How did the last tour go, did you enjoy it? You had to put on extra dates, what were the audiences like? Do you think you're tapping into a new radical mood among young people, the same mood that got Corbyn elected?
The tour's just finished, it was great. I started with a couple of London shows at the Union Chapel, a non-conformist church in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency of Islington North. Built in 1877, it’s a wonderful gig to perform, but backstage isn’t really designed for rock and roll gigs. It’s a more of a Victorian warren. One of my crew asked if I’d seen the mural of Jeremy in one of the rooms? I went to investigate and found that, while it did depict a kindly looking fellow with a beard, this chap was carrying a lamb and his head was suspiciously backlit.
Following the London shows, I headed up to Scotland to do my first gigs there since the independence referendum. I was very encouraged to find that the energy of the Yes campaign had not dissipated, despite their defeat last September. I also found that Corbyn’s election means something different in Scotland. Progressively-minded people are happy that someone who opposes the neo-liberal consensus has been elected leader of the Labour Party, but they do wonder why it’s taken us so long to catch on to the idea that the Westminster system is broken.
It was an interesting time to be on the road up there. The Syria vote fired everyone up – even the doorman at my Glasgow hotel said it was outrageous that parliament had voted in favour of bombing. The Oldham by-election added some edge to things and the new left wing grouping, RISE, were holding their first conference on the coming weekend. As a result, the Scottish gigs were highly politicised.
We finished off with a gig at Butlins Skegness holiday camp. Sounds strange, I know, but it’s the best way to hold a festival in December and Butlins host music events most weekends through the winter. This one was the Great British Folk Festival and although I’m not really part of the tradition, the folk audience has always been very supportive. In a music business where most artists would rather not say anything politically controversial, the folk fans deserve respect as people who have helped keep the topical song alive.
I wasn’t too sure how my songs would go down at Butlins, but I gave them the same politicised set that I’d been doing in London and Scotland and it went down a storm. Every mention of Corbyn was cheered and when I finished with ‘There is Power in A Union’, they stood and sang along.
You're also one of the people that have kept the protest music tradition alive in this country, and helped make sure socialist values are kept alive and celebrated musically. Can you tell us something about your background, how you got into the protest music tradition, and why you've stuck with it when others have fallen away? Can musicians influence politics, do you think?
I got into politics through music. My earliest heroes were the singer-songwriters of the 1960s – Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Jackson Browne all wrote topical songs. My other love was American soul music. Listening to the likes of Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding and the Impressions I heard the songs of struggle that were inspired by the civil rights movement.
Although people believed that music could change the world in the 60s, that has not been my experience. Ultimately, the responsibility for changing the world rests not with the artist but with the audience. To pretend otherwise is to fail to understand history. Having said that, I do believe that music has a role to play in inspiring the audience to take up that challenge.
Attending the Rock Against Racism Carnival in May 1978 was my first political activism. That event made me realise that I was not the only person who was troubled by the casual racism, sexism and homophobia I saw everyday at the office where I worked. However, it wasn’t the bands that gave me the courage of my convictions, it was being in that audience – 100,000 kids just like me. That day I realised that my generation were going to define themselves in opposition to discrimination of all kinds, just as the previous generation had been defined by their opposition to the Vietnam War.
The bands that played that day did a great service to me by creating an atmosphere in which my perceptions were challenged, which in turn led me to take a different view of things. That is the role that music can play in the struggle. I know, because it happened to me and so I try to challenge perceptions every time I do a gig.
Can you tell us more about the phenomenon that was Red Wedge, in the eighties, which you fronted? And the obvious next question, any chance of something similar happening in the next few years?
Taking its name from a poster by Russian constructivist El Lizzitsky, Red Wedge was an artist-led initiative that sought to encourage young people to support the Labour party at the 1987 election. When the miners' strike ended in defeat, those of us who had done gigs in support of the strikers and their families didn’t just want to go back to normal. Red Wedge was our way of continuing the struggle, taking the fight to the Tories at the next possible opportunity – the 1987 election.
We chose to work with (not for) the Labour Party because we felt they represented the best vehicle for getting rid of the Tories. The miners' strike had been a genuinely revolutionary moment, but it had failed. Now we had to take the next best option. We didn’t see the fight against the Tories as an either/or choice: our message to revolutionary colleagues was that we would come on to the street with them when it was time, if they would come into the ballot box with us.
