Interview with Billy Bragg conducted by Greg Svitil At Ben’s Chili Bowl, Washington, DC, on April 13, 2002.
Billy Bragg recently stood before a House of Commons committee to comment on the lack of interest in politics among young people in the U.K. To Billy, people’s cynicism stems in part from an inability to relate with the identities and backgrounds of their representatives. “No disrespect to you all, but I look at you there in your suits and your ties and I’m sitting here in my Clash t-shirt,” he said, lifting up his sweater.
“What I am saying is if I was a Muslim woman and I looked at the body politic as represented through the mainstream media, where would I see myself? I wouldn’t see myself there at all.”
“They weren’t too pleased,” he later said, but the veteran songwriter/socialist campaigner certainly made his point.
His new LP, “England, Half English” (released March 4 on Cooking Vinyl/Elektra), is his first with The Blokes (his eighth studio effort as a solo artist), the band he has toured with for the last several years. The band is comprised of Ian McLagen (formerly of The Faces, The Small Faces, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones) on Hammond organ and piano, Ben Mandelson (close associate of the 3 Mustaphas 3) on lap steel guitar and bouzouki, Lu Edmonds (who has played with The damned, PIL, The Mekons and Shriekback) on electric guitar, saz, cumbus and backing vocals, Martyn Barker (formerly of Shriekback) on drums, and Simon Edwards (who has been involved with the likes of Fairground Attraction, Talk, Talk, Kirsty MacColl and Shriekback) on bass.
“England, Half English” benefits healthily from the musicianship of the Blokes, providing Bragg’s love songs and protest songs alike with a warm, thick foundation. Tracks such as “St. Monday” and “Baby Faroukh” are perhaps a sign of the Billy Bragg of the twenty-first century- melodic and rhythmic- while “Some Days I See The Point” and “Another Kind Of Judy” are reflective and honest in typical Bragg fashion. “Take Down The Union Jack” is perhaps the centerpiece of the LP. Stripped down to a simple guitar and voice arrangement, the song is a rallying call for a new kind of national identity.
As a live band, they are the perfect match for Bragg, providing a soulful and textured foundation upon which he bashes out the songs, with the aid of his trademark Telecaster. On April 13, at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., Bragg tells the audience “My name is Badly Drawn Bloke, and this is my song” as the six of them bring the house down with a rousing “A New England,” including the third verse that was added for the 1984 hit version by the late Kirsty MacColl. Billy returns unaccompanied for the first part of the encore, and you could’ve heard a pin drop in the sold-out venue when he performs “The Only One.” At the end of the song, he makes known his intentions to take the “religiosity into the higher orbitary,” before launching into an incredibly moving rendition of The Smiths’ classic, “Jeane,” that would have made Morrissey himself bury his head in the pillow.
Sometime in the late afternoon on the day of the gig, I wound up with Billy, Lu and Ian at Washington, D.C.’s legendary Ben’s Chili Bowl (the home of “soul in a bowl”). With two large bowls of veggie chili and two sodas between us, William Bloke sat down to discuss his new LP, the current state of politics, and the perversions of American tea.
Greg: Were the new songs mostly written after the recordings of the Mermaid Avenue albums?
Billy: Yeah, they were. I’d written some songs, but getting together with these guys (The Blokes) showed me a different way of writing songs. I’ll be very interested in writing about identity. The music that they make is very multi-cultural. Their backgrounds, particularly Ben and Lu, playing in African bands, and Turkish and Arabic music, has really fed into me to write songs about identity that come from a multi-cultural space rather than writing rock songs about identity. I can write songs that sound multi-cultural in themselves to start with, which makes it easier to write about identity, because when you want to write about identity, particularly national identity, it can easily be misconstrued, like Morrissey was when he wrote things like “Bengali in Platforms.”
Greg: Or when he wrote “The National Front Disco.”
Billy: Yeah, exactly. What the funk was he on about? He never really explained it. You’ve got to be able to explain yourself. You can’t be ambiguous about those things.
Greg: Speaking of the Englishness of the record, what kind of response has there been to the sentiments of something like “Take Down the Union Jack”?
