The Saturday Boy

Published: 01/11/1991   by: Waiting For The Great Leap Forward (Motherwell FC) fanzine, Issue 10, November 1991

It’s almost a decade now since Billy Bragg turned his back on army life, picked up a guitar and set out on his ‘a gig a day until I drop’ campaign against crap pop music, Thatcherism and the world in general's social ills.

Every record release has been met with growing critical acclaim and each has taken a step forward in a musical sense since the stark, but effective 'Life's A Riot' debut mini LP. There have been classics along the way ‘A New England', 'Days Like These', 'Levi Stubbs' Tears' and of course 'Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards' to name but a few.

The new album 'Don't Try This At Home' continues the trend with a full backing band throughout and Bill even manages to sing a few of the numbers In tune!!! The singles ‘Sexuality’ and ‘You Woke Up My Neighbourhood' are by no means the only stand out tracks 'Tank Park Salute' is one of his most emotional songs to date, 'Cindy Of A Thousand Lives' enters dance territory and 'The Few' tackles the problem of hooliganism and the English game.

Since day one Billy’s, on-stage ramblings and lyric book have been peppered with comment and rhyming couplets of the footballing kind. With this In mind G.L.F. tracked Billy down at the Glasgow Barrowlands last month to find out if the man who gave our fanzine it's name really was a soccer buff. We caught Sir William and Co. loosening up after the journey up from Manchester - brushing up on their skills by ‘lumping’ one of those foam rubber footballs around the, for now, deserted ballroom.
Prior to soundchecking and dining our Bill modelled for us his latest pride and joy - a 60's style Notts. County shirt given to him a couple of nights earlier - and telling us of a similar West Ham effort he has (four sizes to big and ideal for raves). So after phoning his mum It was down to business In the 'plush' dressing room. 'Dianne' the GLF. tape machine was switched on and ...

So Billy do you I get the chance to see much football these days?

Well, not a lot really, because I work so much away from home these days. The nearest ground to where I live in West London is Queens Park Rangers' Loftus Road. If there's a good game on, particularly if I've got someone staying with me from abroad, I like to take them along to see a game, particularly Americans. It's been crap for a while though because, Q.P.R. had that plastic pitch and a team like Liverpool couldn't really play on it, it just wasn't right. Now they've reverted back to grass again, I just hope that they don't go down to the Second Division as the games would be a bit duller.

Which players do you rate in the modern game?

Looking at the England team the other night (v. Turkey), being a Londoner I have an unshakable dislike for Arsenal players, so even Smith scoring with his head ... and he seems like such a nice geezer. During the World Cup Matthew Le Tissier was impressing me. You have to remember that I see a lot of my football on T.V. and you don't get a chance to form a proper opinion of someone like you would do at a game. I always thought that he could do a lot more though If they could put an England shirt on him a bit more often. I mean the national team at the moment is so bad, or should I say the state of British football generally.....

So, what do you think are the reasons for the poor state of British football?

I don’t know. From an English point of view I suppose that the lack of imaginative European competition since the ban could be it. I don’t know though if that applies to all the British teams. It just seems to be that our style of play seems to have been left a bit behind. I think England doing well In the World Cup was a bit of a fluke - It was as ‘flukey’ as Platt's goal against Belgium. If we'd have won the World Cup It would have been unbearable because we'd have suddenly thought that we were the greatest In the f***** world which we quite blatantly aren't. I mean you only have to look at the Italians
or even the boring old Germans to see that they're playing a completely different type of game.

There are even a lot of up and coming nations who appear to be playing more attractive football

Yeah! look at Turkey the other night. I don’t know If you get the same coverage up here, but everyone was saying that the last time we beat them 5-0 or whatever, what would it be this time, Lineker got so many last time, how many this time, and what was it? 1-0? I think Africa have a few good teams coming
through with the likes of Morocco and obviously Cameroon are interesting.

So, has football been in your blood from an early age then?

