Fans of Billy Bragg will have two opportunities to see him at the revived Long Division festival in Wakefield this weekend.
The 60-year-old singer-songwriter and political activist performs a concert in Wakefield Cathedral on Saturday; before that (June 1) he’ll be at Wakefield Town Hall with Laura Snapes of The Guardian and Chris Madden, founder of Chinwag for an event called Write Place, Write Time, in aid of the charity MAP which helps young people at risk of exclusion from mainstream education.
Bragg - the ‘Bard of Barking’ - says his process of songwriting hasn’t changed significantly over the last 40 years. “It just works its way out in different ways now,” he says. “In the old days I used to have to sing everything into a big cassette recorder; now I do it on my phone while I’m wandering round.”
He says he’s rarely been one to work to a strict routine. “One of the things that was a really good encouragement to write a song was getting a John Peel session. I can remember having a conversation with Johnny Marr about that, saying ‘I’ve got a Peel session, I’ve got to write two new songs, you can’t play old songs on a Peel session’.
“But I find more often than not when I’m making a record that I focus in on songwriting and I tend to write more songs in that process rather than day to day, whereas I used to connect with it more regularly.”
Bragg didn’t learn to play guitar until he was 16 but had already written a lot of songs and was “keeping the tunes in my head.”
Seeing The Clash on their White Riot tour in 1977 changed a lot for the then 19-year-old Bragg. “I suppose it convinced me that there was something to punk after all. At the time we’d been listening to The Jam and they had a classic early 60s aesthetic, but there was something about punk that I thought was a bit false. Actually seeing The Clash live I realised that a lot of the things I really liked about the Stones and The Who and The Faces were actually deep inside The Clash as well so it kind of got me connected.”
Bragg’s first band, Riff Raff, were influenced by both punk and pub rock. They briefly reformed recently for a gig on Mersea Island, off the south coast of Essex. “It went brilliantly, it was really good fun,” he enthuses.”
Last year Bragg’s second book, Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World, was published by Faber & Faber. He says the likes of Lonnie Donegan were people he only came to appreciate later in life. “The more I learnt about it, it seemed to be similar to my experience of punk rock, I figured there was something interesting going on here.”
He sees a direct relationship between skiffle and punk “on a number of levels”.
“It’s very much a way of a generation declaring their difference to the generation that went before them – in the case of skiffle, it’s our first teenagers. The thing that defines that first generation of kids is playing the guitar, that was something that their parents never did, so I think it has a lot of similarities [with punk].
“The last one is that the first wave of British music that didn’t involve people that played in skiffle bands was punk. Right up until Dr Feelgood and Mott the Hoople people who played in skiffle bands were still breaking through.”
Bragg also released a mini-album last year called Bridges Not Walls. With so many things happening in the political world over the last two or three years, he felt compelled to address some of the issues in song.
Last month he also spoke to the Bank of England. He says he was pleased they invited him. “It’s always good to talk to people outside your own little bubble.
“A lot of us now, particularly with the way social media works, we only talk to people who agree with us. They wanted to hear from someone outside of their circle and it was also a good challenge for me to throw some ideas out for people beyond my group.”
In his speech, Bragg said he found people were more inclined to listen when he talked about wanting a compassionate society rather than a socialist one. He thinks the whole nature of political discourse has changed in recent years.
“When you live in a post-ideological society like we do, compared to, say, the 1980s, the language of Marxism doesn’t really resonate with people any more,” he says. “So you’ve got to find other ways of trying to articulate what you believe in. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing; I think that’s a good thing because it gives us a chance to step out of the shadow of totalitarianism that has become part of the baggage of left-wing ideology.
“Having the opportunity to put that in perspective and get on and make politics for the 21st century I find that is a really interesting challenge.”