Interview: Billy Bragg – The Bard of Barking

Billy Bragg tells G&B about keeping it simple with his live rig, his Burns Steer, the infamous Portastack, dissent in England and being the Bard of Barking.

Story & photography: Sam Atkins

“I always end my set with, ‘My name is Billy Bragg, I’m from Barking, Essex’, even though I don’t live there anymore, I’m quite proud of being the Bard of Barking. The music press in the old days used to give those sort of appellations out, like Paul Weller was the ‘Woking Wonder’.”

Billy Bragg settles in to a hard plastic chair, one of those you find in a classroom, looking every bit the well-worn folk traveller in a venue unlike any on his fast-selling-out UK tour. Our view from the makeshift green room, a clear glass-fronted education suite, is the impressively dominant Lincoln Cathedral, atop the appropriately named Steep Hill.

This lunchtime, Bragg will be reading from a 3,500-word essay on freedom to a small audience in The Collection Museum, a sprawling modernist building with historical exhibitions covering everything from the Roman occupancy to avant-garde art, a far cry from Bragg’s early years trekking around the pub circuit of the late 70s.

The medieval city of Lincoln has been celebrating the 800th anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta, and Bragg makes up an impressive line-up alongside such notable figures as historian David Starkey, The Levellers and musicians banned in their countries from performing their music, including Ramy Essam and Fermin Muguruza. During the 10-day Festival800 programme, themes such as freedom of speech and justice will be at the fore; principles he has never shied away from.

“I get asked to do stuff, y’know, like speaking at a school or what have you. But I often get invited to take part in things that I don’t really think they grasp where I’m coming from. It’s like people interviewing you about something you don’t know anything about. There’s no point. If you can’t be enthusiastic about something, if you haven’t got an opinion; you can’t just be rent-a-gob, I don’t want to do that.”

“Every now and again, you get asked to do something more than a gig and it’s really good to take those opportunities when they come up, so performing here and then doing this talk and Q&A today was the right thing for me.”

The night before, Bragg played to a sold-out Lincoln Drill Hall, a former military and police training centre dating back to the 1890s. The stage was lit starkly in white and purple, with a solitary vocal mic, two dual-channel amps (one acting as a back-up), his custom-made Jim Dyson Tele-type guitar and just two pedals (trusty Boss TU-3s – one for acoustic and one for electric) at his feet.

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This economy of stage craft is the antithesis of modern-day performances that rely on the extreme to capture the hearts and minds of their audiences. Bragg clearly doesn’t need trinkets to connect to his audience. His well-travelled and distinctive vocals, heavy percussive playing style – with his amps set clean and full with a hint of overdrive on the second channel – is direct and engaging.

“Basically, I need an amplifier that has two channels for a clean and a dirty sound. I need a way of changing channels, so a footswitch or a button on the amp and an inline tuner and I’m ready to rock. I like the Fender Hot Rod Devilles, but I can use any two-channel amp.”

“I started off last night with the dirty channel for the songs Levi Stubbs’ Tears, The World Turned Upside Down and Why Do We Build The Walls, and the clean channel is on for Must I Paint You a Picture, Distant Shore and the ballads. If I was at a festival I’d keep the dirty channel on all the time to cut through the sibilance and leakage from other stages. I’m more of a dirty-channel than a clean-channel guy if left to my own devices.”

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Our attention then turns to Bragg’s main stage guitar, the Jim Dyson Tone Deluxe, a Tele-type guitar that feels light due to the chambering, but no less meaty in the hands with its flat but wide neck that sits comfortably in your grip. So how did it find its way into Bragg’s possession?

“He really makes pickups, Jim Dyson, and works out of somewhere near Melbourne. He doesn’t actually make guitars anymore. I was playing with my band at the time, The Blokes, with Lu Edmonds, who plays with Public Image and Ben Mandelson, who played with the Amazorblades.”

“Both of them play a lot of world music and are always buying weird foreign instruments and sticking pickups on them, so they know Jim from that. So Jim came down to the soundcheck one day carrying this Tone Deluxe and gave it to me to try out and I kind of liked it.”

