Interview: Billy Bragg - Changing the World and Getting a Life as Nineties Stars Finally Embrace Politics (See Left), a Mellow, 40-Year-Old Billy Bragg Is Happy to Let a New Generation Do the Tub- Thumping, Writes Karen O'Brien

By Karen O'Brien | The Independent (London, England), October 4, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Interview: Billy Bragg - Changing the World and Getting a Life as Nineties Stars Finally Embrace Politics (See Left), a Mellow, 40-Year-Old Billy Bragg Is Happy to Let a New Generation Do the Tub- Thumping, Writes Karen O'Brien


Karen O'Brien, The Independent (London, England)


Politics, we are told by the spin-meisters is the new rock and roll. But those of us who feel that it's only a matter of time before Cool Britannia thaws and melts away, remember when rock'n'roll was the new politics. Billy Bragg was there at the barricades singing about a new England long before the re-branding of Blair's Britain.

Over the past 15 years, Bragg has done more than any other to shape a British political consciousness through music - he formed Red Wedge in the Eighties, the glorious but doomed attempt to back the Labour Party.

Bragg was near tears at an election-night gig when Old Labour suffered its last defeat, and must have been tempted to weep since the New Labour victory last year. "The labour movement remains a mass grassroots movement," he explains earnestly. "That's the real broad church, not the Labour Party. And there are some New Labour MPs who are actually still in the labour movement". Even so, in this post-ideological age, what is left of the Left? Bragg defines the new politics as a "socialism of the heart": "You have to ask yourself, in a time when socialism seems to have lost a lot of its meaning, what do we actually believe in, instead of a word or an ideology? 'Socialism of the heart' seemed to be a way to make people not think that we were just giving up and going away and looking for soft words that mean nothing. Compassion does mean something; empathy does mean something. They're the roots of a caring society." It would be easy to see his pronouncements as those of an earnest agit- prop politico who never quite recovered from the Conservatives' slash- and-burn attitude to industrial relations and social cohesion. But Bragg is anything but a self-righteous ideologue. He's a truly engaging mix of political sophistication and gentle bloke-ish charm. Bragg shakes hands like he means it and has made no attempt over the years to change that Arfur Mullard diction or his personal style (very casual, DMs). He's still the thinking woman's socialist symbol. This 40-year-old godfather of political pop has seen the days of rage turn into the days of rave. Chumbawamba redefined its much- vaunted anarchism and took the major-label coin, Tubthumped its way into the charts via Top of the Pops and threw a bucket of water over John Prescott, one of the few working-class members of the Cabinet. The Manic Street Preachers topped the pop charts with a song that declared, "If I can shoot rabbits then I can shoot fascists." Is this a sign of political guerrilla action in pop or simply catchy tunes capturing a huge audience? "Those kind of bands always give me encouragement but what you've got to say is, 'what are you doing about this other than just singing a song and being on Top of the Pops'? "What I want to see is some action. How many people do you think who bought the Manics' single actually care about shooting fascists? But you have to trust people to make their own connections. You can't ram it down their throats and you can't follow them home after the gig to make sure that they'll live their lives the way you have written the song." Bragg has often been typecast as the working-class hero but in one of his best-known songs, "A New England", he declared: "I don't want to change the world, I'm not looking for a new England." He resists the persona of Marxist messiah. "People in the music business often like to encourage the idea that the pop singer is some kind of social shaman," he says, "who will focus on society's ills and do something about them with a wave of his magic wand from the back seat of his white Rolls Royce. That's patently absolute bollocks," he exclaims. "I get letters saying, 'because of your records, I became a union lawyer'. But I didn't take the exam, I didn't pay for him to go to college. I'm not standing in the courtroom representing the union. He is. If I was the soundtrack to him achieving that, then I'm very pleased.

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Interview: Billy Bragg - Changing the World and Getting a Life as Nineties Stars Finally Embrace Politics (See Left), a Mellow, 40-Year-Old Billy Bragg Is Happy to Let a New Generation Do the Tub- Thumping, Writes Karen O'Brien
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