Archive for March, 2013« Older Entries | Newer Entries »
Wednesday, March 27th, 2013
From agitpop to love songs, Bragg has brought his audience through life with him, creating a soundtrack to thousands of lives
Billy Bragg has a new beard, a mixture of grey and what he calls “sandy coloured: a bit grey, and a bit red”. When he grew it, he says, “everyone said it suited me”. It also chimes with an element of his past. “When I was forging my career as a solo artist, I dyed my hair blond, so I when I looked in the mirror in the morning, I looked like someone else. And I felt like somebody else. It didn’t last, and I don’t expect the beard will last forever. But again, I feel like I’ve passed through a change.”
His new album is titled Tooth & Nail, and it has its own strapline, taken from a tweet by a fan who listened to his music while recovering from a broken relationship. She called him “The Sherpa of Heartbreak”.
“It reminded me that I write love songs, and I shouldn’t make any bones about it,” he explains, down a phone line from a tour stop-off in Mesa, Arizona. “When I was thinking about making this album, the songs I had were predominantly more personal.
“And rather than think: ‘I’d better write some political songs to balance it up’, I followed that instinct.”
In terms of its pre-eminent place in his recorded work, the subject of love is arguably Bragg’s true metier. His media caricature is that of the ultimate “leftwing singer-songwriter”, forever penning protest music. But it is his love songs that have most endured and which arguably give the truest picture of the man: a 55-year-old native of Barking, on the Essex/London borders, whose biography includes no end of stuff that sets him apart from the rock herd – not least, a brief spell in the army – and whose music always returns to the elemental stuff of human relationships.
He has long had a talent for lovelorn melancholy, heard in such songs as St Swithin’s Day (1984), which has the distinction of containing what is probably the rock canon’s only poetic reference to masturbation: “With my own hands/ When I make love to your memory.”
His new album is smattered with lyrics that unpick the more complex, ambivalent aspects of love: a glimpse of remorse and the pain of absence in a song called Swallow My Pride, and Chasing Rainbows, a wearied admission of the inevitability of tension and discord in even the most solid pairings. And his lyrics have also examined aspects of life that too many songwriters leave untouched: the almost impossibly moving Tank Park Salute (1991) is an evocation of bereavement based on the death of his father when Bragg was 18.
The ex-Smiths guitarist and songwriter Johnny Marr first met Bragg in the early 1980s, when the latter was becoming a byword for the politicised music briefly known as “agit-pop”.
“His agenda and his music, like a lot of great people, seemed to be all in the same package,” says Marr. “You got that straight away. But it was only when I started to hear him play a full set that I discovered all the romanticism in his writing, and that he wrote great love songs too. I’d just assumed everything was political. But he wrote a lot about falling in love: he’d obviously fallen in love a few times, and it had hit him hard.”
By way of a reference point, Marr mentions Tamla Motown icon Smokey Robinson, whose music Bragg adores. “It’s a funny one with Billy,” he goes on. “He’s such a masculine guy, but he’s able to tap into a lovely poignancy and vulnerability – which I’ve got to see over the years, being his friend.”
For comedian and radio voice Phill Jupitus, things worked the other way round. Having grown up in Essex, he first fell for Bragg’s love songs, and felt their impact all the more because of the author’s familiar vowel sounds. “The soul singers – Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, Otis Redding – sing about pain and suffering,” he says. And you understand the words they’re expressing it with. But this was an accent from 15 miles down the road, which really spoke to me.
“What actually surprised me was the politics. During the miners’ strike, seeing him speak to people … when he spoke to a room in such a clear and defined way, it was astonishing to see. I can remember seeing him at a Nottingham miners’ benefit, watching him play Between the Wars, and never has a song resonated with a room full of people like that, I can assure you.”
Jupitus has known Bragg since March 1984. The song he mentions was an incongruous top-20 hit in 1985: a hymn to the human hopes that were met by the postwar social settlement, but were then being crushed by the Thatcher government. It led its author on to Top of the Pops, where he gave a performance you can find on YouTube. Amid the disco lights, Bragg plays the song, accompanied only by his electric guitar. Up until that point no high-profile musician had ever tried this combination: solo performance was always synonymous with acoustic instruments, so in terms of medium as much as message, Bragg was doing something new.
Bragg began his musical progress in the slipstream of punk, in a short-lived band called Riff-Raff. A mixture of boredom and a moment of revelation sparked by The Jam’s 1979 song Little Boy Soldiers, led him to join the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars, where he learned to drive a tank, before buying himself out for £175. He became a solo performer, and styled himself as “a one-man punk revival”. Soon, though, Bragg came to realise that his music also aligned him with the folk tradition, and influences he had first heard in the music of Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.
