Something To Bragg About
a crash course in career-building from the bard himself
SOLO GUITAR-PLAYING SONGWRITERS MAY NOT BE THE HEIGHT OF POP FASHION, BUT THAT HASN'T STOPPED BILLY BRAGG BECOMING A MUSICIAN WHO JUST HAS TO BE LISTENED TO. SHEER GRIT HAS LAID THE FOUNDATION OF HIS CAREER.
BILLY BRAGG MUST have had a sudden rush of blood to the head when he took that fateful decision to go it alone. Who, in a decade of music-gone-complicated, would have thought that One Man And His Guitar could rediscover "the song" and manage to gain a following in the process? Bragg took big-budget excess and stripped it to the core, performing the melody fully raw, the distorted guitar a bludgeoning attack on the expectations of packaged pop.
"It was a bit of a mental step really", he agrees, "but I thought it was all the more reason to do it. It was almost a challenge every night to go out there and play and not be afraid and to look the audience in the eye and perform."
The decision to go solo was part of a determination to begin again, "to start from absolute basics and work back up to a band."
The eventual return to band status seemed the logical thing to do, but along the way, experience began to change Billy's attitude. "When I realised how many people had forgotten what a solo performer is like, that the kids I was playing to weren't aware of early Bob Dylan, I realised it's not logical to form a band, it's more logical to be solo."
Now, after a career spent religiously adhering to the solo-musician ethic, Bragg has finally brought in an array of musicians to augment his solo guitar. The new 'Worker's Playtime' tour and album even sees Bragg, for the first time, using a drummer - occasionally! But rather than regarding this as being the ultimate progression to "band" status, Billy feels that, as a songwriter, he can use whatever instruments he feels complement the song. "I think we'll make music that serves the songs the best. We had a lot of argument over putting drums on the new album... in the end, the ones the drums are on, I thought added to the songs."
The idea of forcing the restraints of a "band" across his songs as a matter of course is still anathema to Bragg, however.
"It's the Proclaimers thing isn't it?" he says. "'This is the band and we'll just put them on all of our songs'. I don't think that serves my music. The Proclaimers might feel that's a good way to do things, but I don't think it necessarily serves me well. In the back of my mind I still have to perform these songs solo live."
Before the birth of his solo career, Billy Bragg went through a par-for-the-course musical development. Taught to play guitar in his early teens, the age of punk helped to force Billy and his cohorts out of Mrs Bragg's back-room rehearsal studio and onto the live stage.
"We had wanted to be like the Rolling Stones or a band like that - a big mega rock band, driving around in limousines. But we had no idea how to get from my mum's back-room to the limousines. It was only when we saw The Clash and The Jam that we realised you didn't have to do all that limousine bullshit, that you could get just as much out of doing little gigs in little places, and that gigs were the important thing. We realised that you weren't really a band unless you done gigs, and I still think that."
Playing live is the bedrock of Bragg's musical philosophy, and it's a message the will readily pass on to anyone who is prepared to listen: "For the people that send me their songs and say 'what do you think of these, what do you think I should do with these songs?', I always say: 'do gigs, that'll sharpen you up'. That way you find out if your songs are any good, if they move people; if you build up a following then you're pursuing the right direction. Nothing is more critical of your songs than a crowd. If you can move a crowd, then you really know you're writing in the right direction."
But what if you can't move that crowd? As someone who waited a good while before his music found any kind of popular following, what advice would Bragg offer to the aspiring - but as yet unsuccessful - musician?
"Don't be disappointed if you get to 25 and you still haven't made it", he says reassuringly. "All the things I ever wanted to happen to me when I was 15, happened to me when I was 25. Thank God they didn't happen to me when I was 15, because they f***ed my brains up enough when I was 25!
"Sometimes you have to reassess your position, go back to doing a day-job and still keep playing. Eventually, you'll get to the bit where you know it's never going to work, or you'll get to the bit where you see the light at the end of the tunnel."
