Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?! – Billy Bragg
In Does Rock ‘N’ Roll Kill Braincells?!, we quiz an artist on their own career to see how much they can remember – and find out if the booze, loud music and/or tour sweeties has knocked the knowledge out of them.
1Last year, which frontman covered your song ‘A New England’ for his ‘No Fun Mondays’ quarantine series/album?
“Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day – that was pretty groovy.”
CORRECT. Do you have a favourite version of one of your songs?
“Obviously Kirsty [MacColl]’s ‘A New England’ stands out because she was a dear friend of mine, and it got me out of the indie into the real charts, so she did me a huge favour, and I was a fan of both her songwriting and singing.”
2For a 2000 BBC show, which then-Glastonbury-virgin sang The Clash songs to you in your car?
“Unfortunately that would be Boris Johnson!”
CORRECT. He ‘sang’ ‘White Riot’ and ‘Bankrobber’, before you got henna tattoos together.
“He was trying to wind me up by singing those, but that’s his MO as we all now know to our cost. When he was The Spectator’s editor, I interviewed him for my radio program Why People Hate… Tories?, and said: ‘I bet you’ve never been to Glastonbury’. He hadn’t, so the BBC suggested I show him round. We wandered round Glastonbury together doing loads of daft things. At the time it was a laugh, but looking back on it now, I see it in a different light! (Laughs)”
“Nobody could have imagined someone as useless as him would end up being Prime Minister – and still remain as useless. He shows that it’s possible to succeed in life without ever being held responsible for anything.”
Taking of Conservative Prime Ministers, apparently David Cameron toyed with including ‘A New England’ as one of his Desert Island Discs…
“He wanted to include Kirsty’s cover of it. Here’s the thing: I listened to his Desert Island Discs and, as he was playing The Smiths, I was thinking: ‘He’s going to play ‘A New England’ – he’s going to play one of my songs and kill my reputation! This is going to be awful! But he didn’t – phew! (Laughs) You put out these songs and never know who’s going to hook onto them. I bumped into [austerity architect] George Osborne when he was Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer and he exclaimed: ‘Billy Bragg!’ at me, before singing: ‘I was 21 years when I wrote this song/I’m 22 now…’ You can’t choose your fans!”
3In 1987, NME readers voted you the second Most Wonderful Human Being. Who beat you?
“I wonder how those readers feel now about making Morrissey the Most Wonderful Human Being.”
“I got used to coming second to Morrissey and The Smiths. That was par for the course in those days. That was cool. Their standard was so high that getting anywhere near them was good.”
You wrote a statement in 2019 condemning Morrissey for spreading far-right ideas. Can you separate the man from his art?
“As someone who writes political songs, there are plenty of people out there who are Tories who like my love songs, so clearly you can do that. I struggle. I’m OK listening to The Smiths, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to listen to his solo albums anymore – although I wasn’t much of a fan of those anyway.”
4Which comedian once said of his experience at the NME Awards: “We were on Billy Bragg’s table and he’s pretty wild. As soon as I got to the table, he punched me into a corner and covered me in sick. Not his own – he’d been carrying someone else’s around in a bag”?
“(Laughs) I have absolutely no idea a) who said that or b) if it ever happened! Harry Hill?”
WRONG. Noel Fielding joked to NME about it in 2008.
“All I can say is I deny everything – although maybe I was so drunk I don’t remember it! Thanks Noel for grassing me up. Always carry some sick, that’s what I say. Someone once told me the proverb ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick’, but I always speak softly and carry some big sick. That’s where I made my mistake all these years! (Laughs)”
At the 2020 NME Awards, you bonded with a hopefully vomit-free Taylor Swift. Did you keep in touch?
“Not really, no. I was hoping to see her at Glastonbury. That was the next thing that was coming up and I had that in mind, so I rehearsed a version of ‘Only the Young’ mashed up with ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ to play at The Left Field, and I was going to invite her down. I really admire her attitude towards ownership of her own material. That’s what we talked about at the NME Awards.”
5What did your rock band Riff Raff once perform atop for the BBC magazine show That’s Life!?
“A pile of shit.”
“A pile of cow manure the farmer had dumped there because he didn’t like us being around playing music. It was so huge, you could climb up it. It was horrible, but it got us on telly and people said: ‘Riff Raff is the biggest pile of shit I’ve ever seen!’ (Laughs) I’ve played some shitholes in my time, but nowhere literally as shit as that!”
6Complete the following of your lyrics: ‘The kids that pull the statues down/They challenge me to see…’?
“The gap between the man I am and the man I wanna be’.”
CORRECT. From the track ‘Mid-Century Modern’ off your new album ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’. What inspired that song?
“The fact that my politics were shaped by the 1980s and we’ve moved on so far since then, and I – and my generation – need to reassess our worldview and get a better perspective on things by listening to a younger generation that are on the frontlines now if we want to remain relevant and engaged. I don’t want to descend into a cosy cynicism where I’m just grumbling how it’s not like the old days and The Clash were better than everybody else.”