And all the time, the split between love and politics was reflected in both the songs and the crowds who came to see him. “My audience was made up of people who came for the politics, and other people who came for the love songs,” he later reflected. “There was a militant tendency and a softie tendency. But I’m both of those myself.”
To an extent, he says, some of this still holds. “There are people who really feel that I should be singing political songs and nothing else,” he says. “I do have to deal with people who feel very strongly about that, and that if I deviate from it, then I’m somehow selling out … But my politics are really an ideological sort of manifestation of my humanitarian beliefs. So the overlap between the two things is always there.”
Bragg’s 30-year career has been punctuated by three noticeable pauses. After releasing Don’t Try This at Home in 1991, he became a father – his son, Jack, is now 19 – and did not release a record for five years. He recalled wondering: “What do songs written by Billy Bragg, someone’s dad, sound like?” He broke his silence with the 1996 album William Bloke, and then entered one of the most fertile phases of his progress.
Custodians of Woody Guthrie’s legacy chose him to put rediscovered lyrics by that icon of the American left to new music, in collaboration with the band Wilco. The project – which led to two albums titled Mermaid Avenue, named after a Coney Island street where Guthrie had lived – underlined the centrality of human relationships to Bragg’s aesthetic.
In musical terms at least, Bragg paused again between 2003 and 2008, when he wrote The Progressive Patriot, a book that mixed memoir with his thoughts about English identity and nationhood, and the risks bound up with the left’s refusal to engage with such subjects. During this time, it also became apparent that he had transcended music’s interminable cycles of fashion, amassing an unshakeable following and becoming a touchstone for plenty of new musicians.
Bragg’s latest period of stock-taking was partly sparked by the death of his mother, Marie. “My dad passed away 36 years ago,” he says. “So with my mum passing, suddenly I’m in the front rank, I’m the oldest in the family. When you lose a parent, you can’t help but look around and think: ‘What am I doing? Is what I’m doing worthwhile? Am I wasting my time?’
“I wouldn’t say this new record is about that experience, but it became the means by which I was able to move on, after mum passed away. In that void, after me and my brother had sorted everything out, and put everything away, there was a time there when I was wondering what I was doing with my life. You think about all those things when you lose someone close. And ringing up [the album's producer] Joe Henry was the beginning of a process.”
Tooth & Nail has been well received by the critics, and just entered the UK albums chart at No 13, a placing that puts it in the same rarefied orbit as his most successful albums. It confirms that he has managed something only achieved by a select group of musicians and songwriters: moving through life along with his core audience – and with all those songs about love and loss, creating a soundtrack to thousands of lives.
“It’s much easier for a solo artist to grow older,” says Jupitus. “With groups, the ageing process is amplified: ‘That one’s ageing well, but hasn’t that one got fat?’ But Billy is ageing very gracefully – because individuals grow old, and we grow old with them.”
Singer, songwriter, activist
Born 20 December 1957 in Barking, Essex, as Stephen William Bragg.
Career to date Released debut mini-album, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy, in 1983, and has subsequently completed 12 more, excluding anthologies and compilations.
High point Writing and recording the single We Laughed, recorded with three women at the Trimar hospice in Weymouth as part of a project aimed at giving a voice to people with long-term and terminal illnesses. It reached No 11. “If you’re talking about something that I’m proud I did,” he says, “I would put that at the top of the list.”
Low point: The Conservative victory of 1992. “They were still able to win with this guy who tucked his shirt in his pants, and [Neil] Kinnock still went down to defeat,” he says now. “That election really was a sea-change: worse than 1987, in terms of how it felt.”
What he says: “They very often ask me, how would you like to be introduced? And I say: ‘Singer-songwriter and activist.’”
What others say “I bought his early albums and totally fell in love with them. It’s important for pop to tell the stories of real people’s lives. And Billy’s so honest. He’s never compromised.” Richard Archer, vocalist, Hard-Fi
Wednesday, March 20th, 2013
Following George Osborne’s budget speech, our columnists give their views
Aditya Chakrabortty: ‘A budget designed for the Conservative voter’
You can trace a historical trajectory to George Osborne’s budget speeches. Briefly, it goes: Summer 2010, fiscal pain now, economic gain later; Spring 2011, a call for a March of the Makers, with policies designed to rebalance Britain away from the City and towards other industries.
