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Billy Bragg: British Rocker on Norway Attacks, Activism & His Song on Murdoch, “Never Buy The Sun”

StoryAugust 01, 2011
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We spend the hour with legendary British rocker and activist, Billy Bragg. His music career began in the late 1970s in London when he formed the punk rock band Riff Raff. His 1984 album, “Brewing Up with Billy Bragg,” included the song “It Says Here,” a critique of politics and tabloid newspapers that still rings true today in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. In 1998 and 2000, he participated in two well-known albums — Mermaid Avenue, Volumes 1 and 2 — that gave voice to another folk troubadour who sang about the poor and working class: Woody Guthrie. Bragg composed music for lyrics written by Guthrie, and performed many of the songs alongside the album’s other main contributor, Wilco. But to speak of Bragg simply as a singer-songwriter misses his passion for speaking out against injustice, and fighting for many causes. In the 1980s, he called for support for the 1984 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers, one of the most significant chapters in Britain’s trade union history. It was ultimately defeated under the watch of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Bragg went on to organize for the defeat of Thatcher and her Conservative government. He is on tour now in the United States and joins us for an extended interview and performance. He reflects on his long history of activism and the attacks in Norway, and sings several songs, including his latest, “Never Buy The Sun,” about the phone-hacking scandal engulfing the Rupert Murdoch media empire. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with legendary British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. His music career began in the late ’70s in London when he formed the punk rock band Riff Raff. One of his early records, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, released in 1984, included the song “It Says Here,” a critique of politics and tabloid newspapers that still rings true today in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. This is an excerpt from his 1984 performance of the song on BBC Breakfast Time.

BILLY BRAGG: [singing] It says here that this year’s prince is born
It says here do you ever wish that you were better informed
And it says here that we can only stop the rot
With a large dose of law and order and a touch of the short sharp shock

If this does not reflect your view you should understand
Those who own the papers also own this land
And they’d rather you agree with Coronation Street capers
In the war of circulation, it sells newspapers

Could it be an infringement of the freedom of the press
To print pictures of women in states of undress
When you wake up to the fact that your paper is Tory
Just remember, there are two sides to every story.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Billy Bragg performing “It Says Here” in 1984. Also in the '80s, Billy Bragg released Between the Wars and Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, his first Top 10 album. On 1988's The Internationale, he recorded a version of the socialist anthem of the same name. In 1998 and 2000, Bragg participated in two well-known albums that gave voice to another folk troubadour who sang about the poor and working class. On Mermaid Avenue Volumes I and II, Bragg composed music for lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, and performed many of the songs alongside the album’s other main contributor, the band Wilco.

But to speak of Bragg simply as a singer-songwriter misses his passion for speaking out and singing out against injustice and fighting for many causes. In the '80s, he called for support for the 1984 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers, or [NUM]. The strike was one of the most significant chapters in Britain's trade union history, and ultimately defeated under the watch of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Billy Bragg went on to organize for the defeat of Thatcher and her Conservative government, a fight he continues into the present, as well as many others.

He’s on tour now in the United States. He just played several shows here in New York, along with an event he hosted outside Lincoln Center called “The Big Busk.”

I started by asking Billy Bragg about the scandal around Rupert Murdoch’s media empire.

BILLY BRAGG: It is shocking to us in the U.K. I mean, we’ve long known of the closeness between our politicians and Rupert Murdoch. Successive British prime ministers have attempted to keep News International, which is the British arm of News Corp., very, very close. But the phone-hacking scandal has kind of blown up, and it’s actually been rumbling on for a few years. But it’s really been about people like the actress Sienna Miller. Nobody really cared. It was just an excuse to print another picture of this, you know, sort of vivacious blonde woman on the front page. Nobody took any notice. But when it transpired that the journalists from News of the World had been hacking into the phone messages of an abducted girl, I think it brought it home to everybody what really—what this really was about. And since then, in a real whirlwind that’s implicated not just our press, but our politicians and our police, it’s been a complete car crash. And it’s far from over. I think this will end up with executives of News Corp. possibly going to jail.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, amazing, we are only in the United States learning about the story of Milly Dowler, this 13-year-old girl went missing.


AMY GOODMAN: Horror for her family.


AMY GOODMAN: And then they start to get some hope. Explain.

BILLY BRAGG: Oh, yeah. Well, what happened was, while she was missing, her voicemail was accessed and some messages deleted. And the parents took this as a sign that she was still out there, that maybe she, you know, decided to run away from home but was still alive. But actually, it was journalists from Rupert Murdoch’s News of the World that were getting rid of these messages in the hope of getting more messages and getting more information for their story. I mean, it’s utterly despicable.

AMY GOODMAN: And then News of the World covered the parents being hopeful, because they said the voicemail was being deleted maybe by their daughter.