The new album features some of the Barking Bard's most enjoyable recorded moments. The first single, 'Waiting For The Great Leap Forward', deserved to be a much bigger hit than it was, with its lyrical sharpness enhanced by a slow build from voice and guitar to a climactic full-band and rousing crowd-chorus finale. The second single, 'She's Got A New Spell', 'Life With The Lions', and the moving 'Must I Paint You A Picture' all add to Bragg's considerable songwriting reputation. Billy sees the new album simply as a "progression".
"The first album was the great release of 25 years of frustration - finally getting on vinyl. The second one was the reserve songs and several others that I'd written in that 18-month period between the two records. Then with the third album - the so-called 'difficult third album' - I'd run out of songs from that first burst, I thought: could I now still write? Now that I wasn't sitting at home looking out of the window feeling sorry for myself and writing songs about it, did that mean I wouldn't be able to write any more? So 'Taxman' was, for me, a real emotional wrench to get out, but once it was out, it was such a relief to find that I could write and it wasn't just the situation around, it was me, it was something that was in me that I was getting out. 'Worker's Playtime' is the next step on from there, and now I have a bit of the luxury of being able to take as long as I like in making an album, as long as I don't take too long!"
Of course, 1988 didn't just see the launch of his new album, it was also the year when Billy Bragg notched up his first number one with a cover of the Beatles' 'She's Leaving Home' - in tandem with Wet Wet Wet and the Childline appeal, of course. Yet even with a number one under his belt, Bragg feels anything but a pop star.
"That was really an excursion into an area that I don't feel is my territory", he insists. "It was interesting because it was to go right to the belly of the monster... to pass through the hoops that the media puts up to be leapt through. Stock, Aitken & Waterman aim their 'product' clearly to go through these hoops, whereas we make our music for different reasons... sometimes it goes through some of the hoops, but generally it misses!"
For a man of seemingly strict anti-star principles, the photo sessions with Wet Wet Wet - "there was only one photo session with Wet Wet Wet", he interjects sharply - must have jarred somewhat. After all, the sight of Bragg nervously pictured alongside the Wets was the kind of occasion 'Smash Hits' covers are made of. But this was for a different cause...
"There was a goal to be achieved in promoting Childline and I think Childline is an important thing to be involved in", says Billy. "I feel very strongly about it - I mean, it was non-party political. I didn't feel uncomfortable about it at any point until we were on 'Top of the Pops'. I didn't feel uncomfortable meeting Wet Wet Wet, I didn't feel uncomfortable being on an album for the 'NME'. It wasn't until I got on 'Top of the Pops' that I really felt very uncomfortable... I found it all a bit humiliating, the whole trivialisation of pop up at that end of the market."
But knowing the power of the media, and the gains that can be made if you use it to your advantage, Bragg is adamant that "if 'New Spell' got in the charts, I'd do it all again."
By the majority of the people who've heard of him, Billy Bragg is generally thought of for his strident political pose. But those with any knowledge ol the man and his music know that although politics plays in important part in both his life and his work, a lot of his material falls into the category of what could loosely be described as "love songs". Maybe these represent light relief for a man who sometimes seems, in a sense, the last in a line of really influential and effective voices "for the kids". All in all, Bragg must surely find it a hard mantle to bear.
"As long as you can keep your sense of humour, it's bearable", he says. "You can't be expected to change the world by singing songs about it. You have to be honest with yourself. If you can be honest with yourself about the limitations and the possibilities, then you can be honest with other people... I mean, I'm a dreamer and I'm an idealist, but I try to be a practical dreamer."
In a music business full of photogenic cardboard cut-outs and superficial poses, it's always nice to hear the voice of the idealist and dreamer - because sometimes, that's the closest the music biz comes to reality. "There is a collision between the fantasy of pop and the reality of what most people experience", Billy explains. "I try and keep on the side of reality."
The going might be tough, but you couldn't do better than to follow that example.
Interview by Chris Hunt
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