“I see a lot of hope in how younger activists are organising and how people are more interested in accountability perhaps than freedom of speech. That’s the way things should be. I’m all in favour of freedom of speech, but these days, for many people, freedom of speech means the right to say whatever you want to whoever you want and to say it with no comeback. That’s not freedom – that’s Donald Trump’s Twitter feed. What you want is accountability and you get that in someone like Marcus Rashford or the 17-year-old who filmed the murder of George Floyd on her phone. All these movements – Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Extinction Rebellion – are about accountability and that’s where the red line is now in our society, particularly with the likes of Boris Johnson out there.”
7In 2005, which US metaller said that if he had a vote in the UK elections, he’d ask Billy Bragg how to use it?
“At a guess, Tom Morello?”
CORRECT. If an election was held now, who would you advise Tom to vote for?
“I’d tell him to vote Green. The climate crisis is the biggest challenge that we face and people have got to be thinking about that.”
How do you think Keir Starmer is faring as Labour leader?
“I don’t think he’s cut through. All the things he talked about when he was running for leader, he seems to have gone against them. I’m a great believer in party democracy. What’s the point of joining a political party if you can’t have some say in making policy? It’s not just about getting people elected, it’s to have some input and agency over your lives, and his leadership seems to be moving away from that idea. It’s really disappointing.”
8At T in the Park in 1999, who dedicated a song to you, ranting: “This one’s for Billy Bragg, the biggest-nosed twat in the world. I wouldn’t want his dick pissing on my toilet for all the money in the fucking world. His voice is so bad. Get back in the army you dickwit and stop stealing Woody Guthrie’s songs”?
“(Deadpan) Was it Dolly Parton?! (Laughs) No, it was Nicky Wire. That’s the Battle of Portaloo, innit?”
CORRECT. You good-naturedly chided the Manic Street Preachers for bringing their own personal toilet to Glastonbury – prompting Wire’s retaliation.
“It was funny. The next time they played Glastonbury, I bought a great big 32-pack of toilet roll and wrote on the plastic: ‘Dear Manics, no hard feelings, all the best, Braggy.’ I asked the people I knew backstage at the Pyramid Stage: ‘Can you put this in the Manics’ dressing room?’ They responded: ‘Oooh no, we can’t….’. I was like: ‘Come on, it’s only a joke!’ Fortunately, the Manics’ road manager offered to put it in there. Years later, someone told me they saw it framed in a pub in Wales! (Laughs) I’ve bumped into Nicky since then and it was one of those daft, fun rock ’n’ roll things.”
9Name four other acts who appeared alongside you on Creation’s 1999 ‘Rock The Dock’ fundraising compilation.
“The Farm? Primal Scream? Er…no, you’ve got me here man!”
WRONG. Apart from The Farm and Primal Scream, you could have had: Oasis, Cast, Dodgy, Chumbawamba, The Boo Radleys, Paul Weller and The Chemical Brothers among many others.
“I should have got Cast! That’s so annoying! I was politicised by the miners strikes, so that record, which was expressing solidarity with dockers who had lost their jobs after striking, resonated with me.”
Do you think in the post-COVID tumult, we’ll see another rise in political and protest music?
“When I was making music at 19, there was only one medium for me to make my opinion heard – to buy a guitar, write songs and do gigs. Whereas now, there’s loads of ways to express anger, so people are putting their politics into debates online, writing blogs and making films. There’s still marginalised groups such as black youths and the transgender communities who don’t feel they’re being listened to using music in a political way, but the mainstream has become a little bland with Ed Sheeran and Adele fighting each other all the way to Christmas. I’m heartened by people like Sam Fender – whose music isn’t capital P protest or P political – but is still helping people make sense of the world. His music has real teeth.”
You mentioned the trans community. You did an anti-homophobia song ‘Sexuality’ in 1991…
“Yeah, and I’ve changed the last verse in that song now to reflect that transgender rights are on the frontline now. I now sing: ‘Just because you’re ‘they’, I won’t turn you away/And if you stick around I’m sure we can find the right pronoun’. All you can do is express allyship and I think music has a role to play in broadening support and solidarity for the transgender community because they’re hugely maligned and marginalised at the moment.”
10In 1989, you appeared on the cover of NME in a T-shirt posing what question?
“That’s a good one! It’s something to do with Wet Wet Wet, but I can’t remember!”
WRONG. It asked: ‘Who the hell are Wet Wet Wet?’ A reference to your 1988 chart-topping charity double-A side with that blue eyed soulsters.
“That was a trip having an honorary Number 1. It had topped the charts for seven weeks, and they kept putting Wet Wet Wet on Top of the Pops. My record label said: ‘Come on, you’ve got to give Braggy a go!’, and eventually they put me on. Being the awkward sod I was, I insisted on playing live and the record plummeted! (Laughs)”
Bonus question! For half a point: You have a street named after you – Bragg Close. What’s the first half of its postcode?
WRONG. It’s RM8.
“Damn! RM8 – that’s Romford. I thought it would be Barking, which is where my old house is, which is IT11 . Basically, RM8 used to be Dagenham and IT11 used to be Barking and when they got put into one borough, the postcodes delineate….wait, why the hell am I having this conversation?! (Laughs)”
The verdict: 7/10
“I should have had [ex-NME journo and Billy Bragg’s biographer] Andrew Collins sitting next me coughing to tell me the right answers!”
-Billy Bragg’s new album, ‘The Million Things That Never Happened‘, is released 29 October. He is currently on tour around the UK.