BILLY BRAGG: Exactly, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: But they knew they, themselves, were doing it.

BILLY BRAGG: Well, one arm did, and the other arm didn’t, probably. But the very fact that someone in the newsroom must have known that they had their finger in both pies, and, you know, which we’re having to drag the information out at the moment. It’s a terrible, terrible drip, drip, drip.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, I saw you in your concert last night at City Brewery, and—City Winery, and you were just hearing about the story of Sarah Payne.


AMY GOODMAN: Explain this story.

BILLY BRAGG: Well, as a result of this terrible incident with the phone messages of Milly Dowler, the News of the World was forced to close. Now, the News of the World is the biggest-selling English-language newspaper.

AMY GOODMAN: The biggest English-language newspaper in the world?

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, yeah. The Times of India, The Hindu Times, sometimes says it is. But it’s, certainly for a long time, certainly the biggest-selling newspaper, English-language newspaper in the U.K., was forced to close. And as it went down, the one piece of moral high ground they had was a campaign they ran about another murdered child who had been abducted by a pedophile. And they brought in a law that, similar to what you have in the United States of America, where people have to be notified if a pedophile is released from prison and lives nearby. It’s called Sarah’s Law, by Sara Payne, the mother of the murdered child. And they made a huge issue about that: they did do some good. As the ship went down, this was their big issue. And it now transpires that they were hacking her phone, as well. At the same time as they were promoting her cause, they were just the same, listening to her phone messages.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Sara Payne’s daughter, also named Sarah, was killed by a pedophile.

BILLY BRAGG: She, the child, yeah—I can’t remember what the child’s name was, actually. But yeah, she was—


BILLY BRAGG: —was killed, yeah, by a pedophile. And with her mother, they launched this campaign, which did result in laws. But at the same time—

AMY GOODMAN: And to help her, they gave her a cell phone?

BILLY BRAGG: They did, yeah, which they hacked. Which is heartbreaking, isn’t it? Really, it’s heartbreaking. But that was the—you know, that was the only sort of thing that the News of the World could hold up and say, “Look, we’re not all bad.” And it turns out they are all bad. And it’s about accountability. It comes down to the issue of accountability. I think it’s a very, very important issue in the 21st century. You know, when you look around, it’s not just politicians anymore who have power over us. It is—you know, people have economic power, they have information power. And how we hold those people to account, I think, is going to be the big question that we have to face.

AMY GOODMAN: Maybe you wield, Billy Bragg, the greatest power, which is the power of song in illustrating these stories and also bringing in history to understand what we’re seeing today. Can you sing the song that you have about The Sun?


AMY GOODMAN: But give us some context first. Tell us the story.

BILLY BRAGG: A little bit of context, yeah. Well, the day that they announced the News of the World was closing, I was driving to a concert in the north of England. It took me about eight hours. The traffic was dreadful. It was a weekend. And I was listening to all of this going down on the news channels on the radio. And the police were implicated. The politicians were implicated. You know, I’ve already said the News of the World was the biggest-selling newspaper in Britain, so, you know, we were implicated, the British people. The only—it seemed to me the only group of people who had any dignity in this were people in Liverpool, who have boycotted The Sun for a long time because of a story they wrote about a terrible incident where 96 soccer fans were killed, an accident when a pen was opened at a football match, and people streamed in and they were crushed to death. And The Sun

AMY GOODMAN: This was a couple decades ago?

BILLY BRAGG: It was, in 1989. And The Sun newspaper, which is the sister paper to the News of the World, the daily paper, printed an article that said the fans from Liverpool had robbed the bodies of the dead as they were laid on the pitch and had beaten up the paramedics. This was all lies, complete lies.

AMY GOODMAN: And had urinated on the dead bodies.

BILLY BRAGG: And they did say that, yeah, which is unspeakable, isn’t it, to even suggest that. So people in Liverpool, for a long time now, have refused to buy The Sun or any of the News International newspapers, but specifically The Sun newspaper. And it seemed to me that they were the only people who had any, you know, credibility in this. You know, they had spotted this problem, you know, 20 years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: So they boycotted The Sun. What are they called?

BILLY BRAGG: The people in Liverpool, we call them “Scousers.” That’s their accent. We call that “scouse.” Their Liverpool—you know, the Beatles accent, we call that “scouse.” So the punchline from this song is, you know, all this stuff is going on, but all these years “the Scousers never buy The Sun.”

AMY GOODMAN: Billy Bragg.

