Billy Bragg on His One Step Forward. Two Steps Back. Tour and What Punk and The Clash Mean to Him

International Clash Day, Interviews
photo by Matthew B. Thompson (view set)

Billy Bragg is relentless. Over the past four decades, he's established himself as a beloved songwriter, a political activist, an author, and an inspiration. This month, Billy has kicked off the unique One Step Forward. Two Steps Back. series which brings him to Seattle's Tractor Tavern from Thursday, February 28th to Saturday, March 2nd. (Sadly, and not surprisingly, all three shows are sold out.) While KEXP was broadcasting from London earlier this month, Bragg was gracious enough to stop by The Morning Show to chat with DJ John Richards about this current tour and about his love for The Clash and the punk DIY spirit.

You can hear excerpts from this interview this Saturday morning on Sound & Vision at 7 AM PST. 

KEXP: We were just talking off the mic about your last session at KEXP with Joe Henry in support of your album Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. It was a great session. 

Billy Bragg: It was. It's a lovely space to go to. And good coffee, as well! 

Tell me a little bit about your tour and how that went.

It was great. I'm a big fan of Joe and a big fan of his music. He is a lovely bloke to tour with. And the nice thing about that show was, it was kind of a narrative show. There's a story that you want to tell about a railroad, its importance to American culture, how it opened up the country, how the mass migrations — particularly of African-Americans from the south into the industrial north; one of the key aspects, I think personally, of the development of 20th century American culture — the bringing of that up the Mississippi valley of jazz, soul, R&B. They're all part of the story of the railroad.

Having made that record and done that project and talked a lot to Joe about it, I think the railroad was the technology that changed the world the most because it connected people in a way they've never been connected before. The connectivity that you and I have seen in our lifetimes through the Internet is nothing compared to what happened to those people through the railroad. Before the railroad came, nobody could travel faster than a horse could gallop or a ship could sail. All of a sudden, you got this all-weather traveling, which is another thing: getting around America in the pre-railroad days, you ride on the rivers and they freeze in the north in the winter and flood in the south in the summer. So, with the railroads, suddenly you could order something, and in a week later it would arrive — it was kind of like Amazon for them. Well, it was a week, so not quite like Amazon. People came, things came, and more importantly, you could go. You could finally go. Rather than having to cross the land in an open wagon, you can get on a train and see America. It's absolutely crucial technological relief. 

I want to talk about your tour. It's pretty interesting. You're spending three days in each town you visit and that includes three days in Seattle at the Tractor Tavern, one of our favorite locations down in Ballard. Talk to me about the three days. 

Well, I've been touring America thirty-five years. And you get on a tour and it's either drive and play or fly and play. That's all your day is. And you never see much of a town apart from the neighborhood you're in between the soundcheck and the gig. That's the only bit you see. And I would like to see a little bit more of America. So I've come up with this idea of doing three shows in one town. The first show is my current "career-spanning set", so the show I would be playing if I was just coming to town. The second show is only songs from my first three albums — Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, and Talking with the Taxman about Poetry — and the third show is only songs from my second three albums — so that would be, Workers Playtime, Don’t Try This at Home, and William Bloke. I tried this in Toronto last year and it worked pretty well and it's just a way of touring that's a bit more conducive way of touring and spending a bit more time to actually connect with places like Seattle, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston, Washington D.C. I'm doing it in the UK as well. So I'm hoping — for my benefit and for the benefit of the audience — hoping to get more of a vibe when I come to town. 

You know, more than ever I'm getting requests for music of that time and songwriters who were protesting things then. And it feels like the music then is almost more relatable now to a generation. Even my generation — when I was young, those were good songs, and now that I'm a little older and I'm seeing the world, I can relate more to the messages. Does that make sense? 

I think that, yeah, it does make sense because in the 1980s when we were being political in that time, it was early music that was inspiring us. The songs, particularly the songs and people like Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, songs of the civil rights movement, the union songs, Joe Hill, and those kinds of things, they were quite influential and I think you need to connect with those things, because, you know, none of us involved in struggle are the first people to ever do this. 

