Every bullied teenager thinks they’re alone. But then they hear a song that tells them about their lives. Billy Bragg talks about the writing of The Saturday Boy, and the boy he was when he was sitting in double history twice a week. By Michael Hann.
“But I never made the first team
I just made the first team laugh
And she never came to the phone
She was always in the bath.”
I don’t recall whose was the first boot in my mouth, or who kicked me afterwards, or how many times. All I remember — all I’ve ever been able to remember, since the day it happened — was being followed around the playground by a group of boys who, like me, were in their first term at grammar school in autumn 1980. Then I was on the ground. Then I was being kicked in the face, over and over again. Then I was making my way back to my classroom — the nearest classroom, thankfully — for afternoon registration, my mouth bleeding, my teeth chipped, my eyes swollen from the kicking and the tears that followed. Mick Whelan — the only person I can be sure was among the group that attacked me, and only because we later became an uneasy sort of friends — said everyone took their shoes off before they started on my face. That sounded both unusually considerate, and extremely unlikely.
To be the victim of bullies is to be contagious. When you have been hurt, publicly and visibly, no one wants to come near you, for fear your weakness will rub off on them. Until the symptoms pass — either the black eyes fade, or a suitable time elapses since your last humiliation — you are placed into a kind of quarantine. You become invisible. People walking alongside you pretend you do not exist, and they expect you somehow to pretend you do not exist, too. After the attack on me — the most violent, but oddly the least significant incident in several years of bullying, because for those boys it was a one-off, and after that I ceased to matter to them in any real way — I filtered into the classroom, where no one mentioned the fact that I was bleeding and crying. I collaborated with their denial. I lifted the lid of my desk, as if I were trying to find a book, to try to hide myself from the teacher.
He noticed. How could he not? If he hadn’t noticed, he really shouldn’t have been in a job. I was sent to the school sick room, where my face was cleaned and where a senior teacher came to ask me what had happened. I told him, so far as I could. I said I didn’t know any of their names (I didn’t; we had only been at the school a few weeks and I had no classes with any of them). I knew only they were all hard kids from the estates that surrounded the school; I knew that one of them had a hard, cold face like a weasel, and that his blazer was several sizes too big for him (years later, with hindsight, I realised his parents were saving money by buying him uniform that would last a couple of years rather than a term or two and that he was poor in a way I would never be). I knew another was always called Alvin by his friends, even though that wasn’t his name (I looked at his Facebook page the other week; there are an awful lot of Union Jacks and St George’s flags on it). But that’s not the kind of information you can give a teacher. Instead I said, “I don’t know who it was, sir.”
I was returned to class for the final lesson of the day, maths. Even in the first term, this was not a lesson in which complete attention was delivered. The kid who managed to be the hardest of the hard despite coming from a well-to-do suburb of Windsor, and never actually doing anything to prove he was hard, turned round to me and asked: “Did you grass?”
We were a BBC family. I had never seen Minder, or The Sweeney, or any programme where tough Cockney men in leather jackets talked roughly to one another. And, like Stephen Spender, my parents kept me from children who were rough. So I didn’t actually understand what he was asking me.
“Did you grass?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Did you say who did it?”
It turned out it didn’t matter that I hadn’t grassed. Once the school realised what had happened to me, all the boys in my year were summoned to a special assembly at which the culprits were told to reveal themselves. Astonishingly, they did, and they were all suspended. By the time the hardest of the hard kids asked me whether I had grassed, the question was irrelevant.
* * *
A few years back, I saw the film Son of Rambow, and suddenly my experiences at grammar school swung sharply into focus. In that film, a Plymouth Brethren boy is the outcast at his own school, until another kid takes him under his wing and they try to make their own version of Rambo together, on Super 8. He doesn’t understand why he is shunned, what makes him different. To him, being Plymouth Brethren is just part of his life, as unworthy of note as having a nose, or eating breakfast. I wasn’t Plymouth Brethren, but for the purposes of a predominantly working-class school bordered by two of Slough’s biggest council estates, I wasn’t far off.
