By Karl Carlson
many musicians, Billy Bragg does not necessarily need a product
to promote and an album to tour behind. Granted, his latest
album, England, Half-English, did come out earlier this year,
and the traditional merch table will not be absent from his
present tour. Even old folkies have to eat, right? Bragg is
a musician who is not afraid to sing for his supper, among other
things. In a world where “national security” and
“nuclear threat” are buzzwords almost as ubiquitous
as “phat” and “jiggy,” Bragg still plays
a crucial role as agitator, prefacing his live songs with lengthy
(and humorous) rants and raves. I caught up with Billy Bragg
at the launch of his latest tour in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
where we talked about The Ramones, Karl Marx, and new words
for socialism. Before the interview even began, Billy handed
me a disc emblazoned with the words “Spread The Word -
Stop The War” along with the title of his latest song,
“The Price Of Oil”.
I was asked to supply a track for
the Stop The War record in the United Kingdom, and
I wrote this song, “The Price Of Oil.” And then
I thought that because of the nature of what the song is about...
I don’t think the Stop The War album will probably
come out in North America...
even as an import?
...possibly as an import but that just takes forever, it might
not come out till Christmas, probably too late. So I pressed
up enough of these to give away about ten a night into the crowd.
And hopefully they’ll get it on the Internet or they’ll
burn copies for their friends and they’ll spread the word.
It’s like a broadside, and it can’t wait till my
next Billy Bragg album; that might not be till next year or
the year after.
situation is progressing so quickly that another week and it
might be too late.
Yeah, so I’m gonna be giving out the first few copies
tonight, and sending people away, you know, to encourage them
to put it on the Net, burn a copy for their friends - just get
the word out.
you’re gonna hate me for my first “official”
Okay, go on.
Life’s A Riot almost two decades ago.
Do you feel
like you’ve changed politically at all in the last twenty
years, or do you still hold the same beliefs you did back then?
No, I think I have changed politically since Life’s
A Riot. I think if you listen to the politics on Life’s
A Riot, they’re rather personal, you know “Just
because you’re better than me/ doesn’t mean I’m
lazy.” They’re not really very ideological. It took
until about... it really took the miners strike in 1984 to make
me more into sort of an ideological songwriter, in the sort
of traditional, Woody Guthrie sense. So that really didn’t
happen till 1984, but since then, really, my answer to your
question would be no, I don’t think I’ve changed
my politics really that much. What has happened is that the
world has changed, and politics have become sort of “post-ideological,”
and there’s nothing I can do about that. I can’t
wish back an ideological world. I have to respond to what’s
happening. So I find now that I’m writing songs that are
trying to address the problems in a non-ideological way.
Do you find
there are things that are easier for you to say when you’re
in front of a crowd with a guitar strapped on?
Yeah, I think you’re much more able to respond to the
way people feel in a situation like this. You know, you’re
thinking much quicker ahead.
Is your music
vehicle for your politics, or is your politics a vehicle for
I think really the music is a way of communicating to people
and also I can play gigs, I can make records, I can do interviews,
I can write articles for newspapers. It’s really just
about trying to communicate a different perspective of the world.
That’s about the most a singer-songwriter or a journalist
So what comes
first for you, the music or the words?
Oh, it’s different all the time. I mean, I had a song,
a tune that I had been knocking around for ages, and it just
occurred to me the other day I could use it. I had been building
up to writing a song, not about September 11, 2001 but September
11, 2002, which had a strange effect on me - the anniversary.
And it just occurred to me to put it with that tune. It’s
not completely done, I still gotta tweak it. I think I’m
gonna have to play it in America before I can really get the
feel of it right.
are a lot of acoustic musicians like yourself who don’t
even necessarily consider themselves musicians because their
words are so important. Do you consider yourself to be more
of a poet than a musician?
That’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s an interesting
question. Yeah, I suppose, you know if I was a musician I could
play anything, but I can’t. To me, a musician is someone
who can play the piano or can read music; I can’t do any
of that. So I would think I’m more of a poet, I’m
more of a words-man. I can carry a tune, but I’m more
of a words-man.
own the copyright to your own songs...
a rarity in the music industry in general, and the only other
band that’s not completely obscure that I can think of
that does this is King Crimson. Was that a conscious decision
or more of a necessity?
It was conscious, yeah. You sign away your rights for the life
of a copyright, which is seventy years after you die. I mean,
I wrote these songs to be my pension, not some corporate pension
somewhere. So I’m trying hard to keep hold of those rights
as best I can.
touring solo this time. Besides the obvious, between touring
with a band and touring solo, what is the difference and which
do you prefer?
I don’t mind either; I enjoy both of ‘em. There’s
the intimacy that comes about from playing solo that’s
a bit more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, but equally there’s
a certain danceability that comes from the audience when I play
with a band.
