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Billy Bragg 20 4 21 RT
Nine Songs
Billy Bragg

From Motown’s formative influence on his music and politics, to bonding with his son over The Who, Billy Bragg talks Ed Nash through the songs that shaped his songwriting and beliefs.

17 October 2021, 15:00 | Words by Ed Nash

When Billy Bragg appeared on The Henry Rollins Show in 2007, he was introduced by the former Black Flag frontman with the words “Whenever I see him play, it reminds me of what the music business is supposed to be all about.” It’s a sentiment that still holds true in 2021.

Following Rollins intro, Bragg strums the opening chords to “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward” and speaks into the microphone, outlining what makes him tick as a songwriter in words that still resonate today on his upcoming 10th solo record, The Million Things That Never Happened. “Some people sing about love, some people sing about war, some people sing about a better world to come. Well, I sing about all three.”

Rollins also adds that the first time he saw Bragg play live “was twenty-three years ago.” My first experience of seeing Bragg play came a few years after that, and as we start our conversation, I tell him that I walked up to him afterwards and asked if I could get one of his plectrums. Having already given them away, Bragg told me to write to his record label and he’d send me some.

A week later I got a note back with the line, “Dear Ed, please find enclosed two authentic BB plectrums.” Bragg chuckles as I share the memory from my youth. “Oh, I was such a nice bloke in those days. I don’t use plectrums now, I just use my raw fingers. So now I’d have to chop off a finger and send that over instead.”

The first single from The Million Things That Never Happened, “I’ll Be Your Shield” blends Bragg’s wonderful knack for making the political personal and the personal political, but what underscores the song, and the record itself, is something simpler, a desire for empathy.

Empathy has always been a keystone of Bragg’s songwriting and if a reminder was needed as to why it’s part of the reason why he’s a national treasure, watching his debate on Channel 4 News with the policy advisor and sometime GB News presenter Calvin Robinson was a timely reminder. In the days leading up to the final of Euro 2020, whilst Robinson was castigating the England team for taking the knee, Bragg saw it as a positive, humanitarian gesture by a group of young men making a stand against racism. Following the appalling racist abuse directed towards Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka after England’s penalty shootout defeat, there was little doubt who won the argument.

With his return to the stage imminent, Bragg tells me that he can’t wait to engage with his audience, where instead of engaging in debates on TV from his living room, he’ll be in his natural environment once more. “My aim is that they look around the room and see 500 people with their fists in the air singing “There is Power in a Union” and thinking ‘I'm not the only person that cares about this shit. I'm not the only person who values these ideas of solidarity.’ And that's what music can do.”

As we talk through his Nine Songs choices, Bragg dovetails the reasons why he loves each of them with bigger picture ideas; why wearing a mask is not only a sensible thing to do, but also an empathetic act, how a song that gets him over his fear of flying mirrors why he understands people’s apprehension about getting a vaccine, but rather than despair about their apprehension, he instead hopes there’s a way to get people to understand why it’s important to overcome their fear.

Music is in many ways Bragg’s own shield, and the reason why, as the world pivots from the pandemic, where whatever the future holds, his hope is for a greater good, celebration and a return to togetherness, whatever form that may take.

“Music can't change the world, but it can make you feel as if you're not alone. Whether you're talking about a love song or a political song, that’s a really valuable thing to have, a really valuable way of taking some solace from the world. It's easy to look at all the people on The Tube not wearing masks and thinking ‘Fuck it, what a messed-up world we live in’, but if you really want to do positive things, you’ve got to overcome that.”

“The Boxer” by Simon & Garfunkel

BRAGG: “I chose “The Boxer” because it was the first song that really hooked me as a lyric. I was into pop music as a kid. I’d listen to Radio One before I went out on my paper round, but the first song that really got me, and gave me an emotional sense - more of a melancholy sense that changed my mood - was “The Boxer” by Simon and Garfunkel.

