Billy Bragg: Rebel with a cause

The singer, songwriter and all-round political agitator Billy Bragg made a name for himself banging on about England and Englishness. But now that he has a street named after him and a Grammy nomination, and has even appeared on a television quiz show, has he still got anything to be cross about?

Deborah Ross
Monday 11 November 2002 01:00
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I think that when most people think of Billy Bragg they think of his utter, passionate, absolute devotion to socialism – he may well be a kind of Tony Benn of rock – rather than spoons. This is a shame, as spoons mean a lot to Billy. Spoons are as high up on his agenda as anything. I think I get us going on spoons when I mention that whenever I look in the back of one, I think I look like Billy Bragg. In fact, I've discovered that whenever anyone looks in the back of a spoon they look like Billy Bragg.

So, I wonder, who does Billy Bragg see when he looks in the back of a spoon? Billy Bragg? "Nah," he says. "I see Pete Townshend." I think this is going to be it on the spoon front but, as it turns out, it is not. "I can hang spoons on my nose," says Billy. "Wow," I say, because I'm not sure what else to say, although I can see now it might have been overly encouraging. He fetches a spoon from somewhere. He rubs his nose. It's a stonking big nose (I'm Jewish, but his nose quite puts mine to shame). He then rubs the bowl of the spoon. This rubbing seems to be vital, for some reason, possibly known only to spoon-hangers. Then, yes, he hangs the spoon off his nose. "There," he announces happily.

Well done, Billy? Marvellous gift? Are you available for weddings, bar mitzvahs, corporate dos? He says that when he's on tour, "my band are always on the lookout for different-shaped spoons for me to try." Why don't I have a go? He rubs a spoon. He rubs my nose. The spoon is then hung on my nose. So he's sitting there, with a spoon on his nose, and I'm sitting there, with a spoon on my nose, and I'm thinking: Billy, this is just so uncool, so un-rock'n'roll. Where's the drugs? (Truly, the last time I felt as unhip was when I realised I quite liked "Seasons in the Sun". And Radio 2. And pop socks. And anything elasticated round the middle.) But the thing about Billy, I suppose, is that he's never been bothered by "cool". It may be why so many love him so.

We meet at the offices of his PR company in west London. He's an hour late – grrrrr! – but when he does arrive, with that marvellous, back-of-a-spoon, stonking-nosed face of his, he is, at least, wholly apologetic. He's come in by train from where he now lives in Dorset, "and I was at the mercy of the weather and the slow train in front and then I 'ad to wait for the bus at 'Ammersmith." Billy, I say, what a silly Billy you are. Have you never heard of something called A Taxi? You know, those black things with yellow lights? Much speedier, much comfier, no having to jostle with all those workers who smell of Pot Noodle and are racing to get back for Emmerdale, then darts, then another Pot Noodle. "But it's pissin' down," he says. "I'd 'ave probably had to wait longer for a taxi than the bus."

He arrives carrying a cup of coffee from Coffee Republic. Isn't that rather anti- anti-globalisation of you, Billy? He looks sheepish. "I suppose you can withdraw your custom." I ask if he'd ever shop in Gap, say. "Yeah, if I'm in the USA and desperately in need of underpants." Actually, on second thoughts, Gap doesn't sell the underpants he likes. "I'm a Y-front kind of guy. I like my undercarriage up." Usually, he says, he ends up in old men's shops with names like Dunn & Co, where he'll find his beloved Y-fronts among "those things that keep your socks up. And pipes." As I've said, Billy doesn't put much effort in when it comes to "cool". He may even be a total non-starter on this front.

Still, it's what makes Billy who he is, I guess, and to most he's known as A Truly Good Bloke, a man whose refusal to be marketed is possibly the most marketable thing about him, a man who has always put content before style in a business that worships anything but. How has he managed it? "When a culture is zigging," he says, "there is always someone who will zag." Does the business ask you to do a lot of things you can't bring yourself to do? Hello!? Celebrity Fit Club? Supermarket openings? "It's telly quiz shows, mainly. Although I did do The Weakest Link because it's me mum's favourite programme. But Rock Stars and Their Gardens, Rock Stars and Their Poodles? Nah." He isn't into supermarkets. "I recently made the front page of the Dorset Echo," he says, "for my anti- Safeway campaign."

I ask if he has any artifice at all. He says, yeah. Really? He says: "My accent does go up a notch when I'm doin' gigs. My mum always goes round afterwards saying: 'Billy don't really talk like that.'" His mum, Marie, still lives in the Barking house Billy grew up in in the Fifties and Sixties. (He was born in 1957.) Billy now has a local road named after him – Bragg Close, in Dagenham – and Marie, he says, is well proud. Have you visited Bragg Close? "Yeah, but I don't loiter there." No, he doesn't think the locals might think it's been named after Melvyn. "I don't fink they've 'eard of 'im in Barkin'."

Billy is, I would say, having fun at the moment. A CD setting Woody Guthrie lyrics to his own music won a Grammy nomination. His latest album, England, Half English, has been well received, and is as authentically Billy as ever. You know, some beautiful, bittersweet love songs flanked by stern, polemical bodyguards; tracks such as "NPWA" – "Can you hear us? Are you listening? No Power Without Accountability!" I doubt it's ever going to be a Kylie cover.

His tour is going well. He has high hopes for this year's Spoon Hanging Off Nose Championships. (OK, only teasing with that one.) Plus, of course, he's enjoying watching the Tory party unravel. He's absolutely loving this. No teasing here. "It's dissolving before our eyes. It's like watching Arsenal get relegated. It's hard to believe it's happening!" Oh yes, he adored the Edwina Currie/John Major thing. "Un-fucking-believable. I heard about it when on tour in Holland, on the radio. The newsreader said John and Edwina had been having an affair while under Margaret Thatcher, which made it even better somehow."

