Billy Bragg

By shane

Over a two-gig period this summer, Excellent member Vince Iannelli got the privilege to see and talk to one of the founding fathers of politically conscious British Independent music, Billy Bragg.  Vince wrote of his exploits in an article that originally appeared in the University of Calgary's paper, The Gauntlet.  It is with the permission of The Gauntlet and the author that we here at Excellent are pleased to bring you an edited reprint of Vince's article, which provides some insight into the 90's version of Bragg, and his fabulous new release, "Mermaid Avenue."

story by Vince Iannelli
Well, I guess you could say I was nervous.

Not nervous like my first day of high school...  or nervous like I was meeting the Spice Girls  (yes, all of them...)  In fact, not nervous at all -- more anxious than anything.  Well, then, I guess you could say I was anxious.  The contents of my average day never involve meeting the pillar of the singer/songwriters' community; they never involve meeting personal heroes of mine; and they definitely never involve communists.  It seems that not only are these three things happening at the same time, but they all involve the same person.

I was hanging around the top level of MacEwan Hall, outside of the ballroom, where preparations were underway for that night's gig.  I had some time to kill and some extra tickets to sell, so when a lad up from Nova Scotia asked me where he could find some tickets, I realized I was in luck.  He was also a fan, and, after missing the show in Vancouver, he was very happy to get his hands on some passes for this gig tonight, here in Calgary.

Just then, some 'bloke' sauntered up the stairs, groggily sipping something from a white mug.  I almost ignored the man, but something kinda clicked in me.  His profile, from my vantage, clearly outlined a sharp nose and a mature potbelly; very^Å shall we say, very English -- except for the hat, an almost indescribably ugly felt thing, that made the man look like some prairie kid.  But, before I could say anything, my new Nova Scotian friend yells out, "Hey Billy!"  At that moment, my nervousness disappeared and all I could think was, "This man is a pillar?"

And with that, Billy Bragg wandered into the ballroom. He signed a couple of CD's and had a few casual words with us while he continued to sip his tea.  I told him I liked his hat and he said it was for the prairies, I think because of the wind.  I laughed, surprised to see he knew about our prairie weather.  He inquired about the "intaview" (I laughed a bit at the accent) to his tour manager, and I butt in, telling him I was involved with it.

"All right," he said, handing his tea to his manager, "Ya ready?"  Then he proceeded to pick a play-fight with me, bouncing around like a kid, throwing a few punches here and there.  I stood there smiling, but dumbfounded.

Billy Bragg was clearly not a kid, at least not anymore.  He started making music as a kid, though, and by 19 had formed his first band, Riff Raff, during the punk explosion in Britain.  Bands like The Clash were a direct inspiration to him in those days, and the sharp edge of punk became part of his style, even as a solo performer.  His solo days came soon, after a short-lived military career.  So, with an electric guitar, he set off on the journey of a solo singer/songwriter. His latest effort, which has involved nearly three years of work, is a collaboration between himself, country rockers Wilco, and the late Woody Guthrie.  This confusing combination amounts to an amazing album called "Mermaid Avenue."  

It's a roots album that revives lyrics by Woody Guthrie, written around 50 years ago.  The project was thrown into Billy's lap when he was approached by Nora Guthrie, who runs an archive of the vast collection of songs that Woody had written in his lifetime.  Billy says about Woody, "In his lifetime [he] was continually writing songs, except that he didn't really write music.  He just wasn't musically trained ^Å the tunes as such were lost when he died; they were gone forever.  So what we were left with were the manuscripts, over 2500 complete songs ^Å songs that didn't have tunes and were just languishing in the archives."

Nora chose Billy to put music to the words of her father, because it seemed to her that Billy had "a way of getting a message across without being pompous, the same way Woody did."

Billy was hesitant about the project.  "I thought it was a gig for Dylan, not for me," he explains.  "But Nora started sending me photocopies of the manuscripts, which really tweaked my interest.  I couldn't believe what some of the songs were about  making love to Ingrid Bergman, seeing flying saucers.  The imagery was not at all what we had associated with Woody."  But he was confident that 50 year old lyrics could be used even today.  "It always seemed to me that Woody Guthrie asked very difficult questions in some of his songs^Å he asks those questions of the American people in songs like 'This Land is Your Land.'  And they still find it difficult to answer those questions."