Solo or with
a band, what’s your favorite Billy Bragg song to play
Whichever one I’ve just written, always. Like tonight
it’ll be “The Wolf Covers It’s Tracks,”
or maybe “The Price Of Oil”. Because when you play
something you see if it works, you know. Does anyone pay attention?
Does anyone get this?
were a musician you were a bank messenger...
Yup. A tank driver. A goat herder.
you to pick up a guitar?
I don’t know. It was just listening to singer-songwriters,
people like Bob Dylan. But really I didn’t want to go
and work at the motor company, which was the main employer in
our town. I had to think of a way of getting out of that, and
I didn’t want a nine-to-five job, and this was the only
one I thought I might be able to do, that would allow me to
wake up past nine.
recently said, “Capitalism is based on the ludicrous idea
that human creativity and productivity are the greatest things
in the world.” What do you think about that?
I think he’s slightly wrong, I think they’re based
on the idea that gain and profit are the greatest things rather
I think what
he was getting at was that they believe no matter how deeply
shitty things get, they can always invent something to pull
themselves out of it.
Then he’s speaking of wealth creation and not artistic
So you don’t
think that applies? Then what role do artists play at this point?
Well, the main thing artists do is entertain. And some artists
try to make people think. And some artists try to provoke people.
And so it depends where you want to be. I mean, the majority
of artists just entertain. But entertainment without meaning
is just television. It has to have some sort of context.
So do you
think that you’ll ever stop creating?
Well, here’s an interesting story. When I was twenty-one
or twenty-two, the punk band I was in, Riff Raff, broke up.
Everything that I believed was going to happen with punk rock
didn’t happen. I was unemployed; I went back to my mum’s
house. I turned on the television and thought, “This is
just outrageous, I can’t do this.” I was so distraught
that I joined the British Army. I pressed the eject button,
and I just fucking walked away from everything.
And you did
the most un-punk thing you could do.
It was actually very punk if you think about it.
The most unpredictable
thing you could do.
So I did that. And having made that emotional break and walked
away from everything, I found that when I got there I started
writing songs again. It was then that I realized that this wasn’t
gonna go away. I’ve always had this urge, so I really
should try a bit harder and not just give up ‘cause my
first band broke up. So I bought my way out of the army, got
myself a job at a record shop, and after a year, I started doing
gigs and writing songs. The rest has just been a blur until
we just came in here.
an artist that regardless of the style you play, you’ve
been widely embraced by the punk community. But you also have
a lot of “hippie” ideals. Peace and love. Do you
consider yourself a gobber or a flower child?
Honestly, I was never at all attracted to the hippies, and I
felt very much part of punk in England in 1977. That’s
what’s inspired my whole worldview, really. But I’m
not just in favor of peace and love. I’m trying to agitate
for peace and love. I think there’s a slight difference
there. I understand that in a post-ideological world, you have
to look at bigger words than just socialism, you have to use
words like compassion. And that may sound a bit hippy-ish, but
that’s where we are historically. There’s no point
in me still going around with some Marxist gobbledygook that
no one really relates to anymore. I never really related to
be biased because you’re from the United Kingdom, but
The Ramones or The Sex Pistols?
The Ramones, you have to understand are like... The Vines, or
more than The Vines - The Hives. You know the way The Hives
dress up, and play retro music and pretend that they’re
what they’re not? They’re actually a bunch of guys
from Sweden, pretending to be a weird sort of mid-Sixties garage
band. Well, that’s how The Ramones began. Now the fact
that they had the huge effect they had is neither hither nor
thither. The fact is that the logical descendants of The Ramones
are The Hives and the logical descendants of The Sex Pistols
are Nirvana. There’s a huge difference there. And the
reason the New York punks were so different than the United
Kingdom punks is because they never really had the establishment
pushing against them. We had dreadful politics: the Racist National
Front, the stagnation of our own culture. Bands I greatly admire
like The Ramones, Television, Blondie - they never wrote a song
that said No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones. We were nihilists,
like “everything in the bin and let’s start over.”
Bands like Black Flag got it from us. They weren’t inspired
by Patti Smith.
So, you started
Ethical Threads this year. I saw a shirt that you’re selling,
also the name of a song, “NPWA” (No Power Without
Accountability). In the music industry there’s very little
connection between artists and their merchandise and goods.
How accountable should artists have to be for the records they
manufacture and the t-shirts they sell?
I think they should be. You should be accountable for anything
that’s got your name on it. It’s been very tough
for us. The people that really set up Ethical Threads are union
activists, who’ve been bugging me for ages to get my t-shirts
in order. And I said, “Well, you’ve got your contacts,
you find me a place, find me a source and we’ll use ‘em.”
That’s how it came together, and it was tough even for
me. But I think even bands that don’t walk it but they
talk it, if you can make them understand that their t-shirts
are being made off of child labour and show them “here’s
where you can get good shirts,” I think the majority of
bands will make that effort.
say, ‘I don’t know what to stand for, but I know
what to stand against.’ Do you define who you are by what
you stand for or against?