For a start, I was ginger. I also spoke differently: we moved south from Manchester when I was small, but both my parents were northern, and I never lost my short vowels. I was clever, always the cleverest kid in my class. I was middle class, which in the context of my school meant posh. But most of all, I was young: my parents put me up for the 12-plus exam a year early, because they were unhappy with my primary school, and with a birthday at the very end of July, I was already the youngest of the year I should have been in. I was very nearly two years younger than the oldest kids in my year. I was a whole year younger than the very youngest. To me, this was all simply who I was and I didn’t think about it. But to lots of the other kids who entered Herschel High School in 1980, I must have seemed like an alien. Not in the good, David Bowieish way. More in the sense that I was palpably different, and nothing makes you a target quite like being palpably different. And in Slough — a successfully multi-ethnic town — my set of attributes marked me out far more than it did the black kids, the Asian kids, the Polish kids, the Ukrainian kids or the Italian kids. By the time I understood I was a target — not just for some of the kids at school, but also for one of the staff, a young, insecure French teacher who picked the easiest victim, pour encourager les autres, knowing I would crumple obligingly for him — it was too late to do anything. My allotted place had been decided.
The victim of bullying lives the day in increments of fear. The worst time is not when the bully decides now is the moment for you to suffer; that comes almost as a relief, a lancing of the boil, and once it is done you can be reasonably sure they will leave you alone for a while afterwards. But the waiting, the endless waiting, is what debilitates: the waiting for the moment when they decide they want to be amused, and the only thing that will amuse them is your terror. Thinking about it, I suppose bullying is a bit like wanking: maybe the kid with the hard-on to cause misery can think of nothing else until they’ve spunked it out of their system; then there’s nothing until the hard-on rises again.
The first point of fear, for me, was walking into the cloakroom where we waited before school began. Would I be noticed? What for? Would the fact that my mum had sewn the hole in my trouser knee up rather than buying new trousers be seized on? (Another thing about being bullied is that you become a target for everyone with the bullying gene; once they see you can be picked on without repercussion, you become a reflexive target for everyone who feels the urge to be cruel.) Once that passed, it was a clear run until breaktime.
My principal torturer was a year above me, and so we shared no lessons. But come mid-morning, I would be looking out for him. Whatever we were doing — playing football, flipping pennies up against a wall, talking about Top of the Pops — I would have half an eye on the horizon, like a mariner trying to read the clouds. Back to class, and 75 minutes or so of safety. Lunchtime — a solid hour — was tense. If someone is looking for you, in a smallish school, you can’t avoid them for an hour. They are going to find you. And the longer you avoid them, the worse it is. Usually, what they do to you isn’t terrible, just humiliating: I might be chased around the playground; I could be caught in a corner and stones thrown at my feet; I might be verbally demeaned. What cripples is the knowledge there is nothing you can do about it. Stand up to bullies, they say. No, you get bullied because you can’t stand up.
Back into afternoon classes, and aside from having to be aware of potential risk between classes — and I had so finely studied the maps of my own fear that I knew precisely which lesson changeover might result in me crossing paths with my nemeses in the corridors, and so knew to either race to my next lesson or to dawdle, to reduce our chances of passing one another — I had two hours of relative relaxation. And then the terror of the end of the day — of everyone disgorging onto the street at the same time, free of authority, the boundaries removed.
It was about 200 yards from the school gate to the bus stop, but even getting on the bus — my main bully lived close enough to walk to school — wasn’t a guarantee of safety. One time, a kid from my sister’s class, two years above me and two feet taller, took my bag from me and started to pass around my schoolbooks. For a diligent kid — and God knows I was a diligent kid — this was a special kind of torture: it would have hurt me less to be punched than if my schoolbooks were damaged.
Every day brought fear, prickling up my back like the hard, spiny legs of a beetle. Every day for years. How many actual incidents were there in that time? I don’t know; a few dozen, and none anything like so serious as that first, vicious kicking. But for my first three years at grammar school, until my main bully left after his O-levels, I expended vast amounts of energy worrying that, at any moment, he was going to turn his attention back to me.