Billy felt he needed some help on this project, so he asked Wilco.  "There's any number of bands that could do it.  But I needed  I felt anyway, rather than find a folk band that could play fast, I needed a rock band that could play ballads.  I felt it had to have a contemporary edge to it.  We weren't making a tribute record.  We were about collaborating with him.  I wanted to be true to Woody but also try and deliver a mass audience to it.  Out of that compromise came an American rock band.  And of a number of people I had in mind, Wilco hooked on first."

In comparison to Billy Bragg's earlier, harder, angrier material, Mermaid Avenue, musically, is very different.  It's rock with a dash of blues and country.  Don't expect a Woody Guthrie album here; the 'collaboration' offers a very different sound than Woody's simple tunes. With tracks like "Walt Whitman's Niece" and "I Guess I Planted," we see why Billy chose to work with Wilco.  There is an fundamental rock feeling there, but the lyrics in the latter are very Billy Bragg: "Union Song / Union Battle / All added up / it's won us all what we've got now."  

Guthrie wrote the lyrics for "She Came Along to Me" way back in 1942, despite the song's feminist stance.  "I'm sure the women are equal / and they might be ahead of the men."  There's also this amazing portion of the song that deals with the future of all humanity -- it's surprising how contemporary these lyrics are: "And all creeds and kinds and colors of us are blending / 'til I suppose ten million years from now, we'll all be just alike / Same color, same size, working together / And maybe we'll have all of the fascists out of the way by then."

The rock of these songs is matched equally by the emotion of the ballads.  "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key" is a rich tale of an ugly boy with a beautiful voice, and features Natalie Merchant on backing vocals.  In fact, the ex-Maniac guests on another ballad, "Birds and Ships," which is a duo between her vocals and Bragg's acoustic guitar.  "The Unwelcome Guest," the last track on the album, is a fable about the redistribution of wealth, but, in a twist, features the protagonist talking to his horse.  "To the rich man's bright lodges / I ride in this wind on my good horse / I call you my shiny Black Bess / To the playhouse of fortune / to take the bright silver and gold / you have taken from somebody else."  The songs proves to be a perfect finale, a tale of class and ideology that never mentions the words socialist or proletariat; it's a story that all of us can understand. 

Since the beginning, Billy Bragg has gained fame for his socialist ideals and its incorporation in his songwriting; and, up until now, he's accepted his title as a "political songwriter."  But with the making of the newest album, he's realized that "political" is not exactly true.

"The honesty I put into my personal songs about relationships, which people tell me they really admire, just doesn't stop in the bedroom," he explains. "It carries out into the real world.  So, since I've been doing this project, I've seen that in Woody [Guthrie] and it's made me realize that I'm not a political songwriter, I'm just an honest songwriter, and I try to write about what I see around me -- and that, by it's nature, particularly being in Britain in the 1980's, you cannot avoid being political."

But with the Labour Party in power in Britain now, Bragg thinks things are different.  "The ground rules have changed and we live in a post-ideological world, but that doesn't mean the struggle is over. The language of Marxism that was used over the years, that was a cold war language, and that, to some extent, is dead and gone. I found that my ideology was an expression of a basic fundamental humanitarian ideal -- compassion, in its political form. So when I say we don't have ideology anymore, that doesn't mean we don't have ideals.  And from those ideals, we will make a new ideology, and ideology that talks to ordinary people."

"It's compassion that inspires me," he sums up.

The night of the gig, Billy Bragg walks on stage at the MacEwan Hall Ballroom.  He's handed his guitar, a black Fender, plugs into the amp and after a few test chords, he breaks into "Sexuality."  The crowd was exhilarated that night, and cheered him on.  For the first half hour or so, he played his solo material, including songs like "Richard,"  "A New England,"  "The World Turned Upside Down," and "The Saturday Boy," among others.  