You look at something like Black Lives Matter — it's a continuation from what Dr. King was doing but also what they were doing trying to emancipate the slaves in the 19th century. These things are a continuation. And by connecting with that culture that comes from that time, you are connecting with those people, which is really important because they fought and some of them died to try and make these things happen. You get in that knowledge that you're not alone. And that's the key thing that music can do. Music can't change the world. Trust me, I've tried. But it can make you realize that you're not alone in the thing that is troubling you — and that might be emotional, it might be a love thing that you're in trouble with and you listen to Smokey Robinson and you think, wow, it's not just me. Or it might be a political thing. That's the power music has. It makes you feel empathy. And we live in a time where there's like a war on empathy at the moment, here and in your country, so we need more of that stuff. 

Music can't change the world. Trust me, I've tried. But it can make you realize that you're not alone...

You are on the right show. Every day I start my show with you are not alone, every day. 


And more than ever people are connected through music and more than ever they're connected to the words of other people. Sometimes you feel so alone and scared and in that you can't take on those issues out there in the world, and then a song comes on

—Or an event. This is another key thing. This is how I learned how music works. In 1978, I went on the first Rock Against Racism march in London. A huge event. 100,000 kids marched through East London to somewhere not far from here actually, Victoria Park in Hackney, not very far from where we're sitting now. And The Clash was playing in the bill, Tom Robinson, X-Ray Spex. I, at the time, was working in an office. I was 19, I was the office junior. And the blokes I worked with were casually racist and sexist and homophobic, and I never said anything because I didn't feel... you know, I thought I was alone.

I went on that march and when I got to the park and saw a hundred thousand kids like me, not only did I know I was not alone, I knew I was different from these older blokes. This was my generation. Rock against racism. We will be the generation of free Nelson Mandela or Two-Tone. That was the day my generation took sides. And that's a key thing. It wasn't the music of The Clash that did that, or Tom or any of those — The Clash got me there, they played a very important role — but it was actually being in that crowd and hearing them cheer and the messages that were coming from the stage from all the bands that made me realize that I wasn't the only person who cared about this thing and that really is also the power of music. You can't get that on the Internet. You can't get that feeling of being an audience when they're all fired up about something. That's an incredibly valuable experience. The solidarity of song. 

Kevin Cole and Billy Bragg at the London broadcast // photo by Lindsay Melbourne

You just set up my next question actually. You saw The Clash early on here at Rock Against Racism. Seeing them, you mentioned what it meant to you, but what did it mean for you as a musician? 

Actually, I'd seen them before in '77 on the White Riot tour. Yeah, me and my pals, we were into The Jam. The Clash at the time had a sort of "art school ethic" that we didn't quite connect with. But The Jam had a more working class mod-thing. They were sharp. And the jam were opening for The Clash at the Rainbow. It was actually a huge show, it was The Clash, The Jam, The Buzzcocks, The Prefects, Subway Sect, and people say The Slits — now I don't remember seeing The Slits, I may have got there late, but people say they played. And I wish I had seen The Slits, I feel bad I didn't see them. Anyway. And we were really into what The Jam was doing, but we were also into really early Rolling Stones and early Small Faces and early Who — kind of mid-60s edgy stuff. That's why we were into The Jam. We went to see The Clash and all of a sudden... they were doing everything we were doing in our mate's back rooms, but they were our age. The year before, we'd been to see the Stones and they were miles away. Whereas The Clash was just... again, it's like being in the park. These are kids just like me. I came away from that gig realizing that no one comes and asks you to be in a band. You just be in a band. You do it. Everyone needs that moment of epiphany where you think to yourself, I could do that. I could really do that. And that's what I got from seeing The Clash. Now, why I didn't get that from The Jam, I don't know. There was something about The Clash that was more attitude. I don't think The Jam have ever played such a big stage. The stage was too big for them. But The Clash... they were better than The Stones, which for us was really up there. I cut my hair, I sold my flared jeans, I bought a pretend plastic leather jacket and, you know, within six months we were playing at the Marquee Club. It was a complete reversal, year zero moment. And I probably wouldn't be sitting here talking to you now if it weren't for that. 

And in 2007, the fifth anniversary of Joe Strummer passing, you launched Jail Guitar Doors. Can you talk about that? 

