There were six of us sitting around a table in the Rising Sun pub on Tottenham Court road in London last Saturday night, me – and a random bunch of mates – collected together to see the Billy Bragg ‘Hope not Hate’ fundraising gig at ULU. An Irish Brit, a couple of Italian Brazilians, a Chinese South African, and an Asian Brit – an appropriate mix of friends for a gig focused on racism and the threat that the British National Party will extend their slimy tentacles further into local government at the next election.
Billy was in good form. Opening with some old-school ‘Lovers town revisited’ and straight into some socialism of the heart with ‘Upfield’. He then gave one of his familiar riffs on socialism, but focused on trying to keep all shades of the left onside with the anti-BNP message: “It’s going to be a fight that’s takes place mostly in East London. Those of you who have been doing this since the twentieth century know that there is not just one shade of socialism. It’s the same with nationalism. There are many different types of nationalism, and there are many different types of patriotism.”
Billy gave a passionate tribute to the former Labour party leader Michael Foot: “He was a great orator and a great anti-fascist. He reminded us constantly of our tradition. What must we do when we lose people like Michael Foot? We ourselves must renew the tradition…” As the crowd cheered he blasted into a raucous version of the digger’s anthem ‘World turned upside down’.
This being an anti-BNP fundraiser for Hope not Hate, most of Billy’s riffs between songs were focused on racism and the fascist nature of the BNP. He implored the audience to help take the fight to Barking and Dagenham, where the BNP are directing their electoral guns: “I want us to plug into the great anti-fascist tradition that lives on in this country, which we need to wake up and to take to Barking and Dagenham, but we need to push on past the fascists and to deal with the bankers and capitalists in the same sweep, to change this country and the priorities of this country away from the free market and back to individual freedom… It’s a big task, but all of us working together, we can beat the fascists and if we can beat them in Barking and Dagenham then we can beat them anywhere!” Naturally, Billy showcased his new song ‘Last flight to Abu Dhabi’, an anthem against the bankers who caused the global financial collapse featuring the line: “Jonty was a banker, he made a lot of cash, betting on derivatives, he helped to cause the crash…”
Billy was focused on a single issue for this gig and so the emphasis shifted somewhat from his regular gigs – though he always talks about his inspiration at the ‘rock against racism’ Clash gig in 1978, and he was playing his Joe Strummer Telecaster all evening. At this gig he urged the audience to make this concert their own rock against racism experience.
The one faint criticism (from my part) is that Billy included several songs from the ‘England, Half English’ album into this set. This was an album of songs focused on identity so it was only natural for him to include a few at a gig focused on racism, but it’s probably his weakest album. I know he rarely plays these songs at regular gigs, and I had this conversation with a ‘Hope not Hate’ T-shirt vendor, but the T-shirt man convinced me that the aim of the gig made it all worthwhile anyway. And with gems like ‘Milkman’ and ‘Between the wars’ included in this set, I think he was probably right.