Billy Bragg: The Million Things That Never Happened
Out on 29th October 2021
Available on all formats
Buy here: Sister Ray
The Million Things That Never Happened, Billy Bragg’s ninth solo album, is released on Cooking Vinyl on 29th October. It’s arguably the Bard of Barking’s most personal, yet relatable album of the esteemed singer/songwriter’s 30-plus year career.
Within minutes of hearing there was a new Billy Bragg album on the horizon, I had ‘pitched’ for it with the Louder Than War editors. If Louder Than War was a school at this point I’d have been the kid at the back of the classroom with my hand thrust in the air, half sitting, half standing, ready to burst, trying to get attention.
In 1984 listening to Billy Bragg changed my life. Like many impressionable teenagers I was still reading Smash Hits but just discovering new bands via Janice Long and Annie Nightingale’s evening shows on Radio 1. The slightly older, cooler kids at school were still listening to The Clash, The Jam/Style Council, Madness, Dexy’s, The Specials etc but their best days were almost all behind them. The Smiths were still to reach their peak; Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Trevor Horn dominated the Top 40 with Relax and Two Tribes and C86 was a long way off even being a figment of a journalists imagination.
Although I had been listening to all of the above it was Billy Bragg that helped me join the dots between what was on the front of the Daily Mirror and the ‘national’ TV news. By the summer holidays, I had graduated to reading the NME and quickly becoming familiar with what was a ‘John Peel band’. While Morrissey was talking to a large percentage of disaffected youth, it was the political words of Bragg that resonated with me initially. It wouldn’t be long though before I could relate to the character in The Saturday Boy; To Have and to Have Not summed up my thoughts as I entered my final year at school, and I quoted lines from A New England in notes and letters to would-be (or rather wouldn’t be) girlfriends.
I’d had an interest in music before, but it was his first albums Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy and Brewing Up With that had the most impact on me. For the first time music spoke to me and what’s more, seeing Billy on The Tube with his portable PA made me realise that you could do it yourself, nothing was off-limits, being a musician, being a writer. He introduced me to the punk ideal that you could do it yourself, you could make things happen. (Not that I did, for a long time.)
I read interviews over and over with the singer in the music press, looking out for bands that had influenced the singer. I began working backwards beginning a lifelong love/obsession with music, taking me back through punk, glam, Motown, soul, The Beatles etc as well as keeping an open mind and ear on the here and now.
Over the years I’ve seen the man in the region of 30 times, and followed his career from those early solo years, to the ‘pop’ years with guest appearances from the likes of Johnny Marr and Kirsty MacColl; through the ‘Woody Guthrie’ era with Wilco; his dalliance with The Blokes and more latterly work with producer Joe Henry. Like any artist, Billy has developed over the years and there have been times when I’ve not always followed the path he’s been on. But I’ve always had a keen eye on what he’s put his name to, such as the Jail Guitar Doors initiative which aimed to provide musical equipment for the use of inmates serving time in prisons, and also funding individual projects such as recording sessions in UK prisons and for former inmates throughout the United Kingdom.
In some circles he may be best known more for his left-leaning politics, appearing on Newsnight or Question Time, for his activism or curating the Leftfield at Glastonbury since 2010, all reasonable ‘entry points’. For me though, first and foremost, he’s one of our greatest songwriters, which is why, when I had the opportunity to put some questions to him I avoided politics as much as I could and focused on his career and music.
But first The Million Things That Never Happened. Although clearly influenced by the events of the last couple of years, it feels like a natural successor to his last full album, 2013’s Tooth and Nail. Produced by The Magic Numbers Romeo Stodart and Dave Izumi at Echo Zoo studio in Eastbourne it’s billed as “the first pandemic blues album of our times but also a heartfelt paean to human resilience.” It features 12 soulful country rock gems, 11 written by Billy himself and the closing Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained, a co-write with his son Jack Valero. The production puts the vocals at front and centre. Those expecting the slightly off-kilter cockney of yesteryear will be disappointed as age has been kind to the singer, his voice seemingly becoming richer with each release.
