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)
Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.