Last night I had the pleasure of meeting Billy from the socialist rhythm and blues band Thee Faction, described in their own words as ‘blistering, unpleasant, socialist RnB’ and by the Guardian as ‘bringing down the Tories, one song at a time’.
To say I was nervous about meeting an explicitly political band that don’t give interviews to the shareholder-owned capitalist press is an understatement, but I managed an interview, half a pint of Hobgoblin and a rousing hour of song. Here’s what happened when (in his own words) ‘an old socialist bastard’ shared a sofa in the back room of the Railway Hotel with ‘this DIY socialist blogger’. I’m in italics, if you needed that pointing out…
I saw a piece about you guys in the local paper a few days ago, saying that you’re too socialist to give interviews to the capitalist press and I was like ‘ooh this is good, this is really good.’ I want to talk to these guys, a socialist-to-socialist tete-a-tete, you know?
It was partly a bit of a laugh at Pileys (Ian Pile’s) expense. When we first came down here he said that the press wanted to speak to us, and I was just flippantly like: ‘Oh we don’t speak to the capitalist press!’ But I’ll copy in his message about you to me, the – ‘I know you don’t speak to the capitalist press but there’s this DIY socialist blogger , check it out…’ And it is, I love your blog, it’s really good. It’s what a blog would have looked like in the thirties…
Well I started it as one of our former Tory Councillors was on the front page of the local paper in February saying that ‘druggies, drunks and single mums were ruining our town’ – I sat bolt upright and went ‘you fucking what?’ and sent a letter off to the paper saying that when General Haigs incompetence and Neville Chamberlains dithering appeasement created an entire generation of single mothers, nobody demonised them then. I got a great response, and I thought I’d better start writing…
It’s an extraordinary phenomenon. Where I live is a working class area (Heathrows satellite town, Staines) but it’s completely bloody Tory. Every councillor, every MP – and it’s the same here, in those little pockets of Essex, where the working class associate themselves with the Tories because they don’t want to be seen as being grubby or failures, they want to be seen as having achieved something. Like Steptoe Senior, beautifully satirised by Gordon and Simpson. ‘I’m a capitalist’ he says, ‘I’m a business owner, I don’t want anything to do with the unions destroying the country.’ My dad and my granddad were exactly like that, as working class as they can be but they always voted Tory. It’s fucking unbelievable. Anyway, off we go. We’ve established our credentials, let’s get started!
Yes, can we start with a little background for the uninformed, those who don’t know who and what you are?
We are pretty much the only socialist rhythm and blues bands in Britain. We’d like there to be more socialist rhythm and blues bands in Britain…
And why are you here?
We are very fond of playing at the Railway in Southend. We believe that the only other socialist rhythm and blues band is Eight Rounds Rapid (also playing the same evening).
So what do you do?
First and foremost we’re not a band, and we’re not musicians. We’re socialist first and foremost. Because we played in bands when we were younger we believe that’s the best thing that we can do to promote socialism. Unlike most bands of the Left in the past and musicians of the Left, and artists that consider themselves counter-culture, a lot of what they do is to just protest. What we do is offer solutions.
Do you put people like Billy Bragg in that category, people with protest songs?
Yes. And we don’t offer protest songs, we offer solution songs, which is why our stuff is quite jolly and you can dance to it.
More like the joyful, hopeful side of socialism?
Yes exactly, because we’re here to promote socialism. There’s a tradition in kind of right wing music, and let’s take the example of Mumford and Sons, where art promotes the status quo. Its therapeutic, it’s background, it’s a good night out. Its headlining at Glastonbury, let’s all sing along. But art is a hammer, not a mirror, and artists should criticise.
I’ve got a very well honed theory about this but it’s only a theory. In Britain, because of the sixties and partially because of the Beatles, we see pop music, because we invented it – the Americans invented rhythm n blues, jazz, rockabilly – but we added that art school sensibility to it, the musical sensibility. So if you take American traditional music, combine it with the art school tradition and the music tradition, you get pop music. Therefore we believe in Britain that pop music is a branch of art, whereas Americans regard it as showbusiness, it’s a branch of commerce. In Britain, and in England particularly, we tend to dress it up as art. If it is art, it’s got to be a hammer, not a mirror. And that’s the way that British pop music is sold to the public; it’s got to have the association with something cool, something arty, and edgy and left field. Mumford and Sons are the perfect example of that. They’ve taken a banjo, they’ve taken a folk thing, and written a load of really stupid, melody free songs that have just a suggestion of edge. It’s not the fact that they’re middle class that makes me hate them, because the middle class should join us. George Orwell, GDH Cole, these people were middle class, and they had the time to join us and help us, and what Mumford and Sons are doing is working against us by selling a lifestyle of that shabby chic Shoreditch hipster shit.