“I really was taken by that when I was about 11 years old. And I think the roots of that then lead to me listening to a lot of singer/songwriters, like Bob Dylan and those kind of people in my teenage years, and they all really formed me as a songwriter. That idea of the person standing on stage singing a song alone comes from that, and the keeping the focus on the lyrics comes from the Paul Simon model.”

BEST FIT: I read that you had a reel-to-reel tape recorder that you’d record albums on when you were a child?

“We didn't have a record player. I had a mate who lived around the corner and his older sister had some great records. I went around there one afternoon and duly recorded them all. She had Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel and a collection of Tamla Motown Chartbusters albums, which gave me the two foundational pillars of my songwriting.”

It's amazing how that happens. How you suddenly hear a song, and it sets you down a different road?

“It does. And this song leads on to “Abraham, Martin & John” by Marvin Gaye.”

“Abraham, Martin & John” by Marvin Gaye

BRAGG: “There’s a really important lesson in this song, which is you don't have to write an angry song in order to make a point. It's quite a gentle song and it doesn't really tell you what's happened, it leaves it to you to draw your own conclusions. I think that's a much better way of writing a song, to try to give people a different perspective on something, rather than ramming it down their throats. I’ve been known to do that every now and again, but there's a time for sloganeering and there's a time for not.

“This song also points to the beginnings of me being politicised. I really loved those Motown Chartbusters records, they were all pop music until you got to Volume Five and all of a sudden, something happened. In between the Jackson Five, there’s “War” by Edwin Starr, and after The Supremes you’ve got “Ball of Confusion” by The Temptations. So something has clearly happened, and it’s all there in “Abraham, Martin & John”.

“Martin Luther King had been assassinated and that brought the civil rights movement right into American pop, particularly in soul music. So I'm picking up the politics of the civil rights era through a form of osmosis, because I'm really into Motown, and I'm starting to think ‘Maybe this is what you can do with music - as well as a beat, a hook, and a great idea, you can put a message in there as well.”

BEST FIT: In its lyric and delivery “War” emodies confrontation but in contrast “Abraham, Martin & John” sounds so soft and melancholy.

“It does, it has a huge sadness to it, but some of the great, powerful political songs do. “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke is a really great song in those terms - the orchestra, the strings, the sophistication of it. These are really powerful ideas, the people who wrote those songs are talking to an audience that's experiencing discrimination, violence and in some cases murder, and yet such sweet music is coming out of that. That was a real lesson, because I was also deeply inspired by the cleansing fire of punk rock, where everything was rage, but to hang on to something like “Abraham, Martin & John” was really important to me in understanding the songwriter that I became.”

It’s like your song “Sexuality”, which is on the surface is a summery pop song, but when you dig into the lyric it's a really serious message.

“It’s a message of solidarity and allyship, reaching out and saying, ‘You don't only have to live by your own experience, there are other experiences out there.’ That’s important as well, how do we make a connection and show solidarity with those people? I think it’s still a valid method of doing that with a song today and I'd argue that music is all about empathy, about trying to get people to feel some sympathy or solidarity for what you're singing about or the person you're singing about. It may be something that they themselves have never experienced, but you're trying to get them to step out of their own experiences for a moment, think about someone else and perhaps come away with a different perspective.

“I'm not just talking about political songs here. I learned a lot about emotions and relationships from Motown, as well as what I learned about the civil rights movement - the first track on Motown Chartbusters 5 is “Tears of a Clown”. These are still important ideas, because we seem to live in a time where there’s a war on empathy. Anyone who expresses any compassion for anyone outside of their perceived group immediately gets attacked as being virtue signalling. People are trying to undermine empathy.

“I think these things are important, and sometimes you need to explicitly state them, rather than relying on lyrics to put these ideas across. I think there's a lot of that drive in the new album, where particularly in this time of pandemic, empathy becomes really important. The mask mandate has been over for months but in my local supermarket the majority of people are still wearing masks, they’re expressing empathy for other people as well as protecting themselves and that's the basis for good society. My belief in human nature is encouraged every time I see that."

