For nearly 30 years, Englishman Billy Bragg has kept the faith as one of the most outspokenly political songwriters of his time. From anthems like “There Is Power In A Union,” which Bragg wrote in support of striking mine workers in Thatcher-era Britain, to bringing forgotten Woody Guthrie lyrics to life in his collaboration with Wilco on the two Mermaid Avenue discs, Bragg has made a career of mixing leftist humanist sentiments with punk energy, memorable melodies and emotional vulnerability. He’s on tour in America in support of the just-released retrospective box set Billy Bragg Volume 1, and he’ll play March 10 at Double Door. The A.V. Club tracked down Bragg at his home in Dorset, England, to chat about pop and politics. Read a longer version of this interview at avclub.com.
The A.V. Club: The box set and the Must I Paint You A Picture best-of from a couple of years ago have given you an opportunity to look back. Are you generally happy with the way your career has turned out?
Billy Bragg: I think so. I carry on doing my own thing, and, I guess, rely on people to get it. One reason I wanted to put some of that back catalog out there was because I think some of the context of what I was doing in the 1980s, the politics of the ’80s, are perhaps not so obvious to the 20-year-old of today.
AVC: How would you try to explain what you were doing in those days to someone who’s young now?
BB: Well, if you can imagine what it’s like in England trying to explain to people that you did gigs for the Labour Party—they find that very difficult to grasp, given the Labour government that we have at the moment. I think the politics that we had in the 1980s in America and in the UK were a lot more ideological than they are now. So today, rather than talk in terms of ideology or ideas like socialism, I think more important issues [to discuss] are things like compassion and accountability. That’s what we were trying to achieve then. We were trying to hold people who had power in account. Not just the government of Margaret Thatcher, but also the multinational corporations. I think there are echoes of what we were trying to do in the anti-globalization movement.
AVC: Perhaps surprisingly, you weren’t always so politically active—you didn’t actually vote in the first election that you were eligible for. How did your political awareness develop?
BB: It was the inspiration of one person, whose name I should never forget—Margaret Thatcher. When Thatcher was elected in 1979, there was a sort of spurious feeling that having a woman as prime minister was a sign of how progressive we’d become. Everyone was pretty laid back about it. That was when we realized what a genuine radical she was. By 1983, I was wide awake, wide awake. I’d had politics before, but they’d just been purely humanitarian. The miners’ strike [of 1983] forced me into more ideological expression—you know, it’s the difference between something as humanistic as “just because you’re better than me doesn’t mean I’m lazy” [a lyric from Bragg’s “To Have And Have Not”], to, within three records and 18 months, “There Is Power In A Union.”
AVC: The shorthand, two-word description of Billy Bragg is that you’re a quote-unquote—
BB: Big nose?
AVC: [Laughs.] Well, I guess I can’t disagree with that. I meant—
BB: Lazy bastard?
AVC: “Political songwriter.” But obviously you’ve got a lot of songs about love and relationships.
BB: I would say the majority of them.
AVC: Do you feel that people focus too much on your political side?
BB: I don’t mind being labeled as a political songwriter. I’ve chosen to do that. What really annoys me is being dismissed as a political songwriter. That really pains me, because life isn’t all about love; it’s not all about politics, either. It’s a beautiful mixture of events that absolutely baffle you, and you think, “Why can’t I do something about that?” And to ignore one or the other would be foolish.
AVC: How did the fall of communism change things for you? The political playing field was suddenly far different from when you first started.
BB: I was very happy. I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, actually, playing in a supper club. We were late. I think we got lost somewhere. I’m not very good in Tennessee, it’s not one of my strongest states, and we got lost somewhere past Chattanooga. When we turned up late, the guy said, “The toilets are over there, you’re onstage in an hour, and the Berlin Wall has come down.” [Laughs.] It’s one of those fuck-the-world moments. The fact that we were able to resolve these issues peaceably is a real victory. Resolving it any other way would have been so costly for humanity that it just totally freaks me out to think about it.
AVC: Do you feel that we’ve lost ground post-Sept. 11?
BB: I think we’ve fallen into an elephant trap of our own making. The enormity of what happened is still difficult to come to terms with. It will take some time, but when you actually go down to the absolute detail, and you realize it was done by a bunch of guys with box knives—that realization, to me, really should help us get a perspective on it. It wasn’t the first act of war, it was the most unspeakable act of murder and terrorism. There is no army out there in the dark waiting to take over America. There are individuals out there willing to do unspeakable things, but going out and invading other peoples’ countries is no way of dealing with that. It’s like being stung by a bee and going out and smashing up a beehive, and thinking you’ve solved the problem. There are more beehives out there; more bees will come. But they’re bees. They’re not grizzly bears. If I’m extending this metaphor a bit too far, I do apologize. —Christopher Bahn