The core artists involved were myself, the Style Council, Junior Giscombe, Jerry Dammers and the Communards. In the lead up to the election, we were joined by Madness, the Smiths, Prefab Sprout, the Kane Gang, The The, Gary Kemp, The Beat, Tom Robinson and many others. What defined us was our opposition to Margaret Thatcher, rather than an avid support for the Labour Party.
Could Red Wedge happen again? I think that’s a question for someone under 30.
How has the music industry changed over the years? Could someone with your background and your openly political approach still make it, do you think?
The music industry has changed massively in the 33 years since my first record. When I started out, there were three weekly music papers that sold big – NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, as well as many smaller publications. There were only two pop radio stations, BBC Radio One and it’s regional commercial equivalent – Capital in London. And there was a weekly pop show on national tv that broadcast all the latest music and styles into your living room – Top of the Pops. All of that has either disappeared or had its voice drowned out by digital competition.
More significantly for someone who wants to make political pop, music has lost its vanguard role as the primary identifying medium of youth culture. When I was 19 years old, the only avenue of expression open to me was pop music. If I wanted to broadcast my thoughts about the world, I had to learn to play an instrument, write songs and do gigs. Now any 19-year-old can express their views by blogging or making a film on their phone or using the ready-made platforms of the social media.
Although we didn’t realise it at the time, back in the latter years of the 20th century, music was our social medium – we used it to speak to one another and to our parent’s generation. Now if 19-year-olds want to know what their peers are thinking, they don’t buy an album or look at the charts or in the NME, they simply check their Instagram account.
I also wonder if I’d have been able to overcome the amount of scorn and abuse directed at anyone who expresses a progressive opinion on social media these days. If I’d had to endure the slings and arrows of Twitter and Facebook while forming my political opinions, would I have thought better of it and just stuck to writing love songs?
Your latest book of lyrics, A Lover Sings, is published by Faber and Faber, the august publishing house for top class poetry. That's quite an achievement in itself, isn't it? What do you think about the difference between poems and songs?
The main difference is that you generally experience poetry in solitude, reading quietly somewhere. Songs tend to be more of a communal experience. To hear a favourite song sung by the artists who wrote it and to sing along with them and hundreds, maybe thousands of others, has the effect of validating whatever emotions you’ve invested in the song. It’s a kind of solidarity. The left know the powerful unity that can come from singing together but it doesn’t have to be a political song to make you feel that you’re not alone. You can’t get that sense of communion on the internet, which is why I think gigs are becoming more popular, particularly festivals where you can feel part of something bigger.
What's your thinking about current political issues, the new Labour leadership, and the sudden and unexpected resurgence of the political left?
Unexpected is the word! I think Jeremy Corbyn himself may have been the most surprised by his elevation. It’s clearly not just about him. There is something bigger at work. My hunch is that he has become a lightning rod for a different way of doing politics. His sudden popularity is less to do with his own position and more to do with an urge on the left to be part of a genuinely transformative movement.
That’s the feeling that I got in Scotland last year, when doing gigs with supporters of the Yes campaign during the referendum. People were energised not by nationalism but by a sense that another world was possible. That’s why the turn out was unprecedented – people knew that their vote would really mean something. I think the same urge is behind Corbyn’s landslide. At a time when globalisation has allowed corporations to set the agenda, our democracy has become less about change and more about rewarding the status quo. Corbyn challenges that cosy arrangement.
Whether he can survive until the general election is anybody's guess, but, again, I take heart from what happened in Scotland: the Yessers lost the referendum, but they didn’t go home and give up. They maintained the connections they’d made and kept the momentum going. My hope is that, now we Corbynites have been engaged in the process of changing our politics for the better, we won’t simply melt away if the Great Helmsman is brought down by Blairite revanchists within the PLP. They can oust him, but they will still have us to deal with in the ensuing leadership contest.
Finally, Billy, what do you mean by your phrase 'socialism of the heart'?
It’s a term I came up with after the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when ideology was being swiftly abandoned and the language that we’d used to debate our politics no longer meant anything to the public we hoped to engage. I’ve always believed that if socialism is not, at heart, a form of organised compassion, then it is not really worthy of the name. So I began trying to find ways of expressing the compassionate politics that I felt had to form the bedrock of our attempts to forge a new ideology that connected with people’s everyday experiences and ‘socialism of the heart’ was the first term I came up with.
Billy Bragg has just finished an intensive year's tour round Britain. A Lover Sings, The Selected Lyrics of Billy Bragg, is published by Faber and Faber.
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Mike Quille is a writer, reviewer and chief editor of Culture Matters.