When I learned that Billy Bragg had agreed to be interviewed by Northern Soul, I spent some considerable time working up the courage to ask him one question: is it wrong to wish on space hardware?
If you’re a proper Bragg fan then there’s no need to explain my nerves. I mean, this is one of the Bard of Barking’s most famous lyrics. The 1983 release of A New England has a special place in the hearts of the Bragg faithful although, in a rare example of a cover equalling the brilliance of the original, Kirsty MacColl’s 1984 version put the song on the musical map. Some 18 years after her untimely death, it remains inextricably linked with her. It’s the love song to end all love songs and yet, after three decades of singing it in the shower, it seems that I have the meaning all wrong.
I screw my courage to the sticking place and squeak out my enquiry. Billy, is it wrong to wish on space hardware?
“It definitely is because space hardware comes round every night,” he says. “If you stand in the right place and look it will be there all the time. Wishing on a star is right because it shoots across the sky and you might be the only person who has ever seen that and you get the wish that goes with it. Whereas with space hardware people know where it’s going to be all the time, there’s probably someone flying it. It ain’t the same kid, it ain’t the same.”
I’m momentarily lost for words. Bragg has redefined a song I’ve had in my heart since Johnny Hates Jazz had me all of a flutter. But, as the next half hour of chat proves, Bragg is capable of outstripping all expectations. Talking with this 60-year-old (yes! Billy Bragg is 60!) reminds me of the multiple times I’ve seen him in concert. During my time in London, I tripped along to all manner of venues, including Brixton Academy and Kentish Town Forum. It didn’t take long to realise that Bragg is a musician imbued with a bloody great patter that puts many stand-up comedians to shame. He’s not just obscenely good at writing songs that strike at the core of humanity, shining an unforgiving light on the flawed, brutal nature of being (I’m thinking here of Sexuality and the Milkman of Human Kindness), Bragg has also skewered political hypocrisy and the egos of those in power. Take the superlative and heartbreaking Take Down The Union Jack. That was released in 2002 on Bragg’s LP England, Half-English. In the wake of Brexit, the album’s focus on anti-immigration sentiment and racism seems strangely prescient.
I wonder, in these times of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Brexit, is Bragg swamped with material for his songwriting? Has the political turmoil of recent years acted as a catalyst?
“It always has. I’ve always written about that kind of stuff. Interestingly, the folk audience have always been interested in what you might call topical songs. In some ways, they’ve kept the idea of the topical song alive when it’s gone out of fashion elsewhere. So I’ve been very fortunate to be considered a folk musician because, technically, I’m not really a folk musician. But because of things like Between the Wars and some of the things that I did during the Miners’ Strike, I’m happy to make that connection with the folk audience. They’ve always been great to me.”
Bragg adds: “There’s so much upside-down news that you think, how have we got to this place? But I think anyone who’s writing is trying to offer their perspective on the world and through that make sense of it for other people. So the challenge for the person who writes topical songs is as great as ever. And one of the good things about it is that it’s hard to make political music in a vacuum. One of the reasons we could write something like Between the Wars during the Miners’ Strike is because everyone was talking about that. So you were chiming in with the zeitgeist. Whereas in the years of ‘ladism’ that had been totally rejected. And now you can write songs about Trump, you can write songs about Brexit, because everyone’s talking about it.”
Now living in Dorset, Bragg is still an inveterate touring musician. Among his other gigs, this year he will appear at the Manchester Folk Festival. You can see him in the city on October 20 at The Ritz. “I like the Manchester Folk Festival,” says Bragg. “It’s good because it’s not like a normal folk festival because a normal folk festival is in a field. This one’s in a city which is why I think it’s a bit more interesting.”
So, does he like coming up North? “I’ve been known to only stop at particular motorway service stations on the way to Manchester on account of the width of their fruit slice.”
He continues: “I always get a good reception in the North. I’ve been coming up to Manchester since 83 which I think is the first time I played the Band on the Wall. I’d never really been in the big Northern cities. My dad had an obscure cousin in Blackpool and we went to Blackpool in the 60s and I don’t really have much memory of that. So coming up to do gigs in places like Manchester, Liverpool, right across the North, Leeds as well and Sheffield, I’ve always had great times up there. I’m just trying not to upset anyone by declaring where the North begins and the South ends.”
Bragg hasn’t always done what’s been expected of him. In 1998, he released Mermaid Avenue, an album of previously unheard lyrics by the American folk legend, Woody Guthrie, recorded in conjunction with Wilco. It is said that Guthrie’s daughter asked Bragg to compose the music. If you’ve never heard the Ingrid Bergman track from this CD, I urge you to do so immediately.
For a guy who seems, rightly or wrongly, to be an outsider, Bragg was delighted to receive the 2018 Outstanding Contribution to British Music at The Ivors.
“It’s on me sideboard, it looks lovely. It weighs a ton though. If anyone comes in late at night, I’ll kill them with it. It’s a lovely accolade to have, isn’t it? And a handy weapon if you have it in your house. But songwriters decide who gets it and that means a huge amount to me.”
Of his less high-profile achievements, Bragg’s un-sung (literally when it comes to the media) is Jail Guitar Doors. Put simply, this is an independent initiative which aims to provide instruments to prison inmates seeking rehabilitation. It takes its name from the b-side of The Clash’s 1978 single Clash City Rockers.
Bragg comments: “Interestingly, I’m sending two boxes of guitars out today to two different prisons. Basically one is a youth offenders’ place, the other’s a lifers’ wing where they’re trying to engage them in rehabilitation. So I probably send out between eight and 12 batches of guitars in a year. When I can, I try and go visit the prison to see how it’s going. I get a very positive response. There seems to have been a change recently, some recognition that playing music can have quite a therapeutic effect on people, and through either writing the song yourself or singing a song that means something to you, you can access emotions that you might not necessarily be able to articulate yourself in a conversation. You put a beat on it and some chords on it and you can find a way to articulate that. Somewhere the penny seems to have dropped in the prison system. It’s not everywhere but word of mouth goes through the system.”
He adds: “What we’re trying to do is seed the system with guitars so there’s something there as a sort of a valve for individuals but also for the whole staff. When we went to Brixton, the governor said the introduction of guitars had changed the atmosphere in the prison. And now and then I get a letter from someone who’s been inside and they’re out now and they say how the guitar has helped or what they’re trying to do. Or someone’s family writes to me and say one of my guitars ended up with their son and it’s helped.
“Anybody who’s played an instrument will understand how playing an instrument can help you to momentarily transcend your surroundings. And obviously if you’re in a prison that’s a really important thing to be able to access. And to be able to do that without having to take some terrible drugs, you know. Most people are trying to do that with spice. I would rather they tried to do it by playing Comfortably Numb by Pink Floyd which is very popular. Redemption Song is another popular one, as is The Drugs Don’t Work.”
I wonder if any of the people in receipt of Bragg’s guitars ever play A New England, strumming along to these lines: “I saw two shooting stars last night, I wished on them but they were only satellites. It’s wrong to wish on space hardware, I wish, I wish, I wish you’d care.”
You know what? I bet they do.
Photos of Billy Bragg by Chris Payne
Billy Bragg will be at The Ritz in Manchester on October 20, 2018 as part of the Manchester Folk Festival. For more information, click here.