Meets Billy Bragg in Dublin to talk about his new book on sk­if­fle, the of­ten Bragg, one of Bri­tain’s great protest singers, can’t stop think­ing about the smoul­der­ing Gren­fell

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

Billy Bragg is sit­ting in the bar of a swish bou­tique ho­tel in Dún Laoghaire, glo­ri­ous sum­mer sun­shine and the sparkling Dublin Bay wa­ters out­side. But his mind is quite far away. Gren­fell Tower in Lon­don is a smoul­der­ing ruin and he can’t stop think­ing about it.

“I think it will be a tip­ping point,” he says. “There’s such anger out there about it — and com­pletely jus­ti­fied, too. It’s a sym­bol about the way poor peo­ple have been treated in my coun­try for a very long time. They’ve been treated with con­tempt.

“You can sense that peo­ple want a com­pletely new type of gov­ern­ment — one that’s got some com­pas­sion.”

That same day, Theresa May had turned up at the site of the tragedy, but did not meet griev­ing fam­i­lies, lead­ing many to ques­tion both her pow­ers of em­pa­thy and her lead­er­ship qual­i­ties that had been found to be so lack­ing in the weeks up to the re­cent UK gen­eral elec­tion.

Bragg thinks the Tory leader is on her last legs as PM and was en­thused by the per­for­mance of Jeremy Cor­byn in the elec­tion, de­spite con­sid­er­able ob­sta­cles that had been put in his way.

“Most of the news­pa­pers in the UK were in the May camp and de­monised Cor­byn as best they could,” he says, “but the young peo­ple — the ones who will be most af­fected by Brexit — could see through it and they came out on elec­tion day to sup­port Cor­byn in big numbers, and it was great to see.

“He has en­gaged them in the way that no other politi­cian has done in a long time. You can see that he’s re­ally been em­braced by grime artists, es­pe­cially, and that doesn’t sur­prise me one bit be­cause that’s a genre that does more than most to lift the lid on the in­jus­tices in Bri­tain today.”

Bragg is in Ire­land to speak at the Dalkey Book Fes­ti­val and he’s got a new book to pro­mote. Roots, Rad­i­cals and Rock­ers: How Sk­if­fle Changed the World is a labour of love about an of­ten ma­ligned mu­sic move­ment that burned brightly in Bri­tain for a few years in the 1950s. “It’s been largely for­got­ten about,” he ar­gues, “and yet it’s the bridge to the great mu­sic that came out of Bri­tain in the 1960s. The Bea­tles may have honed their craft in Ham­burg but they had al­ready been schooled in play­ing in front of au­di­ences some years be­fore that [in the sk­if­fle band, the Quar­ry­men].”

Bragg be­came en­gaged by sk­if­fle when he was in the US mak­ing a roots al­bum cen­tred on rail­ways with the great US gui­tarist Joe Henry. “The roots of it go back to the 1850s,” he says, “and it had its mo­ment across the At­lantic in Bri­tain 100 years later.”

Bragg be­lieves sk­if­fle is sig­nif­i­cant for two rea­sons. “It was the first time that teenagers played mu­sic for other teenagers,” he says. “And it ush­ered in the idea that you did not need to have great mu­si­cian­ship to get up and play mu­sic. Of course, that would be echoed 20 years later with punk, but the idea came about in the 1950s.”

There was a DIY as­pect to sk­if­fle that would be re­flected in the punk era, but was es­chewed by the so­phis­ti­ca­tion of the great Bri­tish bands who came to de­fine the 60s. None of them had much time for wash­boards — the crude ‘in­stru­ment’ that be­came pop­u­larised by sk­if­fle — when they were holed up in ex­pen­sive studios with ev­ery whim at their beck and call.

Un­like most other gen­res of mu­sic, sk­if­fle didn’t leave a large body of recorded work.

“Re­mem­ber, many of them were re­ally young and had no ac­cess to record­ing studios and their sound

Cor­byn’s been re­ally em­braced by grime artists, and that doesn’t sur­prise me

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