Billy Bragg - Interview & Signed Test Pressing Giveaway
Billy Bragg, Britain's "foremost protest singer", today releases The Roaring Forty | 1983-2023 on Cooking Vinyl, a range of comprehensive career retrospectives heralded by The Guardian as "an evocative overview" and "nuanced compilation."
As this outstanding anthology of the career of this vital and unique British artist hits the street, there is no better time to catch up with Billy to discuss his music, activism and, of course, this remarkable project. What's more, we have a test pressing of the 3LP edition of The Roaring Forty | 1983-2023 to give away to one lucky winner.
October 2023 sees Billy Bragg and Cooking Vinyl celebrate forty years of music from singer, songwriter, activist and author Billy Bragg, with a selection of The Roaring Forty | 1983-2023 releases to appeal to casual admirers and die-hard fans alike. Each format has been compiled by Billy beginning with a 1LP 13-song ‘primer’ on LTD Edition Orange Coloured Vinyl, a 40-song LTD Edition Deluxe 3LP collection on three shades of Green Vinyl and a 40-song 2CD in card digisleeve with a 16-page booklet. The Super Deluxe Box Set is a 14 CD box packaged with a 12-inch-sized perfect bound book containing images of 40 significant objects from Billy’s career, each stunningly photographed and accompanied by descriptions and reminiscences by the man himself.
TM: Compiling your twelve studio albums and a whole host of extras for The Roaring Forty | 1983-2023 gave you a chance to sit down and assess your remarkable - and unique - career. Let's start with a softball: which of your studio albums best captures the essence of Billy Bragg as an artist, and why?
BB: Well, that's a really hard question, isn't it? Over 40 years you go through so many phases. Initially, the burst of Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy (1983) was such a shocker, because it came out at a time when music was moving towards synthesizer duo types of thing. And that raw, punky, political thing wasn't fashionable. But when you zig, when everyone else is zagging, you have an opportunity to get some profile and I exploited that. Then I think Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (1986) sums up the political Billy Bragg, with 'There Is Power in a Union' and 'Levi Stubbs Tears' on there. William Bloke (1996) has a go at trying to express a - not post-political - but post-ideological Billy Bragg. The world had changed; the Soviet Union's disappeared; Margaret Thatcher's gone; and I'd become someone's dad. Any one of those things caused me to rethink what I do, but all three of them coming in the same gap in albums, it's bound to bring up a different Billy Bragg.
TM: Looking back to that initial burst, in the notes for the box set, you said "In the early 80s, I realised if I wanted to hear music that said something about the state of the world, I'd have to make it myself”. Do you feel that by the time you picked up your guitar and released your first records punk rock had lost its resonance in making statements that you could relate to?
BB: Yeah, it definitely had. It lost its energy, it ran out of steam. In some ways that baton had been passed on to 2 Tone Records. 2-Tone was making music that was asking real questions, but that had dissipated somewhat by 1981.
I was watching the New Romantics and thinking "this really doesn't speak to me. Where's the music that speaks to me?" And eventually, I realised it wasn't coming; I was at a bus stop and the service had finished for the day.
"So I had to drive my own bus and make my own music. And, I've tried to carry on doing that ever since." - Billy Bragg
TM: The CD box set contains a box presenting 40 significant objects from your career - I’ve enjoyed what I’ve seen on Twitter, particularly the Roland Cube amp. Collating the images must have been fun, but intense. What was the thought process to decide what went in and what stayed out?
BB: Well, I suppose you want things to tell a story, don't you? It's a chronological list of objects and I tried to draw the sleeve notes into my story and explain why these things were significant. The significance of your first TV appearance is huge; 40 years ago this month, I was on the tube singing 'New England'. That was a big, big leap. Also, my first NME cover. Those 'firsts' are in there but then you get to the other end and it becomes things like our son being born and the changes that that brought to me taking on Left Field (Glastonbury Stage) and those kinds of things.
