As the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony blasted off fireworks, Designer Magazine caught up with Billy Bragg to offer an alternative edge to the proceedings. Bragg along with Don Letts took part in an In Conversation evening as part of the Culture Shock Festival, a festival designed to add a radical mix of culture and ideas alongside the main sporting events. Culture Shock is just one of many events around the region, which include the Blitz Festival with appearances from members of Asian Dub Foundation and Stephen Nancy.
We caught up with Billy Bragg after the event for a short interview to discuss the Commonwealth Games in Manchester, the future of political music in the UK, The New Wave Of New Angry and why he thinks the media should stop looking to white boys with guitars for all their answers. Read on for the full interview.
Q: The Commonwealth Games has given us a chance to have this meeting of minds and cultures. What's you take on Manchester right now?
A: Manchester is a very multi-cultural town and that's a positive thing. If multi-culturalism was only in London we could argue that that's a phenomenon, it's not actually part of what we are, but the fact it can flourish in other places. Particularly in places that didn't see huge influxes in the way that London did in the 50s.
People are making there own history right and now and if I know Manchester it will find a way to articulate that history to the kids. Like all great cities it likes to build up it's own legend...24 Hour Party People - a 14 year old can see that and get a vibe. It's just a case of not relying on your past and making your own history for each generation. Each generation must find their own way to voice their own frustrations.
Q: Throughout each successive generation there has always been a spokesperson for the generation. Johnny Rotten, Morrissey, Kurt Cobain, Richey Manic. Looking around now in 2002 do you think there is that voice?
A: When I hear People = Shit from Slipknot there is a resonance of Anarchy in The UK in that. It manifests itself in a different way, but and it's not for me to say to my 14 year old god son - don't listen to that it's bollocks!!! Because Funny enough when he went to Ozzfest and listening to bands like that he came to me and asked if I had any Sex Pistols record because he'd seen them on Kerrang channel. What goes around, comes around!!!
Q: As a rule politics and music have become separate though and what we tried to do with our New Wave of New Angry issue was bring them back together, show people that there are still musicians and bands out there that care. What's your take on the whole scene?
A: No, I think there are areas when politics and music overlaps. It's just that sometimes it overlaps in a big way and other times it just barely touches. I think there is always room for music for an agenda. When I talk about the Sex Pistols and Red Wedge it's from my personal perspective and all that's there for is for people to learn from our mistakes - What we achieved? What we f**ked up? Why we didn't change the World?
The next generation has to learn from that and not repeat our mistakes, not dress our clothes, not play our songs. But to learn from our experiences and be inspired by what we did, but also be aware of what we didn't do, what we failed to do and why we failed to do it...and go out and work out how to do it.
I don't speak the language of a 15 year old, there's no point in me trying to make that music for them. That's why they need to find their own people. That's why is was so bizarre with the Sex Pistols putting out God Save The Queen after 25 years. If someone would have come to us and said buy this record, it was really important in 1952 - we'd have said fuck you, we've got our own music!!!
Q: Do you think there are certain limitations on the age range you can reach out to? I.e. You're speaking out to a certain generation and someone younger is speaking to their generation
A: I will defend anybody's right to say what they feel and speak that. However the language that I speak is an ideological language. That's how I learnt about politics, there aren't ideological politics to learn anymore. Politics at college level, university level, school ground level is not the same as when I talked it from that position.
The actual difference between having an opinion and being able to get up on stage and say it, particularly when it ain't fashionable, is a pretty big jump to make. I'm encouraged that there are these people around.
Q: What form do you think the new political bands will be in?
A: The problem is that people always look for white boys playing guitars with politics and it's been that way since the Clash. But I don't think that's where it will come from. It will be much more dance orientated music, more expressive music. The fact that So Solid Crew keep getting banned from everywhere is similar to the Sex Pistols, but I don't think there is much politics in bling bling, which is what they seem to be singing about.
I'm more drawn to someone like Ms Dynamite. I was very privileged when I was on Top Of The Pops with "Take Down The Union Jack" she was the next act on after me. I know her dad funnily enough and she was like hi Mr Bragg and I was calling her Ms Dynamite...a really strange conversation going on there. To me if anyone say's where's the political music today, I'd point to her. I think what she's doing...this social conscious music to me is the most refreshing thing.
Q: Did "Take Down The Union Jack" reach out to a new audience for you?
A: The Jubilee gave me a context for my agenda and to put out that message and conversation through the media. I didn't really think it was going to get to number 1, but it was a good scam. The serious side of it was that I wrote several articles in the Daily Mirror, which has 2.5 million circulation, about the Monarchy and about identity and I think that is worthwhile. Using the media to communicate - Malcolm X said by any means necessary and that's what he meant!!!
Q: What did you think about George Michael speaking out politically on "Shoot The Dog" after essentially being a throwaway pop star for nearly 20 years?
A: You have to make people realize you're not just saying it, that's the trouble George Michael had. He didn't seem to have rationally really thought through what he was saying. And the reason he got a bit of stick, instead of coming up with the arguments - here's where i'm coming through and this is what i'm saying...and I know I'm using this silly arse video but what i'm saying is X,Y,Z - this is how it connects!!!
I defend his right to say it and I don't care if he's Kylie Minogue for the rest of his days. He should feel strong enough to do all that and I think it has to be supported. Rather him, than Eminem - I think Eminem is a homophobic little rascal.
Q: And Bono?
A: You have this platform and how you use it is an important thing. And I think Bono, who is genuinely a "rock idol", uses fame in a positive way. You can use it in many different ways - you can use it to get into places or you can try and make sense of a really weird job in a really nasty world and I think he's trying to do that. If I had the access to the people who he had access to, I'd certainly go and do it. And if I had access to the trousers he has access to - I would certainly wear them!!!
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