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“It’s a utilitarian-type guitar based on a Fender Telecaster but with four positions, giving me a bit more crunch, which are controlled by a chicken head dial selector knob. The sort of guitar I need is like a Kalashnikov; you can drop it in a puddle and it still works. Something I can walk out with, plug it in and beat the shit out of it and it more or less stays in tune. I’ve got quite heavy strings on it, 52s, so I can give it some right old punishment and it can handle it.”

For acoustic duties, Bragg favours Gibson guitars to give him that low-down thump and bark. “I use a three-year-old Gibson J-45 now. I had a really nice Gibson 000-type guitar, but accidentally fell out of a window on top of it. That’s a story for another time! I did a tour doing Mermaid Avenue songs for the Woody Guthrie centenary in 2012 and the Gibson 000 was brilliant for that. But it wouldn’t really work with the band on the Tooth And Nail tour, so I needed a proper acoustic and the J-45 is really good for that.”

Bragg has travelled far and wide since his formative years in Essex. Failing his eleven-plus exam led to Barking’s then-named Park Secondary Modern School, where Bragg took to music for his education and bands such as The Faces and The Rolling Stones were his teachers. But after seeing the Stones and The Who in concert in the late- 70s and the distance between them and their audiences, the immediacy and energy of punk bands such as The Clash ignited a flame inside the young Bragg.

With his next door neighbour Phillip Wigg, more affectionately known as ‘Wiggy’, Bragg formed the band Riff Raff, toured the pub circuits with their take on the punk rock genre and managed to record a few singles, which unfortunately stalled the band and led to its break-up after a few years.

“I was really into those early guitar bands and into singer-songwriters, particularly Bob Dylan,” says Bragg. “Seeing as his songs were three chords, I was able to play a lot of those. I knew Woody Guthrie was important because of Dylan, but his records were really hard to get hold of in the 70s. I didn’t really hear any Woody stuff until I went to America in 1984 and you could buy his records.”

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“It was punk, though, that made it possible for people to play, to become a musician, to open the door to people like me. Punk made me write songs that were contemporary, rather than songs reaching back to be a bit like Dylan, The Stones and the 60s. That was the precursor that led me to write like Billy Bragg, although it still took me a bit to write like that, but punk lit the fire under it.”

An iconic piece of the puzzle that makes up the unique look and sound of Billy Bragg is his Burns Steer guitar. The Steer was a unique-looking semi-hollow guitar with a beefy split humbucking pickup in the bridge and a Tri-Sonic single coil at the neck, both made by Burns.

“The Burns Steer is the first guitar I ever bought that looked great and sounded great. Most of the time, guitars look great or sound great, but seldom do both the same. That high treble sound it’s got was very conducive to my style of playing, which can best be described as ‘chop and clang’! I’m basically a rhythm guitar player.”

“Anything that’s not rhythm guitar is difficult for me to do the same every night. When I was in a band you would only really notice what I was doing if I stopped playing. There’d be a hole where I was. All the stuff I do, really, is rhythm, so that guitar really suited my percussive playing style.”

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“It weighs a ton, though. It probably weighs more than that table [pointing towards a trestle table laden down with tea and coffee urns]. I think the one I’ve got is a prototype, as it’s got a 00001 number on it.”

“I’ve only ever seen one other one and that was a black one in the Dutch segment of Live Aid! All these Dutch musicians were on the stage and there’s this one guy on the end playing this black Burns Steer and I was like ‘whoa…’. I’d never seen another original before. The reissues were good, but sadly they didn’t make a metal plate under the soundhole, but put a plastic plate on, which didn’t have the same effect.”

There was one other piece of musical gear that made Bragg really stand out from the crowd, and that was the Portastack. With a wry smile on his face, he tells G&B about it.

“We put it together for the new music seminar in New York in 1984. I’m sorry to say the Portastack got lost somewhere. Thank fuck it did. It was a heavy piece of gear. It was powered by a large battery, which was heavy, on a frame of a backpack, so most of the weight was around your diaphragm, so singing with it on was a real pain in the arse. The speakers were on two stalks above your head, which were held up by wing nuts, so occasionally it would drop around your head and feed back in your ear.”

