Billy Bragg Writes

Billy Bragg posted this on Sunday, a powerful and fantastically well written piece about Morrissey and his dangerous association with the far right, white supremacist propaganda and racist ideology (also taking in Stormzy, Brandon Flowers, Johnny Marr, Donald Trump, Rita Tusingham, The Smiths and culture generally). I can’t find anything in it to disagree with.

Last Sunday, while much of the British media were lauding Stormzy’s Glastonbury headline show as epoch defining, Morrissey posted a white supremacist video on his website, accompanied by the comment ‘Nothing But Blue Skies for Stormzy…The Gallows for Morrissey’. The nine minute clip lifted footage from the grime star’s Pyramid Stage performance while arguing that the British establishment are using him to promote multiculturalism at the expense of white culture.
The YouTube channel of the video’s author contains other clips expressing , among other things, homophobia, racism and misogyny – left wing women of colour are a favourite target for his ire. There are also clips expounding the Great Replacement Theory, a far right conspiracy trope which holds that there is a plot of obliterate the white populations of Europe and North America through mass immigration and cultural warfare.
My first thought was to wonder what kind of websites Morrissey must be trawling in order to be able to find and repost this clip on the same day that it appeared online? I came home from Glastonbury expecting to see some angry responses to his endorsement of white supremacism. Instead, the NME published an interview with Brandon Flowers in which the Killers lead singer proclaimed that Morrissey was still “a king”, despite being in what Flowers recognised was “hot water” over his bigoted comments.
As the week progressed, I kept waiting for some reaction to the white supremacist video, yet none was forthcoming. Every time I googled Morrissey, up would pop another article from a music website echoing the NME’s original headline: ‘The Killers Brandon Flowers on Morrissey: ‘He’s Still A King’. I’m well aware from personal experience how easy it is for an artist to find something you’ve said in the context of a longer discourse turned into an inflammatory headline that doesn’t reflect your genuine views on the subject at hand, but I have to wonder if Flowers really understands the ramifications of Morrissey’s expressions of support for the far right For Britain Party?
As the writer of the powerful Killers song ‘Land of the Free’, does he know that For Britain wants to build the kind of barriers to immigration that Flowers condemns in that lyric? Party leader Anne Marie Walters maintains ties with Generation Identity, the group who both inspired and received funds from the gunman who murdered 50 worshippers at a Christchurch mosque. How does that sit with the condemnation of mass murder by lone gunman in ‘Land of the Free’?
As an explicitly anti-Muslim party, For Britain opposes the religious slaughter of animals without the use of a stun gun, a policy that has given Morrissey a fig leaf of respectability, allowing him to claim he supports them on animal welfare grounds. Yet if that is his primary concern, why does he not support the UK’s Animal Welfare Party, which stood candidates in the recent European elections?
mong their policies, the AWF also aim to prohibit non-stun slaughter. If his only interest was to end this practice, he could have achieved this without the taint of Islamophobia by endorsing them. They are a tiny party, but Morrissey’s vocal support would have given the animal rights movement a huge boost of publicity ahead of the polls.
Instead, he expresses support for anti-Muslim provocateurs, posts white supremacist videos and, when challenged, clutches his pearls and cries “Infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me”. His recent claim that “as a so-called entertainer, I have no rights” is a ridiculous position made all the more troubling by the fact that it is a common trope among right-wing reactionaries.
The notion that certain individuals are not allowed to say certain things is spurious, not least because it is most often invoked after they’ve made their offensive comments. Look closely at their claims and you’ll find that what they are actually complaining about is the fact that they have been challenged.
The concept of freedom pushed by the new generation of free speech warriors maintains that the individual has the right to say whatever they want, whenever they want, to whoever they want, with no comeback. If that is the definition of freedom, then one need look no further than Donald Trump’s Twitter feed as our generation’s beacon of liberty. Perhaps Lady Liberty should be replaced in New York Harbour with a colossal sculpture of the Donald, wearing a toga, holding a gaslight.
Worryingly, Morrissey’s reaction to being challenged over his support of For Britain, his willingness to double down rather than apologise for any offence caused, suggests a commitment to a bigotry that tarnishes his persona as the champion of the outsider. Where once he offered solace to the victims of a cruel and unjust world, he now seems to have joined the bullies waiting outside the school gates.
As an activist, I’m appalled by this transformation, but as a Smiths fan, I’m heartbroken.
It was Johnny Marr’s amazing guitar that drew me to the band, but I grasped that Morrissey was an exceptional lyricist when I heard ‘Reel Around the Fountain’. Ironically, it was a line that he had stolen that won my affections. “I dreamt about you last night and I fell out of bed twice” is spoken by Jimmy, the black sailor, to his white teenage lover, Jo, in Sheila Delaney’s play ‘A Taste of Honey’
The 1961 movie, starring Rita Tushingham was an early example of a post-war British society that would embrace multi-racial relationships (and homosexuality too). By pilfering that particular line for the song, Morrissey was placing the Smiths in the great tradition of northern working class culture that may have been in the gutter, but was looking at the stars. Yet, by posting a white supremacist video in which he is quoted as saying “Everyone prefers their own race”, Morrissey undermines that line, erasing Jo and Jimmy and all those misfit lovers to whom the Smiths once gave so much encouragement.
A week has passed since the video appeared on Morrissey’s website and nothing has been written in the media to challenge his position. Today it was reported that research by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a UK based anti-extremist organisation, reveals that the Great Replacement Theory is being promoted so effectively by the far right that it is entering mainstream political discourse.
That Morrissey is helping to spread this idea – which inspired the Christchurch mosque murderer – is beyond doubt. Those who claim that this has no relevance to his stature as an artist should ask themselves if, by demanding that we separate the singer from the song, they too are helping to propagate this racist creed’.
Johnny Marr’s set at Glastonbury seemed to be, at least partly, an artist and a crowd revelling in reclaiming those songs from the damage the lyricist has done to their memory, a celebration of outside culture and what The Smiths meant- Bigmouth Strikes Again, There Is A Light And It Never Goes Out- and what they can still mean. But still, with every sentence Billy writes above, the songs are tarnished further.

