Billy burst upon the unsuspecting public in in the post-punk vacuum of 1983. After the acerbic vitriol of Punk it had all gone daft with neo-romantic silliness. The politics and nihilism had burnt itself out.
Billy was an unlikely Rock star and a strange conundrum as a political figure. He was ex-army and opposed to war, a working-class kid from Barking with avowed left-wing politics. Motivated and energised by Punk, particular the stance of the band Clash, he had set out to plough his own furrow oblivious to trends, fashion or the market. He stood out as a voice against inequality, the Tories, racism and the Falklands war. He hit out at the press and the establishment with no punches pulled.
The first time I heard Billy was a short burst on TV of him busking around with a shoulder harness with two speakers, a distorted guitar spitting violence and a nasally voice with a strong North London accent that was never going to make the chorus of any opera. It was forceful and exciting. The lyrics were meaningful and barbed. I was smitten. This was just my cup of tea.
It was no surprise that his raw, aggressive sound appealed to John Peel. He always went for the real stuff as opposed to the overproduced and sophisticated. He supported Billy and gave him a platform. What was surprising was that this unlikely formula of unrefined sound and unleashed politics appealed to a wider audience. His albums began to sell and he even stormed the charts with Between the Wars – a great song about the Falkland travesty. Billy had credibility. He could sing about war because he’d been in the army. He had the perspective.
Far from initially ameliorating his caustic posture his new-found fame was put to use supporting the causes that he felt close to his heart. He put his guitar where his mouth was and got out there supporting the Miners in their struggle against the political machinations of Thatcher and the Tory government and the lies of the media. He took up with Red Wedge to support the Labour Party against the hated Tories. He supported the anti-racist groups. Billy used his fame to promote the causes and views he believed in, performed numerous benefit concerts, news conferences and TV appearances and spoke intelligently with a firm grasp of history and the current political debate. He carved himself a reputation and gathered a following though it alienated a number in the process.
I saw him perform at this time in the Trade & Labour Hall in Hull as part of the Red Wedge tour. There were the Labour MPs Tam Dalyell and John Prescott. This was the time of the Teachers strike action and as a NUT Rep I was organising strike action in my school and speaking at the regional executive. I button-holed Prescott and had a go about the state of education and was he and the Labour Party going to support the teachers. He seemed to think that all teachers were Tory voting middle-class fully fledged members of the enemy. In an expletive laden diatribe, at maximum volume, he said he’d be prepared to give the teacher’s a pay rise in line with the percentage that voted Labour. He was a bit out of touch with reality. Billy, on the other hand, was right on the money. His voice barked, words hit home and guitar scorched with distorted fury. It warmed the blood, sent the neurones buzzing with electricity and sent you home with newfound idealistic fervour. It was a rattling concert.
For me the next series of albums were disappointing. Billy seemed to have watered down his zeal, adopted a more sophisticated approach, learnt to play the guitar so that it sounded normal, toned down his lyrics to deal more with relationships, bought better equipment so that the distortion was no longer there and come up with a more Poppy style. It might have proved more popular. It might have broadened his appeal so that it brought in people from outside his normal sphere of influence but I craved the raw, radical fire-breather.
Fortunately the live concerts were not so watered down and the raw Billy was still there to be heard in all his might and fury. At the end of a concert he was always there to talk and sign albums. There was none of that star posturing and distance. He was the same.
It was no surprise when the Woody Guthrie estate, who were looking for people to put music to, and record, Woody Guthrie lyrics from the large archive Woody had left, that they should turn to Billy. Who better was there? Billy Bragg had been playing and living the same political stance as Woody. He’d stood up there in the face of hostility, on the picket lines and fought for freedom and justice just as Woody had done. The result was magical. Billy brought those Woody Guthrie lyrics to life and captured the spirit of Woody Guthrie perfectly. If Woody had been alive to hear it he would have delighted in the job well done.
Not that Billy had chosen to go back to his early brutal manner; he has done the work with tenderness, sophistication and style but the sincerity and emotion set it apart. This was full of melody and beauty as well as passion and was equal to the best of Billy.
I was delighted to find Billy, with his band featuring Ian McLaughlin of the Smallfaces, doing as rousing performances as even Billy did in his early days. We roared out ‘You fascists bound to lose’ with gusto and left buoyed and energised.
Billy is one of those rare breed who has been true to himself and an inspiration to all around him. His music touches the parts other choruses can’t reach. He continues to knock me out.