BILLY BRAGG: [singing] Someone’s hiding in the bushes with a telephoto lens
While their editor assures them, the means justify the end
Because we only hunt celebrities, it’s all a bit of fun
But the Scousers never buy The Sun

While the parents of the missing girl cling desperately to hope
And a copper takes improper payments in a thick brown envelope
And no one in the newsroom asks where is this headline from
But the Scousers never buy The Sun

Tabloids making millions betting bollocks baffles brains
And they cynically hold up their hands if anyone complains
And they say “Well, all we’re doing is giving people what they want”
Well, they’re crying out for justice, people crying out for justice

And the man they call “The Digger” casts a proprietary eye
Over what goes on in the gutter and what happens in the Sky
And he claims he’s fit and proper, and the watchdog sings his song
But the Scousers never buy The Sun

International executives, they hang their heads in shame
And tell us with their hands on heart that the paperboy’s to blame
But you who love that kiss’n’tell, you must bear some guilt as well
Scousers never buy The Sun

Tabloids make their money betting bollocks baffles brains
And they cynically hold up their hands if anyone complains
And they say, “All we’re doing is giving people what they want”
Well, they’re crying out for justice, people crying out for justice

In the corridors of power they all sit down to sup
With the devil and his minions, and they ask for his opinions
And the politicians wring their hands and cry, “What’s to be done?”
But Scousers never buy The Sun

No one comes out looking good when all is said and done
But Scousers never buy The Sun.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy Bragg singing “Don’t Buy The Sun.” Billy Bragg, here in our New York studio, is on a U.S. tour. And you’ve been talking about the news from way back. Before we go way back to “It Says Here,” and I want to talk about Woody Guthrie and lots of other things—

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Norway and how you fit the horror that’s happened there—what, 76 people killed, close to a hundred wounded, shootings, bombing, by this extreme right-winger?

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah. I mean, it really is beyond comprehension that someone should do that. But as the news came out, it was absolutely clear that in the targets that he chose—and let’s be honest, the bomb in Oslo was merely a distraction for what he was trying to do, which was kill a generation of Norwegian leftist activists. That was his main aim. It was absolutely clear to me what sort of person he was. This wasn’t someone who was fighting a jihad against the West. This was someone from the far right with a very, very specific aim, which was to intimidate people who wanted to stand up for equality and for justice. That’s what’s so heartbreaking about it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve been writing—you’ve been singing songs about politics, about unions, about news. Media criticism is not as big and cultural among musicians as you make it.


AMY GOODMAN: But so, way back, we saw you as a kid.

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, well, really, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe your transformation. I was stunned last night at the City Winery when you started talking about working in an office. And a friend of yours I was sitting next to, who knew you for a long time, said, “I didn’t know he worked in an office.”

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, oh, yeah. I left school when I was 16, you know. The town I grew up in was a car-producing town. I didn’t really want to work in a car factory, so—it was also a shipping town, so I went and worked for a shipping company in their office. I was a sort of clerk in the office. And all the time, though, I was looking for a way out, planning this, trying to work out how I was going to make a living doing the thing I always wanted to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t you fit in there?

BILLY BRAGG: Well, I just really—I suppose I was too Bolshy, really, for that sort of life, you know? I didn’t really—punk rock was flourishing. There were opportunities for young men with opinions. And being 19 in 1977 was, you know, a joy to be in that hour, you know, same age as Johnny Rotten, as Joe Strummer, as Paul Weller. So I picked up my guitar, and I’m pleased to say, you know, it’s helped me to see the way. It gave me a platform, as well.

I mean, it’s hard when you talk to young people about this issue, you know, because now if they’re angry about something, they can blog about it, they can tweet about it, they can social network about it. They can write a viral—you know, make a viral video, put it on YouTube. They don’t understand it. You know, if you were angry in those days as a young person, you really only had one medium which you could use to speak to your—you know, your friends from your generation, but also to your parents’ generation, and that was by writing songs. It seems strange now when we look back at that time. But that was how we communicated with one another back then, and I still think that’s a very viable method.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about one of your first concerts, what it meant to you.

BILLY BRAGG: Well, that was, for me, particularly during punk, it was so invigorating. You see bands like The Jam, like The Damned, but particularly The Clash. They were my great inspiration. And in fact, they helped me to have my first political ideas. The first political act I ever undertook was to go to a Rock Against Racism concert to see The Clash.

AMY GOODMAN: Where was it?

BILLY BRAGG: In London in 1978. It was the first great Rock Against Racism event. And I was—at the time, as you mentioned, I was working in an office, with a bunch of guys who were about five years older than me. And in their language, they were racist, they were sexist, they were homophobic. And I—you know, I just sat there. I didn’t say nothing. I was the office junior. I knew what they were doing was wrong, but I never spoke out. And as a result, I was complicit in their bullying.

But when I went to this march and, you know, to see The Clash, when I got to the park, there were 100,000 kids just like me, and I sort of realized that afternoon that on the issue of discrimination of all kinds, my generation were going to make their stand. You know, it was—we were going to be the generation of Rock Against Racism, of 2 Tone, of Artists Against Apartheid. So, when I went back to the office on Monday morning, I knew I wasn’t in a minority, certainly not in my generation. And it kind of—you know, that was the beginning of a journey that led me to be sitting here with you talking now, I think, you know, if it hadn’t of been for that moment. So I know that music can have a transformative effect.

