Musician Billy Bragg has made a living out of blending his music and his activism, turning protest songs into albums and putting politics at the core of his career.
The Bard of Barking tells Jane Graham about being an anxious teenager, getting his first leather jacket and how joining the army made him more determined to succeed in the music industry in this week’s Letter To My Younger Self.
When I turned 16 I was probably at the lowest point in my life. I’d ended up in a pretty bad situation regarding school; I’d become the focus of some rather nasty bullying, to the extent that I stopped going to school most days.
I’m ashamed to say that when other kids got bullied, I didn’t do anything about it. I still feel bad about that. There was one time I even took part in it – not in anything physical but in name calling.
I knew it was wrong at the time. In later years, I heard that the kid who was bullied got a job in a factory near West Ham railway station, and whenever I was on a train and we pulled into West Ham, I could see that factory and I always thought of him. Always. They knocked that factory down years ago and I still think about it now.
When the bullies started on me, it kind of destroyed my self-confidence. At a time when I could have been socialising with my mates or going to gigs, my anxiety levels were much too high to do any of that.
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I really couldn’t bear being out in a crowd, because it was always at the back of my mind, what might happen. As I moved towards my twenties I went through a series of rather dynamic changes that allowed me to reinvent myself.
William is my middle name but that’s when I went from being Stephen to Billy Bragg. So I look back on that period and think, Stephen Bragg is a kid I went to school with. That’s not me. I’m very distanced from that person now.
I’ll be honest with you, I don’t have a great deal of respect for him, I’m afraid. He had a good heart but he wasn’t able to articulate how he felt in a way that other people could understand. He chose to be the hunted rather than the hunter.
The female influence in my family, from my grandmother’s family, is where the great strength was. They gave me a solid understanding and empathy for other people, not just in the family but outside it as well. I think that influenced my songwriting.
I’ve thought for a long time the currency of music is empathy. You’re trying to get the listener to feel something for a situation they themselves might not have experienced. I used to wonder, can music change the world? And it can’t, that’s my experience – it doesn’t have any real agency. But it does have this power of empathy, which is a great power.
If I could go back I’d handle the period when my dad was dying completely differently [when Dennis Bragg was diagnosed with cancer the family were advised not to tell him about the severity of his condition].
I was only 17, 18 but I deeply regret that I didn’t talk to him about it. It would have put everything in a different context; it would have allowed him to say anything he had to say, or do anything he wanted to do. Because it wasn’t a quick thing, it was a 15-month period of passing away, a long painful process. I suppose my mum and I thought that not talking to him was for the better. But at the end it was just ridiculous. I mean, he was just fading away, and we were all pretending it wasn’t happening. It was hard and for a long time it left a legacy in me not to talk to anybody about it.
My mum died in 2011. About six weeks before she was taken to hospital and diagnosed with cancer. I went up to the hospital and the first thing she said to me was ‘you have to talk to me about this. You have to tell me whatever they tell you. Whatever you tell me, we’ll deal with this. It can’t be like it was with dad.’
I joined the army because I felt I had run out of options. Where I grew up in Barking, everybody worked for Ford or one of their ancillary companies – my dad worked for an ancillary company in a warehouse.
If you said to the school careers officer that you didn’t want to work in the factory they said, and I quote, “You’ve got three options then, Bragg; the army, the navy or the air force.”
And I thought, I need something that presses the eject button on my life. I need to get out. But I think I was also looking for some way to measure myself against my father’s experience because he’d been in a tank regiment in the Second World War.
I had a little band, my gang, when I was 16 and when we broke up I thought joining the army might stop my ridiculous ideas about making it in the music industry. But actually it had the opposite effect. It fired me up to want to come back and have one more try.
As soon as I’d gone into the training regiment, I started getting more ideas for songs and I realised this thing wasn’t going to go away. So I got myself out, and decided to do the most frightening thing I could do – play on my own on stage, just me and an electric guitar.
I think this was the final shedding of the skin of Stephen Bragg, the anxious young man with no self-confidence I went to school with. If I was able to stand on stage, on my own, and look the audience in the eye and be confident that I could hold them with my own songs – that would be the beginning of Billy Bragg.
The key big change for me was punk. My father died in the October of 1976 and by the time I’d got over the initial shock of that, punk happened. It couldn’t have happened at a better time for me. My cousin came to stay in the box room that had been mine, so I cleared out all my childhood and teenage things, put them up in the attic, and that was the end of that.
I can remember getting my first leather jacket, cutting my hair, wearing tight trousers. Within a year of my father passing I was doing gigs at The Marquee with my little band Riff Raff. Punk gave me a map. It allowed you to reinvent yourself. I was becoming someone gregarious, who liked crowds, knew how to talk to girls and was very confident.
I was involved in Red Wedge when the miners’ strike occurred. So I was in a position to discover whether or not music could change the world. We pushed as hard as we could to see what would happen.
Now I think music can’t change the world but I wouldn’t tell my younger self not to try. There’s nothing worse than giving in to your own cynicism. That to me is the great enemy of all of us who want to make the world a better place. And by and large I try to write songs that offer people hope, something positive.
If I could go back in time and re-live any moment in my life… that first year after Life’s a Riot [With Spy vs Spy, Bragg’s 1983 debut) came out went past in a flash.
I went to America for the first time, I played on Top of the Pops, I was involved in the miners’ strike – so many incredible things. But in my heart of hearts I’d go back to the summer of 1969 on my auntie and uncle’s farm in Warwickshire. My brother and I got sent to stay there after my mum had an operation. And although we were away from my parents it was such an idyllic place to be. We just had the run of this huge, huge farm.
There were a couple of dogs and we helped to drive the cows up the road for milking. I helped stacking bales for harvest, the bales that were small enough for an 11-year-old to lift. My cousins had little motorbikes we used to ride around on. It was completely different to the urban life I’d grown up in.
It was the summer of my childhood really, and whenever I think of summer I think of that beautiful time up on the farm. Even now, when I see my cousins, we go straight back to talking about it. Not many people I know now knew my dad but my cousins did, so when I see them, it’s kind of like going back to that time before he died. And of course my cousins call me Stephen as well. So maybe there is still a little space for Stephen Bragg after all.
Billy Bragg’s new album The Million Things That Never Happened is out now
This article is taken from an interview in the latest edition of The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.
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