Bragg then welcomed on stage the first member of the Billy Bragg Combo: Ian McLagan, the keyboardist from the the Small Faces.  They launched into "Tank Park Salute," a perfect version of the original.  Eventually the rest of the Combo came on.  They moved through the songs off Mermaid with a blues-club flare, a different take on the album.  But it seemed as if Bragg couldn't really relax and get into the gig until a hooligan near the stage -- who easily managed to annoy Billy, the band, and the audience all at once -- was removed.  Billy remarked later that occurrences like this on the tour were the "spice" of the gigs.  Usually the average big-mouthed punter quits after he pokes some fun at the band, or after the frustrated Bragg verbally retaliates, but this time Billy's persistence got nowhere.  He was pulled out of the audience, wailing in some substance induced haze, and the crowd cheered in appreciation.  

During the show, a crooked banner hung behind the band.  It was an effort to raise awareness and money for the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion Memorial, which Billy had personally received in Victoria days earlier.  Bragg explained that the Mac-Paps (as they're also known) were a group of soldiers, mostly from Canada and England, who, some 60 years ago, went to Spain to fight the fascists.  The governments never recognized the Mac-Paps as veterans of war, so none of these soldiers received benefits or recognition for their labours.  Many died there fighting Hitler and Mussolini, fighting a war that if won, Bragg reckons, could have averted the Second World War.  This explanation preluded a ballad he'd written for the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion.

Billy did three encores that night, some by himself, some with the band.  One encore included a full band version of Mermaid's "Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key," which was sped up with a little more rock to it.  Although it had a unique twist to it, it lost the emotion that the album version delivered.  In fact, a few of the band versions of Mermaid tracks failed to live up to the album, but it was still a great show, especially for those unfamiliar with the new record.

Billy explained later that a conflict between his and Wilco's schedules prevented the two from touring together.  Hopefully later they'll do some gigs, especially if a second album is released.  (With 40 songs recorded between Bragg and Wilco, and only 15 released on Mermaid, chances for a second album are very good.)

One of the greatest crowd pleasers that night, as it is at all his shows, was "Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards."  Played with the full band in one of his encores, his alternate lyrics continually satisfied the audience.  (He updated the classic "If you've got a blacklist" lyric to "If you've got a webpage / I wanna be on it," as well as tossing in references of old age, weight gain, faxing, todays lack of ideology, and lamenting such cultural icons as the tomb-raiding Nerdmate of the Year Lara Croft.)  It was definitely a highlight of the night.

Personally, I was surprised there wasn't a fourth encore.  But I guess it had to end sometime.  The crowd shuffled out of the ballroom content; it was great to see Billy Bragg back in Calgary, nearly ten years after his last performance, a performance in that very same venue.

I rejoined Bragg two days later at the Edmonton Folk Festival.  It was his last gig of the North American tour, and he was heading home.  He came out of his trailer with a grand smile, almost beaming.  He looked years younger than the afternoon he climbed up the stairs of MacEwan Hall and spoke to me with deep sincerity.  He was happy to inform us that from the gig in Calgary alone, we'd raised more than what the two gigs in BC has raised for the Mac-Pap Memorial.  After a few words (and a few laughs) on the "spice" of the gig, he wished us a safe drive home, and after hugs and handshakes, we left.

There are still many questions I'd like to ask him.  But I'm confident he'll back, a little older, a little wiser and probably a little wider.  His punk and his youth will always live with him, though.  When asked if he was still punk, he said "Punk is like Socialism -- it's one of those really hard words to define.  Socialism is difficult to define because the Berlin Wall came down, and the language of the cold war we used is passed; we have to find another language in which to articulate our ideas.  There's been two strains of music running through the last 70 or 80 years, and those two strains can be best described as commercial music, that being music like the Spice Girls; and do-it-yourself music, and that would include Woody Guthrie, that would include punk, it would include anybody that makes music for reasons other than to sell lots and lots of t-shirts.  I think music survives, it changes.  Sometimes it's white guys with guitars, sometimes it's dance, world or folk music. In that sense, I still believe in punk as a way to make music. [For Mermaid Avenue] you need a bit of punk sensibility."