I ask if he's been following the Paul Burrell business. "I'm more interested in Tony Blair declaring war." Do you think the Royals should all be shot? "I think that while there are people still around who survived the Second World War, and who know people who died in the Second World War, it would be disrespectful. They did die for King and country. The fly in the ointment for monarchists now is Camilla. Queen Camilla? I don't fink so." I say I'm increasingly convinced that Camilla and Audrey Roberts from Coronation Street are one and the same. He says: "Yeah, yeah. Right, right. Ha." He then says: "Who is Audrey Roberts?" For a Man of the People, he's not very into popular culture. He seems to watch only Newsnight and documentaries. Reading matter? He says he always travels with a copy of the New Statesman – strange thing to take, if you're trying to pass the time – and a few books. Currently, he is into books on Englishness.

Oh, Englishness, and what appears to be his fight to reclaim the flag of St George from the far right. "I want to get to the point where people see the flag on the back of a white van and don't think the worst." Can you define Englishness? "I fink of identity as a mantelpiece, and what you choose to put on it." What's on yours? "Um... my addiction to Marmite, my desire to live by the ocean, a concern with underwear." Do you ever get the urge to drive to beauty spots, eat your sandwiches in the car, and then return home for a nice cuppa? "That is very English. You see people doing it in Dorset all the time. And only the English are ever arrested for plane-spotting."

His hero, on this subject, is George Orwell, whom he quotes on the inside of his CD cover: "Englishness is continuous, it stretches into the future and the past... what can the England of 1940 have in common with the England of 1840? But, then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person." His all-time hero is Orwell, as it happens. He thinks Orwell is even bigger than Presley. "Big Brother. Room 101. Presley 'asn't 'ad two TV programmes named after 'im." But didn't Animal Farm make you think that human nature will always corrupt socialist ideals? "No. It made me think that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

OK, what about the Poles, who say that socialism is just one of the longest and most painful roads to capitalism? "Look, what I want is a society based on a compassionate idea rather than an exploitative idea. Society should not just be about prosperity..." I'm minded to tackle him further, but in the end don't bother. Socialist belief is, I think, rather like religious faith. You can go on until you're blue arguing about it, asking how there can be a God when there are wars, diseases, good folk dying of cancer, Keith Chegwin; but if someone is determined to believe, that belief will not be shaken. Still, Billy is admirable, I'm sure. Mostly, I've always believed that there's nothing in socialism that age and a little money can't cure. He puts me to shame. Again. Although I don't think "Seasons in the Sun" is that good. Just very tuneful.

I ask if he doesn't sometimes feel uncomfortable about his wealth. He says: "What makes you fink I am wealthy? I've got a lovely 'ouse, a beautiful 'ouse, but if it all went tits up, that would be it." He does, indeed, have a beautiful house – overlooking the sea – which he shares with his partner, Juliet, a one-time record producer, and their son, Jack, now nine. Jack, like most small boys, goes through obsessional periods. It used to be dinosaurs, then sharks, but now it's tornadoes. "He was very disappointed when I went to America and didn't get caught in a tornado."

I ask Billy if he is ever extravagant. He says that in 1986 he did buy a 1929 guitar that "cost £1,000". Again, he looks a little sheepish. "But it's still my favourite guitar," he adds. (I don't tell him that £1,000 is probably my monthly budget for lipstick. Or is it the weekly one?) "I've never had the urge to wade in wonga," he adds.

Billy's father, Dennis, worked in a warehouse and died of lung cancer when Billy was 18. Smoker? "Yeah. His fingers were bright orange." The Braggs were not well off. "I grew up with no telly, no phone, no car, no inside bathroom." How badly would you need to pee in the middle of the night to visit the outside loo? "Very badly. You really didn't wanna go unless you had to. We all cheered when the dunny came down." Your first musical memory? "Going on 'oliday to Blackpool and staying with some relatives of Dad's and they had a record player. I became very enamoured of 'Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen'. Then it was hearing Simon and Garfunkel's The Boxer on the coach on a school trip to Holland, and it really moved me, moved me to tears."

Billy failed his 11-plus – "I was shit at exams" – and ended up at the secondary modern, where all the kids were intended for the Ford plant at Dagenham. "I'd been taken to the main body plant a couple of times by school careers officers, and it was like Hades." After he left school, he formed a band with his great mate Wiggy, but they didn't have much joy, so then it was a spell as a bank messenger. He was not an exemplary bank messenger. "Usually, I was in the record shop in Cheapside, listening to the latest Stiff release."

Then it was a spell as a painter and decorator. Artexing ceilings was his speciality. Aha, I say, so you're to blame for all that. Do you know how difficult it is to remove Artex? Do you know how expensive it is to remove Artex? He says this isn't a fair cop. "I was very bad at it. All my Artex fell off anyway." Then it was a brief spell in the Army, as much on a whim as anything, before going back to music again.

And now he has to go. Where are you going, I ask? "The Tube," he replies. Where are you taking the Tube to? "The West End." Why are you going to the West End? "I'm going Christmas shopping, all right?" Bit early, isn't it? "I'm not going to have time later, what with the tour. OK?" I think he's feeling a little ashamed now, although I don't know why. There's nothing shameful about shopping. Everyone has to shop. Even Tony Benn has to shop. I bumped into him in Topshop just the other day. Or was it Kookai? Whatever, I drop Billy at the Tube station. He seems a deliciously authentic chap. I hope his career goes on for ever. And, if not, he always has the spoon thing and the Y-fronts to fall back on. Actually, no, I won't think of that. There's uncool and then there are night terrors. There's a world of difference between the two.

For information on Bragg's albums and tour, see www.billybragg.co.uk

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