Across the album we find Billy has been taking stock and reflecting on the events that have and haven’t happened over the last 18 months and how they impact on us all. The opening Should Have Seen It Coming for example works on several levels – relationships, health and global – with the character in the song blindsided because he’s too busy and imaging someone else will sort out everyone’s problems. Then we have Mid-Century Modern, with the singer looking at where he fits in with the world. He explains, “I’m aware that my notions of personal relationships were formed almost fifty years ago, likewise my politics. To cling to that and imagine that you’ve nothing to learn from younger generations, you’re in danger of becoming a dinosaur. Kids have got new priorities and new ideas. Thatcher’s dead. The world has moved on. I’m trying to respond to the things I’m hearing now, rather than reminding folk of ‘the good old days’.”
Good Days and Bad Days sums up what we’ve all been experiencing with the opening “Boring old normal, how attractive it seems, since life came and kicked a great big hole in my dreams”, whilst reflective it does offer hope, with Maisie Rose Skipper and Michele Stodart from The Magic Numbers joining on backing vocals and providing some hope and light at the end of the tunnel. Freedom Doesn’t Come For Free sees the political spirit of Woody Guthrie appear for the first time and is actually based on the book A Libertarian Walks Into A Bear, which Billy read during Lockdown. The song, with its fiddle and banjo, romps along, evoking images of cheery times around a campfire before the closing couplet offers a warning, “Bears don’t always shit in the woods, and freedom doesn’t come for free”.
The title track appears halfway through. It’s a poignant and sombre reminder of occasions and events which have been taken from individuals and families on a global scale. The Buck Doesn’t Stop Here No More then considers the Trump administration, but could equally be applied closer to home, “If history teaches us one thing. Never trust a man who would be king, Who seeks all power for himself. To burnish his prestige and wealth.”
Opening with the lines, “With a bunch of strangers who all share my name I gathered at the graveside in the pouring rain”, Pass It On is a true Billy Bragg classic and one that takes emotions to a new level. As he explains, “You can get facts from the web, but details are priceless and can often only be learned orally from relatives. Yet too many of us rue the fact that we are left to piece together family stories from fragments we recall because we never asked our elders those questions.” As someone who has lost both parents, this rings true. Ancestry is, apparently, the second most-Googled thing after pornography.
The penultimate song on the album was written for his partner. I Will Be Your Shield is another emotional song and, like Pass It On, one many will be able to relate to after the pandemic. After what we’ve all been through, the idea of being a shield, physically, emotionally, psychologically, it should resonate.
Like Billy Bragg albums of old, The Million Things That Never Happened ends on a singalong stomper, just as his debut closed with A New England or Worker Playtime finished with Waiting For The Great Leap Forward. Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained is the most upbeat track on the album and named after clickbait found on YouTube that will take you down a rabbit hole.
So where does it rank? I guess that’s not important really. The more I’ve listened to the album the more I’ve discovered in it and I’ve enjoyed it. I don’t think anyone would expect me to suggest it’s better than anything from that initial run from Life’s A Riot to Workers Playtime, although there are pieces here that would fit justifiably among any ‘best of’. I could argue that it may be more consistent than Mr Love And Justice and Tooth And Nail although I don’t think he’s ever made a ‘bad album. At the end of the day it’s the first new collection of Billy Bragg songs in some years and for that alone, we should all be grateful.
Billy Bragg – Louder Than War Interview
LTW: The Million Things That Never Happened has been delayed by a couple of weeks due to the increase in demands on the vinyl pressing plants. How do you consume your music? Are you a vinyl collector?
BB: I have been an avid vinyl collector in the past, especially on American tours. But having just moved house during the lockdown, I’ve had to downsize my physical formats. I’ve kept most of my vinyl, but it’s all currently in storage and I gave away all my CDs. As I stream most of the music I listen to, the compact discs were just gathering dust. But I still have a record player and hope to liberate some, if not all of my vinyl from storage next year.
