Having covered pop and politics in the first two instalments (read part 1 here and part 2 here) of this interview with Billy Bragg, we wrap it up with something personal and some words of warning, or advice, for those no longer in the first flush of youth but planning on going the long haul with this tour’s three-night structure.
But first a little bit of background on the genesis of this unusual tour he’s bringing to Australia and New Zealand in April and May, which he’s already taken around North America. It seems the idea itself for One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, was sparked in Australia.
“The time before I was in Australia with Joe [Henry], when he went home I had a gig in Perth and I had a couple of nights off and they sent me to Adelaide for a gig on a Monday night at the Gov. It was pissing with rain and I thought this could be awful, but in fact it was the night before Anzac Day so the place was packed and everybody was up for it, like it was a Saturday night,” recalls Billy Bragg.
“I didn’t have a set list because I hadn’t done a solo electric show for ages [and] the audience kind of took control of the order and they got me to play as much as I could remember of Brewing Up [With Billy Bragg, his second full album]. With help from them remembering lyrics when I couldn’t, we had so much fun that at one point I said to them, I’m not sure if I’m indulging you or you’re indulging me, but this is good fun.”
Consequently, when he was invited to perform three nights at a commemorative event in Toronto, Canada (and conscious of the fact, as he told me earlier, that “I can’t do those fly in, fly out tours … it totally messes up my voice, it messes me up.”), Bragg decided to expand on that good fun and devised the One Step Forward, Two Steps Back concept. “And it went really well.”
With the first night in each town featuring a spread of songs from beginnings to his most recent work, and the second and third nights given over exclusively to albums 1-3 (Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy; Brewing Up With Billy Bragg; Talking With The Taxman About Poetry) and 4-6 (Workers Playtime; Don’t Try This At Home; William Bloke) respectively, it does give him the chance of course to please multiple parts of his constituency.
You could say everybody’s indulged. Including it must be said, me. I tell him that about 18 months before the woman who is now my wife of more than 30 years started going out with me I made her a mix tape (yes, I know, could I be any more clichéd?) and on that tape was his version of New England, which had been a hit for Kirsty MacColl.
The first gift I gave her, again pre-dating, was Talking With The Taxman…. (The first gift post-starting to date? The Beatles box set – go early, go big eh?) And to top it off, one of the first concerts we went to together was seeing him at Sydney Town Hall, for the first of easily more than 20 Bragg gigs across two continents.
So it’s fair to say that Mr Bragg, has been a significant part of my life, and our lives.
“Wow, I feel a great responsibility for you now, and your partner,” he says, amused and maybe a little perplexed at this confession, but as ever too polite to comment. “About 10 years ago I did a show, again in Adelaide, in the Town Hall, and the Labor Premier wanted to meet me before the show. I thought he wanted to talk politics but in fact he had more or less the same story as you [he giggles].
“It was brilliant. It was just lovely.”
Appropriately, the concept of these One Step Forward, Two Steps Back shows is not just to capture history but to explain how where he is now — with the pamphlets, the encouragement to social engagement, books, the tunes — is a continuation of what he started nearly 40 years ago.
“I guess you’re right. I’ve always thought of myself as basically a communicator: writing a song, doing a gig, writing a book, talking to your readers - I’ve got these ideas. When I was 19 there was only one platform available to me. There wasn’t any of the opportunities that 19-year-olds have now, where you can make a film on your phone,” Bragg says. “Back then no one was interested in what I had to say, unless I learnt to play guitar, write songs and do gigs. Having done that, it gave me the platform then to have my voice heard. And I still feel that way. I haven’t lost that fire.”
The difference now may be that he is making more sensible decisions like not playing 30 shows in 30 towns over 30 nights, carrying his little amp and guitar, and squeezing in any absorption of a city or its culture in the few hours between soundcheck and gig.
“It’s much more interesting to me because I get to wander around,” he says. “I’m always trying to get out of the bloody bubble and this gives me plenty of opportunities to do that.”
That said, he is asking a lot of us to, people of a certain age, who if they’re in for the full journey will have to go out three nights in a row. Three of them. Late nights. School nights. Did I mention in a row?
“And standing up as well. For two hours,” he points out gleefully. “But I’ve got to stand-up too.”
If there is solace then it may come in the hope we are not alone.
“The thing is to get the place so packed that if anyone falls over, they’re cool. Then you got 90 minutes to queue up, give me a hug and get your records signed,” the jovial 62-year-old says.
“It’s a long old night mate, a long old night.”
Billy Bragg plays:
Freo Social, Fremantle, April 24-26
The Gov, Adelaide, April 30-May 2
Croxton, Melbourne, May 6-8
Metro Theatre, Sydney, May 12-14
The Triffid, Brisbane, May 18-20