This re-edit of How Soon Is Now by Maceo Plex will probably annoy the purists but would I imagine sound pretty great chucked into the midst of a DJ set, possibly pitched down a tad. Can’t imagine Morrissey’s a fan.

Worker’s Playtime

May Day is a worker’s holiday, first established in the UK in 1978. In 1988 Billy Bragg gave us his most perfect song, Waiting For The Great Leap Forward, a song written from personal experience of an 80s vision of revolution, benefit gigs, fanzines, activism and t-shirts. Billy is a wordsmith but words can be easily missed if the music isn’t good enough. Thankfully Waiting… has a tune good enough to complement the lyrics. I could try to pick the bones out of the lyrics and give some analysis but they’re best presented as you hear them, as a rush of Billy’s thoughts, scribbled on the back of a beer mat…

‘It may have been Camelot for Jack and Jacqueline
But on the Che Guevara highway filling up with gasoline
Fidel Castro’s brother spies a rich lady who’s crying
Over luxury’s disappointment
So he walks over and he’s trying
To sympathize with her but he thinks that he should warn her
That the Third World is just around the corner

In the Soviet Union a scientist is blinded
By the resumption of nuclear testing and he is reminded
That Dr. Robert Oppenheimer’s optimism fell
At the first hurdle
In the Cheese Pavilion and the only noise I hear
Is the sound of someone stacking chairs
And mopping up spilt beer
And someone asking questions and basking in the light
Of the fifteen fame filled minutes of the fanzine writer
Mixing pop and politics he asks me what the use is
I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses
While looking down the corridor
Out to where the van is waiting
I’m looking for the great leap forwards
Jumble sales are organised
And pamphlets have been posted
Even after closing time there’s still parties to be hosted
You can be active with the activists
Or sleep in with the sleepers
While you’re waiting for the great leap forwards
One leap forward, two leaps back
Will politics get me the sack?
Here comes the future and you can’t run from it
If you’ve got a blacklist I want to be on it
It’s a mighty long way down rock ‘n roll
From Top of the Pops to drawing the dole
If no one seems to understand
Start your own revolution and cut out the middleman
In a perfect world we’d all sing in tune
But this is reality so give me some room
So join the struggle while you may
The revolution is just a tee shirt away
Waiting for the great leap forwards’
Have a good bank holiday everyone.

There’s A Lot Of Nice Places To See Out There

Stepping backwards in time from yesterday’s Balearic Charlatans remix to a song from Liverpool in 1986 that found its way into DJ Alfredo’s record box in Ibiza and the terrace at the Cafe del Mar with his guiding philosophy of ‘if it sounds good, play it’. Driving Away From Home (Jim’s Tune) was a single from It’s Immaterial, a Liverpool band with a Mancunian at the helm (John Campbell) and Henry Priestman of The Christians involved on keyboards. The song is perfect mid-80s synth-pop with acoustic guitars and a semi- spoken vocal, not a million miles from the Pet Shop Boys. Driving Away From Home was a UK hit (number 18) and popped up on adverts and compilations and TV shows but don’t let that take anything away from it.