But I don’t think it was The Clash that actually changed my perspective of the world. It was actually being in that audience. It was being with all those other kids and realizing I wasn’t alone, because when I felt—in the office, I was alone. You know, I was the only person who felt that way. But when I was with all those other people, I felt inspired, invigorated. And I think that’s what music can do. It can bring a community together for one night in a town. We talk about these issues. People, you know, make affirmative noises and applaud. But, you know, the next day you’re gone. Their still there to deal with what’s going on, to—you know, and that’s what, as a musician, you should be trying to inspire that—not you personally trying to change the world, but trying to inspire others to at least engage in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: You knew it was about the media from early on, with “It Says Here.”


AMY GOODMAN: Could we just get a stanza of that, “It Says Here”?

BILLY BRAGG: Sure, yeah. A little bit of it, yeah.

[singing] It says here the unions will never learn
It says here that the economy is on the upturn
And it says here we should be proud that we are free

AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Billy Bragg through the break.

BILLY BRAGG: [singing] And our free press reflects our democracy
Braying voices on the right of the house
Are echoed down the street of shame
Where politics mix with bingo and [bleep]
In a money and numbers game
Where they offer you a feature
On stockings and suspenders
Next to a call for stiffer penalties for sex offenders.

Yeah, you can beep me on tele now. I feel—I felt dumb a bit.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we return to my conversation with the legendary British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. I asked him about the 1984 miners’ strike in Britain.

BILLY BRAGG: I’m in a very—I’m one of those people who was born in a very fortunate time, when I—you know, my parents’ generation and grandparents’ generation fought very hard for a welfare state in my country, in which the rights of the individual were underpinned by the collective provision of free healthcare, free education, decent affordable housing, proper pensions. And that was—you know, that’s what we refer to in my country as the post-war consensus. Parties came and went—Labour, Conservative, Liberal. Nobody ever changed that, until Margaret Thatcher came along. And she decided that it will be better to have—to pay less taxes. So she began to take apart the welfare state and that provision. And the government owned the coal mines. And although there was plenty of coal under our country, she then began to close them down. So they went on strike. And really, the strike became a defense of that welfare state, of those ideals of collective responsibility and collective provision.

And as a singer-songwriter who had grown up listening to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie and The Clash, it seemed to me that my place was to be, you know, there on the picket line playing songs. And it was interesting, because it was a bit of an education for me, because I didn’t—like I said, I didn’t go to college, so I didn’t know a huge amount about socialism. So it was a very steep learning curve. They wanted to know why this pop singer from London had come up to the coal fields, sitting up late at night on sofas with people, drinking cups of tea, smoking cigarettes, talking about politics. And so, yeah, I can tell you that my—the great inspiration in my politics was Margaret Thatcher. Were it not for her, I probably wouldn’t be a socialist.

AMY GOODMAN: “There Is Power in a Union”?

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, of course. Well, I mean, “There Is Power in a Union” fecks its title from a song by Joe Hill, the great Swedish-American union songwriter from the first decades of the 20th century. But it takes its tune from an old American song called “The Battle Cry of Freedom,” sometimes known as “Rally Around the Flag.” But the good news is that that tune for that song was actually stolen from a British hymn. So I’m kind of sort of culturally repossessing it, you could say.

[singing] There is power in a factory, power in the lands
Power in the hand of the worker
But it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand
There is power in a union

Now the lessons of the past were all learned with workers’ blood
The mistakes of the bosses we must pay for
From the cities and the farmlands to trenches full of mud
War has always been the bosses’ way, sir

The union forever defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters together we will stand
There is power in a union

Now I long for the morning that they realize
Brutality and unjust laws cannot defeat us
Who will defend the workers who cannot organize
When the bosses send their lackeys out to cheat us?

Money speaks for money, the devil for his own
Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone
What a comfort to the widow, a light to the child
There is power in a union

The union forever defending our rights
Down with the blackleg, all workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters together we will stand
There is power in a union.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy Bragg, here at Democracy Now! Billy, your love of Woody Guthrie has a lot of fruits today. I mean, what you are engaged in right now, in singing, putting his words to music, explain this whole project.

BILLY BRAGG: Well, in—about 20 years ago, it was now, I did a show here in New York City in Central Park with Pete Seeger to celebrate Woody’s—what would have been Woody’s 80th birthday in 1992. And I met his daughter Nora, and she told me that in the Woody Guthrie archive they had lyrics of songs that Woody had written during his lifetime, which although Woody had written lyrics and music, he had actually kept the tunes in his head. He couldn’t write music notation. Now, I can’t do that. I don’t write music notation, so I understood where he was coming from. And she invited me to come and look at some of these lyrics, with a view to write some new tunes, to give them life, really.