The album feels like a classic Billy Bragg album which gets richer the more you listen. Most definitely influenced by the last 18 months and recorded during over a couple of lockdowns, had you planned to release an album in 2021?
I had planned to record an album this year, but I hoped to spend 2020 on the road, trying out tunes in soundchecks and dropping new songs into the set. It didn’t quite work out that way…
Your son Jack plays on the album and receives a co-writing credit on Ten Mysterious Photographs That Can’t Be Explained. Is it true that you got him into playing the guitar by giving him the Rock Band console game?
The difficult thing about starting out on guitar is having to do two totally different things at the same time – strum with one hand and fashion chords with the other. With Rock Band, in order to score points, you have to be able to play in time with the track, using the strum bar. If you’ve been doing that for a year, you instinctively know how to strum in time, so you can concentrate on making chord shapes with your other hand. That’s how our Jack took the first steps to playing guitar.
Over the years you’ve collaborated with so many people, the late, wonderful, Kirstie MacColl, Johnny Marr, Nathalie Merchant, R.E.M, Joe Henry, Wilco… and now Romeo Stodart the Magic Numbers. Do you still keep in touch with those that you can?
I keep in regular touch with some and others I just run into at festivals, but it’s always like we’re old mates catching up.
During lockdown, you began to sell some of the memorabilia, posters, albums, t-shirts etc that you’ve amassed over your career. What sparked this move?
I took the opportunity of the downtime to clear out my basement and found I had around 100+ tee shirts that I had collected from tours going back to the early days. I thought about sending them all to the local charity shop, but they were all closed, so instead, I began putting them on eBay. When I sold them all, I moved on to posters and vinyl. It was logical really. A professional musician has three sources of income: recordings, gigs and merchandise. When the first two are not possible, the third takes on a new importance. It also allowed me to stay engaged with my fans during the lockdown, which certainly helped my state of mind.
Incredibly it’s now 15 years since the comprehensive Billy Bragg boxsets were released with remastered albums and countless unreleased demos and unheard recordings. Did you find any other recording when you were having your clear out?
I did, and I’ve posted a few on the internet. There were some covers that I’d recorded with various members of REM during the sessions for You Woke Up My Neighbourhood and a sporting anthem that I’d written at the behest of the Football Association.
A live Billy Bragg experience works on so many levels, music, humour and enlightenment. How much of your stage-craft was due to your residency at the Tunnel Club, which you’re described as being a ‘baptism of beer’ rather than fire?
I learned a lot about how to get the attention of an audience and hold it at the Tunnel. I was opening for bands on Thursday, Friday and Saturday at different times during my residency and needed to be on my toes between songs to keep them entertained. It’s where I developed the mixture of patter and politics that I still rely on today.
Could the Billy Bragg playing those gigs ever have imagined he would be still playing and releasing albums nearly 40 years later?
I’m as surprised as anyone. I’ve always held that the definition of success is get paid for doing something that you really love and I feel very fortunate to still be able to do that in my sixties.
Thanks to the Internet there is no end of gigs to listen to and live footage of you to watch. One of these is a fantastic recording of you doing an inspired version of John Cooper-Clarke’s Evidently Chickentown in the style of Bob Dylan at a gig in Canada. How did like that come about?
There is something about Evidently Chickentown that reminded me of grotesque street-scapes of Dylan’s Desolation Row, and when I realised that you could sing the words of the former to the tune of the latter, well, it had to be done.
You’ve travelled the world several times over the years. Is there any country you’ve not performed in which you’d like to?
All new countries are exciting, so I’m always interested to visit one. I do have some places where I’d like to play. About ten years ago someone told me about The Edge of the World Music Festival on Haida Gwaii, an island off of the coast of British Columbia in north-western Canada. I’ve been trying to work out how to get there ever since.
Do you have a favourite town/city to play in?
Hamburg is a great city to play in. Always have a good time there. Minneapolis is a fave too.
I saw you over 3 nights of the One Step Forward, Two Steps Back Tour in Manchester in November 2019 with the first 2 nights focusing on the first 6 albums. Were there any songs that had maybe ‘fallen out of favour’ over the years from the earlier albums or ones you rediscovered?