Which is just.. false. In the same vein as poverty tourism. It’s the whole, it’s a bit cool to recycle, it’s a bit cool to look poor, it’s fun. But actually, when it’s your only option as a way of fucking life, it’s not cool. You just get on with it, and Mumford and Sons go back to their trailers and drink champagne while they sing about your life for millions of pounds.
I can usually understand why successful therapeutic bands are so, if they’re skilful at music as an interactive art form, and they get everyone to sing along. But Mumford and Sons make me very hostile, exactly because of what you said. The ‘image’ in inverted commas that they promote is just so very very false. Nicky Wire, of the Manic Street Preachers, recently said that music is not a gap year. It seems to be those with time on their hands that can afford instruments and can afford vans to take them round; pop music with guitars has become a way of the middle classes meeting each other and getting off with each other, and that’s the trouble with us being really old, because we don’t see pop music as that. We see pop music as a way of attacking the hegemony. Now is the absolute time to do it, and that’s why we reformed.
When did you reform?
We reformed in 2010, just before the general election, because we could see what was coming.
And a lot of your songs are about economic failure, protesting against it, and how much generally it’s all fucking up. Are you writing new material at the moment?
Yes. It’s also about posing the alternatives to capitalism. We know who our enemy is now.
So why choose music as your medium?
In all wars, one traditionally marches into battle with music, with a marching band or to improve morale with a comradely singsong, so why not the class war? The class war has got to have a marching band as well?
So what do you sing about?
Well if we sing about specific situations pertinent to our time then our music will date quickly, this is the struggle. We didn’t start a class war, but we’re here to end it.
So what is your solution? Don’t we just need a big f**king revolution that’s a bit more than smashing a few windows in Fortnum and Mason?
Of course – I think all revolutions, as Trotsky said, all revolutions are impossible until they become inevitable.
Are we not on the cusp of inevitability now?
I don’t think we are immediately, but I think that we are now understanding how the economics of capitalism work. For the first time in my lifetime, we are talking about economics. When we were younger, and we were struggling against Thatcher, we were fighting against closure. We understood that she was turning everybody into an individual and she was attacking working class sensibilities and working class sense of identity. We knew what she was doing and we failed to stop that. Everybody bought shares, bought their Council houses, and we failed. The reason we are succeeding now is that people are talking about it. People are talking about debt, for example. People are talking about it.
Do you think people are more politically and economically aware than they were?
I think they’re economically aware. I don’t think that they’re politically aware. I think we are in a political age, and that’s what I think is really exciting. We’re in an age where political debate is finally a part of everyday life.
Yes, I think people are waking up and starting to understand. As Gandhi said, a man who says he is not interested in politics is like a drowning man who says he has no interest in the water. I think people are starting to understand that politics – not Westminster, but everyday politics – underpins and undermines everything that we do day to day.
Yes, and politicians has become a dirty word. The new album we have been recording recently is called ‘Good Politics’ and it’s about promoting socialism, about promoting good politics. You’re right, politics isn’t Westminster, it isn’t capitalism, it’s everything that you do. Which is why we tend to play events like this. We play Marxism Today, we play for the SWP, we play at events where we are improving morale for the comrades. We try to stop the comrades from arguing with each other, which is always a problem with the left. The reason that people do that – at risk of sounding like a patronising old bastard – is that we tend to erase all that annoys us and remove all the Tories from our lives, and then because we’re argumentative bastards and we like to do lots of reading and talking, we turn on each other.
I keep a few Tories in my friends circle just to take my rage out on every now and again. It beats shouting at the telly, and of course, you have to hone your arguments.
Yes, you need to know the arguments. If you convert one of them, then your life has been worthwhile.