I look back, from the vantage point of middle age, and I realise how profoundly my life was affected by being sent to grammar school a year early. It wasn’t just that it exposed me to unhappiness of a magnitude I had not imagined possible, but also that it robbed me of the things that make teenage life bearable, notably a girlfriend. Naturally, it didn’t occur to me at the time that no girl in my year would want to go out with me, but I understand now why they didn’t: I was a child to them. I didn’t have the physical or social confidence to approach girls as a suitor (just as I became trapped by an obsequious and subservient attitude to those I perceived as more powerful than me, one that consumed me into middle age). And by the time I was meeting and falling in love with girls my own age, in my mid-teens, I had become trapped in the role of the nice, unchallenging, supportive boy. The one who was trusted by the girls’ mothers (which was nice), precisely because there was no danger their daughters would ever be undressing with me.
It turned out that the misery I thought was uniquely my own was if not universal, then reflected in other places. By turning on the radio at new times — midweek evenings, instead of just on Friday night for Tommy Vance — I began to discover voices that sounded like they reflected my experience. I started listening to John Peel because I noticed that there often seemed to be a heavy metal band on when he presented Top of the Pops and I suspected he might play metal on his Radio 1 show. He didn’t, but I found enough common ground with Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, and with The Damned, and then I stayed because I discovered music that sounded like nothing I had imagined, sung by people whose lives appeared to have nothing in common with the glossy certainties of chart singers. I found The Smiths, and lay in my bed with headphones on and lights off, taping each of their sessions for Peel then transcribing the lyrics the next afternoon, once I was home from school. And I found Billy Bragg, a man with a foghorn of a voice, an electric guitar, and a song that captured not the voice of the bullied — that was more Morrissey’s forte — but the feeling I was increasingly aware of, that of being perpetually ignored by girls.
“I wrote The Saturday Boy in late 83,” Bragg says, as we sit at a beachside cafe a couple of hundred yards from his home in Dorset, on a summer day so sunny the sea becomes a sheet of reflective silver. “My first memory of it is recording it for a Kid Jensen session, which was literally a week before Christmas. It was really easy song to write. The melody has that dropped finger D thing in it, which is in Levi Stubbs Tears an’ all. But I think that was the first time I’d deployed it. There’s something about that descending chord thing that sets the tone for that sort of story. So probably the music came first. But I used to have lines knocking around: I might have had ‘In the end it took me a dictionary.’ I was wondering the other day why it’s called The Saturday Boy, because it’s not really about being a Saturday boy.”
What’s unusual about The Saturday Boy is that it is a song about early adolescence: its narrator is remembering being at the very start of his teens (there’s a reference to La-La Means I Love You by The Delfonics, a UK hit in July 1971, when Bragg was 13). Even though the early teens are when those first, febrile passions — for both music, and for girls or boys — begin to bloom, the writers of pop songs have rarely attended to them. They remain the lost years of pop music, despite often being Rosetta Stones for our musical and emotional futures. Perhaps that’s because at 19, 20 or 21, the last thing an aspirant songwriter wants is to be reminded of being a child, and if they leave it much beyond then, the memory of puberty begins to fade into a series of frames like the opening credits of Grange Hill: it ceases to be true.
“I certainly didn’t want to write about that when I was 20,” Bragg says. “When I was that age, my love-song writing was more influenced by Elvis Costello. The thing about Costello back then was that he was cynical, and I bought into that with some of the songs for Riff Raff [Bragg’s punk band]. But as Billy Bragg, there was an opportunity to show a bit more vulnerability. It’s there in Man in the Iron Mask. But Man in the Iron Mask is rueful, and I’d like to think The Saturday Boy is wry. I think there’s space for that kind of writing, that kind of reflection. I knew I’d hit the target, because after he played the song, Jensen phoned me at home to talk to me about it, live on air. He started saying I’d really hit on something. The thing is, when you write a song, you don’t know how people are going to react to it. The songs you think people are going to be slayed by bounce off them, and ones you bonk out to fill the record change people’s lives. So you never really know until you play them to people. But from the beginning, The Saturday Boy had something people connected with. Men connected with, anyway.”
The Saturday Boy isn’t a long song — three and a half minutes, and 36 lines — but it makes the most of its length. There is no chorus to interrupt its narrative, and Bragg locates it in a childhood world in which school is the single dominating fixture with precise phrasing — “that September morning was so clear and fresh”; “We’d sit together in double history twice a week”; “in the darkness of the dances in the school canteen”. It’s constructed more cleverly than you might at first realise: two verses that are nostalgic reveries, and two bridges that open the door to the bitterness of the rejected. In the first he sings: “She lied to me with her body you see / And I lied to myself ’bout the chances I wasted,” and follows it in the second with “While she was giving herself for free / At a party to which I was never invited,” in the second.”But it doesn’t end on anger, because of the jazzy flourishes of the closing trumpet solo by Dave Woodhead. The song and its narrator are redeemed. The Saturday Boy sounds like a true story because, by and large it is.
