Maligned music movement of the 1950s. But Tower and seismic political shifts back home
evolved by the time they came to recording anything. And some of them were a bit dismissive of it later, simply because they didn’t want to think about the sort of songs they had written when they were 14 or 15. I’m not sure I’d want anyone to hear what kind of music I was doing then.” The book focuses on the genre’s most successful proponent, Lonnie Donegan. Music historians often dismiss Donegan as a novelty act — he topped the charts in 1960 with ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’, a fact that does not help his cause — but Bragg insists that he was a proto-rock star who was enormously influential. “For a time, he was up there with Elvis and Tommy Steele,” he says. “I spoke to Van Morrison for the book, and he told me what an impact Donegan had had on him when he was a boy of 12 or 13.” Years ago, shortly before Donegan died, Bragg got to meet him. He was in the company of the late BBC DJ John Peel, and was struck by how awed Peel was of the aging star. “He was silent for much of the meeting and told me later just how much Donegan had meant to him. When you hear people like John Peel talk of another so reverentially it makes you want to really discover them, and Donegan was a very significant figure. He doesn’t get the credit he deserves.” Bragg, who turns 60 later this year, was born in 1957 in Essex at the height of skiffle’s popularity, although it would be many years before the genre had an impact on him. He was in his late teens when punk came along. Attending a Clash gig in 1977 would be an epiphanic moment as he saw how effective it would be to articulate rage in song. He’s been doing that ever since the release of his politically charged debut album Life’s a Riot With Spy Vs Spy, even if he’s sometimes known by that damning sobriquet, Songwriter’s Songwriter. The night before we meet, Bragg had been in London to unveil a plaque to David Bowie outside Trident, the studio where both Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars were recorded.
Bragg bought both those albums shortly after they came out in the early 1970s and he would soon be besotted by a third Bowie album, Aladdin Sane. “One of the great things about him was that he showed the world what masculinity could be,” he says. “You didn’t have to be a rugby player, you didn’t have to be Charlie George [an Arsenal footballer from the 1970s]. You could be yourself, or what they used to say in the schoolyard back then, ‘A bit bent’. Bowie was his own man and the music... well the music was great, wasn’t it?”
Despite his book on skiffle, Bragg says he does not like to be nostalgic about the past, but talk of Bowie has got him to lament one thing about modern culture. “Music isn’t to the forefront for kids the way it used to be,” he says. “It used to be all-encompassing, because for many it was music or nothing. Today, there’s an abundance of choice and music has been squeezed.”
But he says his passion for new music remains as charged today as it was when he first picked up an electric guitar. “I don’t want to be one of those old guys talking about how everything was so much better in my day and, anyway, people have rose-tinted specs on when they think of the past. “Today, you’ve all these people talking about how great Abba were, but many didn’t see that at the time. I’ll admit that ‘SOS’ is an incredible song, but a lot of it was disposable pop. There’s great music out there today. You just have to be willing to try a little
harder to find it.”