Not so much fallen out of favour – I love them all! – as shifted out of my vocal range. I had to do a lot of clever capo placement in order to sing some of the older songs.
With tracks such as Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards had you thought ‘Oh I can adapt the words as things change’ when you were writing it? Did you expect it to become such a popular sing-along?
I wasn’t thinking about that when I wrote the song, just trying to be topical. Now it’s fun to update the lyrics, although some fans don’t like it because they can’t sing along.
At gigs, fans sing out certain sections of songs with such passion, for example, lines from A New England, Saturday Boy and Greetings To The New Brunette especially “How can you lie there and think of England when you don’t even know who’s in the team”. Are there any particular lines that you’re written you are especially proud of or stand out?
I’m quite proud of “Most important decisions in life, Are made between two people in bed” from Must I Paint You A Picture
When was the moment you realised you’d gone beyond just being a ‘singer-songwriter and were educating individuals around the world through your music and lyrics?
I feel it’s more about offering people a different perspective on the world and its place in it. That’s what I’ve got from the best music I heard as a teenager and I’ve sought to live up to that idea throughout my career
You often get pigeonholed for being very political, however as a songwriter the majority of your songs are about love or human experiences. Does it frustrate you that people focus on the ‘political tag’ rather than see you as a talented lyricist?
My career as an artist has been defined by that political tag and while I’m happy to take on that mantle, I do recognise that it can be limiting if people who have never really engaged with my work only know that about me. It prevents them from hearing the more emotional songs that make up the majority of my output.
There have been times in your career where you’ve taken some time out, most notably between 1992 and 1996 (enforced partly by appendix issues); and then 2002 and 2013 (although you did write The Progressive Patriot and release 3 albums during this time as well). Was it a conscious decision to step away from the spotlight as a performer? Were you still writing new material at the time?
The 1992/96 gap was deliberate. Our son was born in 1993 and I wanted to be as present as possible in the early years of his life. 2002-2013 was more of a natural easing off. After 20 years of doing this job, the interest that media and the public have in you is bound to wane and it’s best to accept that the pace of things will slacken and to use the space to try some other things, such as writing a book
As well as The Progressive Patriot you’ve written Roots, Radicals and Rockers and The Three Dimensions of Freedom. How did you find the move to becoming an author? Is there a different discipline/work ethic to writing an album?
It’s very different. With an album, you’re recording snapshots that don’t need to have a connecting theme. With a book, you’re seeking to create a narrative that engages the reader and carries them through to the end of the story. I found the first one, The Progressive Patriot, really hard, mostly because I went at it 24/7, much to the dismay of my partner and son, who got fed up with me talking about nothing else. With Roots, Radicals & Rockers, I instigated a writing method that was much more conducive to family life by limiting my writing to strict times every day.
Has Andrew Collins been in touch yet about planning the sixth revision of Still Suitable For Miners (biography of Billy Bragg originally published in 1998 but most recently updated in 2018) to cover ‘the COVID Years’?
Not yet, but if I know Andrew, it will only be a matter of time. He’s done a great job over the years, updating my story and saving me from having to write an autobiography!
Last 3 questions
You’ve talked about your love of hobnobs for their dunk-ability. Have you tried the ‘Malty Biscuit’ version of Yorkshire Tea which has that post dunk taste from the off?
I haven’t to be honest, but it sounds like the kind of thing I might be able to find when I’m out on the road in October/November
Is there any chance that the Riff Raff compilation may be rereleased? Record Store Day 2022?
The last gig I did was a Riff Raff re-union at Dingwalls in London in February 2019, to celebrate Wiggy’s 60th birthday. There was some talk of a Riff Raff released for RSD, but it may have to wait until 2023 given the current crisis in vinyl manufacture.
Impossible question, what are your Top 3 favourite songs?
That is indeed an impossible question and annoyingly, for my other piece of promo today I’ve got to come up with nine favourite songs for another music outlet. That is going to be much less fun than answering your questions!