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)
Photo: Getty
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Hyper-partisan Corbynite websites show how the left can beat the tabloids online

If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Despite their best efforts during the election campaign, the Sun, Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express failed to convince voters to give Theresa May a majority, let alone the landslide she craved. Instead, Labour made inroads thanks partly to increased turnout among younger voters who prefer to get their news online and from social networks.

The centre of power in the media has been shifting to the web for years, but during the election we saw just how well a crop of hyper-partisan left-wing news sites are using social media to gain the kind of influence once restricted to the tabloid press.

Writers for sites such as the Canary or Evolve Politics see themselves as activists as much as journalists. That frees them to spin news stories in a way that is highly attuned to the dynamics of social media, provoking strong emotions and allowing them to address their audience like a friend down the pub “telling it how it really is”.

People on Facebook or Twitter use news to tell their friends and the wider world who they are and what they believe in. Sharing the Canary story “Theresa May is trying to override parliamentary democracy to cling to power. But no one’s fooled” is a far more effective signal that you don’t like the Tory government than posting a dry headline about the cancellation of the 2018 Queen’s Speech.

This has long-term implications for the right’s ability to get its message out. Research by BuzzFeed has found that pro-Conservative stories were barely shared during the election campaign. It appears the “shy Tory” factor that skewed opinion polling in previous elections lives on, influencing what people are prepared to post online. If I were a young Tory looking forward to a long career, I’d be worried.

Distorted reality

Television was once the press’s greatest enemy. But its “newspaper reviews” now offer print titles a safe space in which they are treated with a level of respect out of all proportion to their shrinking readership. Surely this must change soon? After all, the Independent sometimes gets a slot (despite having ceased print publication last year) for its digital front page. How is it fair to exclude BuzzFeed News – an organisation that invests in reporting and investigations – and include the Daily Express, with its less-than-prescient weather predictions?

Another problem became apparent during the election. Because the press is so dominated by the right, coverage from the supposedly impartial broadcasters was skewed, as presenters and guests parroted headlines and front-page stories from partisan newspapers. Already, some political programmes, such as BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show, have experimented with including news from outside Fleet Street. One of the newspaper industry’s most reliable allies is looking for new friends.

Alternative facts

The rise of sites spreading the left-wing gospel across Facebook may be good for Labour but that doesn’t mean it’s good for the public. This was illustrated on 16 June in a post by a relatively new entrant called the Skwawkbox, which claimed that a government “D-notice” – now called a DSMA-notice – might be in place restricting news organisations from reporting on the number of casualties from the Grenfell Tower fire.

The claim was untrue and eventually an update was added to the post, but not before it was widely shared. The man behind the blog (who gives his name in interviews only as “Steve”) insisted that because he had included a couple of caveats, including the word “if” in the text of his article, he was justified in spreading an unsubstantiated rumour. Replacing an irresponsible right-wing tabloid culture in print with equally negligent left-wing news sites online doesn’t feel much like progress.

Blood and bias

Narratives about the corrupt, lying mainstream media (the “MSM” for short) have become more prevalent during the election, and it’s clear they often hit a nerve.

On 17 June, a protest over Theresa May’s deal with the DUP and the Grenfell Tower fire made its way past BBC Broadcasting House, where a small group stopped to chant: “Blood, blood, blood on your hands!” Hours later, in the shadow of the burned-out tower, I heard a young woman complain loudly to her friends about money being used to fly BBC news helicopters when it could have gone to displaced victims.

The BBC cites the accusations of bias it receives from both ends of the political spectrum as evidence that it is resolutely centrist. But while many of its greatest critics would miss the BBC if it goes, the corporation could do a better job of convincing people why it’s worth keeping around.

Grenfell grievances

Early reports of the attack on a Muslim crowd in Finsbury Park on 19 June exhibited a predictably depressing double standard. The perpetrator was a “lone wolf”, and the Mail identified him as “clean-shaven”: phrases it is hard to imagine being used about an Islamist. Yet the media don’t just demonise Muslims in its reporting; they also marginalise them. Coverage of Grenfell contained plenty of references to the churches in this part of west London and its historic black community. Yet Muslims and the relief work carried out by local mosques received comparatively little coverage. Community issues such as Islam’s requirement that the dead are buried swiftly were largely ignored, even though a large number of those killed or made homeless by the fire were Muslim.

I suspect this may have something to do with outdated ideas of what north Kensington is like. But it also must reflect the reality that just 0.4 per cent of UK journalists are Muslim, according to a study by City University in London. The lack of diversity in the media isn’t just a moral issue; it’s one that affects our ability to tell the full story.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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