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Concert Review: Billy Bragg, songs and revolution, pop and politics

By Tara Brabazon - posted Tuesday, 7 October 2003


Play 'Great Leap Forward', you bastard!
-
Fan/heckler, Billy Bragg concert encore, 2003.

The final concert of Billy Bragg's Australian tour was held at Perth's Concert Hall on September 24, 2003. It was the archetypal cold, wet and windy night that the city produces before the stark, scorched summer that stretches out for half the year.

Entering the auditorium from the September chill was an audience composed of (way too) many greying buzz-cuts and sensible shoes. A near-sell out crowd of 40 and 50-somethings came together once more to celebrate the revolution that never was, and commemorate a social democracy that is further away than in Bragg's mid-1980s peak. His band, composed of The Blokes and the legendary Small Faces' keyboardist Ian 'Mac' McLagan, produced such smooth renditions of well-known songs that they almost made Billy Bragg appear cool - at least until he danced. He still moves with the subtlety of a post-it note on a tiled floor. Thankfully, he is one of the great post-punk rhythm guitarists, which gives him something to do with his hands.

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I was among the youngest in the crowd. For me, Bragg's Worker's Playtime album is invested with mid-teen angst and hopes. The singer represented what a man should be: socially just, politically attuned, intelligent and funny. The first time I ever heard of Antonio Gramsci was on the back of a Billy Bragg album. His ability to combine emotion and politics, personal relationships and social change, probably lead into my current career in cultural studies. As an academic rather than a school girl, his concert performance was not only nostalgic but intensely sad. Billy Bragg's music always hot-wires melody to melancholy.

It has been ten years since I have seen Billy Bragg live. In that decade, he has become a better singer and guitarist, and the all-star band provided a luminous backdrop. Hearing those songs, I realised how much we have lost. Two decades ago, Billy Bragg fought a political battle that - even in 1983 - was already lost. Thatcher's victory in the Falkland Islands, which was compounded by "victory" over the miners and the destruction of the coal industry on which Britain was built, signalled an end to a mode of political challenge. Bragg's songs and mid-set monologues offered alternatives in a time of no alternatives. Even now, when the battles of the 1980s have been lost in ways we could not imagine at the time, his words remind us of Hanson and refugees, Howard and the next election.

While the skeletons of songs remain, Bragg's dreams of collective responses to collective troubles are vanquished. Tony Blair's governments provided few effective answers to dense social questions that - put bluntly - require redistribution of resources. Consumerism buys us individuality. Now that the credit card is full, the price we have paid for satiating our acquisitiveness is a wardrobe of clothes we never wear, and refrigerated food we should not eat. The children of the revolution have been fooled.

A pop musician has left a gift to the planet when they produce one song that captures the energy of a time. Billy Bragg has a catalogue of such songs. "Levi Stubbs tears" has a lyric which still creates an absorbed, painful silence from a live audience. It is too real, and depicts a damaged femininity better than any disco diva or celebrity chanteuse. Similarly, in a post-feminist environment, "Sexuality" remains an important song. Emerging from a collaboration with Johnny Marr, it was a crucial anthem to post-AIDS intimacy. The fear triggered by this seemingly unpreventable disease was eased in Bragg's t-shirt slogan lyric:

Safe sex doesn't mean no sex.
It just means use your imagination.

Although still included in the live Perth performance, the band and Bragg could not recapture the energy of "Sexuality" on stage without its post-house rhythm track. This song was a product of dance culture. The reinterpretation from his band into a pseudo-reggae rhythm did not work. This was the only song of the evening to suffer in live performance.

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Bragg's truly influential song is "Waiting for the great leap forward". This much-loved track - and the subject of Perth heckler commentary throughout the evening at the Concert Hall - never moved above 52 on the British charts, but offered one of the finest linkages of pop and politics.

So join the struggle while you may
The revolution is just a T-shirt away.

Billy Bragg made pop political before Clinton's use of Fleetwood Mac or Blair's appropriation of D:ream's anthem. Bragg welded the join, made the audience uncomfortable but created a thinking space for activism and social change through popular culture.

Bad times produce creativity. Consensus creates banality and compliance. Thatcher produced Billy Bragg. Tony Blair summoned Oasis. This contradiction is a significant one. Bragg - even ironically - sang about "A New England". Oasis summoned an Old England of the Beatles, football and pub-soaked masculinity. They produced three-minute pop songs to whistle to but little more.

The Gallagher brothers are not alone. Popular culture is frequently inarticulate. The first rule of journalism is never - ever - interview models. The second rule of journalism is never - ever- interview footballers. Pop stars come in third for their level of inarticulate posturing. That is why Morrissey and Shaun Ryder were so extraordinary, because of their intelligence, humour and wit. But Bragg was always more than a sound bite. During dark times, he revealed a (seemingly) fully developed political agenda.

In Andrew Collins' biography of Bragg, Still Auitable for Miners, the musician made a comment that still resonates: "If someone says to me, what did you do during Thatcherism? My conscience is clear." Perhaps this is the lesson from Billy Bragg. We - his fans - must stop wanting him to stay the same, to maintain the rage, to be Dorian Gray with a guitar. Heroes will always disappoint us when we discover the portrait in the attic. His example of doing all he could when times were hard is the greatest message from popular music. If we stand by and watch injustices in our daily lives - knowing that we could have done more - then we are complicit in making a melody not of our choosing.

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About the Author

Tara Brabazon is the Professor of of Education and Head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University.

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