I promise this series is not going to consist entirely of tributes to middle-aged men with guitars. But Billy Bragg is one of the people for whom I most frequently give thanks, so it would have been wrong to omit him.
Billy Bragg’s songwriting talent is equivalent to any of the greats from last century and this. His lyrics combine the clever composition of Morrissey or Bragg’s contemporary Kirsty MacColl with the emotional simplicity and directness of Billy Joel or my beloved Proclaimers. From his first awkward steps onto the illuminated stage of Top of the Pops, he has worn his heart on his sleeve in a way that is both endearing and courageous. And throughout his career, he has consistently written, sung and acted on behalf of causes he believed in, whether or not they happened to be in fashion at the time.
When I recall seeing Billy Bragg live, I see him not in some cavernous commercial concert hypermarket, where the music appears secondary to the purchase of gassy lager and burgers in soft white rolls. Instead, I think of him as a small figure on a distant stage, viewed between home-made protest banners, usually clad in black and, it seems safe to assume, playing for the beer and the benefit. I’ve seen Billy Bragg at miners’ rallies and poverty protests across Scotland’s central belt. I have not, it rather belatedly occurs to me, ever paid to see him play. An omission I really must put right (makes mental note to check when he is next playing Glasgow and try not to give birth that night). Down the decades, he has schlepped from fields to town squares to dingy venues, marching shoulder to shoulder with anyone he finds fighting injustice, never throwing a pop star strop and demanding a dressing room strewn with lilies or hand-painted by cherubs.
The point is, he stands alone. I literally cannot think of another current mainstream artist who is so defined by his politics without being confined by them. He combines his activism with moving, thoughtful lyrics and excellent pop tunes. He’s a product of the 80s, but instead of remaining there alongside Red Wedge, Zammo and Arthur Scargill, he has continually contributed to modern debates without deserting his ideals.
His musical career started with the urgent thrum of his guitar in A New England, in which he wants nothing more than a girlfriend. In many ways this musical approach has remained the most powerful Bragg vehicle: just him, a guitar and some heartfelt lyrics. He repeats it time and again, from the brooding, lovelorn Man in the Iron Mask to the emphatic and unashamedly old-fashioned There is Power in a Union, with its “Down with the blackleg” refrain that seems to echo straight from a 1980s brazier.
But Billy Bragg doesn’t just do propaganda and heartache. He also does a nice line in historical songwriting: I’ve always thought that an account of the industrial revolution, Bragg-style, would be a fantastic read. In Between the Wars – another man-and-guitar classic – he tells the story of a man struggling to survive the austerity of the 1930s, abandoned by his government but holding to his belief in a better world. “I kept the faith and I kept voting, not for the iron fist but for the helping hand”.
And in The World Turned Upside Down, with the unpromisingly factual opening line “In 1649…” he considers the Diggers seeking to control a little of their own land and manages to make this modern listener both sympathise with their cause and sorrow at their brutal suppression. It is genuinely masterful, and if I occasionally think that Billy’s worldview is a bit overly simplistic (“bosses bad, workers good” is a bit much for this inoffensive middle manager to accept) I forgive him when he comes up with lines like
“The clergy dazzle us with heaven or they damn us into hell. We will not worship the god they serve, the god of greed who feeds the rich while poor men starve.”
These kinds of narration or reflection are Billy Bragg’s stock-in-trade and he does it brilliantly, but occasionally he goes in another direction, gathering together a band and what I like to imagine as a bunch of cheerfully pickled pals to serve as a chorus, and coming up with a proper foot-stomping romp. My favourite example of this is Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards, with its deceptively pleasant piano tinkling at the start, building up to a defiant reassertion of the Bragg core values as the drums kick in and he tosses in lines like
“Well here comes the future and you can’t run from it, if you’ve got a blacklist, I wanna be on it”,
concluding with the joyous yell,
“Beam me up Scotty!”
It’s a tune I often turn to on the train in the morning, when I need something to boot me up the bum and make me smile. And it sums up the Bragg brand brilliantly, in one funny and truthful verse.
“Mixing pop and politics
He asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment
And my usual excuses
While looking down the corridor
To where the van is waiting
I’m looking for the great leap forward”.