“If you went through a doorway it always fed back, too. It was a fucking crazy contraption that I complained bitterly about having to use, but my manager at the time said to me, ‘If you use this then you’ll get noticed’. The annoying thing is that 30 years later people still talk to me about it. It was like I was a weird superhero appearing, like Doc Oc from Spiderman. At the end of that tour I took it home and quietly disposed of it.”

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Music and politics have always been good bedfellows throughout history, and Bragg uses the power of his choppy rhythmic playing to grandstand his political views. When it comes to songwriting what is his creative process?

“It’s usually in response to something that’s happened,” he says. “If I think I’ve got something to say about it in a song I will sit down and write it and get it out online as a free download. I wrote a song a couple of years ago called Never Buy The Sun about the phone hacking scandal. I literally wrote it on a Friday, recorded it on the Saturday and it was out for Monday on the internet. That’s what a good topical song does.”

“The last record, Tooth And Nail, was after I came out of a long period of where my mum passed away in 2011 and I really needed to do something to get onto the next thing. My partner Juliet, who manages me, said to me ‘You really should make another album’ and I was like, ‘Whoa, I suppose so’. The trouble with making another album is that it’s a lot of blood and a lot of treasure over a long period. You’ve got to finance the album, finance the promotion, finance the band, finance the touring, so it’s a big ask these days.”

“So Joe Henry, an old friend of mine, who’s a record producer and singer-songwriter, had been saying to me for a long time that he could make an album in his basement in five days with his band that’s got Gregg Leisz, Jay Bellerose and Dave Piltch in it.”

“Amazing guys to play with. So I rang him up and said, ‘Did you mean it when you said you could make a record in five days?’ and he said, ‘Yeah’. So that was in the August and he booked me in in the January. So when I got the bill for that it stimulated me to get writing!”

“It’s a bit like today. I could have written these 3,500 words last month, but there I was sitting in the hotel this morning getting the last 1,000 words together. I was always bad with handing in homework.”

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We’re minutes away from Bragg making his way down to deliver his talk to a decidedly mixed crowd of young people, families and his peers. I ask him one final question: “You have said that ‘England is a nation that has been defined by dissent’. What do you mean by that, and does music in 2015 still play an active role in poking a stick where it needs
to be poked?”

“No. Music has lost it’s vanguard as a vehicle for dissent,” he replies. “When I was 19 and I wanted to express my anger about the world, nobody was asking me to write in a newspaper or come to a lecture, so I had to play guitar, write songs and do gigs. That was the only option open to me. If I wanted to get my words out there I had to negotiate with the BBC and the NME to do that.”

“Now, if you’re 19 you’ve got a number of options, like posting to Facebook, call up a crowd on Twitter, write a blog or make a film on your phone. There’s loads of ways to express your dissent. People don’t listen to music as I did back then to find out what my generation was thinking. They go to social media to find out what they’re thinking. Music is still capable of doing that job of carrying a message. No one is going to ask you to come to Lincoln to read out your tweets!”

“If you really want to see the world and get to speak to people all over like I’ve done, then being able to play the guitar has furnished me with an education and taken me to amazing places. You’re not going to get that if you sit on your arse whinging on social media.”

“I would still say it’s worth getting out there and learning how to play and engage with people through music because there’s something more you get from music that you don’t get from online. It’s a sense of communion with a group of people. When you sing together there’s a moment there of solidarity.”

“It doesn’t have to be a political song, but a song that brings up that feeling that is shared with a lot of people, you’re not alone, and that’s a powerful affirmation. Music still has a very important role to play and I think that explains in some way why more people are going to gigs now, because you can’t get that feeling on the internet.”

Gear Billy Bragg
• Guitars Burns Steer, Jim Dyson Tele-type, Gibson J-45 with LR Baggs onboard electrics
• Amps Fender Hot Rod Deville, Supro Dual-tone 1624t (back-up amp loaned for the Lincoln gig)
• Pedals Boss TU-3, LR Baggs DI