I think it depends what on what part of the country you're in. I live in London and I'm increasingly in the minority of people who wear a mask in a supermarket.

“I’m in coastal Dorset and in my local Morrison's I'd say 85% of people, including the staff, are still masking up. People are still thinking, ‘Okay, this is serious. I've got to actually listen.’ That's what it's all about. We do have to act in the common good. And the best music aspires to that greater good and evokes that and that’s the sort of music I’ve always tried to make.”

“That’s Entertainment” by The Jam

BEST FIT: Given your love of punk, I thought you'd pick a song by The Clash?

BRAGG: The Clash were a huge influence on me but I when I look back at that time, now I listen to music while I'm driving mostly and I put The Jam on more than anything else from that period. There's something in Weller’s writing that really resonated with me back then. The Clash had a revolutionary message and a kind of rock and roll aesthetic, that suggested you could change the world by singing about it.

“Although I bought into that at the start, I've come to realise that actually it's a bit of a cop out to suggest that. It’s much tougher than that. You have to really make the audience think or understand that they're the only people who actually can change the world, not the person up on stage. So I come back to Weller, because he wrote more about my experience as a working class lad growing up in East London. Every single line in “That's Entertainment” resonated with me, it was something I had seen, and I love it because it's so simple, the structure is so simple. I love it because the lines don’t rhyme. I think it's great way of writing a song.”

I’ve listened to that song umpteen times and I never realised that the lines didn’t rhyme.

“They're all just statements. I love it because he knocked it off in five minutes when he was drunk. I asked him about the song and he was so dismissive of it, it broke my heart. There are songs of mine that I'm dismissive about and maybe they mean as much to some people as “That’s Entertainment” does to me.

“But most of all, what I love about it is that for all the suburban grit that’s in there it’s celebratory, it’s not damning. The chorus is sardonic, but it's uplifting. And anyone who could get “Two lovers missing the tranquillity of solitude” into a song deserves a fucking medal. Just for that Paul, you deserve a medal. I’m uplifted whenever I hear that song, which is weird to say, because you wouldn't think of it as that kind of song. But I'm ‘I remember those days.’ And I remember the struggle to live a positive life in those circumstances.

“Woody Guthrie said, ‘I’d never want to write a song to puts people down, I always want to lift people up’, and I've tried to live up to that. A few years ago, I realised that the real enemy of all of us that want to make a better world is actually cynicism - not conservativism, not capitalism - but cynicism, and our own cynicism about our own sense that no one gives a shit, nothing matters and why bother? I don't want those people in my life anymore. I want to try to kick my cynicism to the kerb. To try and engage in the world rather than shut myself away and have that ‘Damn the lot of you’ attitude, although I feel like that sometimes.

“It allows me to stand up in front of people and get a response from them, and that helps me to overcome my cynicism. I hope it sends the punters home in the same way, because when I come off stage my activism is recharged because they've all cheered when I sing “There is Power in a Union.” I hope that they go on with the same feeling.”

“Baba O’Riley” by The Who

“This is a real bonding song between me and my boy and whenever I hear it I think of him. It was the first song he learned to play but he learned it in a very, very strange way. He always wanted to be a guitar player, but he never quite got the hang of it. I tried to teach him but it was too complicated because all the Dad and son stuff gets in the way, but I got him Guitar Hero and he really got into it.

“After about a year, I got a phone call from my missus saying, ‘He’s here with all his mates and he wants to get your guitar amplifier out, you’ve got to tell him he can’t!’ I said, ‘Son, I’m in Birmingham, so where do you think my amp is?’ I managed to talk him down, but he and his mates were doing the most amazing thing. They’d got their guitars and they were playing along to “Baba O’Riley” in tune - which apart from the widdly thing, is basically three chords - just using the bass string. When I got home, I said to him ‘That's very good son, now if you just put the other finger here, and do this and this, you can play “Blitzkrieg Bop” by The Ramones.’ And that was it, I never had to show him another thing on the guitar ever.