And I was a bit skeptical about this. I think I might have said to her something like, “Surely this is Bob Dylan’s job, not mine.” But she felt that she needed someone both from a different generation and also from perhaps, you know, another culture, to be able to step back a little bit from Woody, rather than someone who grew up singing “This Land Is Your Land.” And she saw a link, and there is a link, with myself and Woody. You know, Joe Strummer of The Clash, one of my heroes, was a huge Woody Guthrie fan. In fact, he used to call himself Woody before he called himself Joe Strummer. You know, obviously Dylan, another huge influence on me, was hugely influenced by Woody. And then you get back to the little guy himself. You know, he’s the father of the political song tradition, as far as, you know, in our culture is concerned. So—

AMY GOODMAN: Talk a little about him, for people, young people especially.

BILLY BRAGG: Well—yeah, well, WoodyGuthrie was born in 1912 in Okemah, Oklahoma, and during the last Great American Depression, he was writing incredible songs about the internal migrations in the United States of America, people who had to leave the Dust Bowl, the areas of the Texas Panhandle, of Oklahoma, of Arizona, and move to the fruit orchards in California. It was a huge mass migration, similar to the kind of migration—it’s kind of a east-to-west migration. Now the migration is kind of like south to north that’s going on. But that great migration is still going on. And Woody wrote these incredible songs and eventually ended up coming to New York City in 1940, lived out in Coney Island.

And although he himself never really had, during his lifetime, had a career in which he—you know, anything like mine—you know, he never did gigs, he never went on tour, he never sold T-shirts, he barely made records—the people around him, people like Pete Seeger and the Weavers, were singing his songs and popularizing his songs. And this was particularly during the 1960s in the folk revival. And people like Bob Dylan, you know, had heard legend of this guy Woody Guthrie. It was almost like perhaps he might not exist. He might just be, you know, like Johnny Appleseed. People did think, in the '60s, did he exist? But he did exist, and he was actually—he was infirm. He was suffering from a terrible degenerative disease called Huntington's disease, and he was in the Brooklyn Hospital here in New York. Dylan saw him before he died. He died in 1967.

But his legacy was to write the—I suppose, what you might call the founding songs of political pop, you know. And I would argue that he was the first alternative musician. He wrote his most famous song, “This Land Is Your Land,” as an alternative to the number one hit single in jukeboxes in 1940, when he was hitchhiking to New York. Every time he went and stopped in a bar, someone would put this song on the jukebox. And it was Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” And he hated it. It was like, how can you say that about—you know, it was still the Depression. In the 1940s, the Depression hadn’t ended in the United States of America. It was only the Second World War that we ended the Depression. And he sat down, and he wrote this song called “God Blessed America for You and Me,” and which later became “This Land Was Made for You and Me.” So, Woody was the—he was the first punk rocker, and the last Elizabethan balladeer. He was many, many things, Woody.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about some of the lyrics that you found, and then play one that you’ve put to music.

BILLY BRAGG: Sure, sure, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: So, it’s going to be the hundredth anniversary next July 12.

BILLY BRAGG: It is. Woody, yeah—Woody’s centennial will be next year, so I think it couldn’t be more timely, with the economic situation the way it is, you know. And we—the album that we made, Mermaid Avenue, myself and Wilco in the late '90s, we actually recorded a lot more material that has never been released. And next year, we're hoping to release that whole full third—a whole third album, another 16-, 17-track stuff. But Woody’s original songs, the songs that he wrote back in the 1930s—you know, I mean, the one that I’m going to play for you now, which is one of his classic songs, with these images of people losing their houses to the banks, of gamblers on the stock markets making millions, when ordinary working people can’t afford to make ends meet, and of people dying for want of proper free healthcare, you know, this song could have been written anytime in the last five years, really, in the United States of America. Actually, this song is over 70 years old. It’s called “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore.”

[singing] I ain’t got no home, I’m just a-roamin’ ’round,
Just a wanderin’ worker, I go from town to town.
And the police make it hard for me no matter where I go
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
No, I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

My brothers and my sisters are stranded on this road,
A long and dusty road that a million feet have trod;
Now the rich man took my home and drove me from my door
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
No, I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

I was farmin’ on the shares, and always I was poor;
My crops I laid into the banker’s store.
And my wife took down and died all on the cabin floor,
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
No, I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue with Billy Bragg through the break.

BILLY BRAGG: [singing] I mined in your mines and I gathered in your corn
I been working, mister, since the day that I was born
Now I worry all the time like I never did before
And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.
No, I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

Now as I look around, it’s mighty plain to see
This world is such a strange and a funny place to be

AMY GOODMAN: Billy Bragg, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to my conversation with him. I interviewed him Friday while he was in New York on part of his U.S. tour and asked him a question from Facebook. Eric Sztapka asked, “How has youth and working-class culture changed in Britain in the last decades with the invasion of American pop culture? Do you think the mass of society has moved further to the right because of it?”

