Two powerful voices in protest music took to the London streets on 17 December for a lunchtime busk in aid of homeless charity Shelter. Billy Bragg and Frank Turner share a few things in common – a punk past, a guitar almost constantly slung over their shoulder and a bucketful of rousing, self-penned songs. The fit seems perfect for a pre-Christmas singalong to help raise money and awareness for a very worthwhile cause in a two-part fundraiser, with the free busk followed by a gig at Wilton’s Music Hall the next night. Just before the busking session, Billy and Frank sat down with me to talk about how and why they decided to get together to help Shelter, the power of communal musical gatherings and what recording together just might entail. Interview and photos by Imelda Michalczyk.
How did you become involved with Shelter for this event?
Frank: I think we’ve both done little bits and bobs for Shelter here and there and support them philosophically. We’ve known each other a little while, we did stuff for Glastonbury one year and we did the Wembley show last year.
Billy: And we did a benefit for disability charities.
Frank: Yes, that was ABLE2UK. So, we’ve crossed paths and someone suggested it and we both went “yeah”.
Billy: I think we both felt it was something we could rock up and do. I mean, between now and the gig tomorrow night, Frank’s doing three other gigs where he’s turning up to play. That’s my old itinerary when I was in my 20s – I don’t do that so much any more. But to come down and do a little busk this afternoon, then a gig together tomorrow and play a few songs with each other, to me that’s really enticing and to do it for Shelter as well makes a lot of sense this time of year.
Frank: I think one of the things about what we do for a living is that quite a lot of the time you’re essentially bigging yourself up. Check out me, my songs, my studio, that kind of thing. I certainly have a part of me that’s slightly uncomfortable with being that relentlessly self-promoting. It’s really nice when you get the opportunity to do things where it’s not about me, it’s about Shelter and the awareness trying to raise money. It’s kind of refreshing and it’s almost more exciting than a regular gig.
Billy: It is more exciting than a regular gig, because we’re both out of the box and we play whatever we like. Both of us write songs about the way the world is, in different ways and we have different approaches to it. The question then comes, do you walk it like you talk it? You talk it all the time but do you walk it too? And it’s by doing gigs for specific causes and specific issues that it gives some credibility to the things that we talk about and the world that we’re trying, hopefully, to portray in our music. So, this sort of thing is absolutely crucial, I think.
How did you decide which songs to play today?
Frank: Who said we had decided? (Laughs)
Billy: We’ll just kind of riff and see what happens.
Music has always had a role as a medium for rallying people and getting information across in terms of protest and awareness but do you think that’s something that happens more or less now?
Billy: Well,I think it happens less because in the 20th century it was the only social medium available to us, now there’s other ways of getting the word out. There’s other ways of organising, there’s other ways of you as an individual expressing yourself. Expecting a kid to learn to play an instrument, write songs and do gigs – and it’s that crucial one, you can’t get someone to sing your songs – that’s a high bar. Not everyone can do that. But write a blog, tweet, make a film? It’s much more accessible. But the knock on effect has meant that music is no longer the prime way that we communicate with one another, with our peers, but also with the previous generation. That has changed. I’m not complaining about that, but it definitely has changed in that sense. The thing that’s important is that people still want that communion. If you’d have seen Frank’s show at Wembley, with them singing along. (Turns to Frank) I was up in the seats when you were singing There Is No God, you know, the audience were all singing along with you, it was absolutely incredible. And that communion – no pun intended – that you get in the dark with other people, we still purvey that in a way that the internet can’t.
Frank: One of my central fascinations with music and it’s the reason why I was attracted to punk rock, is it’s a type of music that not about stardom and look at me and I’m the important one. When I was growing up with my older sister, I had a guitar and we used to sit around and I would learn songs and play them, so we could sing them. But it wasn’t shut up and listen to me I’m playing a show, it was I’m just the one who bothered to learn how to play the songs so that everybody could sing together. So, it’s facilitating a communal activity rather than being shut up and look at me. I hope the sense of that survives in everything that I do now. I want to play music so that a group of people can come together and become more than the sum of their parts rather than so I can get a bunch of people together that I don’t know to stare at me. There’s a big philosophical difference between those two ideas and I think we share that.
The new ways of communicating are often through the internet – but isn’t that a very isolating method, whereas playing music together and something like this event is the exact opposite of that?
Billy: It is and that’s what we have. That’s why we have others, let’s say photographers, who are struggling with the internet now with the free use of images. We still do that thing in the dark that people have done for a long, long time – back to living in caves, coming together in the dark to sing songs and have an experience together. There’s no other word for it other than communion and that is still available. To sing your favourite song with lots of other like minded people and the person who wrote the song is an emotional experience that you cannot get through clicking.
Frank: It’s not downloadable.
Billy: You can experience a download but you can’t download an experience. I know it sounds like a cliche but there’s a fundamental truism in there, which is why as music has become freely available more people want to go to gigs. They’re like, OK, I’ve heard this song, now I want to hear it with people who love it, who are expressing the ideas in it and you can’t get that sitting at home.
Lastly, any plans to write and record together?
Billy: Frank’s got an hour later, he wants me to do an album with him. (Laughs)
Frank: We’ve got a Flaunders and Swann songbook – we might do an album of those. (Laughs)
Billy: That’s what we’re talking about, yeah. But in the style of Million Dead (Frank’s former hardcore punk band). Because you’ve got to tweak it a bit.
Both fall about laughing at this point and head out to the large crowd gathered in Granary Square, just behind King’s Cross. Billy and Frank played a sterling set with covers including The Times They A-Changin’, Waterloo Sunset, Long Black Veil and Tracks Of My Tears. Swapping between singing individually and together, they ran through Billy’s tracks Between The Wars, Sexuality and A New England and Frank’s songs Recovery, The Road and Photosynthesis.
You can find out more about Shelter’s Christmas appeal at www.shelter.org.uk.
Interview and photos by Imelda Michalczyk on 17 December 2013.