Bragg had been a bright kid, but not a natural learner (“When I had my O levels, I was in love with a girl from another school, and it all went tits up”). He failed his 11-plus and went to the local secondary modern in Barking, which went comprehensive a year later when it merged with the grammar school. As with all schools, there was a social hierarchy. “In our school, at the top it was the pretty boys who were in the football team — and the rugby team to some extent, as well. Then there were some very cool working-class kids that cracked the secret of how to be approachable to young women, which is — as I explained to my son when he asked me — look nice, be nice and smell nice. Do all three of those, and the chances are you’ll be able to chat to women. The guy who seemed to have the best success with girls used to bring a hairbrush to school, and we took the piss out of him mercilessly about that — behind his back, because he was a bit hard. But when I think about it, of course he got all the birds. He was serious about the way he looked and he was doing something they did.”
The uncertainty in the narrator of The Saturday Boy is real, because it reflects Bragg’s own schooldays. “I was trying to jog my way through school, trying to avoid the bullies, trying to ingratiate myself with the cool kids, trying to make any desperate connection with the pretty girls in our class, but I never really did.” His time with the bullies came later at school — “so close to the end of school that it didn’t turn into going in every day and being hesitant” — but it was enough to cause him to skip a couple of weeks: “It was a big dent in my confidence.” He found his escape from the bullies, and his recovery from them not in retreating into listening to music, but in playing it. “I needed to build a different support system, and that’s what the band was. That absolved me from having to go out of an evening, having to chase girls, having to be at the football, getting into fights. I had a solid crew, we were in my house, we were in safe places.”
On Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, his mum and dad would go out ballroom dancing, so Bragg could have the house to himself, and get the band round. “That’s when I did a lot of songwriting. I’d get my mates round with guitars, and I think my mum thought it was good I was doing something: I wasn’t taking drugs or being a tearaway or anything like that. This was the band that became Riff Raff. I was 16 when I started playing guitar, but I’d been writing songs before that — you keep a tune in your head, and I can still find the books I wrote songs in, see the lyric and remember the tune. There was a time I was so paranoid about bumping into the wrong people in town, I couldn’t face going out at all. And the band helped me get over that. And I think playing solo helped me get over that as well.”
* * *
I suspect a lot of men, as they get older, forget the musical debts they owe to the girls of their teens. I feel safe in making the generalisation that it is more often men who fall into the tarpit of obsession — the kind of obsession that requires them to know who produced such and such a single, what was on the B-side, how many different colours of vinyl it was pressed on, what the run-off groove says, who played the harmonica that you can’t actually even hear on the third verse — but often it wasn’t simply their own exquisite taste that caused them to buy the single in the first place. It was a girl.
It was Maria who got me listening to REM. I had dismissed them — I’m not sure why; I think on the basis of a press photo of Michael Stipe with long hair — as hippies, until it became apparent that Maria thought they were pretty great. Since I wanted to make Maria think I was someone of impeccable judgment, with whom she should really consider going out, I decided I had better simulate some sort of interest in REM, too. When she and her sister bought tickets to see them one autumn, I tagged along. Maria’s taste, evidently, was a whole lot better than mine, because REM were unsettlingly, perspective-alteringly good; they went into heavy rotation in my musical life and never left it.
Billy Bragg was another of Maria’s, too. She liked him before me, and though there were some boys who were interested in him — largely because he had supported The Style Council, and there were always boys who swung loyally behind anything Paul Weller endorsed, just as there are now men in middle age who swing loyally behind anything Paul Weller endorses — I didn’t care that they liked Bragg. Why would I? — I didn’t daydream about kissing them.