BILLY BRAGG: I think there has been a movement to the right in working-class—I wouldn’t say in working-class culture, but because of the last 30 years, since Margaret Thatcher was in power, the welfare state has been severely undermined, and the lack of work in the old industrial heartlands has left people very, very frustrated. And we do have, you know, a far-right fascist political party in the U.K. called the British National Party, who are led by a man who questions the veracity of the Holocaust. I mean, they’re a serious—a serious far-right party. And they have won seats. But where they’ve won council seats, they very soon lost those seats, as soon as people realize that they’re not interested in anything except dividing community. So, although there’s a lot of frustration in white working-class culture, there is at the same time still a lot of pride, and they don’t like people who are using them for their own political ends. So, the BNP now are, I’m pleased to say, are a busted flush.

But with regard to the Americanization of culture, culture is global now, thanks to the internet. And a lot of what we see, people pick up their culture—in a country like Britain, you know, there’s culture coming in from many, many different angles now, not just in the old days, like it used to come in from—only from the United States of America. So, if anything, our working class, who are many different colors, many different ethnicities, are picking up stuff from their own traditions, as well as looking to the United States of America out of interest to see what’s happening there.

AMY GOODMAN: David Rovics emailed in a question.

BILLY BRAGG: The great David, yeah, David.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s the popular U.S. musician. We’ll talk about you guys being together.

BILLY BRAGG: I’ve played with him. I’ve played with him, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Actually, let me read this one, since you’re talking about him. “One of the most surreal moments,” David writes, “that I’ve had in recent years was during the FTA protests in Miami in 2003, when you,” Billy Bragg, “Steve Earle, Tom Morello passed around David’s guitar in an amphitheater almost completely bereft of people, since the authorities had prevented almost everyone from entering the place and were instead tear-gassing everyone outside the amphitheater. Was the scene in Miami that day just another day in your life, or did it stand out for you as particularly memorable, for one reason or another?”

BILLY BRAGG: It was—Dave, of course it was particularly memorable, not least that they dispersed the crowd we were in by firing those little plastic pellets at us. Me and Boots Riley and Tom Morello got a bit too close to the action. We had to leg it. We could hear those little bags of plastic things that they fired, because we could hear them going by. That was very, very exciting.

But when we come together as comrades, people like myself and David and Steve and Tom, in the front line of politics, we also are also—you know, deep down, we are also, you know, whether we like it or not, as we all are, Amy, in show business. So, in a situation like that, when our backs are against the wall and the tear gas is coming in, there’s only one thought in my mind, in Tom’s mind, in Steve’s mind: the show must go on, whatever the circumstances. We’ve come all the way in Miami. The few people that are in the stadium, who probably risked life and limb to get there. It’s absolutely like, “Dave, give us the guitar, Dave. Come on. We’re going to do this show now, whatever happens.” So there is that—you know, deep inside all of us, even inside Woody Guthrie, there’s a little bit of Ethel Merman. “There’s no business like show”—we’re going to play, OK? We’ve come this way. We’re going to play our songs. And it should always be like that, you know? The musicians should be the last people out of the theater.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re tweeting that: “Billy Bragg: Deep inside all of us is a little bit of Ethel Merman.”

BILLY BRAGG: There is. Any of us—any of us who tread the boards. Any of us who tread the boards, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: OK, David—David had a lot of questions.

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: But this is David Rovics’ other question. “You were on the ground floor of the punk rock scene that was sweeping much of the world in the late ’70s, early ’80s. What impact did the early punk scene have on society culturally and politically?”

BILLY BRAGG: Well, the thing that it did was it—the great thing about punk was it was DIY. You know, the year before punk rock broke, I went to see The Rolling Stones at Earls Court, in a massive stadium, some of the first stadium gigs in the U.K. The distance, culturally, for me, in row Z, and Mick Jagger, I had absolutely no concept of how I would ever get from here to there.

Within a year, I had been to see The Jam. The Jam were my age. They looked like me. They had the same guitar as me. They had the same attitude as me. And suddenly a light went on in my head. How do you do it? Well, you just do it. You don’t wait to be asked. You don’t have to be a brilliant musician. You don’t have to be the world’s greatest singer. You know, I’m not technically a great guitar player, as your viewers would have already worked out, nor, you know, do I have a fabulous singing voice. But I have an idea. And that is all the justification you need to stand up on this table and sing as loud and as out of tune as you want. I mean, Woody Guthrie did that. I do that. And that’s what punk was all about. It was in your face. It was all about attitude. It wasn’t a haircut. It wasn’t a pair of bondage trousers. It wasn’t a ripped T-shirt. It was about, this is what I’ve got to say, and you better listen, because I’m not going to go away until you’ve heard it.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking just a week after Amy Winehouse died. Did you know her?