So I chose things that were significant rather than things that were just peculiar or odd; I've got plenty of those if you want to see them! We'll make sure we do that on the next volume. They're in my lockup - that'll be the B-side!
TM: On the subject of the Left Field stage, you’re still working with and championing young talent like Jamie Webster and the stage at Glastonbury continues to be a haven for new artists and activism. To what would you attribute your approach to collaborations and your continuing mission to seek out and nurture new voices and young talent?
BB: I know that it's hard if you're an artist writing about things that you feel strongly about. I'm interested in artists, young artists who write about the pressure that they feel under. Where do they have an outlet? I'm not just talking about political stuff with a capital P. Even back in the day when I was starting out, people said: "Oh, music and politics don't mix - you shouldn't be doing that". I was getting involved in TV debates with people like Pete Waterman - it was ridiculous. In those days, because there was no social media, music had to reflect everything that young people thought about everything, you know, from the minutia of relationships to "fast, fast, down the Autobahn" - everything had to come through that medium.
Now it's changed, but there are still people out there trying to make sense of the world. I'm drawn to them, particularly if there's someone who articulates it as amazingly as Jamie Webster does. He puts great hooks into songs about ordinary people and the challenges they face. He's not po-faced about it. He celebrates the struggle and I think that's a great way to approach it.
There aren't going to be people who write songs like 'There Is Power in a Union' because the new generation hasn't been through the miner's strike; that was my own formative experience. I can't expect people to be a carbon copy of what I did but I'm not looking for that. I am looking for people who are trying to make sense of the world and trying to write songs about things that are more important than "I'm great, you're shit, do you like my socks?" to paraphrase Oasis.
TM: What you described then, with the pride in working-class culture and the pride in representing oneself and expressing one's struggles - to me that's folk music. And that in the same way that encompasses what you brought with that folk dynamic and collaborative approach as well. Do you see yourself and Jamie Webster in that tradition of folk artists?
BB: You could say that. I don't think he does! But the thing about folk music is it's always there. It never goes away. It might be unfashionable, but it's always just over the event horizon waiting for a moment to come back. If you look at 'Rich Men North of Richmond', the Oliver Anthony song, he's literally going back to the woods, to that tradition. If someone had told me that someone singing about the politics of working people, just solo with a resonator guitar would get to number one in the American charts, I'd have been: "Forget it, you're on drugs!" Alright, it's because it's become part of the culture wars thing, but it reflects how powerful the idea of a single person telling their particular truth is. Whether it's me or whether it's Oliver Anthony, what you believe doesn't really matter; it's the idea of that person just standing there with no dancers, with no great light show, with no huge publicity firm, just saying into the camera what they believe in. That's what I did back in 83. That's why I stood out among all the other things that were on that edition of The Tube like The Eurythmics and the other high-production bands, which were great, but I was something completely different.
I may never find a mass market for what I do but there's always going to be enough people who are interested in that stuff to sustain a career for 40 years, I'm about to go out on a sold-out UK tour.
"I would say to young artists who worry about their career prospects if they write about difficult things that I've made a living doing it the last 40 years - it is possible to do that!" - Billy Bragg
TM: Across those 40 years, you’ve always been a music artist and activist in relatively equal measure. But in the increasingly polarised social media world of the last decade, discourse has become increasingly antagonistic, direct and inescapable - something I've had to learn to deal with myself. How do you manage to keep the artistic side of your mission separate from the activism - does the need to stand your ground politically ever exhaust you musically?