Yes! I think It’s the only sport I've ever really participated in. It's always been for me a way of expressing yourself in a physical way and as such you can do that by kicking a ball up against a wall. I used to go up the Barking Park - I was quite lucky, our house used to back onto it - and when they built the new boathouse, they built this f***** huge great brick wall that you could just kick a football all night if you wanted to and I used to do that.
Most of my skills that I used when I played at school were developed on my own either with the ball up against the boating lake wall, or with a tennis ball running up and down our street doing one touch off every front wall to the top of the street where the grocer's shop was, turn around and come back down again. I used to go up and down until my old man came back from work, this was when I was about eleven or twelve.

I did have an uncle who had been an apprentice for a while at Chelsea and Fulham, he was an apprentice at Chelsea the same time as Greavsie, before he went to Torino

Who were the all time greats then? Who were your heroes?

Well I grew up at a time when West Ham won everything. One year we won the cup against Preston North End, the next year we won the European Cup Winners Cup, that was 1965. And the next year England won the World Cup. You had to pick your spot on the Barking Road outside East Ham Town Hall to see whichever cup they had won that year brought back. So it was people like funnily enough Billy Bonds who's now manager. You’d have thought looking back that Bobby Moore would have ended up as manager, or Hurst or Peters, I mean they were good but the team was really people like Bond, Lampard and Brian Deehan. They also had the first black players in Clyde Best and Eddie Coker. Clyde Best was a really dynamic player.

Do you think that it’s still true to say that football is a working class sport?

Definitely, when I was at school that was the way out, I mean it was either go work for Ford's at Dagenham, go in the services or play football. At our school we had the England Schoolboy goalkeeper and he was like, a hero, he was in my year I'd like to think that he was a pal. He was an apprentice for a while with some team but he didn't end up playing. There were others, Tony Marchant (?) went to our school and he was on the books at West Ham. Peters and Moore both came from Barking, Venables came from Barking, Ramsey came from Barking so there's a very strong link.

Do you think that this is still the case today as much as It was In those days. or is it different nowadays?

I think it's different now, I think people then were a bit less mobile and I think local employment was a bit more important. At that time it was very, very important, you know. There was a lot of local pride in West Ham, The O's - Leyton Orient - and even Barking had its own little team - they've now built a f**** huge big shopping centre on the Vicarage Field pitch. Dagenham always had a good team that did a lot in the league in the days before it became the G.M. Vauxhall Conference

So what was your first experience of actually attending a football match?

It was actually going along to see West Ham against, strangely enough QPR and Geoff Hurst kicking the ball right up on top of the stand from right In front of goal, I mean he was as close to the goal as we are to that arch (slightly further than 3 feet) and he managed to put the ball literally on top of the stand - I couldn't believe it.

I used to go a lot In 68/69 season that was my intense period after that I used to go on and off, I remember going to midweek matches when West Ham were having a good run In the league cup and things like that, but after about '72 I got a Saturday job and that kind of put me out of that, but it was getting a bit rough anyway, getting a bit out of order, It wasn't even the opposing supporters either, it was just if you walked into the wrong space at the wrong time, it was just stupid.

You've tackled the subject of hooliganism in your song 'The Few' on the new album

I tried to touch on it, yeah. I mean that's why I stopped going to watch West Ham, at the League Cup Final In 1981 against Man Utd., seeing about a thousand people doing the Nazi salute altogether, I thought, “F*** this!”

Do you think that the football authorities have been burdened unnecessarily with having to come up with the solutions to the hooligan problem?

I think that football is the location of it rather than the cause of It. I spend a lot of time explaining to friends from America that football is just the venue and that the problems are something that society as a whole has to tackle, It's a kind of tribalism, like when we were playing the first shows on this tour outside London which was in Nottingham the other night where I got that shirt, I happened to say 'West Ham United on stage, and all these geezers started shouting me down and I said “see girls I only have to say three words and they feel they have to shout me down” - it's some kind of tribal instinct, it's phenomenally pathetic isn't it?.

There was an article In The Guardian the other day about that this was all part of the English character and not any other nationality’s character, just the English. And I think it was Alan Bleasdale that said that he stopped going to football matches after a Liverpool - Newcastle game where a group of Newcastle supporters went into the Liverpool end and sang 'The Blaydon Races' they knew what was going to happen to them but they had to do it to prove a point. Would you say that these were fair points to make?