Maria and I started going to shows together, occasionally in Reading, but more often in London. Sometimes we would be part of a larger group, but usually we were alone. And, gosh, how I looked forward to those evenings. We would usually take the train from Slough around half past five (we were still at the age where it didn’t occur to either of us not to see every band on every bill). If the gig was in Hammersmith, at the Palais or the Odeon, we would change to the Underground at Ealing Broadway; if it was in the centre of London we would go all the way to Paddington.
On 30 December 1984, the two of us went up to London to our second Billy Bragg show together, at the Lyceum, in those days the biggest and best West End gig venue. I remember standing next to her in the balcony, leaning against one of the balustrades, trying to hold her arm in such a way that it would look as though I were her boyfriend (I was convinced that no young man would be able to resist a girl of such evident beauty, regardless of the fact that most of the people there, in their 20s, weren’t going to be interested in a 15-year-old), but also so gently that she wouldn’t know I was doing it. At some point, Bragg did an impression of Bruce Springsteen at the urinal — this was at the height of Born in the USA mania — but I don’t remember much else about the show. Because it wasn’t about the music.
Bragg laughs at my memory of the intoxication of that physical proximity, and the fear of getting caught. And he remembers his own moment, where fear rather outweighed joy. “One girl once, coming back from a school trip, sitting in the back row of the coach, went to sleep with her head in my lap. And I had to fight a hard-on all the way back to Dagenham. It was the most difficult thing to do. The last thing you want poking your earhole, some 14-year-old’s hard-on.”
We missed the last train from Paddington that night. I wasn’t worried: there was a post train at 10 to two, with passenger carriages. We could get that; I would have two hours on the station alone with the girl I was besotted with, then another hour on the train, then half an hour walking her home. We would have left the railway station, cut through to the Bath Road, turned up Stoke Poges Lane, then one left down Baylis Road, past the Ramgarhia Sikh Gudwara, and the row of shops where you could buy saris, to her home at the edge of the Godolphin playing fields. Maybe, I dared to dream, she would have slipped her hand into mine as we threading through the unlovely streets; at her doorstep she might have kissed me, gently, and whispered that she would call me when she woke up. Could the night get any more perfect? I wouldn’t have minded even that my walk home from her house would be an hour or more, and it would be past five when I’d get home. We would have spent 10 hours alone together by the time the night ended, no matter how chaste they might be.
We both called our parents from the payphone and explained the situation. No one seemed worried. Then, an hour later, there was a tap on my shoulder. It was my dad. My mum had sent him to fetch us, he explained. My heart sank, even if getting home a little earlier wasn’t a complete disappointment. Years later, my mum told me how my dad had reacted when she told him to drive up to Paddington: “He doesn’t want me to do that. He wants to be left alone with Maria. They’re sensible kids. They won’t get in any trouble. The station is staffed and no one’s going to mug them. Just let him sit on a bench with Maria. That’s what he wants.”
I tell Bragg that story. He laughs. “Oh, she didn’t make him come for you? No. That’s terrible.” Then he pauses, and remembers his own Maria. “I could point you the window that I used to look up at. I could point it out today. I drove past that road not two weeks ago, when I went to the funeral of an uncle of mine, I drove down that road and thought about that.”
Where I used REM and Bragg and The Smiths to get close to Maria, Bragg went for David Bowie. “I discovered that all the interesting girls from our year were getting together at lunchtime round one of their houses to listen to David Bowie records. For me and my mates, David Bowie was a pooftah. ‘Don’t listen to David Bowie, he’s a bloody pooftah, look at him. Look at him on the gatefold of Aladdin Sane — he ain’t even got a willy! Fuck that.’ But he did make great records.” But when he got a Saturday job at Guy Norris, a hardware store that doubled as a record shop, he had a route in to that group of interesting girls. “One of them asked me to get her a cheap copy — because I could get cheap records — of Hunky Dory. It was such a great record that I got into it. And that gave me something to talk about to them, instead of just making everything into an embarrassing joke, which I was very fond of doing.”