I try to define myself by what I stand for. And I try my best
to articulate what I stand for, and I try to find words that
do it. In this present time though, it’s difficult to
find a language. I’ll be trying to do it tonight. I’ll
be thinking, “I’m in Canada, what makes sense to
these people?” to try and explain how I feel and where
I’m at. We’re all waiting for a big ideology to
emerge from this anti-globalization movement. And interesting
things are happening, not just when the big demos get together
but in places like Argentina, where they did everything the
IMF asked them and just got absolutely fucked by it. There is
a Marxist alternative, but in some ways that’s like going
back. I’m not interested in going back; I’d like
to move forward, to a kind of post-capitalist thing. Trying
to head towards that in song and in word.
you’ve consistently stood for is labour unions. Is there
any place for that in the music industry?
One thing musicians should definitely do is get roadies to organize
in a provident union, so that roadies have pensions and roadies
have health coverage. Roadies have none of this shit. And where
are you gonna end up without them? They’re gonna end up
with nothing. Imagine if roadies set up a provident union and
accepted money from bands as part of a pension scheme and every
big festival paid 0.1 percent of their take to the union. And
to get a stamp of approval from the roadies union, we all took
turns doing benefits for them, and every year we bumped them
up a little amount. That would be a really sensible thing to
do, ‘cause those guys are totally non-organized and they
really should be. Bands can more or less fend for themselves,
but these guys are often our dear friends, and they deserve
pensions and health care.
Can you even
call it socialism anymore? Where do you see the idea of socialism
ten or twenty years from now?
I think socialism needs a new definition. We have to start looking
at capitalism not as actually the economy itself but a way of
organizing the economy. Capitalism is a way of organizing the
economy to benefit the few. Socialism is a way of organizing
the economy to benefit the majority. But, but! The Marxists
always said “destroy capitalism and everything’s
gonna be fine.” But they never explain to you where, if
you destroy capitalism, where are you gonna buy your Radio Shack
dictaphone? So unless socialism can provide a better dictaphone,
then why should people be in favor of it? I think we need to
find a way to articulate a post-capitalist socialism, rather
than a non-capitalist socialism.
you don’t tell me what not to say, I won’t tell
you what not to do.” Two questions from that quote. Do
you ever feel like you’re preaching to the converted and,
if so, how do you try to bring people into this world?
Well, you know, you’re not preaching to the converted
so much as you’re focusing the feelings of people who
relate to how you feel. Often they might feel like they’re
the only person in the world who is passionate about these issues.
They come together with a big group of people at a concert or
demo and it really empowers them. I was talking to so many young
people who went on the Stop The War march in the United Kingdom.
It was the first big demo they’ve been on; there haven’t
been demos like that since the late Eighties. The sense of power
and the buzz was incredible. You can’t say that the anti-war
demo is just the converted with the converted. My role in that
is to try to bring people together and put new ideas onto the
table and challenge. But the biggest thing I can do is focus
their energy and help them to feel empowered. Also, I can try
to bring news from across the ocean. Because often I feel like
I’m bringing news from America into this worn citadel.
Because it’s like they can’t hear us, but equally
we can’t hear the American anti-globalization movement
either. I mean, where is the anti-war voice in the American
media? We musn’t dismiss the Americans. We can’t
let our anti-Bushism become anti-Americanism. That’s very
Is there anything
you wouldn’t or couldn’t sing about for whatever
reason? Do you feel comfortable pushing against any kind of
Well, here’s a weird thing: I was in Berlin about a month
ago, and I went to the Museum of German-Jewish History. It’s
an incredible building. Everything’s in English and German.
It’s an incredible story for the Germans to have to deal
with the history of what happened to the Jews in Germany. It
starts at Roman times and it sort of works its way, and you
walk around, and it’s chronological. It deals with the
holocaust in an incredibly intense way, on a number of different
levels. But that’s only part of the story. Obviously,
it’s the most important part, but it’s only one
part. And it consciously draws your attention all the time to
the missing, that the Jews in Germany are basically missing.
They’ve either been exterminated or have gone into exile.
And there were six-hundred-thousand in Germany at the beginning
of the war; two-hundred-thousand were murdered, two-hundred-thousand
escaped, and two-hundred-thousand managed to survive by being
married to non-Jews. Who’s the most famous German-Jew
ever really, at least in the top three off the top of your head?
Number one, Karl Marx. Karl Marx. He’s not in the museum,
not there at all, not even mentioned in this museum. Now that
is a weird thing to me. The holocaust is all about remembering.
The importance of memory, the importance of fact. And they haven’t
forgotten, they’ve just completely ignored Marx.
been any sort of backlash?
I don’t know. I spoke to someone there and he didn’t
know why. But for me, it put a whole big question mark over
what the museum was all about. Now that would be a fucking bastard
thing to write about in a song. It’s not a criticism of
the museum itself, because I would encourage anyone to go there.
But it is a bit weird.