“The thing was, I'm useless at video games but when we first got Guitar Hero I’d always beat Jack and he couldn't understand how. I’d stand up to do it like I was playing, so he sat next to the telly and watched me, and he realised what it was. You don’t just push the buttons, you have to strum in time too, and he realised because there's a bar across the middle you have to strum in time. So consequently, he was having to think about two things because he’d been playing Guitar Hero for a year and he didn’t think about the strumming at all. In some ways, Guitar Hero was a nursery for him learning to play the guitar.

“I saw The Who at The Valley, at Charlton Football Club in 1976 and few years ago I took him to see them at Wembley Arena. When “Baba O’Riley” started he leapt out of his seat in joyous celebration and afterwards I said to him, ‘You see that feeling? Now you know how I feel when West Ham win’, because he’s got no interest whatsoever in football. And he said, ‘I get it now Dad, I get it.’ His first band was called Teenage Wasteland as well, they used to make a fucking racket in our garage! I was so proud of them.”

“Roll Over Beethoven” by Chuck Berry

BRAGG: “Early on, I was an early rock and roll fan and there were a lot of people who were rock and roll players in my school. It was a big thing going on around the world when I was about 13 or 14. When everybody first learned to play guitar, they’d learn to play Chuck Berry songs because they were only three chords.”

BEST FIT: I’d argue that the guitar riff at the beginning of “Roll Over Beethoven” is the riff that defined rock and roll music.

“It is, Chuck Berry defined rock and roll. I think it was Keith Richards who said that ‘Chuck Berry is actually another name for rock and roll.’ If they're going to think of another name for it, Chuck Berry would be a good one."

I’d forgotten how short “Roll Over Beethoven” is, it’s just over two minutes long, but it packs so much into it.

“I love that, the early ones are all really short. But the reason I put this in is that people are always asking me to name political songs, and I think this is one of the most political songs ever recorded. A black man with an electric guitar telling white America in 1956 that their culture is over and here's the future? What a revolutionary idea is that? Imagine hearing that as a white kid and getting into Chuck Berry, and he's literally saying to your dad and your teacher and your boss, ‘Your culture is over, forget it, get out of here.’ How great is that?

“I think “Roll Over Beethoven” is such a two-fingers to white supremacist culture and the fact is that it’s a black guy with a cherry red electric guitar. There's certain songs that after they exist the world is a different place, like “Please Please Me” by The Beatles, nobody had heard anything like that on the radio before ever, or “Rock Island Line” by Lonnie Donegan, nothing like that had ever been made by a British singer. I think “Roll Over Beethoven” is one of those songs and it still has a real edge to it.”

“Musical Communion” by The Skatalites

“I've always loved Ska and Reggae and the contribution made to British culture by Caribbean musicians right across the board. Again, there’s something so celebratory about “Musical Communion” and music gives you a form of communion doesn’t it?

“The best music is a communion and when you go to a gig it’s a form of communion. Getting together with a load of strangers, where the person who wrote a song that means so much to you is there singing it, you’re singing it at the top of your voice and a thousand strangers are singing it at the top of their voices. You can’t get that shit online, you can’t get that feeling online, you can’t get that sense of feeling whatever emotions you’ve connected with a song.

"It's a cliché; you can experience a download, but you can’t download an experience. That‘s why I think that once this is over people will come back to gigs and festivals, because they need that connection. That's why people sing in church, to get that emotional high. It’s not enough to just be in the same room, it’s singing together, being together, all focused on one thing for a moment. And that being the most important thing in the world at that moment, that's a form of communion.

“It doesn’t have to be about politics or lyrics. A number of these songs are about celebration and music should do that sometimes. In many ways music is a mood adjuster, to be able to alter your mood without putting chemicals in your bloodstream, it's actually a good thing to have that. I think that’s why people will want to come back to gigs, and it’s why I’m looking forward to getting back to that space again. After the eighteen months we’ve had, getting together with loads of other people, singing our favourite songs, with all the emotions you put into that song, people will accept them, and you come out as a different person.