BILLY BRAGG: No, very—you know, in passing. You know, I did a few festivals where she was on. But that whole, you know, glamorization of people in my industry who do clearly have problems with substance abuse is—you know, it’s not something that I’ve ever wanted to glorify. You know, it’s a very strange job, Amy, the job that we do. You know, you spend a lot of time on your own, really, between gigs. You know, it’s—

AMY GOODMAN: Between on your own and facing thousands of people.

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, on tour. You know, on tour, you’re often away from the people that you love. You know, you’ve got that focus in the evening of the show, but the rest of the time, you know—I’m very fortunate. You know, I’m curious. I’ll just walk around the streets, looking in shops. If we’re driving somewhere, I want to see it. I don’t want to have my eyes closed. I’ll find a nice book. You know, I love going in bookshops. Not everybody’s like that. Some people want to dull the pain. Some people want to find ways to switch out. And that’s the—that is the great challenge, particularly when you’re successful. It’s a challenge. Charlie Watts, the drummer from The Rolling Stones, was once asked about what it was like being in The Stones for 25 years, and he said it was five years of playing drums and 20 years of hanging around waiting to play drums. And that’s the reality for all of us. And if you can’t deal with that, that bit of it, if you can’t find a way to take up the time between the shows, it can be quite destructive.

And I’m very, very sorry that someone as clearly as talented as Amy should have succumbed in that way. And, you know, in some ways, we, all of us, could see it was a likely outcome, and perhaps a little bit more might have been done to help her out. Maybe—you know, maybe we’re all a little bit complicit in that. You know, in the 1960s, you kind of understand it, because they were the sort of the first generation. They didn’t really know what they were messing with. But now, you know, you can see those kind of things coming, and I think we should be spending a bit more time intervening.

AMY GOODMAN: Billy Bragg, you were just at Lincoln Center—well, outside Lincoln Center.

BILLY BRAGG: Outside, yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about The Big Busk.

BILLY BRAGG: The Big Busk really was something that we started doing in the U.K. around the time of the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall. And they wanted me to do some little busking gigs around the outside, around the Festival Hall on the South Bank of the River Thames in London. And I came up with this idea of The Big Busk, which is basically me with this acoustic guitar, inviting the audience to bring their acoustic guitars.

AMY GOODMAN: So not just singing along, but busking is with your guitar.

BILLY BRAGG: With your guitar and playing, well, you know, songs that are relatively straightforward, three chords, four chords, nothing too difficult. And we had a lot of fun with it. And the people at Lincoln Center opened it up to the internet, and they decided some of the songs.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people at Lincoln Center?

BILLY BRAGG: Oh, I don’t know. Five thousand maybe. It was free, you know. It was free. It was a lovely evening. We had a good, old sing-along. It was a bit like a Hootenanny, except because it’s a Big Busk, and the songs, by their nature, are—you know, you want the audience to be familiar with them, it’s a bit less of a Hootenanny and more a kind of like folky karaoke. But it’s good. You know, everyone gets to sing along.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what was the big—what were the songs they requested most?

BILLY BRAGG: Well, at the top of their list came “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash. We sang that. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” And what else? “Cecilia” by Simon and Garfunkel, we sang. But one of the top songs was a big hit from last summer by Cee Lo Green, the title of which I’m afraid I can’t say on the broadcast media in the United States of America. But—

AMY GOODMAN: How can you say it? What do you change it to to be able to say it?

BILLY BRAGG: Well, there was a radio version that Cee Lo put out called “Forget You.” And it seemed—it seemed to me to be—I said to the organizers, you know, “This might be someone’s way of telling us that they don’t want us to do the gig.” And he said, “No, no, no, no. It’s a brilliant song. You must play it.” And I said, “Yeah, but it’s called…” He said, “Yeah.” And eventually, I came to think, well, you know, where else in the world would you get 5,000 cultured people at Lincoln Center singing a song like that, if not New York, the “forget you” capital of the world? So it was brilliant.

AMY GOODMAN: Not to mention, you’re doing it against the backdrop of—what do you feel when you look up at Lincoln Center, this—what’s supposed to be the cultural mecca, and you see the Koch brothers?

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, well, forget them, is what I think.

AMY GOODMAN: The biggest billionaire funders of the Tea Party movement.

BILLY BRAGG: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re all singing “Forget You”?

BILLY BRAGG: That’s right. We’re singing “Forget You” to them, yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Sort of, kind of, but doesn’t rhyme, though.

