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Saturday 16 December 2017

Bonnie Prince Billy - Bragg in Dublin

Our music critic meets Billy Bragg in Dublin to talk about his new book on skiffle, the often maligned music movement of the 1950s. But Bragg, one of Britain's great protest singers, can't stop thinking about the smouldering Grenfell Tower and seismic political shifts back home

Rose-tinted glasses: Billy Bragg says he doesn't like to be too nostalgic about the past and still has a passion for new music. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Rose-tinted glasses: Billy Bragg says he doesn't like to be too nostalgic about the past and still has a passion for new music. Photo: Caroline Quinn
John Meagher

John Meagher

Billy Bragg is sitting in the bar of a swish boutique hotel in Dún Laoghaire, glorious summer sunshine and the sparkling Dublin Bay waters outside. But his mind is quite far away. Grenfell Tower in London is a smouldering ruin and he can't stop thinking about it.

"I think it will be a tipping point," he says. "There's such anger out there about it - and completely justified, too. It's a symbol about the way poor people have been treated in my country for a very long time. They've been treated with contempt.

"You can sense that people want a completely new type of government - one that's got some compassion."

That same day, Theresa May had turned up at the site of the tragedy, but did not meet grieving families, leading many to question both her powers of empathy and her leadership qualities that had been found to be so lacking in the weeks up to the recent UK general election.

Bragg thinks the Tory leader is on her last legs as PM and was enthused by the performance of Jeremy Corbyn in the election, despite considerable obstacles that had been put in his way.

"Most of the newspapers in the UK were in the May camp and demonised Corbyn as best they could," he says, "but the young people - the ones who will be most affected by Brexit - could see through it and they came out on election day to support Corbyn in big numbers, and it was great to see.

"He has engaged them in the way that no other politician has done in a long time. You can see that he's really been embraced by grime artists, especially, and that doesn't surprise me one bit because that's a genre that does more than most to lift the lid on the injustices in Britain today."

Bragg is in Ireland to speak at the Dalkey Book Festival and he's got a new book to promote. Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is a labour of love about an often maligned music movement that burned brightly in Britain for a few years in the 1950s. "It's been largely forgotten about," he argues, "and yet it's the bridge to the great music that came out of Britain in the 1960s. The Beatles may have honed their craft in Hamburg but they had already been schooled in playing in front of audiences some years before that [in the skiffle band, the Quarrymen]."

Bragg became engaged by skiffle when he was in the US making a roots album centred on railways with the great US guitarist Joe Henry. "The roots of it go back to the 1850s," he says, "and it had its moment across the Atlantic in Britain 100 years later."

Bragg believes skiffle is significant for two reasons. "It was the first time that teenagers played music for other teenagers," he says. "And it ushered in the idea that you did not need to have great musicianship to get up and play music. Of course, that would be echoed 20 years later with punk, but the idea came about in the 1950s."

There was a DIY aspect to skiffle that would be reflected in the punk era, but was eschewed by the sophistication of the great British bands who came to define the 60s. None of them had much time for washboards - the crude 'instrument' that became popularised by skiffle - when they were holed up in expensive studios with every whim at their beck and call.

Unlike most other genres of music, skiffle didn't leave a large body of recorded work.

"Remember, many of them were really young and had no access to recording studios and their sound evolved by the time they came to recording anything. And some of them were a bit dismissive of it later, simply because they didn't want to think about the sort of songs they had written when they were 14 or 15. I'm not sure I'd want anyone to hear what kind of music I was doing then."

The book focuses on the genre's most successful proponent, Lonnie Donegan. Music historians often dismiss Donegan as a novelty act - he topped the charts in 1960 with 'My Old Man's a Dustman', a fact that does not help his cause - but Bragg insists that he was a proto-rock star who was enormously influential. "For a time, he was up there with Elvis and Tommy Steele," he says. "I spoke to Van Morrison for the book, and he told me what an impact Donegan had had on him when he was a boy of 12 or 13."

Years ago, shortly before Donegan died, Bragg got to meet him. He was in the company of the late BBC DJ John Peel, and was struck by how awed Peel was of the aging star.

"He was silent for much of the meeting and told me later just how much Donegan had meant to him. When you hear people like John Peel talk of another so reverentially it makes you want to really discover them, and Donegan was a very significant figure. He doesn't get the credit he deserves."

Bragg, who turns 60 later this year, was born in 1957 in Essex at the height of skiffle's popularity, although it would be many years before the genre had an impact on him. He was in his late teens when punk came along. Attending a Clash gig in 1977 would be an epiphanic moment as he saw how effective it would be to articulate rage in song. He's been doing that ever since the release of his politically charged debut album Life's a Riot With Spy Vs Spy, even if he's sometimes known by that damning sobriquet, Songwriter's Songwriter. The night before we meet, Bragg had been in London to unveil a plaque to David Bowie outside Trident, the studio where both Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars were recorded.

Bragg bought both those albums shortly after they came out in the early 1970s and he would soon be besotted by a third Bowie album, Aladdin Sane. "One of the great things about him was that he showed the world what masculinity could be," he says. "You didn't have to be a rugby player, you didn't have to be Charlie George [an Arsenal footballer from the 1970s]. You could be yourself, or what they used to say in the schoolyard back then, 'A bit bent'. Bowie was his own man and the music... well the music was great, wasn't it?"

Despite his book on skiffle, Bragg says he does not like to be nostalgic about the past, but talk of Bowie has got him to lament one thing about modern culture. "Music isn't to the forefront for kids the way it used to be," he says. "It used to be all-encompassing, because for many it was music or nothing. Today, there's an abundance of choice and music has been squeezed."

But he says his passion for new music remains as charged today as it was when he first picked up an electric guitar. "I don't want to be one of those old guys talking about how everything was so much better in my day and, anyway, people have rose-tinted specs on when they think of the past. "Today, you've all these people talking about how great Abba were, but many didn't see that at the time. I'll admit that 'SOS' is an incredible song, but a lot of it was disposable pop. There's great music out there today. You just have to be willing to try a little harder to find it."

Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World published by Faber & Faber is out now

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