“So that's why I love this song. The song in itself, the guys playing it are so loose, they’re kind of just about there, they’re so relaxed. Every time I hear it, whenever it comes on shuffle while I'm driving, it always makes me smile.”

“Willin’” by Little Feat

BRAGG: “I chose this song because it sums up my attitude to the job I have. I have a great job. I have a job that loads of people would love to do, that’s seen me travel all over the world and it’s given me an amazing lifestyle. But like every job, there are times when you have to do something you really don't want to do. For me, it's flying. I’m what you might call an apprehensive flyer.

“So when I get in a situation where I think to myself, ‘Why am I doing this? This is stupid. I’m in a tiny little plane in the dark, flying to God knows where’ I think of this song, and if I can find it on my iPad, or in the old days on a cassette, I play it to myself and I remember why. It’s because I'm willing. I asked for this job, I begged for this job. I dreamed that one day I might be able to do this job. And if I don't want to get on this plane and do this, I know dozens of people would like to be doing this - getting on an aeroplane and going to New York, where people are listening to what I've got to say.

“And if I then think about all the people that I don't know who’d like to do that, it puts me where I should be, focused on what I'm doing and why I'm there. It’s being willing in itself - that I'm willing to do this, I'm willing to do whatever it takes to be able to put my ideas across. You need those reminders sometimes. You need to remember that with any job, whatever it is you do, you’ll have days where you think ‘Why am I doing this?’ Everybody must have that, I have it from time to time and when I do I've turned to Little Feat. There’s been a few times when I've been flying - and I hate flying at night, particularly when you can’t see the horizon - when I've just closed my eyes and let “Willin’” hold me up.

“That’s partly the reason why I have some sympathy for people who are vaccine hesitant, because I know rationally that planes don't crash. Some do every now and then, but rationally the one you're getting on is not going to be that one. I know all that, but I still can't get rid of that feeling, despite the rationality, I’m never happy going up, I’m always happy coming down. Obviously, I do it because I have to do it, but days before I will feel apprehensive about it.

"So I understand why people feel apprehensive about the vaccine, but just don't tell me it’s about your personal fucking liberty mate, because I'm not buying that. Those libertarians make me really angry, but the people who are genuinely scared about it, I can see how you need something more than a rational argument to convince them. For me to get on the plane, it’s that at other end there’s something I really, really want to do, so we have to work out how to help people get vaccinated like that.

BEST FIT: My wife hates needles and getting injections, but she felt it was more important to get the vaccine and she just went and did it.

“That’s the greater good I was talking about. She recognised there was a greater good there, that it would protect her and protect everybody else. That's what I mean about people who sometimes have to do things they don't want to have to do in order to create a better society for everyone, so I respect your missus for that, and I understand why people can feel like that. Weirdly, when you have to give a blood sample, that really hurts. I got the flu jab yesterday and the woman who gave it to me, her hands were cold and that hurt more than the needle!”

“Funny How Time Slips Away” by Willie Nelson

BEST FIT: There’s a picture Willie Nelson from the ‘60s on the YouTube video for this. I’ve always pictured him as this kindly, wise country gent, but he was a suave looking young dude.

BRAGG: He was a suave looking young dude when he was a songwriter. I'll tell you why I love this song, it’s the minimalism of it. It's just a voice and a piano, the piano is hardly playing, there’s a crooning vocal group in the background and Willie is so laconic. One of the reasons I really like Willie Nelson is that like me, he doesn’t really sing properly, he’s much more of an expressive singer than he is a technical singer, and I really loved that. He almost talks this song, it's like a monologue where he’s barely singing at all, it’s like a conversation.

“There's so much space in the production of it. It always draws me in whenever I hear it and it’s a good reminder that less is more, which I'm a great believer in. My favourite guitar player is Ry Cooder and I admire him as much for what he doesn’t play as what he does play, the space he leaves when he’s playing. He's not going to fill all the space and show you how dextrous he is, it's all about feel and “Funny How Time Slips Away” is all about the feel.

