British songwriter Billy Bragg has been artfully combining the personal and the political in his work since 1983.British songwriter Billy Bragg has been artfully combining the personal and the political in his work since 1983.
His early albums (Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, Talking with the Taxman about Poetry) have just been reissued, complete with archival bonus tracks, by Yep Roc Records.
Why are these albums being reissued?
Well, one of the reasons is that they’ve sort of fallen off the edge of the conglomeration of the American record industry. It’s also the 20th anniversary of when I first came to America, so it seemed like a good idea, and it is a good idea!
Have you been listening back to them?
Yeah, I do listen to them, in my car on a way to a gig, if I have to play a few of the old songs. I bang them on and think, oh, I might play that one.
Sometimes artists get embarrassed and they feel they can’t listen to their old stuff anymore.
You tell those people I can’t listen to their old stuff either. It’s not just them.
Do you ever fiddle with these songs when you play them live?
I went for a period in the early ‘90s where I was dicking around with all of them, and people felt I was messing around with their souls. So I stopped doing it, except for “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward.” I think that’s allowed in one song, as long as you keep it in the same spirit. I‘m not trying to do some Bob Dylan thing where I piss everybody off, you know?
Do you see an evolution in your songwriting over the course of your albums?
Yeah, I think there definitely is. If you listen to the first albums, there’s some politics there, but they’re personal politics, “Just because you’re better than me, doesn’t mean I’m lazy.” What happened in 1983 and 1984, around the time of my first record, the National Union of Mine Workers went on strike for a year. During that year, the entire country was divided along very painful ideological lines. And in order to explain why I supported them, I had to learn to speak in an ideological language. I didn’t do politics in college, because I didn’t do college. So I had to have a crash course in that. Eventually it worked its way through to my songs, so by the time you get to Talking to the Taxman about Poetry, I’m writing songs like “There is Power in a Union,” which is purely an ideological song.
Another aspect of your songwriting is your self-depreciating side, evident in songs about failed romance like “The Saturday Boy.”
Those were my breakthrough songs, when I stopped writing songs like The Clash, or Elvis Costello or Bob Dylan, and I actually found my own voice. That was my voice. I think a song like “The Saturday Boy” more truly represents me than a political song like “Between the Wars.” That’s my soul.