I think from someone whose nation came to Wembley and took the goalposts away (laughs)... I think we're talking about a thing in young men rather than a thing about England. I'll tell you what I do think is different about England compared to Ireland, Scotland and Wales It’s that if you're a Scottish person there are a number of ways to show your “Scottishness” - I don't just mean singing 'Auld Lang Syne' and reciting Burns - there's a strong 'identity' in what being Scottish means. It's clear to us down in London, I don't know if it's clear up here, that there is a strong pride in there. Perhaps it's because there's England to play off against, for us there aren’t many ways to express yourself as being English because so many of the things that are used to express that national identity are tied up in the 'British' thing, like the monarchy and stuff like that.

It occurred to me during the last European Championship when England were playing the Republic of Ireland and they needed riot squads to curtail the Engllsh supporters but not the Irish. The Irish have a much clearer idea of a cultural identity than the English supporters do. The young English men are so confused about what theirs is that it manifests itself in this purely territorial sort of 'wrap yourself In the flag' and go and literally prove yourself in a physical way rather than having a defined culture to fall back on, even if it is only singing 'Flower of Scotland'. We don't have anything llke that - and I'm not saying 'poor old England' or anything like that, I think it's important to note that for all the terrible things the British Empire did, before the English Merchant Class could go around the world and do that they had to first destroy their own peoples culture and submerge that before they could go on and start on the Scots, the Irish and throughout the world.

Do you think that a British national league is around the corner?

I don't know about a British League but I'd very much like to see a European League. I think a British league would be on too small a scale. I mean how many Scottish teams would be in a British League or how many Northern Irish teams, or Welsh teams who aren’t already In the English Second or Third Divisions. You're only really talking about 'super clubs' and I think that really, there’s only one super club up here in the Manchester United, Arsenal sense. I mean I would be disappointed as it would mean less London clubs, obviously there would only be Arsenal and probably Tottenham... It would be the same In a European league but I feel that the input to British football if our clubs were to regularly play teams from Italian, French and German football.

Would this be at the expense of the present domestic league set-ups?

No, I think that you would have to keep the English and Scottish leagues going. I think you could only have one European league, a super league into which you could get from winning the First Division or whatever. But you know, sitting here talking about it, and how it's a good idea, you just know that it would end up being the Marseilles, Milans and Bayern Munichs, I mean it would be those teams, the rich teams. I mean there’s no way a team like West Ham United could survive in a super league. Maybe in the Premier League, or a British league but never a European league.

I remember bumping in to a West Ham fan at a match in Falkirk, who said to me that at a game he didn't mind how the score ended up as long as he had seen some attractive football that was all that mattered. But at the big money clubs a result was all that mattered.

I think that anyone looking at football over the last 20 years would say that 'money' has knocked a lot of the stuffing out of the game that the 'spirit' literally has knocked out of it. I think it’s sad to see that the bulk of the money has been spent on the pitch and not on the terraces. I think that if the money that had been spent on the pitch had been reflected in the way that they had improved the facilities for the supporters, perhaps we wouldn't be seeing so much of the alienation that we are seeing these days. I think that some people have realised that having a successful team is like having a licence to print money. The 80s weren't very kind to those of us who think that there are higher values than just profit and greed whatever you do, whether it's in politics, art, culture or football.

Are you in touch with Fanzine Culture?

Yeah!, very much so. Porky the Poet who works very closely with me directing videos and designing T-shirts is the cartoonist with 'Fortunes Always Hiding' the West Ham fanzine. And I get 'When Saturday Comes' regularly.

Getting into the music side of things. There has been a lot of talk recently, due to its 15th Anniversary, about the 'punk' era with some of the key figures ridiculing it, saying that people were basically there to make money. Do you think, looking back, that this was the case? Do you think that you or fanzines for that matter would be here if punk hadn't happened?

There is absolutely no way that I would be here! Fanzines didn't only come out of it, f****g Julie Burchill came out of it. It's just typical of someone like her to try and destroy the past and belittle the thing that really was the font of everything. There's a terrible aura around punk, that we're all going to look back on it and it's going to be like 1966 and that it'll be a case of 'Oh what a wonderful time that was' and it was nothing like that. There was a lot of crap, but there also was a lot of really good stuff, really interesting stuff.

