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Billy Bragg: Legendary British Rocker on Norway Attacks, Activism & His Latest, “Never Buy The Sun”

Plus, the News of the World scandal.
 
 
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We spend the hour with legendary British rocker and activist, Billy Bragg. His music career began in the late 1970s in London when he formed the punk rock band Riff Raff. His 1984 album, "Brewing Up with Billy Bragg," included the song "It Says Here,” a critique of politics and tabloid newspapers that still rings true today in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. In 1998 and 2000, he participated in two well-known albums — Mermaid Avenue, Volumes 1 and 2 — that gave voice to another folk troubadour who sang about the poor and working class: Woody Guthrie. Bragg composed music for lyrics written by Guthrie, and performed many of the songs alongside the album’s other main contributor, Wilco. But to speak of Bragg simply as a singer-songwriter misses his passion for speaking out against injustice, and fighting for many causes. In the 1980s, he called for support for the 1984 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers, one of the most significant chapters in Britain’s trade union history. It was ultimately defeated under the watch of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Bragg went on to organize for the defeat of Thatcher and her Conservative government. He is on tour now in the United States and joins us for an extended interview and performance. He reflects on his long history of activism and the attacks in Norway, and sings several songs, including his latest, "Never Buy The Sun," about the phone-hacking scandal engulfing the Rupert Murdoch media empire.

 

AMY GOODMAN: Today we spend the hour with legendary British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. His music career began in the late ’70s in London when he formed the punk rock band Riff Raff. One of his early records, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, released in 1984, included the song "It Says Here," a critique of politics and tabloid newspapers that still rings true today in the wake of the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. This is an excerpt from his 1984 performance of the song on BBC Breakfast Time.

BILLY BRAGG: [singing] It says here that this year’s prince is born

It says here do you ever wish that you were better informed

And it says here that we can only stop the rot

With a large dose of law and order and a touch of the short sharp shock

If this does not reflect your view you should understand

Those who own the papers also own this land

And they’d rather you agree with Coronation Street capers

In the war of circulation, it sells newspapers

Could it be an infringement of the freedom of the press

To print pictures of women in states of undress

When you wake up to the fact that your paper is Tory

Just remember, there are two sides to every story.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of Billy Bragg performing "It Says Here" in 1984. Also in the '80s, Billy Bragg released Between the Wars and Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, his first Top 10 album. On 1988's The Internationale, he recorded a version of the socialist anthem of the same name. In 1998 and 2000, Bragg participated in two well-known albums that gave voice to another folk troubadour who sang about the poor and working class. On Mermaid Avenue Volumes I and II, Bragg composed music for lyrics written by Woody Guthrie, and performed many of the songs alongside the album’s other main contributor, the band Wilco.

But to speak of Bragg simply as a singer-songwriter misses his passion for speaking out and singing out against injustice and fighting for many causes. In the '80s, he called for support for the 1984 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers, or [NUM]. The strike was one of the most significant chapters in Britain's trade union history, and ultimately defeated under the watch of then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Billy Bragg went on to organize for the defeat of Thatcher and her Conservative government, a fight he continues into the present, as well as many others.