The bard of Barking

Why Billy Bragg is our greatest political singer.

Sitting in room MV2 inside Maida Vale Studios felt like sitting in 1944. I was busy imagining a group of men in tweed suits standing round a hang-down microphone with drooping scripts in their hands, the air thick with twirls of harsh cigarette smoke, recording some spirit-lifting Third Programme radio show for all the folks at home sat round the wireless. The Goons. Sing Something Simple. Workers’ Playtime maybe, if we were lucky. I could smell a fair old bit of history sitting in room MV2 in Maida Vale Studios.

Luckily enough, I was there to watch Billy Bragg record a Radio 4 Mastertapes retrospective on his “difficult third album”, Talking with the Taxman About Poetry.

For a growing list of never really good enough reasons, I’d never seen Billy perform live before – even though his music soundtracked my teenage years as much, if not more, than Bob Dylan or The Smiths. I’d scribble down lyrics like “How can you lie there and think of England/When you don’t even know who’s in the team?” in school textbooks, taking them in like political chow for the adolescent soul.

Maybe it was the noseful of history I was getting or maybe it was the fact Billy Bragg was finally stood four feet away from me singing "Levi Stubbs' Tears" with all the reverb redemption and nervous energy as on the record, but I noticed the way he was singing was different, even if it the story he was telling was the same. Subtle little differences that let you know this is a live performance.

Lester Bangs had a similar experience to me. I know, because he spent a whole essay trying to work out Van Morrison’s performance style on Astral Weeks. For Bangs, Astral Weeks was a life-affirming record. Looking back on it a decade later, Bangs said how the album came out at a time “when the self-destructive undertow that always accompanied the great Sixties party had an awful lot of ankles firmly in its maw.”

Today Astral Weeks sounds like a million miles from Kent State, hard drugs’ osmosis into the counter-culture and the great Altamont comedown. Morrison might have recorded it in 1968 in New York, but the plush, velveteen jams suggest something other, as if Van had disappeared into some jazzy caravan a million miles inside the Irish hills.

“Van Morrison is interested, obsessed with how much musical or verbal information he can compress into a small space,” Bangs wrote in 1979. “And, almost, conversely, how far he can spread one note, word, sound, or picture.”

Medicated renditions

Back in Maida Vale and Billy Bragg is busy reprising "Levi Stubbs' Tears" and "The Warmest Room" – every so often lilting away from recorded versions. Pause here, elongated note there. In "Greetings to the New Brunette", that iconic opening drawl “Shir-lee” becomes “–Shir-lee” or “Shir-ur-lee” – a beat added in and played with. For someone who has a knack for writing songs like political slogans, a slight difference looms large in the ear of the listener.

When someone like Frank Sinatra or Elvis does the same thing live, there’s something bored and over-familiar about it. Gravitating from Las Vegas restaurant to Las Vegas green room, singing the hits for wealthy punters year on year. Medicated renditions that mean nothing to the performer anymore. They become just a song. A self-aware, half-ironic and cutely packaged return on the astronomic ticket price at the door. Surely the Bard of Barking couldn’t fall into the same trap?

Performers like Van Morrison and Billy Bragg tend to live out their songs on-stage. Van can close his eyes and riff off the same phrase for five minutes when he closes his eyes the song is like a road he’s been down a hundred times before, where some new observation always jumps out at him. A word, memory, image. “Caught one more time, up on Cypress Avenue.”

Billy’s word exist in the more tangible world of the political pamphlet, where phrases can change shape so long as they have meaning. And sometimes that meaning changes too. It’s one of the upshots of living in the here and now, as he said himself.

Another leap forwards

When Billy made his first flashy “network television show debut” on the Letterman Show in 1988, he was singing about Che Guevara and drawing the dole. But this "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards", a delightful two-fingered salute to the Reaganite glitz and New York finger-clicking going on around it, was a very different song to the original.

 

By living in the here and now, or 1988, Bragg was taking a protest song from a particular moment and placed it into a new one, sometimes even the moment he’s stood right in: “It’s a mighty long way down rock’n’roll, from East Berlin to the Letterman Show.”

 

Another great leap forwards to a 2007 Henry Rollins Show performance and the song is barely recognisable, with Bragg bending lines into shape once again: “They shake their fists in anger, and respectfully suggest/We take the money from our missiles and spend them on our hospitals instead.”

When Billy is singing the hits, he’s not bored. He’s up for it. Like Van, Billy Bragg has always been interested in the “verbal information” on a line, not so much how it fits but what he fits into it. A poetics of progress, the sort that Dylan claims – gotta keep movin’ to keep from dyin’ – but which rarely extends beyond a new keyboard arrangement with a lapsteel solo wedged in.

