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)
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Theresa May’s Brexit speech is Angela Merkel’s victory – here’s why

The Germans coined the word “merkeln to describe their Chancellor’s approach to negotiations. 

It is a measure of Britain’s weak position that Theresa May accepts Angela Merkel’s ultimatum even before the Brexit negotiations have formally started

The British Prime Minister blinked first when she presented her plan for Brexit Tuesday morning. After months of repeating the tautological mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”, she finally specified her position when she essentially proposed that Britain should leave the internal market for goods, services and people, which had been so championed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

By accepting that the “UK will be outside” and that there can be “no half-way house”, Theresa May has essentially caved in before the negotiations have begun.

At her meeting with May in July last year, the German Chancellor stated her ultimatum that there could be no “Rosinenpickerei” – the German equivalent of cherry picking. Merkel stated that Britain was not free to choose. That is still her position.

Back then, May was still battling for access to the internal market. It is a measure of how much her position has weakened that the Prime Minister has been forced to accept that Britain will have to leave the single market.

For those who have followed Merkel in her eleven years as German Kanzlerin there is sense of déjà vu about all this.  In negotiations over the Greek debt in 2011 and in 2015, as well as in her negotiations with German banks, in the wake of the global clash in 2008, Merkel played a waiting game; she let others reveal their hands first. The Germans even coined the word "merkeln", to describe the Chancellor’s favoured approach to negotiations.

Unlike other politicians, Frau Merkel is known for her careful analysis, behind-the-scene diplomacy and her determination to pursue German interests. All these are evident in the Brexit negotiations even before they have started.

Much has been made of US President-Elect Donald Trump’s offer to do a trade deal with Britain “very quickly” (as well as bad-mouthing Merkel). In the greater scheme of things, such a deal – should it come – will amount to very little. The UK’s exports to the EU were valued at £223.3bn in 2015 – roughly five times as much as our exports to the United States. 

But more importantly, Britain’s main export is services. It constitutes 79 per cent of the economy, according to the Office of National Statistics. Without access to the single market for services, and without free movement of skilled workers, the financial sector will have a strong incentive to move to the European mainland.

This is Germany’s gain. There is a general consensus that many banks are ready to move if Britain quits the single market, and Frankfurt is an obvious destination.

In an election year, this is welcome news for Merkel. That the British Prime Minister voluntarily gives up the access to the internal market is a boon for the German Chancellor and solves several of her problems. 

May’s acceptance that Britain will not be in the single market shows that no country is able to secure a better deal outside the EU. This will deter other countries from following the UK’s example. 

Moreover, securing a deal that will make Frankfurt the financial centre in Europe will give Merkel a political boost, and will take focus away from other issues such as immigration.

Despite the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland party, the largely proportional electoral system in Germany will all but guarantee that the current coalition government continues after the elections to the Bundestag in September.

Before the referendum in June last year, Brexiteers published a poster with the mildly xenophobic message "Halt ze German advance". By essentially caving in to Merkel’s demands before these have been expressly stated, Mrs May will strengthen Germany at Britain’s expense. 

Perhaps, the German word schadenfreude comes to mind?

Matthew Qvortrup is author of the book Angela Merkel: Europe’s Most Influential Leader published by Duckworth, and professor of applied political science at Coventry University.