And then you get this one. The chancellor can no longer promise a turnaround before the next election: public sector debt is now forecast to keep rising as a proportion of GDP all the way till 2016. What he offered instead was a budget that manages economic decline in terms designed to appeal to the Conservative voter. So there’s now even more state money going towards helping people on and up the housing ladder – on top of all the Bank of England billions to boost lending that have instead gone into cheaper mortgages. Another push down on fuel prices. And a raid on public-sector pay and pensions, in order to fund cheaper childcare for working families.
None of these measures cost a huge amount: given the penny Osborne’s just taken off a pint, it might even be called small beer (sorry). But put together, they carry faint echoes of the 80s. Thatcher’s Right to Buy is now Cameron’s Even Righter to Buy. The March of the Makers is now Aspiration Nation, and the rhetoric about making Britain more productive has been replaced with a return to that age-old British obsession with the property market. Rebalancing is dead; long live the old, busted economic model.
Now, add all that to the Office for Budget Responsibility’s projection that by 2015 real wages will be 9% below where they were in 2009. So, indebted Britons are being encouraged by the chancellor to take on more debt, despite the fact that they’re getting poorer. Anyone else see a problem with that?
Seumas Milne: ‘It’s a package that clearly won’t work’
By any objective measure, George Osborne has just ‘fessed up to failure on a gargantuan scale. Growth forecasts halved for the year. Borrowing and the deficit up – £121bn to £123.2bn – once special factors stripped out. Debt target missed by an extra year. Living standards and real wages set to fall for the rest of the parliament. Even in the coalition’s own terms, this is an economic disaster.
But people know that already. So the man who can’t appear in public without catcalls and booing tried to change the subject with a dash of Thatcherite populism: a penny off a pint and frozen fuel duty, cuts to employer’s national insurance contributions and, more significantly, mortgage guarantees and loans for newbuild homes and low deposits.
But like the rest of the budget – with yet another cut in corporation tax to 20% – the impact will be heavily regressive and skewed to benefit the well-off and corporate Britain (along with other choice Tory wheezes, such as shale gas subsidies). All in time for next month’s tax cuts for the richest.
But just as crucially for the government and the country’s future, it’s a package that clearly won’t work – if work means kickstart a stagnant economy. The boost to capital spending is too small, and paid for by other cuts, to make the difference. The real cut in public sector pay has been extended once again.
Even the over-optimistic Office for Budget Responsibility is estimating the budget’s growth effect at only a pitiful 0.1%. Featherbedding the corporate sector and the wealthy won’t deliver recovery, let alone share the burden of failure. This is a budget for continued depression.
Ellie Mae O’Hagan: ‘Osborne is insulting people with tokenistic offerings’
You can really see where George Osborne is heading with this budget. He’s knocking money off beer, he’s talking about home ownership, he’s lowering fuel duty. In short he’s attempting to appeal to what he thinks ordinary people want, which is bound to fail as Osborne – the millionaire son of a baronet who hangs out with old Etonians – has no idea what ordinary people want.
Meanwhile the OBR’s Robert Chote says it has revised down forecasts for UK salaries. That’s what people will feel. Who cares that beer is marginally cheaper if you can’t afford to go to the pub? Osborne is insulting people if he thinks they won’t grasp the reality of the budget because he’s peppered it with a few tokenistic offerings. I saw nothing in this budget to address falling wages, a decline in living standards, a rise in poverty, and the loss of so many public services that people rely on (like all the A&E wards that are being closed). I can’t believe this government doesn’t realise that life is getting harder for most people in this country, as it’s all over the news all the time. I can only conclude that, as long as their extravagant lifestyles continue, they don’t care.
Andrew Gimson: ‘Osborne is reminiscent of Gordon Brown’
It is all very well for the chancellor to boast about the 1.25m new jobs created in the private sector. His backbenchers yearn to be given jobs in the public sector – as future ministers. But their best hope remains a Tory victory in the general election in 2015. So for them, the central question about this budget is whether or not it makes an overall Conservative majority at the next general election more likely, after which they would be able to dispense with the Liberal Democrats’ services.
But there was little in George Osborne’s speech to encourage the Tories to believe it will mark a change in their electoral fortunes. The one thing that the chancellor had been very good at was keeping expectations low. It was generally accepted on the Tory benches, and elsewhere, that Osborne had “no room for manoeuvre”.