Sure, yeah. A musical instrument has an amazing ability to take you out of your environment. When my son would come home from school, he'd had a bad day, he would go upstairs, plug in his electric guitar, and play the Ramones. I could hear it through the floor. I knew he'd had a rotten day. But he wouldn't be in the upstairs front bedroom of his parents' house, he would be in his mind at CBGB in 1977 with Joey and the boys. And he was using that escape to deal with whatever the day had thrown on him. If you can imagine that ability to transcend your environment in a prison environment. So if you know that, as a musician, you understand why it's a good idea to try and encourage people who are incarcerated to learn to play guitar or if they can't play guitar to get access to guitars. One of the toughest things in that process is actually getting the guitars. There are people in prison who are willing to do the teaching but expenditure to get the guitars is sometimes tough. 

So, what we've been doing since 2007 is supplying guitars to people who are doing that work in prisons. In fact, I sent a couple of cartons out just yesterday to two prisons, one in Dorset and another one in Northern Ireland. And we've gotten to about 50, 60 prisons in the last 12 years and really it's just about trying to encourage inmates to engage with the process of rehabilitation. Most people think that people go to prison to be punished. They don't. Prison is the punishment. While we've got them in our custody, spending some time to rehabilitate themselves is worth it because most of the people in prison are going to get out and they might come and live next door to you or they might come and live next door to me, and I would like them to be rehabilitated rather than come out angry at the world and want to cause more trouble. So, as a citizen, we try to make a contribution to that process by finding those people who are willing to take the time to teach guitar. I can't do it. I'm in London with you. [laughs] So we find those people, identify those people, and supply them with guitars. Sometimes we send a kahaani — if you know what a kahaani is, it's like a box that you sit on and you drum, makes kind-of a snare drum noise. Stuff like that. And it's been very fulfilling. I get letters from time to time from people who've been involved in the process. People come up to me at gigs and say "I was in such-and-such a prison and got one of your guitars, that was really helpful." So I think it's a positive thing to do. 

I have to say Wayne Kramer does it in America. [ed note: read an interview with Wayne here.] And it was rather embarrassing the way it came out because it's named after a Clash song, "Joe Guitar Doors." And I met him in America and we were talking about this because he does work in prisons and I said, "oh, you know, I do this thing, getting guitars in prisons, it's named after this song called 'Joe Guitar Doors.' Have you heard it?" And he said yeah, it's about me. And I said, "is it?" And he said, "What's the first line?" I said, "Oh yeah, 'let me tell you about Wayne and his deals of cocaine' — I felt so embarrassed. So when I saw Mick Jones the next time — because he comes sometimes into prisons with me, bless him — I told him the story and how he said "I'm in it," and Jonesy said, "Is he?" [laughs] So, I didn't feel so bad after that. Don't tell Wayne. 

Have you heard from people who have actually been through it? 

Yeah, you do. I mean, it's not for everybody. It's not a panacea. But I've spoken to prison officers who said, "you know, your guitar is coming out and there's that one guy, you know, this is going to be a lifeline — cause they identify them. Get this guy a guitar and you can turn him around, away from the negative stuff and get him into his space. And what happens then is, when he comes down to the canteen, he's the guy who plays guitar, everyone's cool with him. Then he plays guitar for the people, he writes them a song, something like that. So it makes a contribution, I think. 

The thing I got most from punk — and yeah, I had a short haircut and I had some bondage trousers — but the most important thing was that D.I.Y. attitude and it still motivates me to this day.

I guess, my last question... You're very motivated still. I mean, you're talking about going to America, and taking time on these tours, continuing to send guitars out, continuing to hang out with us here at KEXP, whatever it is. What motivates you when you wake up? Do you have a mission statement? 

I think I'm a communicator. Whether I'm talking to you and your listeners today or going to prisons and talking to people about the redemptive power of music. I just actually last night finished writing another book which I'm out to go and see my publishers now and talk to them about how we're going to get out. It's about communicating ideas. The great thing about punk was it kind of gave you a platform in kind of a do-it-yourself attitude. Not to wait for someone to come and give you permission to do anything. And that DIY idea sort of stays with you. The thing I got most from punk — and yeah, I had a short haircut and I had some bondage trousers — but the most important thing was that the DIY attitude and it still motivates me to this day. If I want to do something — like the train record, I talked to Joe, booked the tickets, we get on the train, see what happens. Next thing I know, I'm at KEXP drinking great coffee, playing live in your — what do you call that room? Your boudoir? [laughs]

The Gathering Space. The most literal name ever.