Billy: Interestingly enough, when the Queen Mother died the other day, “take down the Union Jack / it clashes with the sunset” now has a different kind of meaning, because she was the last Empress of England. She was crowned Empress of India. Her husband was the Emperor of India. So that whole imperial thing is coming to an end. She was our last link. This summer is the Queen’s Jubilee. It’s in June, June third. And I’m planning not only to release “Take Down the Union Jack,” but to have it at number one in the charts on the week of the Jubilee.
Greg: I read that you were planning on not attending.
Billy: (laughs) That’s true.
Greg: Was there anything in particular about it this year?
Billy: One of the things, funnily enough, was the Sex Pistols re-releasing “God Save the Queen.” I just think that’s just nostalgia. I’m sick of nostalgia. I need something contemporary. I know I’m forty-four years old, and it would be better if it was a couple of spiky nineteen- and twenty-year-old’s, but there just aren’t. The monarchy represents one tradition- the flag, the empire- I represent another tradition- dissent. A fine old tradition, it includes Thomas Payne, William Blake and George Orwell. Those voices must be heard, and that’s what I want to do. I want to try and make those voices heard.
Greg: Last month you were at the House of Commons. Tell us about that.
Billy: It was a committee, rather than the actual House itself. They were talking about participation, and why people don’t participate. My theory is that our great enemy, in trying to make a better world, is cynicism. People are very cynical, and the Labour Party, by their actions, is only making people more cynical.
Greg: While you were there, you said “no disrespect to you all, but you’re up there in your suits and ties, and I’m here in my Clash T-shirt.”
Billy: It was under my jumper. They weren’t too pleased, because I was inferring that they weren’t too in touch. I was suggesting that there must be a way of getting less white men in suits in Parliament. The Lords is appointed. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t appoint someone like yourself. But they don’t, they just appoint fuckin’ boring old geezers. That’s what I was saying. When are we going to see people like ourselves represented there, instead of Lord-this and Lord-that?
Greg: A lot of young people feel that they aren’t represented by their governments.
Billy: But that’s no reason to disengage. That should make them engage even more, (to) work harder to find a way to express their ideas, instead of letting politicians do it for them.
Greg: On the other hand, a few years ago at the World Bank/IMF protests here in Washington and in Seattle, an estimated 20-25,000 people turned up in D.C. alone. How would you account for the massive turnouts at those demonstrations?
Billy: Those people in those demonstrations have made it a choice. They do not want to live in a society based purely on exploitation. However, what political party is offering them an alternative to the American model of capitalism? There isn’t one, nor is there in England. How do you express that frustration?
Greg: As far as third party politics in this country go, they’ll let somebody like Ross Perot onto TV, but you’d never see Nader.
Billy: Exactly. I saw Nader at Madison Square Garden just before the last election. He was really powerful. The things he was saying, the way he was articulating, the way the audience was responding was as left-wing a thing as I’ve ever seen in the United States of America. I was very impressed by it.
Greg: I just don’t buy that Bush’s approval rating is 80%. I don’t know where they’re getting those numbers.
Billy: In my country, they’re saying that because so many people went and viewed the body of the Queen Mother, that we are a country of royalists. Well, I don’t fuckin’ know any royalists. But how do you register your dissent? Well, I happen to believe that you can’t change the world by smashing up branches of McDonald’s. It’s self-defeating. It grabs the headlines, but it doesn’t really do anything. My suggestion, if you want to change the world, would be to try to organize a labor union at McDonald’s. That would be a much more proactive way to go. I realize that would be incredibly difficult, and people have tried and failed. But, long-term, that’s the way to change the world.
Greg: One of my favorite records of yours is The Internationale. How did you come to record a record largely filled with very traditional protest music?
Billy: At the time, the Berlin Wall was coming down. The whole idea of traditional leftist politics was being thrown in the rubbish bin, specifically by the peoples of Eastern Europe. I felt that there was a bit of throwing the baby out with the bath water there. We had an old traditional, that was a proud tradition, that would served us well if carried forward, particularly the cultural tradition, some aspects of it. Now, at the Vancouver Folk Festival in 1989, I think it was, shortly after the Tienemen Square episode, Pete Seeger said to me “at the finale tonight, I’m gonna sing ‘the Internationale’, Bill, and I want you to come up and sing it with me.” I said “I don’t know the words to the American one,” and he said “don’t worry, sing the English version.” And I said “Pete, the English lyrics are so archaic, they don’t actually mean anything to me anymore.” The first verse of the English version is “arise ye starvelings from your slumbers / arise ye kings of want / for reason, in revolt now thunders / and here ends the age of cant.” So Seeger just looks me in the eye and says “well why don’t you just write some new lyrics?” He took me to one side, and he got a piece of paper, and he closed his eyes, and he sang the French original lyrics. He wrote down a direct translation, gave it to me, said “that’s the original, work off that.” So, when Pete tells you to do something like that, it’s hard not to be inspired.