I don’t think any girls at school were ever really interested in me. And if they had been, I don’t know what I would have done. At one house party, one wretched Saturday night in Langley — when the boys danced to Big Country and the girls watched, silently, from the walls — one of the hard lads’ girlfriends told me she wanted me to kiss her. The hard lad in question wasn’t there, and he was little anyway, but he was still hard. And so was she. I fled. The next Monday in school, he came up to me in the playground and pushed me in the chest. “Why didn’t you want to snog Nicola? What’s wrong with her? What’s your fucking problem?” Sometimes you can’t win. Still, at least I never faced the fate of the boy who had a 14th birthday party in his parents’ council flat. He was an aspirant hard lad, but the really tough boys never accepted him. They mocked him and spurned him, and still he grovelled around for their approval. They turned up to his party and ransacked the place. On Monday morning, a succession of objects began circulating around the cloakroom before school, they being the spoils of the hard lads’ visit to the party flat’s main bedroom: the hosts’ parents sex toys. The poor kid sat staring fixedly ahead. “Oi!” someone shouted, “Can’t your dad get it up? That why your mum needs a vibrator?”
In The Saturday Boy, Bragg sings about how “I lied to myself about the chances I wasted.” Every teenager does that. I don’t think I was lying to myself about my chance with hard lad’s hard girlfriend, because I think she was winding me up. But I did lie to myself about the chances I wasted with other girls (I remember once considering buying one girl I had liked a copy of Too Late for Love by Def Leppard as a birthday present; I was pretty sure it would send her the message that she had all but blown her chance with me and she had better shape up if she wanted my attention. Thankfully I didn’t. At the last minute, I bought her the 12” of This Charming Man instead. She hated it. Strangely, that must have been the first Smiths record I ever bought, and it wasn’t even for me). Maybe, though, there were chances I wasn’t even aware of. There were for Bragg, he thinks. But the problem is that once you see the one, you can’t see anyone else. Even if they can’t see you.
“There were some really nice girls who were very friendly to me, but I didn’t have that feeling for them, and I look back now and realise that maybe they might have had feelings for me and I didn’t reciprocate,” he says. “I feel bad about that now, because they were good friends. I’d go back round their houses after school, listen to some records, talk to them. Nothing physical involved, but I imagine they thought it might develop to that. My eyes were just somewhere else and I feel really sad about that. I suppose I was a bit obsessive about the girl from the other school that I was madly in love with the week of my O-levels. We’d been on a school drama trip — kids from different schools — and I’d become absolutely besotted with her. And on the coach back from Flint in north Wales I’d written in a school exercise book a dozen poems and I gave them to her, in the hope she would understand and reciprocate. Sadly, that wasn’t the case. But years later, when I played Barking Assembly Halls in the 1980s, at the end, when I was saying hello to family and friends, my mates were there, this woman came pushing through, saying ‘Here he is, mum, here he is!’ and she had the fucking book. Oh no. And I didn’t even fucking recognise her. Fuck. ‘Can I buy this off you? Please don’t show anybody.’ Really embarrassing.”
There’s a particular desperation and shame that comes with being the last in your cohort to have a girlfriend, to have sex. Obviously, your rational mind tells you it’s not shameful, and the sensible part of you listens to bragging schoolboys and wonders first if their relationship to the truth is not, perhaps, a little approximate and, second, if they are fully cognisant of what their girlfriends might feel about their boasting. But. even so, when the boasting begins, the virgin hopes not to be noticed. When a boy is going round a party trying to make everyone smell his fingers so they know, in his words, “I’ve been fingering Michelle,” one recoils not just because it’s disgusting, but also because one doesn’t actually know what one is meant to be smelling for. I remember the offhand humiliation, too, of a passing remark when I was 12, and the other kids in my class were discussing a party that weekend. “You can’t come, Hann,” one said. “Yeah, he’s probably never come,” said another. I couldn’t really blurt out that actually I’d had my first wet dream the week before.
The most terrifying kid in our year was the one who started having sex — full sex, not exaggerated fumblings — the youngest. At 13, he pulled a pack of Durex Fiesta from his pocket in the cloakroom and said, with genuine weariness, “I don’t even fucking like these, but Lisa wants different colours up her. Dunno why.” It was so peculiar — not a Jay-out-of-Inbetweeners boast about three birds at once at Caravan Club — that it sounds even more convincing now than it did then. No one would have questioned this boy, anyway. He was terrifying not because he was violent — though he was — but because he was mercurial. And his rage respected no one: though we the weak lived in justified fear of him (he once hit me several times round the head with a bike chain, hard, in the middle of a maths lesson. The teacher, an elderly woman, pretended it wasn’t happening. So did I. So did everyone else in the class), he was as inclined to turn against other hard kids. He was also virulently racist, in a school that was maybe a quarter British Asian when I joined and two-thirds British Asian when I left. It was he who prompted a complaint by a local Asian woman about having been chased down the road by a boy throwing crab apples at her, though no one dared grass him up. By 16 he had a tattoo of a bulldog in a Union Jack waistcoat.