The chancellor instead tried to make a virtue of sticking to his course. But his self-righteous anger is becoming reminiscent of Gordon Brown. There were a few sweeteners to try to cheer people up. Osborne cancelled the fuel duty increase, took “a penny off the pint” and promised to reduce taxes on the poor and on business.
He also tried to cheer us up by using the word “aspiration” over and over again. In Osborne’s mouth, this became a way of promising “jam tomorrow” without using the word “tomorrow”. He proposes to “energise the aspirations of the British people”. But has he energised the aspirations of his own backbenchers? Their glum demeanour suggested that he has not.
John Harris: ‘This budget highlighted a crafty, populist sensibility’
“Political message of budget – squeeze spending to cut taxes. Fuel duty frozen, alcohol duty escalator scrapped, beer down, tax allowance up,” tweeted the BBC’s Nick Robinson, in between marvelling at the early release of its contents in the Evening Standard. And fair play to George Osborne: what with the (eventual) move on childcare expenses, and that new, bold-looking help-to-buy scheme, the headline measures in this budget highlighted a crafty, populist sensibility that was sorely lacking from last year’s fiasco.
That said, Ed Miliband’s bravura demolition of the government spoke a few home truths. “Millions paying more, so the millionaires can pay less”, was an easy, but effective, line. Obviously, incomes continue to flatline while the cost of living is rising, something the opposition can use to potent effect. But there is a danger in the current terms of debate: at the moment Labour is too fond of stating the blindingly obvious rather than promising any kind of convincing alternative – and in the public mind, one side’s statistics, slightly platitudinous rhetoric and hotchpotch of measures may very well collide with the other side’s equivalent, leaving most people stone cold.
We all know what gets Osborne out of bed: a quintessentially neoliberal fixation with supply-side economics; indifference to the economy’s iniquitous basic structures; and the apparent belief that the cuts can go on, regardless. Labour needs a coherent, policy-rich vision of something entirely different. The clock is ticking: 2015 is much nearer than some people would like to think.
Tuesday, March 19th, 2013
Audio versions of a selection of articles from the Guardian newspaper and website
Reading on a mobile? Click here to listen.
In this week’s edition:
• The budget: if Osborne has no answers, who does? The interesting question is not what the chancellor will say on Wednesday, but whether Ed Balls dares set out his alternative. Click here to read this article.
by John Harris
• The election of a new pope is God’s Olympics: global publicity, weeping crowds – and no meaning. The papal election matters only to those made miserable by the church’s reactionary leadership. Click here to read this article.
by Simon Jenkins
• Nation’s Noodle lives up to its name as production moves to UK
Golden Wonder noodles, currently shipped from China, will be made in Leeds in latest example of ‘re-shoring’. Click here to read this article.
by Rupert Neate
• The black, female polo player changing perceptions in ’sport of kings’
Uneku Atawodi is the only black woman in the world playing the game professionally – and she usually draws quite a crowd. Click here to read this article.
by Monica Mark in Lagos
• Harlem Shake: could it kill sampling? An unexpected viral dance craze shot Baauer’s Harlem Shake to the top of the Billboard charts. Almost immediately, legal letters began to arrive. So, can cut-and-paste culture continue to flourish on the internet? Click here to read this article.
by Dorian Lynseky
• In this week’s audiobook review we look back at the career of Minette Walters, whose first crime novel The Ice Room was published in 1992, and we catch up with the latest from Fred Vargas, The Ghost Riders of Ordebec.
• The Guardian Audio Edition is supported by Audible.co.uk. To listen to the audiobooks reviewed in this week’s edition go to audible.co.uk/guardianaudio
Tuesday, March 19th, 2013
Why is the UK Independence party surging in the polls? John Harris visits Peterborough, where economic insecurity is fuelling anti-immigration sentiment
Monday, March 18th, 2013
The interesting question is not what the chancellor will say on Wednesday, but whether Ed Balls dares set out his alternative
A statement of the blindingly obvious, to start. For all the talk of moves on childcare, fuel duty, infrastructure and the rest, Wednesday’s budget will surely fall far short of what the moment actually demands. This critique will be heard from both left and right: the Tories’ opponents will repeat those well-worn lines about austerity being the road to disaster and the likelihood of triple dip; and from the Tories’ own ranks will come the kind of turbo-Thatcherite arguments recently heard from David Davis, who says the budget must be “politically bold, economically effective and psychologically inspiring”. Good luck with that.