BILLY BRAGG: Oh, no. Well, I mean, that is the thing. Somebody would say, did—you know, the whole issue of sponsorship now of music has now become more of an issue, particularly as we no longer sell records. And if people want to complain that the gig is sponsored by PepsiCo, that’s fine. If you want to go back to paying 15 bucks for an album, I’m happy. I’ll stop doing these sponsored gigs. But at the moment, for musicians to make a living, we’re having to, you know…

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you see is the future there? In fact, that was one of the Facebook questions, the whole issue of the effect of the internet on music right now. And where do you see it going?

BILLY BRAGG: It’s a double-edged sword, for independent music makers. It must be tough for Beyoncé, but I don’t have to worry about that stuff, you know. But for myself, at the top of the program, you showed a little clip of me playing that song, “Never Buy The Sun.” In a—actually, in the dressing room of a gig where I wrote the song now—I wrote that song on a Friday. I sung it for the first time live on a Saturday. That clip was put on the internet on a Sunday. It had 15,000 hits in the first 24 hours. So, on Monday, I got together with some guys and recorded it. We mixed it on Tuesday. It was available for free download on my website, billybragg.co.uk on the Wednesday.

AMY GOODMAN: Before News of the World was shut down?

BILLY BRAGG: No, News of the World had been shut down—


BILLY BRAGG: —but before Rupert Murdoch had been called before the committee.


BILLY BRAGG: So, you know, that—during the miners’ strike, I wrote a song called “Between the Wars” about the miners’ strike. By the time I had got it recorded, into the factory, into the shops, the blooming strike had ended. So now, you know, now, the opportunity to move as quickly as that, for songwriters, is brilliant.

Now, the downside of that, of course, is that I’m giving it away free. But people who hear that free, they may come to my website, they may buy some merch, they may come and see me for a gig. So it’s kind of like, you know, giving away a song for a free download is no real different from, you know, doing a radio session and playing new songs. We used to do that all the time in the 1980s for a guy named John Peel. You know, he was a great, incredibly influential deejay. You wouldn’t think for a second about playing a new song. In fact, that’s why people listened to John Peel, because he—you know, he used to say he’d liked his sessions to be work in progress. But now people frown upon the idea of giving away songs.

How much did it cost me to record that song? Well, you know, it cost me a couple of quid for the session musicians, and that was it, and the studio. It didn’t cost me a huge amount of money. And hopefully, you know—how many—I think it’s been like 30,000 downloads in the last 10 days. So, you know, it helps to spread the word. I’m not on—you know, I’m not in the papers in the U.K. anymore. I’m not on the youth radio stations. They don’t play me. But sometimes I’ll write stuff on Facebook, and it has—you know, 200,000 people read it. So, the artist has the opportunity to make huge connections with people and get our message out there.

We don’t make money from records anymore. The record industry is dying on its feet. But the music industry is thriving. And to be honest, people only made money from recorded music from the 1960s. Before that, records were just pure promo. They were just getting them out on the radio. Musicians didn’t make any money. How much did The Beatles? And even then, you know, late on after The Beatles, having hit singles, musicians didn’t really make money from records. And ultimately, I think, we’re—you know, we’re—it’s back to Ethel Merman. You know, we’re live performers. You’ve got to get out there and do it. And that’s how I make a living. That’s how I’ve always made a living. I’ve never sold millions of records, but I’ve made a good living, traveling around the world. I’ve seen the world. And it’s—you know, I’m very, very fortunate. I am a success, a hundred percent success, because I make a living doing what I love doing. I mean, what—you can’t argue with that, can you?

AMY GOODMAN: Your favorite song?

BILLY BRAGG: My favorite song currently is probably one of the new ones from a play I was—I took part in a play last year where I wrote six songs as part of the play. And one of the songs is my anthem for my war against cynicism. It’s a song called “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be a Better Day.”

AMY GOODMAN: Why don’t we end with that?

BILLY BRAGG: Why don’t we finish with that? It’s a great, great message, yeah, yeah. This is called “Tomorrow’s Gonna Be a Better Day.”

[singing] To the misanthropic, misbegotten merchants of gloom
Who look into their crystal balls and prophesy our doom
That the death knell chime it’s the end of time
But the cynics put their blinkers on and toast our decline
Don’t become demoralized by the scorers of complaint
It’s a sure sign that the old world is terminally quaint
And tomorrow’s gonna be a better day
No matter what the siren voices say
Tomorrow’s gonna be a better day
We’re gonna make it that way

Ironic whistling for the melody, yeah.

To the pessimistic populists who harbor no doubt
That every day we make our way to hell in a handcart
And the snarky set who are sniping to get
Anyone who sticks their head above the parapet
Well, don’t be disheartened, baby, don’t be fooled
Take it from someone who who sees the glass is half full
And tomorrow’s gonna be a better day
No matter what the siren voices say
Tomorrow’s gonna be a better day
We’re gonna make it that way, yeah.

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