Greg: It does feel contemporary- at the World Bank protests, within a couple of hours of being there, we were being thrown to the pavement by cops, and after it was all over and I went home, that was the first record I put on.
Billy: That’s great. I was in New York during the World Economic protest this year, funnily enough, promoting “NPWA.” I went to this organizing evening at a church in the west side, and to see these young people organizing, it was most inspirational, and they asked me to sing some songs. And I sang “NPWA,” and I sang “The Unwelcome Guest,” but I didn’t sing “The Internationale,” because I thought “this isn’t the place.” These are new people with new ideas. As soon as I finished, one of the young people said “why didn’t you sing ‘The Internationale’”? I totally misjudged that.
Greg: Another songs on that record is “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night.” Were you interested in his music at an early age?
Billy: Not at an early age. In the UK, he didn’t really have any prolife at all. It was only when I came the US that people started to talk to me about it, comparing me to him. That was how I discovered him. Even Woody- you couldn’t really get Woody’s records when I was growing up and listening to Bob Dylan. Woody had no profile in the UK. It was only when I came to the US. Where people in the UK saw me as a one-man crash, people in America saw me playing solo and singing about unions, and it made them think of Woody. And then when I was in America, I was able to find his material, find his records, understand what people were talking about. I’d barely heard him before.
Greg: What other things were you listening to, at an early age, that you feel might have an influence on what you do?
Billy: I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. Other people in my class were listening to prog rock bands and stuff like that. Mac was in a band called The Faces, and they were great. They were very admired by my mates. I was so lucky when I found Mac on ebay. And Weller.
Greg: You’re a full-time musician, you’re politically involved, you have a family. Do you ever feel overwhelmed by all these things?
Billy: Of course. You’re a long way from home, a long way from family, a long way from the issues that usually inspire me. But you meet people on the road, other activists, and they inspire you back and charge you up. For instance, we’ve just done a gig in New York, and Naomi Kline was in the dressing room afterwards, and I’ve known Naomi from years ago in Canada, her and her husband, who’s a filmmaker. I’ve known them for a long time. We were discussing this sort of thing. Once you’ve made your mark, you find people that come out of the woodwork that are doing some incredible work, and the contact is inspirational. We always have those moment of “is it worth it?” But as I’ve said, the fight against cynicism is constant, the urge to walk away, give up, disengage. I don’t do politics all the time. There are long periods when I just sit around, watching the football on TV, or walking the dog. Life isn’t all politics, but you must engage at some point.
Greg: Did doing the records of Wilco give you a chance to regroup?
Billy: Yeah, it did. It gave me a chance to observe the new Labour government, to think about what politics come under the ideological politics of the 80’s, which hugely influenced me. What comes after that? What can I write about? I’ve always had a feel for Englishness. But to really make an issue of it, that was the thing I was trying to think through, and these guys really helped me. They gave me the perspective on how to write “England, Half English.”
Greg: Speaking of Englishness, for anyone who’s reading this who isn’t English, would you mind explaining the proper way to prepare a pot of tea?
Billy: It would be good if you Americans could make tea the way we make tea. You have such a bizarre…I mean, the idea of Latte Chai- a coffee that is not a coffee, a tea that is not a tea- it’s perverse. It’s enough that you’re a republic- there’s no need to rub it in. Boil the pot: first, you must have a kettle to boil the tea. Secondly, you must have a teapot in which to brew the tea. You must take the boiling water, and pour it into the teapot. Then, you must put a teaspoon full on tea in. For each person who wants a cup, pour the water in, leave it to stand, put a crumpet into a toaster, put the toaster on. When the crumpet pops up, it’s time to pour the tea. Get a tea strainer to strain out the leaves. Get a China cup with a saucer, pour the tea into the cup through the strainer. Leave room for the milk. Add the milk after the tea, and a little sugar for taste. Butter the crumpet. Sit down. And all the time you’re doing this, you must be naked.