BB: Well the bottom line is I'm not really a musician. I'm barely a guitar player. Basically, I'm a rhythm guitar player. I'm pretty good at that. When I was in my little band, Riff Raff, you wouldn't notice what I did until I stopped doing it. That's the kind of musician I am. I'm a communicator, right? So whether I'm writing a song, writing a book, or talking to you and your readers, I'm always trying to put across a different perspective. Social media to me is just another medium. Maybe if I was starting out now, I wouldn't have had to pick up a guitar to get my voice heard. Back in the day, there wasn't a platform for a 25-year-old working-class bloke to get his voice out there, so that's why I learned to play guitar, write songs and do gigs: to get my word out. The thing that keeps me going is that - and this is great for dealing with the responses you get online - I go out and say exactly the same things in front of a live audience a get a very positive response. That recharges my activism. I'm really privileged in that aspect in that I can find out what reality is. Reality isn't social media. It isn't Twitter. A minority of people are reading you on Twitter. And of those people that are reading you, a minority of them are having a go at you. So don't imagine for a second that that is real life. If the amount of criticism I get on Twitter were real life, I wouldn't be able to walk down the street without people spitting on me, frankly. But there's nothing - not a sausage!
Human existence is out there in the street in front of you and the people that you talk to. And the thing that's important about that is that thousands of years of social conditioning have made it possible for us to talk to each other in a way that's not belligerent and offensive, unfortunately, social media has taken that away from us.
TM: We need to evolve in regard to our online communication. BB: We do! We need to take on board some responsibility for what we say. But the platform providers also need to take responsibility for dealing with people who are abusive. Abusive behaviour is never ever acceptable in any way and I would say that goes everywhere from personal attacks all the way to the unspeakable things that women face, like rape threats and death threats.
Social media companies should be banning people for good, <snaps fingers> like that, no messing about. I'm fortunate in that situation, but I do recognize the dangers posed to people's mental health. In some ways. It's easier for me because I've had years of people heckling me, but you are right about the way one minute people are talking about ridiculous things like "the earth is flat", and you can laugh about it. And then the next time you see them, they're telling you the earth is flat because "the Jews are conspiring to make it so".
"It's a nasty old world, but when it gets too much, I go to Instagram. Everyone's lovely on there!" - Billy Bragg
TM: The Roaring Forty | 1983-2023 is released next week on Cooking Vinyl across a whole host of formats. In the streaming age, are you surprised by the continuing popularity of physical music formats and how do you listen to music yourself in 2023?
BB: I'm not at all surprised by the continuation of the physical format, I think that there is a generation of us out there into that kind of thing. But music is all about convenience, isn't it? The cassette was about convenience; being able to put it all on tape and take it with you, whether it's in your car or on your Walkman. Convenience is always going to trump artistic materialism. But the last image in the book in the book is a metal press of an album, the thing that someone sent me to check. You can't play it, but just have a look at it; that physical way of producing records is something that I'm still very much in favour of. Listening to music only through streaming you'll never get that. The people who only stream the records will never see that picture. They'll never read those sleeve notes. And I think that's a shame because there's more to music than just the disposable sound that comes out of your speakers.
TM: We're increasingly finding that out, aren't we? The packaging and the medium were always part of it, in a way we didn't necessarily know at the time. BB: Yes, so it's lost its ability to communicate who you are. It used to be that because the 12-inch was so big, if you walked around with an album under your arm, at school or in town, people would clock you, and that would be your social media profile. You'd be that guy. Or you'd dress that way. You'd be that girl. You'd have that haircut. You'd be that person.
Walking down the street with a copy of Aladdin Sane under your arm 50 years go could get you some odd looks because people perceived David Bowie to be not just androgynous, but gay, and back in those days you'd get your head kicked in for being gay. As a 14, 15-year-old that record was a statement. And I'm proud to say that the sleeve of Aladdin Sane was the only picture I ever took to the barber's. I said: "I want a haircut, and I want it like that". It looked shit because my barber had no idea how to do anything like that. But that was the power of physical production.
"Having said all this, the main way I listen to music these days is streaming in my car. But my excuse is you can't get a record player in a car!" - Billy Bragg
The Roaring Forty | 1983-2023 is out now on 3LP, LP, 2CD and Super Deluxe Box Set.
Enter our exclusive giveaway to win a signed test pressing of the 3LP edition of Billy Bragg's The Roaring Forty | 1983-2023.
The winner will be chosen on Monday 6th November 2023.
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