Protest and be damned
Published 08/10/2011 | 05:00
Billy Bragg was driving from his home on the south coast of England in rural Dorset to play a show in Leeds this summer when he heard the news on the radio that the murdered teenager Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked by the News of the World.
He resolved there and then to write a new song that would capture the mood of public revulsion over the UK phone hacking scandal.
In his dressing room he penned 'Never Buy The Sun' (The Sun being the sister title to the News Of The World). It pulled no punches. "While the parents of the missing girl cling desperately to hope/And the copper takes improper payments in a thick brown envelope/And no one in the newsroom asks where is this headline from/Scousers never buy 'The Sun'."
The reference to the scousers goes back to the boycott of the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid in the wake of the Hillsborough football disaster in the 1980s, when the paper published false allegations that Liverpool football fans stole the personal belongings of, and urinated on, the dead and dying victims of the fatal terrace crush. The tabloid's circulation on Merseyside plummeted and has never recovered.
"I got the line about scousers never buying The Sun because they are the only people who come out of this (the phone-hacking scandal) with any kind of moral dignity," says Billy, ahead of his Irish tour later this month. "Not only were our politicians, our police and our press implicated, but so were the British people who made the News of the World the biggest selling newspaper in the world.
"I sang it for the first time at a festival in a playground in Leeds and it went down so well. I got this guy to film me playing it in the dressing room before the gig and he posted it online that night. It had an amazing response within the next 24 hours. So I recorded it in a studio and made it available as a free download. I wanted to get it out before Murdoch sat down to be interrogated by parliament.
"At a time when the record industry is going through such convulsions, there isn't either the will or the means to release a Billy Bragg song that quickly. By contrast, when I recorded Between the Wars during the miners' strike in the 1980s, by the time I got it released the bloody strike had ended!" he laughs.
Just as his hero Woody Guthrie highlighted the plight of the dust bowl refugees in the American Midwest, Billy has always written about the plight of the underdog in his songs. Guthrie famously had a sticker on the body of his acoustic guitar that said This Machine Kills Fascists; Billy has a sticker on his that reads This Guitar Kills Time.
"People refer to what I do as protest music," says Billy. "It's not really protest at all -- it's an alternative commentary to what's happening in the news. To call it protest makes it sound like I've a chip on my shoulder. I could have written a column for a newspaper but a column wouldn't have given the 2,000 people I played to that day the chance to express for the first time, probably, their communal outrage. Because when I sang that line 'scousers never buy the Sun', everybody cheered. I thought that was very interesting because I was in Yorkshire.
"Music may not be the urgent medium that it was 30 years ago for, say, Joe Strummer, but it still has a role that the internet hasn't completely superseded."
The other major news story in his homeland this summer was the July riots. What was Billy's take on them?
"The causes are pretty clear: people are being pushed up against the wall and are feeling pretty powerless. I know I sound like my granddad when I say this but I'm with that black woman in Hackney who was shouting at the looters 'this is supposed to be about something more than just getting new trainers'."
Does he see any difference between the riots in July and the Brixton riots of the 1980s?
"So many of those confrontations had an ideological framework. Now we live in a society with no ideology. Since the end of the Berlin Wall, government has just become a matter of trying to manage the markets. We don't have an idea that binds us together as a nation. That applies to both Knightsbridge and to Clapham or Tottenham. Instead of going out and campaigning for an idea and chanting a name or flying a flag, it's just every person for himself. When you come to that conclusion, you're starting to stray into the narrative that Karl Marx wrote 150 or so years ago.
"Politicians no longer have those kind of visionary ideas for society. All they have is, as long as loads of money is being turned over, some of it will inevitably trickle down."
Not everyone appreciates Billy Bragg being so outspoken about his political views. Recently, an incendiary letter was circulated to his neighbours where he lives in Dorset.
"I felt sorry for my neighbours. Whenever I do some gigs or go on the radio I usually get some hate mail. It's par for the course. It always wants to tell me that I am not working class, not a patriot and not a heterosexual, which is what that letter said."
Billy is married with a son, Jack. How did the neighbours react?
"Every time I went out with my dog, complete strangers who had either received one of these letters or read about it were telling me what a nice bloke I was and patting me on the back."
Next up for Billy is a compilation of songs which he made available on his website over the past 10 years. And then next year he will be raiding the vaults of his Mermaid Avenue project -- his 1990s collaboration with Chicago stalwarts Wilco, where they put music to previously unseen Woody Guthrie lyrics at the request of his daughter Norah Guthrie.
"Next year is Woody Guthrie's centenary," says Billy. "He was born in 1912. There's another album's worth of material we recorded in the original sessions in Dublin with Wilco, along with a documentary made in Dublin of the making of the record.
"I'd love to do some shows with Wilco. We chose Dublin because I convinced (Wilco singer) Jeff Tweedy that it was halfway between London and Chicago, where he lives. He had played a show in Dublin and really liked the city and so jumped at the chance to spend some time getting to know the place. I've been coming to Ireland for years, as you know, and enjoyed driving them around the countryside."
Billy Bragg plays the Set Theatre, Kilkenny, October 19; The Forum, Waterford, 20; Droichead Arts Centre, Drogheda, 22; Róisín Dubh, Galway, 23; Dolan's Pub, Limerick, 24; Cyprus Avenue , Cork, 25; Empire Music Hall, Belfast; 27; and the Button Factory, Dublin, 28. 'Never Buy The Sun' is available to download at www.billybragg.co.uk email@example.com