Life’s a riot with Billy Bragg
As I sat on a bus taking me to my first ever serious political demo, I plugged my headphones in and listened to Billy Braggs ‘Red Flag’ for the first time. It’d been raining hard that day and despite being cold, tired and drenched, I proudly marched through Glasgow demanding the fall of the Tory government with Bragg’s words ringing through my ears. This was my first taste of political activism, and it was fitting that one of Britain’s greatest political song writers was the soundtrack to it.
Bragg’s career has spanned decades of working class struggle. Born in Barking, Essex his first step into the musical and political world all started with the Clash’s ‘White Riot’ tour which he said had opened his eyes to left wing politics and the wide spread racism in Britain. Bragg rose to prominence during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, being a key figure for music’s influence in the struggle, performing benefit gigs in mining towns from Newport to Sunderland. His song ‘Between the Wars’ captured the emotion of the striking miners perfectly, expressing their anger and frustration at a government that was destroying their livelihoods, all the while with a soothing melody that brings a tear to one’s eye. At a time when Trade Unions were being trampled on, Bragg made his support for them clear with hits like ‘Which side are you on’ and ‘There’s power in the Union’ whose message still rings true today. The timelessness of these songs revolving around class struggle, I believe, is what puts Bragg’s music up there with other great political song writers such as Woody Guthrie.
Bragg’s political activism isn’t just limited to the class struggle either. For years Bragg has taken a stand against racism and Fascism, from supporting campaigns like Hope not Hate, to confronting BNP candidates in his home town, which led to a BNP supporter sending letters to his neighbours asking them to oppose his ‘anti-British values’. An outspoken supporter of LGBTQ+ rights, he released the song ‘Sexuality’ in opposition to Section 28, which still caused suffering for much of the LGBTQ+ community. This support was important for a number of reasons not least because, as well as challenging homophobic Tory policy, it was a clear statement of solidarity for LGBTQ+ rights at a time when some on the left still held homophobic views. The song itself mixes things up by adding a much more upbeat tone, acting more as a celebration tune than a protest song. In recent years he has also spoken out against phone hacking at News of the World and the Murdoch press. ‘Never buy the Sun’ captures the feeling of nation in anger at press misconduct but also doesn’t shy away from pointing the finger at the people that support this kind of behaviour by buying into tabloid gossip.
However, it would be wrong of me to focus solely on Bragg’s political activism. His songs of heartbreak and unrequited love were the soundtrack to many (and I mean many) of my teenage rejections. The message of the sombre ‘Levi Stubbs Tears’ in particular struck a chord with me. On the surface it appears to be a song detailing the hardship and turmoil of a young woman’s life, but scratch away at the surface and you see that it’s really about how we turn to music in our darkest times. Bragg’s message that “when the world falls apart, some things stay in place” I think runs true for all of us, as no matter how dark life may get, music will always be there as an escape. It’s the self-awareness of the song that is brilliant song writing, as it’s not just another heartbreak song you slap on when you see a picture of your ex on Facebook; it’s a song that looks at how we deal with hurt and pain, all through the eyes of a young woman who was forced to grow up too fast.
The ultimate song that encapsulates Billy Bragg though has to be ‘New England’. For me it hit me on a number of levels. It helped me realise that sometimes you have to let go of the one you love. No matter how much you may wish them to care, there comes a time to move on, but that doesn’t mean that the feelings will ever go. As I grew up, the song evolved with me. Written when Bragg was 21, I find myself in a similar position in life, facing the reality that the pressure to grow up will only continue to grow as your friends begin to get jobs and start a family.
As I sit in my west end flat, with Bragg playing in the background, I think back to that rainy Saturday and how strong I felt at that moment. That’s the beauty of Bragg’s music. One song has you chanting the ‘Internationale’ on top of the barricades, and the other lamenting over lost love. Bragg’s diversity in music captures the diversity of life. His political activism has inspired many in our generation to take up the cause and get involved in politics, but his music has also been there for them when life has taken a dark turn. Because when the world falls apart, some things stay in place and, for me, Bragg will always be the soundtrack to my one man revolution.