the song Never Buy the Sunthat he penned that very same night. “It’s not just political parties that have power over us,” he says of the song. “People have economic power and information power. How to hold these people to account is now one of the big questions facing us”. Never Buy the Sunwas uploaded to YouTube and released free of charge on his website. “From my perspective, it works much better to get material straight out there rather than have to wait months for it to get into the shops. And I wanted this song out before Murdoch sat down to be interrogated by parliament.”
While there has been no huge overhaul in his subject matter in latter years, he finds that a changed political world has changed the emphasis in his newer songs. “Back in the 1980s things were so much more clear cut,” he says. “There was the miners’ strike, there was Thatcher, there was the Cold War. Now, though, there aren’t the same stark choices and you saw with politicians such as Tony Blair how they could do something good one day then the next order the war in Iraq. I do understand that there is a nostalgia there for those songs from the 1980s but what is happening now with issues of national identity and immigration is just as important to me.”
He was inundated with media requests for commentary on this summer’s UK riots. “I’m still the guy they turn to on these issues and it’s something I’ve got used to,” he says.
“Unlike the protests back in the 1980s, there was no ideological framework behind these riots. It just seemed to be about getting a new pair of trainers for most people. It was everyone for themselves, it wasn’t like they were campaigning for an idea or flying a particular flag. But then so much that people now see around them, politically speaking, is just governments managing markets – so there is no huge issue there for people now. The last one would have been the Iraq war.”
As regards his new Dorset retreat – one can’t really see him down the local in Burton Bradstock talking about the Tolpuddle Martyrs? “I’m still Billy Bragg from Barking, Essex, that’s how I define myself,” he says.
“When Nick Griffin ran in the last UK election for Barking and Dagenham I was back up there fighting in the ‘Battle Of Barking’ to keep him out. For me that was a fight for the soul of the British people. I still say at the end of my gigs: ‘I’m Billy Bragg. I’m from Barking, Essex’. That’s who I am and who I will always be.”