You have to remember that the cutting edge of the Scottish cultural identity of the early 80s was based on bands - Orange Juice, Simple Minds, Aztec Camera and stuff like that - That was certainly our perception of how It was from London. I don't think that any of those bands would have happened. I think people underestimate how important it WAS, but overestimate how important it IS. A bit of a paradox, but ...

Do you think that a scene like that will ever happen again?

I f*****g hope so, and sooner rather than later. Something to just come along I mean we've had Bryan Adams at number 1 for 16 weeks - the whole industry's stagnant.

Why do you think you’ve outlasted all the other politically influenced bands and songwriters that were around in the early 80s. Paul Weller, Strummer and The Clash, X. Moore's Redskins, people like that?

I don't really know why that is. Weller's got a wife and two kids or whatever now, so he's got other things to do. Strummer's jumping in Shane McGowan's grave. X. Moore, Yeah! where’s X. Moore when you need him! Well I would argue that the difference between me and X. Moore is that I had a less dogmatic agenda, I was more flexible. With the Style council they were based on content rather than image so they lasted a bit longer. And Strummer and The Clash ... I think that The Clash exist outside anything that the rest of us are pissing around doing.

Part of the reason for me still being around is that I've never been incredibly successful, I think that when you achieve that level of chart success you're sort of in building your own obsolescence because there's such a quick turnover in images. So I'm quite happy doing this. We'll probably get around 1500 in tonight, although the important thing is to remember to come and play in Glasgow whether you're playing here (Barrowlands) or some tiny little venue up the road. It's not about painting it big like Jim Kerr, it's just about keeping going.

So, what is your main inspiration for keeping going?

Really it's because I've never been any good at anything else. Honestly, it kind of justifies my existence as a human being. When I was In the army I felt as though I had given up on my responsibilities in a big way. I felt as if I wasn't taking part in society any longer. The other thing is that it's a challenge, 'Don't Try This At Home' is the first album of mine to start to make some in-roads into America which is encouraging.

Starting from 'Life's A Riot With Spy V’s Spy' and working your way though your albums there is a steady progression in musical terms and production values. Do you think that you’ll ever get to the stage of recording 'Brewing Up With The London Philharmonic' or anything like that?

I'd like to think of it as a logical progression. I did 'The Internationale' with a miners choir but I think I'd be too embarrassed to go that far. Come back in 20 years time and remind me of this if I do.

You're almost 10 years down the road now. are there any signs of a ‘Greatest Hits’ album?

Yeah! 10 years ago I was in the army. It's actually coming up on 8 years since 'Life's a Riot’ was recorded, 8 years come February. Go Discs! are considering releasing 'Billy Bragg's Golden Decade' with a picture of me and my mum on the cover with all my gold records!!! (laughs)

What’s your favourite Billy Bragg song then?

Well, from the new album, at the moment I'm getting a lot of pleasure from singing songs like 'God's Footballer' which I started singing a couple of nights ago. 'Cindy of A Thousand Lives' is good fun. But I think 'Tank Park Salute' because it touches on something I've never been able to talk about never mind write a song about. So that's probably for me personally as an individual a very important song. I don’t expect it to be important to everyone who listens to it, but for me as a writer and more importantly as a person it’s very important.

Do you see yourself writing more ‘with’ other people or even ‘for’ other people?

I'd love to, yeah! That was part of the idea with 'Don't Try This At Home', hence 'Sexuality' and 'You Woke Up My Neighbourhood with Johnny Marr and Peter Buck respectively. For me to sit down and do some writing with someone else to try and give me more inspiration to write on my own. And I'd like to think that it could go on, there's loads of people I'd like to have the opportunity to sit down and write with.

Onto the political side of things, sometime next year we’ll all be putting a cross on the ballot paper, how do you see things turning out?

Yes we will! Well I don't really see the Labour party winning the next election, but the Tories might lose it, if you see what I mean. I can't see the Labour Party suddenly being swept to a landslide! What for you lot if Labour don't win? Do you think independence would be the answer? I don’t really see it working without Scotland being a client state for some other nation. I mean Scotland is a nation of five million people without an elected assembly. London is a city of ten million people without an elected assembly. Our common enemy is the Tories and we can't do anything until we defeat them. My city is failing apart and there's no central planning. There are homeless people wandering from borough to borough, the education system is in pieces, the transport system is totally f****d, there are both too many cars and not enough spending on public transport. There needs to be a central elected body to run the city just like there needs to be a central elected body here in Scotland.