Waiting ten years to hear a variant of a favourite song might be annoying for some people, but it’s a sign of Billy Bragg’s commitment to progress in art as well as politics. And that’s something to be grateful for.

The first part of Billy Bragg’s Mastertapes airs on Radio 4 at 3.30pm today.

Billy Bragg performing in 2010 (Photograph: Getty Images)
YouTube screengrab/RT UK
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“We can’t run away from Brexit”: Labour MP Bambos Charalambous warns his party

The new MP for Enfield Southgate on how he won a Tory seat, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, and being a celebrity in Cyprus.

Enfield Southgate is an iconic location in election night history. It was this suburban tip of north London that played host to 1997’s “Portillo moment”, when the then Defence Secretary Michael Portillo – tipped to be Tory leader – lost his seat in a shock defeat. Stephen Twigg, the Labour candidate who won with a 17.4 per cent swing, became the rather stunned face of Labour’s landslide.

Twenty years later, the constituency went unexpectedly to Labour again. Bambos Charalambous, a local councillor for 23 years who attended the ’97 count, defeated the Conservative David Burrowes who had been MP there since 2005.

As the first MP of full Cypriot descent, Charalambous has been warmly invited into the BME MPs’ WhatsApp group. But he doesn’t have an office yet, so he’s squatting in his old friend Twigg’s office. Luckily, as a housing lawyer, “I know my rights,” he jokes. He was a solicitor on Hackney Council’s housing litigation team until he was elected.

We settle instead at a table in Parliament’s glass-walled Portcullis House. Charalambous – whose full name is so wonderful that the Huffington Post points out you can sing it to “Copacabana” and “Mambo Italiano” – looks smart in a suit and silky maroon tie. He is also very tanned; he took his parents on holiday to Rome at the beginning of the campaign – booked for their anniversary before the election was called.

“I’m very popular in Cyprus at the moment”

Brought up in Enfield, which has a large Cypriot community, Charalambous has lived there all his life. He’s now a bit of a local celebrity; his friends and family have started taking pictures with him at every opportunity.

“I’m very popular in Cyprus at the moment,” he says, rather deadpan. “It’s a bit surreal when your relatives are asking for selfies with you. My cousin had a christening a couple of weeks ago, and my cousins and uncles and aunts wanted selfies with me. I was like, ‘Are you guys insane? You’ve got pictures of me wearing shorts and stuff!’ So it’s quite amusing.”

To be fair, they’ve been waiting a while to celebrate. Charalambous ran for the seat in 2010 and 2015, but couldn’t beat the Tories. And abysmal polling for Labour initially suggested this wouldn’t change.

“People told me at the start of the campaign, ‘you’re mad, you shouldn’t run, you’re going to ruin your reputation’,” he reveals. “I was like, ‘I don’t care what you say, I’ve run before and I think I deserve to give it another go, and you never know what’s going to happen’.”

“I was initially sceptical about Jeremy. I’m happy to say I’ve been proved wrong”

He won the seat by 4,355 votes, with a swing of 9.7 per cent, and gives a variety of reasons for his victory. Firstly, he was a Remainer running in a pro-EU seat (63 per cent voted Remain) against a Brexiteer Tory. He also found “young people enthused” by the campaign and “dragging” their parents out to vote, which he hadn’t seen before. Local schools are facing budget cuts, and he felt the Tories’ “complacency” about the problem harmed them electorally.

But he also has Jeremy Corbyn to thank. “The manifesto was fantastic,” he says. “I think Jeremy as the leader, he came into his own during the election period and his stature just grew and grew and he will be a credible Prime Minister . . . through the television debates, people could finally see he could answer questions directly. He wasn't fazed by them, and gave good answers and had something to say. He also gave a vision of hope and optimism.”

Although Charalambous supported Andy Burnham to be Labour leader in 2015, he now gives Corbyn his “100 per cent support”. “I didn’t have a problem with the policies. I was initially sceptical about whether Jeremy could be a strong, credible leader,” he admits. “Clearly he is. I’m happy to say I’ve been proved wrong . . . If there were an election tomorrow, or in a few months down the line, Jeremy will be Prime Minister.”

Charalambous says a lot of his constituents who are EU nationals, or have European partners, are worried about their future. He will be focusing on this, and says Brexit should “clearly” be a priority for Labour. He warns his party that, “we can’t run away from Brexit; that’s a big priority”.

But even before he’s spoken up in the Commons about the stickiest subject in British politics, his name is already up there “with the greats”, he grins. “Barry Manilow – ‘Copacabana’”.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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