The brutal truth is that there has never been a more unlikely musical hero than Billy Bragg. At face value he’s little more than a pinko folk singer with punk ethics, a marginal voice, pedestrian guitar skills and a kind of chap-next-door homeliness. He’s fashionless, politically fussy and hasn’t had a real hit his entire life. But the whole of Bragg is greater than the sum of his parts.
People who have no tolerance for protest singing, dopey Brit colloquialisms and the guy-with-guitar shtick still love him. People who don’t give a damn about his bleeding-heart proclamations or his notable history in UK punk still adore him. Why? Bragg’s anti-star charm has always rested on an ability to defy every formula of pop stardom and an inability to see himself as anything other than a working-class songwriter with a chip on his shoulder and a cheap guitar.
“I’ve never seen myself as someone idealistically trying to change the world,” says Bragg in a thickly nasal English accent. “I write songs like anyone else, about who I am and what I think of the world. It’s largely about the right to have an identity and about the fact that some factions of the world — mostly people in power on the right — don’t want you to be able to define your own identity.”
In the face of these factions, Bragg’s international identity is as distinct as any singer or songwriter from the other side of the Atlantic. It’s one that’s been built brick by brick since his days fronting the punk outfit Riff Raff in the late ’70s. (Keep a keen eye in singles stacks for their highly volatile “I Wanna Be a Cosmonaut” 45.). While Riff Raff brought him into the British pop consciousness, it wasn’t until years later that the real legend of Bragg began to grow.
After the split of the band, he briefly joined the British Army (buying his way out with what he later described as the most wisely spent £175 of his life), got a job in a record store and began consuming politically charged folk like it was going out of style. Less than a decade later, Bragg had become a true blue-collar hero, armed only with an electric guitar and a penchant for scalding political wit. And though British politics has changed dramatically since he unloaded his youthful anger on Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy in 1984, Bragg himself has remained true to his course.
“Recently I saw some TV footage of myself being interviewed at the general election in 1985, and when it first started to play I was very self-conscious about what I might have said,” says Bragg. “I had terrible hair and was wearing these silly clothes and everything. But the things I had to say then were things I still believe in, even though times have changed and politics today are in some ways more unclear than they were then.”
His latest, English, Half-English, explores the contemporary identity of his countrymen with every ounce of the keen-eyed venom of his earlier days. A collaboration with the Blokes (a band which includes Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan), English, Half-English takes aim at the exclusivity of Anglo-Saxon English identity.
“I went it alone for years and it wasn’t until recently that I found the rewards of collaboration,” says Bragg. “It’s a very fulfilling situation to play music with people who share your views of the world.”
To date the people who have shared his views make up an A-list of musical innovators (try Wilco, Johnny Marr, Natalie Merchant to start). But no matter how big Bragg’s audience or how high-profile his collaborators, the perseverance of his school of thought has made him an unassuming treasure. It’s a way of thinking that, not so long ago, was common in Britain’s left. It was a school fueled by a strict diet of Dylan Thomas and Karl Marx, made up of people who read workers’ newspapers and sang “The Internationale,” people who voted Labor come hell or recession. Billy Bragg stills embodies that, and that makes him an endangered species. Forget the queen: God save Billy Bragg.
Bragg will perform Wed., April 17, at the Majestic Theatre (4140 Woodward, Detroit). Call 313-833-9700.Nate Cavalieri is Metro Times’ listings editor. E-mail him at [email protected]