“I've always loved country music, even before I had the opportunity to go to the U.S., because it's storytelling music, it’s people's music. And Willie Nelson is one of the great storytellers."

Storytelling is a word that's synonymous with great songwriting, it's perhaps even overused, but it’s often overlooked that great storytelling in song form is an art that takes real skill.

“Sometimes it's a better way to put across a message. One of my songs “Between the Wars” is making a political point, but it's a narrative about an individual. And you go with that individual through the period, ostensibly in the 1930s, but the metaphor being the 1980s. It works better than if I had made it a slogan song. “Levi Stubbs Tears” is a narrative song and if you can write those kind of songs, which capture people with the first line - “With the money from the accident / She bought herself a mobile home” - you’re suddenly in a narrative.

“I love songs that do that. I was fortunate to be around at a time when there were bands that were writing like that, like The Smiths and The Pogues, and it allowed me to sneak in with them, into that whole new dispensation of narrative songwriting.”

“In Care of 8675309” by Lambchop

BRAGG: “I thought I should put something in so that people know I do listen to current music and not just old tunes from the 20th Century. I love Lambchop and particularly Kurt. We were talking about really great narratives and when you listen to this song you’re kind of there with him on the porch with his dog. His songwriting is so episodic in that sense, you're not just floating around with a concept, you're in there with the character all the time.

“And I love the way he brings in the strings on this song, he’s using the sound of Philly Soul strings and he’s also messing with a vocoder, which I found really interesting. He's taking something that’s ostensibly ordinary - if you saw the lyrics written down it's a bit like “That’s Entertainment” - but by using a vocoder and the word cancer, he moves the song into a completely different place, where all of a sudden you’re ‘Hang on a minute, there’s something else going on here. I wonder if I listen to the lyrics can I work out what it is?’

“It's a puzzle song in some ways. The meaning of it is there but it's a bit opaque unless you really pay attention to the lyrics. And even then, you need to put your own narrative on top of it to make it all stick together, and I think that's a really amazing way to write song. I’m sure that wasn’t Kurt’s intention, and if he reads this then the next time I see him he’s probably going to laugh at me for saying that, but the perception of the listener isn’t always the same as the intent of the songwriting and you've got to accept that.

“Sometimes people make a huge bond with your song, but they’ve slightly got the wrong end of the stick, and when they tell you about that bond, it's not your place to tell them they've got the wrong end of the stick. That's not how it works. You've put it out there and however they connect with it, that’s their way, that’s their right and it's not your place to tell them they're wrong. I think that's an interesting aspect of songwriting, that you’ve got to let go of the songs and then people draw their own conclusions from them.”

BEST FIT: Is that difficult to deal with as a writer, where there’s the potential for a song of yours to be misinterpreted?

“No, I don't think so. Because often they take the song and the idea on further than you. I had a couple of Japanese friends who were in a band called Frank Chickens, I’d gotten a Japanese copy of Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy with the lyrics in Japanese on the sleeve and I got them to translate them. They were brilliant, “The Milkman of Human Kindness” became “The Delivery Man of Human Love”! I’ve never forgotten that. “A New England” had the line “People playing on space satellites in the sky.” I was scribbling it down and saying ‘I'm going to use that.’”

We did a Nine Songs with Kurt Wagner and he decided to find songs with the number nine in the title, even if he'd never ever heard them.

“That’s so fucking Kurt.”

One of them was called “9 hours of Rain on a Tent”, which is literally the sound nine hours of rain falling onto a tent, he listened to a good couple of hours of it.

“That’s brilliant. It's not written in stone; it can be the nine songs you just loved today. It doesn't have to be the nine songs of all time, we could speak tomorrow and it might be a different nine songs, you've got to let go of those things. So that’s very smart of Kurt.”

The Million Things That Never Happened is released 29 October via Cooking Vinyl
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