One of my favourite aspects of the song is the attempt to write a British road trip song, something that on the face of it is an American thing. ‘Why don’t we cross the city limit, and head on down the M62, it’s only thirty nine miles and forty five minutes to Manchester’ John says, and goes on to tell the driver ‘all you’ve got to do is put your foot hard down to the floor, we can call on people I know in Newcastle or maybe in Glasgow’. See also Billy Bragg’s A13 (Trunk Road To The Sea).

Driving Away From Home (Wicked Weather For Walking)

It’s Wrong To Wish On Space Hardware

Billy Bragg’s A New England, thirty years old right now, is one of the great lyrics of the latter part of the Twentieth Century. I know, a ridiculous claim, but there you go. The first verse has that almost nonsensical opening couplet about being 21 when he wrote the song but 22 now and the girls he knew at school who have already outpaced him age-wise and growing up-wise followed by the one half-rhyming pedestal and the pill. After the chorus ‘I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, just looking for another girl’- there’s the brilliant verse combining the Cold War space race, shooting stars, wishing and unrequited love which is pure post-punk poetry…

I saw two shooting stars last night
I wished on them but they were only satellites
Is it wrong to wish on space hardware
I wish, I wish, I wish you’d care

The sparseness of Billy’s rapidly strummed electric guitar adds to the early 80s lonesomeness. It may not be his best song but I don’t think he’s ever written a better lyric. He may have matched it but he’s not bettered it.

Kirsty MacColl’s cover version, below, is different- not better, not worse, different. Fuller, with a biggish pop production by husband Steve Lillywhite and two additional verses written for her by Billy. Number 7 in the pop charts in 1984.

A New England

There Will Be A Reckoning

Billy Bragg’s album of this year (Tooth And Nail) has some good songs on it- this is one of them- and has some of the political bite and ire of his former work.

There Will Be A Reckoning

There’s something about the album as a whole that doesn’t quite work for me- a bit too one paced, a bit too samey. Maybe that’s just down to me and a lack of concentration over full albums nowadays, especially ones that don’t have too much sonic variety. But then not every lp can or should have dub, krautrock and free jazz spilling into it’s grooves can it?

Every Time I Switched On The Radio There Was Somebody Else Singing A Song About The Two Of Us

I think Billy Bragg has noted this himself and most Bragg fans too but his back catalogue contains more love songs than political songs, but still he is labelled as a political artist. This song, Walk Away Renee from the mid 80s, is one of his best loved love songs- originally by 60s group The Left Banke, Bragg cajoled tour mate Johnny Marr into playing the guitar and then wrote new lyrics for it, and performed them spoken word style. And what a set of lyrics they are, skewering the rush of  young love and the turmoil of break up.

‘She said it was just a figment of speech
And I said ‘No, you mean figure’
And she said ‘No, figment’
Because she could never imagine it happening
But it did’

Then we get Billy playing the shy boy, which works in terms of getting her attention, but when she speaks to him the first time he gets a nosebleed and ‘she guessed the rest’. The pair go out, get the ferry and when no one collects their fares Billy knows this will be something special- a free ride signifying the blossoming of love and then the radio keeps playing songs about him and her. Like it does. He compares the start of a love affair to a fairground ride, scary and a rush and wanting it to never stop- which is a cliche, and we know it’s a cliche and Billy knows it as well. One of those cliches people falling in love use. Meanwhile Johnny picks away gently and unobtrusively.

Of course it goes wrong as these often things do- she starts seeing someone else. He sees her in the car park with Mr Potato Head (pre-Toy Story this). Car parks -ordinary, prosaic places where nothing happens and where things go wrong in people’s lives. Potato Head puts his coat around her shoulders. Later that night Billy can’t get them out of his head…

‘…I thought about the two of them together
Until the bathwater went cold around me
I thought about her eyes and the curve of her breasts
And about the point where their bodies meet.’

Torment in a rented flat. Head going round and round. Stupid Mr Potato Head and his coat, and them… at it. Sometime later he confronts her- it doesn’t go well, and Billy chucks in another great one liner about being the most ‘illegible batchelor in town’ and she laughs at him and we laugh with him. And then suddenly, as the loss of love builds and jealousy and heartbreak are about to consume him, everything changes, love and infatuation die; Billy plays his trump card lyrically, and the fire burning in him is doused by a massive bucket of cold water…

‘And then one day it happened
She cut her hair and I stopped loving her’

Truly top stuff. I heard it again recently out of nowhere and it was as good as the first time even though I knew what was coming.

Walk Away Renee

Mother Russia

To Pussy Riot from Billy Bragg