Do you think Neil Kinnock is the man for the job or do you think that say, John Smith could do a better job in leading the party?

I honestly don't think that either John Smith or Gordon Brown have what it takes to lead the party. Robin Cook has impressed me a lot when talking on health. This election is ‘shit or bust’ for Kinnock, obviously. I think he would make a good Prime Minister. I think he would change if he became Prime Minister In the same way that Thatcher changed when she was elected. Not in her direction I hasten to add. So I'd like to see it happen but I think he'd need more than one term to be able to do anything!

Getting back to football. If you were to be reincarnated as a footballer, whose legs or whose boots would you like to fill?

For one June day in 1966 - Geoff Hurst

Did the ball cross the line?

I'll tell you what. I was doing a radio interview in Berlin, live 'on-air' with this German geezer. We were talking just like this, he was talking to me in English and translating for the listeners. And he said something about 1966 and I kind of laughed about it, and he said 'but the ball never crossed the line, I said 'what', he said 'The ball never crossed the line'. And I said 'Of course it did' and he said 'No, no we know in Germany that the ball never went across the line' and I said 'I suppose you think that, that was definitely a penalty in the last World Cup' and he said 'No, we deserved that with the run of play' and I said 'What do you think we deserved in 1966 with the run of play then' and we had this 45 seconds of intense verbal in English not translated for the German listeners. It was incredible.

Getting back to what I was saying though. My heroes are from a different era from now. I wrote God's Footballer partly inspired, not only by Peter Knowles but, by 'Gazza Mania'. By this whole thing - and I don't want to sound like a heretic in front of you two - of football being the highest calling that there is in life, to be a football hero like a pop star. And I wrote God's Footballer with that pay-off line you know 'beyond the spiritual' that suggests that there’s more to life temporal, things whether it's whoever it is that's doing my job or Gazza's or whoever it is. There's another side that you've got to serve. I think back to players like Stan Bowles, Rodney Marsh, Bestie, people like that.

Do you find it disturbing that someone like Paul Gascoigne can be voted Sports Personality of the Year and be revered almost like a God?

I find it deeply disturbing. Only Bobby Charlton or some of those guys would come anywhere near that. And maybe that's because we were all kids. Because I remember my old man when I was a kid going on about Nat Lofthouse, Duncan Edwards and all those guys, and me thinking 'Who the f... are they, never heard of them'. Now when I go on to guys In their 20s or even their teens about Bobby Moore and Denis Law and about how great guys like them were. I went up to Johnny Marr's and they were all sitting round watching the Man City 'Lee, Bell and Summerbee' video, it was the three of them sitting round now looking back, talking about all the old games, and it was brill. There was a heretical sect of Man. City fans at our school which I flirted with, and it really brought it all back, it was incredible to watch. But does it have any relevance today, or are we just sitting round with our 'Match of the Day' best of the 1960s videos, wallowing In the past.

At Motherwell there has always been a strong link between the community and the club. and the cup final success solidified that. There was a lot of coverage given to great players of the past. and now even some of the younger supporters know who ’Charlie Altken’ was - probably the most popular player with the older generation. So, surely something like that creates a great bond within the community?

Yeah! it's like the same as when West Ham United are in a Cup Final, even in Barking which is in the next borough along, it's like ‘Universal West Ham-ness’ has been declared. And on a Saturday when you'd probably be thrown through a pub window for doing something stupid, suddenly you can do those type of things. And it really focuses everyone’s pride in the community - especially when they beat someone like Arsenal ... Willie Young - what a bastard! Tripping up Paul Allen, oh dear oh dear, I’ve never forgotten that.

At this point we decided to call It a day and after modelling his outsize 'Clyde Best' Hammers shirt Billy went off to prepare for the show.
It only remains for us to say once again a big THANK YOU! to Billy for taking the time to talk to the ‘GLF Groveller’s 1st XI’ Cheers Bill!!

Ian Mulvey & Robert Stewart.
From ‘Waiting for The Great Leap Forward’ fanzine
Issue 10 – November 1991

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