A bit like evangelical Christianity, you can just educate and convert them on at a time. Make it your mission to save them, one at a time.
There’s a lot of similarities. I think there’s a certain amount of evangelical fervour, but in the fun way.
So, a socialist education through music and evangelism? Don’t we need enough people to just be angry enough to take to the streets and mean it? I mean, we have a day of riots, and then it all goes away. A day of strikes, and then we all go back to work. Another march, and before it’s over they’re sweeping it all up and fixing broken windows and everything goes back to normal. And this isn’t normal – this demonization of the poor and the workers and the disabled and the elderly isn’t normal – but we’ve accepted it as normal. Where’s the fucking revolution?
Well, news needs conflict, which is why football makes good news or political debate makes good news. And with user-generated content, phone-ins, Twitter, Question Time, you as the public are invited to take sides in that debate. When political debate and in extreme cases rioting becomes part of the agenda, it’s because it presents a conflict. And what we need to understand, when we are fighting the war of position, is how broadcast media works. We need to understand how a news story works. If you’re protesting, that protest needs to take the form of something unusual. If there’s one thing the cake of news needs, it’s the sultanas of unusualness.
Yes, definitely. So how are you doing it? Don’t you need to make it relatable?
It’s the comrades responsibility to force this debate onto the agenda by explaining it in a clear, jolly, cool and groovy way and not looking like a bunch of angry hippies. Why it affects you, the person who is watching that news or broadcast. This is the way that journalism works. We need to understand how the media works, and how the war of position works, because they’re winning it at the moment. We’re winning the political debate, but they’re winning the war of position at the moment because they own the media.
What about the BBC?
We must do everything we can to protect the BBC, because the BBC is full of comrades. People from the right, left, people of all hues, races, colours and creeds, and does its absolute utmost under a lot of pressure, to be fair. The other thing that I find very exciting about these times is the understanding of the print media. The print media – why is it still so powerful? Why hasn’t the internet taken over? Because the broadcast media is led by it. The very first thing a radio programme or TV programme will do in the morning is pick up a copy of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph and they get their news from there.
I think that anyone can say what they like on the internet, but if something is physically in your hand, and it’s been approved by someone and sanctioned by someone, it can’t be edited, deleted or changed, it’s there as a veritable piece of history and thereby has much more perceived credibility than a Facebook status or a blog entry. Do you agree?
Yes, it’s got much more credibility, and that’s our problem with the Daily Mail. The Daily Mail is generally read by the wives of the people who run the country, so its focus is on 45+ year old women, because that is the demographic that everybody believes holds the purse strings of the household. Local radio, local newspapers, national newspapers, are all led by the agenda of the Daily Mail. And of course, their readers tend to vote Tory.
Away from the 45 year old women who read the Daily Mail, do you think there’s a sense of apathy among my generation? I sat on the panel for a Young Persons Question Time event a couple of months ago, along with the Tory leader of the Council, Tory cabinet member, Tory MP; I was the only indication of anything left wing there and every time I spoke I got a round of applause. So I thought – this is positive, I speak your language, but come election day I probably won’t see any of you at the polling booths. The general consensus from the audience, who were aged 16-25, was that politicians are out of touch, self interested liars. How do we fix that?
I think it’s a sense of alienation. Young people do vote, we saw that in them getting the Liberal Democrats as part of this government. I think they’re much more engaged in politics than they ever were because they can see it all around them, and they have their own personal politics. But they don’t see themselves as a unit, they don’t see themselves as a unit of young people or a unit of working class people. People are getting very tribal, which is how Thatcher beat us. People sit in their own streets and sit in their own houses. I don’t think that young people are apathetic, I think young people are demonized. I think young people are energetic, I think the gang cultures of South London shows that young people are prepared to look after their own communities and that they are prepared to fight, but it’s a case of encouraging them to fight that fight that they all have together.
Thee Faction, Eight Rounds Rapid and Podrophenia played the Railway Hotel in Clifftown Road, Southend on Sea, on Friday 1st February.
To find out more about Thee Faction, go to http://www.theefaction.org
“Are you ready?
Yeah I’m ready.
Are you ready?
Yeah I’m ready for the revolution…”
Jack Monroe. Twitter: @MsJackMonroe.