Billy Bragg Fight Songs

People think I'm arrogant. I probably am. I'm Billy Bragg, take it or leave it

Published: 02/09/1999   by: Article by Bibi van der Zee, published in The Guardian newspaper, 2 September, 1999

You can hardly escape from Billy Bragg at the moment. He disappeared from view seven years ago when he got married and started a family — his paternity leave, he calls it. But he started a gentle resurfacing in 1996, when he brought out the wonderful William Bloke album, and continued in 1998 with Mermaid Avenue, his homage to American folk singer Woodie Guthrie. But this was low-profile stuff after the Red Wedge days of the late 80s, when everywhere you looked there was Billy hanging out with Paul Weller and telling us to vote Labour.

But this summer he's been all over Britain like a rash: taking us on Rock Tours on TV, getting his picture in Time Out, doing voice-overs for documentaries about young soldiers, presenting the Johnny Walker show on Radio 2, and bringing out a compilation album. Oh, and having a street named after him: the brand-new Bragg Close in Dagenham, Essex.

Tumultuous changes have taken place in his life since the 80s. Fatherhood has made a big impact, as has husbandhood; priorities have had to be changed, lifestyle turned upside down. Bragg's political songs may have made a thousand teenagers join the Labour Party but now, aged 40, he says that if it hadn't been for the miners, he'd probably have just concentrated on romantic ballads. The man who wrote New England ('I don't want to change the world/ I'm not looking for New England/ Just looking for another girl') and had another generation of boys and men nodding their heads knowingly at the useless drive of the male libido, now gets his kicks in the supermarket with his wife. Ah, but is he happy?

He pauses for a long time, as we sit in a crowded London coffee shop. 'Happiness, happiness. It's hard to define happiness,' he murmurs at long last. 'Is happiness when you wake up in the morning and don't ever think, 'Oh God, I don't want to do this'? Because that happens to me quite a bit. In a couple of weeks' time I've got to pack my bags, kiss my wife and kids goodbye, steel myself to get on a plane and go to the other side of the world for five weeks and to be honest I don't really want to do it.'

Coming from a man who once revelled in touring (gigs in Moscow included political meetings with the comrades; gigs in Nicaragua took place in the Sandinista Cultural Workers' Union) this is a bit of a shocker. 'It's a paradox, innit? I mean, it's sort of my definition of success that I'm doing what I love to do, and that people will pay me to do it. And once I'm actually on stage, I really like it. I suppose happiness is probably like nirvana, you'll never get there.' He actually looks a bit concerned. 'Am I crushing your hopes? There is hope, you know, things do get less hard, don't give up.'

Bragg is, after all, famous more than anything for being a nice bloke. A nice bloke with a big mouth, and a lot to say for himself. And there seems to be a whole new audience going to his gigs: 'I've noticed that. It's like, there's a generation that I supplied songs to while they were in college or whatever, and now they've grown up and want to use my music for films and stuff. And now there are all these young kids turning up to my gigs. I don't know what they were doing in the 80s, but I don't think they were listening to me.'

He refuses to admit to any regrets that his audience has always been pretty small. Bragg has only broken into the top 10 once, and his album sales rarely top the 70,000 mark. He frowns when asked if he wishes he could reach more people: 'At what cost? With the 1992 album Don't Try This at Home I let the record company do it the way they'd always wanted to do it, with videos and singles and all that, and basically we sold the same amount of records.

I can't be arsed to make singles every three months, and I'm excused videos I've got a note. It just seems pointless spending pounds 15,000 on a video that gets shown once on MTV at 3am.' He warms to his theme. 'It's not like I lie awake at night and wish I was playing stadiums. I've played stadiums, I've done gigs where there were 200,000 people there, like Artists Against Apartheid in 1987. I think, personally, that the sort of people who like my music have a kind of deeper sincerity. Their expectations are higher, so I have to keep my expectations of myself high.'

And Billy Bragg as Uncle Billy, as the father figure, writing love songs about bath time and bus stops instead of singing the Internationale? He says he's always written love songs, 'and in a way, if the miners' strike hadn't come along, I probably would never have got so ideological. I've always written about what I see, about how I see things.' For Bragg, after all, song-writing started out as a way of pulling: 'I realised at school that if you weren't in the football team, and you didn't have a car, you were going to have to come up with a different way of doing it. And then I found out that if you put a girl's name in, or a reference or something, you could get their attention and they'd keep listening.'

But now those days are gone: how do you keep on writing love songs when you've been married for seven years? 'Listen,' he says firmly. 'I wrote Saturday Boy (about the unrequited love of a 15-year-old) when I was 27; it's not that hard to remember what it felt like.' It's an odd answer for someone who says his family is the centre of his world, especially as he's already written about married love: 'Stealing a kiss in the supermarket, I walk you down the aisle, You fill my basket,' he wrote in Brickbat (on William Bloke). 'I'm having to learn that as I go along. I want to write about the things that are happening to me at the moment.' The way love changes within a marriage? 'I'm doing that, I'm writing, but I'm a dreadful non-finisher of songs. The urge to focus on them and finish them doesn't seem that strong at the moment.' It must be harder to be absolutely honest if you don't want to hurt someone. The new album, called Reaching to the Converted (mostly B sides including Greetings to the New Brunette, and some previously unrecorded material), only has one recent song on it: 'And we're both going to have to accept/ That this might be as good as it gets/ As our love for each other respects, Neither rule nor reason' These are love songs for a married generation.

In the meantime politics hasn't really been abandoned: he's been involved in the debate over the future of the House of Lords, and then there was the famous toilet incident. At Glastonbury this year Bragg came across a sign on a backstage toilet announcing that this was solely for the use of the Manic Street Preachers, and he blew his top. 'I just get fed up with people singing about politics without living it. I wouldn't have minded the toilet thing if it'd been someone like the Prodigy, but I really care about the Manics.' Not quite mellowed then. We get on to the subject of religion, and Bragg admits that he likes churches. His mother's Catholic, his wife is Catholic, and he wears a St Christopher medallion round his neck (although, as he points out, that's actually got less to do with religion than with the fact he comes from Essex). And from there, somehow we get to life in space, and the fact that Bragg believes that we are all alone in the universe. Pressed, the best argument he can come up with is that we haven't heard from anyone else. 'Why haven't they got in touch? Nah mate, we're all on our own.' He does believe in God, though not some all-powerful being he just thinks that this planet is too impressive to have been an accident. 'How can there not be a reason for us to be here?' And what exactly is his place in all this? 'I don't give a shit what people think about me. People think I'm arrogant, and I probably am. I'm Billy Bragg, take it or leave it. Look, I've got a big nose, a bad singing voice, I'm probably a stone overweight, I drive a four-wheel drive car, I have my faults but this is how I am. This is me.'

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