Beyond the Treasury, though, things are clearly on the move. By 2015, the government will probably have borrowed about £200bn more than it forecast, and the case for unrelenting austerity is weakening by the day. Among those now suggesting modest deficit spending are the British Chambers of Commerce, the Economist magazine, the multinational Bloomberg information service and, of course, the venerable Vince Cable, whose distance from most of his coalition colleagues seems to be increasing at speed. You never know: it may even soon be fashionable to talk about the lessons of the 1930s.
Much of this was captured in an under-reported moment last week, when Ed Balls appeared on Newsnight. If Labour were currently in power, Gavin Esler asked, would borrowing go up? “Well, of course it would go up in the short term,” said Balls, sparking a flurry of tweets from Tory insiders but little else. The muted reaction spoke volumes about where debate has arrived, and how busted austerity seems to be.
Balls and his team deserve credit for moving into territory that more hidebound Labour people must find rather uncomfortable. They now have a plausible set of alternatives to what he poetically calls “the economics of the lunatic farm“: a cut in VAT, the use of the windfall from the forthcoming 4G auction to build 100,000 new homes, the reintroduction of the 10p tax band and more. And as George Osborne’s problems deepen, there’s a sense of the gradual return of the stance Balls took in the so-called Bloomberg speech of 2010, when he asked very prescient questions (”Is it right to be cutting billions of pounds from public services and taking billions of pounds out of family budgets this financial year and next? What will that do to jobs and growth?”). He also argued that any large-scale cuts should materialise “only once growth is fully secured and over a markedly longer period than the government is currently planning”.
Yet something fundamental is still lacking. I was in Peterborough recently, and the mood of dejection was so strong as to feel contagious, crystallised by the obligatory empty shops, forlorn young people looking for dependable work that never comes, and the issue of immigration becoming more divisive than ever. In Newcastle, cuts to social security alone are about to suck an annual £83m out of the city’s economy. And in such blighted places as the south Wales valleys, communities are being laid waste. There are not even the merest green shoots there, nor will there be.
In that context, Labour’s prescriptions feel singularly underdeveloped. Insiders report a strong temptation to let the likes of Cable develop the anti-austerity agenda, so that shadow ministers can avoid taking any real risks. As with just about the entire political class, shadow ministers are prone to fixate on capital spending, but still apparently insist that current spending can take huge hits. This makes their take on the key coalition policies that are so destroying demand and shredding confidence seem conflicted, to say the least. “My starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have keep all these cuts,” Balls said in early 2012, and that position does not seem to have much shifted.
Over the weekend, I spoke to a senior Labour figure whose diagnosis of his party’s big problem was simple enough: “We can’t explain our own argument … there’s a lack of full-throatedness.” He wanted the case against austerity put in terms of “a national mission”.
Ken Loach’s film The Spirit of ‘45 arrives just in time to stoke romantic ideas about what Labour might achieve if only it tried. But its story is bound up with the sole occasion when Labour has felt both confident and radical. As any student of British history could tell you, an equally strong indication of ingrained Labour traits lies in the party’s response to the crash of 1929, when Ramsay McDonald and Philip Snowden stuck to the orthodoxy of balanced budgets, and wound up cutting unemployment benefits and public sector pay. Such, perhaps, was a mindset which some Labour people still cannot shake: the habit of facing an increasingly discredited consensus, but meekly accepting it.
In the age of the focus group, moreover, Labour is paralysed by what people at the top call its “brand problem”: the fact that millions of people have come to associate it with profligacy and waste. Some of that is based in hard fact – but it’s also traceable to that weird interregnum after Gordon Brown had quit and the party fell into a summer-long leadership election. As a result, the coalition was free to implant its antediluvian economics in the public mind, and Labour was incapable of arguing back. Its big figures still live with the legacy of that period, and it sits in the midst of our politics like a dull headache.
The most pressing issue is not about the recent past, but the immediate future. Much as it feels strange to write, there’s a reasonable chance that in three years’ time, Labour might win – a prospect that opens up two possibilities. If you’re optimistic, you might assume that Balls and Ed Miliband would like to revive the logic of the Bloomberg speech. In that case one thing is obvious: they cannot take power and begin the rolling back of austerity without having had the argument in public, and amassing the requisite support. We’ve had one government without a mandate; even if it wanted to do the right thing, another would be a disaster.
And then there is the pessimistic option. If it carries on as it is, the party risks a national version of the tragedies currently being played out in Labour-controlled places all over the country, where councillors wail about Tory cuts and instigate them nonetheless. So 2015 is a date now fraught with danger: will it somehow mark the beginning of the end, or the same basic nightmare, unchanged but for the faces at the top?
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