A few years later, everything about him had changed. Everything. I would have been 18 or 19 when I bumped into him in the Red Cow in Slough. I was with a couple of friends, he with a man 30 or so years our senior, a noted figure in Slough for being the frontman of a band we always went to see around the local working men’s clubs. Evidently, they were a couple. The young man formerly known as The Most Terrifying Kid In Our Year told us he’d become branch secretary of the local Labour Party, and that he and the singer were going through a rough patch, because he was expected to do all the ironing, “and it’s really fucking me off.” He was clearly very stoned. For the first time, I wasn’t afraid of him. But I still made sure not to provoke him.
Bragg didn’t really have a love life until he was 20, when he was in a band. There had been a girl he had been seeing while his dad was dying, “but the only thing she was really interested in was getting into the Hard Rock Cafe on Piccadilly. And we never could get in because the queues were too long. So our relationship floundered in that failure. So on principle now I never go in a Hard Rock Cafe. I got some great songs out of it, though. But nothing ever happened, other than holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes and moaning about our parents.” They had their own version of my night at the Lyceum, though, going to see the Stones at Earl’s Court early in the summer of 1976. “We walked all the way from Earls Court to Liverpool Street to get the milk train. That was a lot of fun. She was obsessed with Cat Stevens, so I had to learn a lot of Cat Stevens.”
But come the summer of 1978, when Riff Raff went to Oundle to do some recording, everything was different, because it was Oundle, not Barking. “We were completely out of context. So instead of looking like five losers from Park Avenue, we were five punk rockers from London. And in that context, our cultural cachet was fucking incredible. Particularly as The Stranglers had been in the farmhouse where the studio was for two weeks before us. Everybody in the neighbourhood knew The Stranglers had been there, but nobody knew what The Stranglers looked like. So these women kept turning up … Guitars, leather jackets? And some of the women who’d been there for The Stranglers stuck around. It all became … Well, that was the great summer of my adolescence. To leave work, get in a band, meet interesting women, have regular, you know, encounters with them. This was like nothing I’d had before. I mean, where would I have gone before? I was living at my mum’s.”
And there was one particular woman, who had been hanging around with The Stranglers, who helped Bragg understand the difference between a mutually unsatisfying knee-trembler behind the bike sheds and something more adult. “She didn’t quite explain it all to me, but she gave me a chance to work it all out. She showed me the handbook, the manual, which she probably shouldn’t have showed me. And from the way that she behaved, and I watched what she was doing with other guys, and I got my leadings from her. She taught me a lot of very valuable relationship things, not the least about consent, early on: ‘You’re revving the engine too much! You’re gonna stall! Before you go any further, you’ve got to get consent. You’ve got to be sure the lights are green.’ That then dictated the way I approached relationships: with a bit more care and compassion in my approach, which paid huge dividends, because it was based on a sound premise.”
* * *
Class was a constant theme in our school. As a rule of thumb, the posher you were, the further you lived from the school. Almost no middle-class kids walked to school — the walkers were the kids from the Britwell and Manor Park estates, the huge overspill developments built for bombed-out Londoners after the war, which gradually took in the waves of immigrants who came to the town in search of work on the industrial estate (when the wind blew right, our school was blanketed in the aroma of warm Mars Bars from the Mars factory a few hundred yards away). If you were middle-class, chances were you got the bus — the 441 from Windsor, the 484 from Langley, the 460 from Datchet or Wraysbury. Our school was for bright kids, but it was not a school for rich kids; before the gaming of school entry by middle-class parents, it was continuing to fulfil the promise of the Butler Education Act (I never gave a thought to the three-quarters of Slough children who ended up in secondary moderns).
There were signifiers of class: not foolproof, but fairly reliable. As always, one of them was the number of books in your home (and, yes, I know history is replete with working class kids who read — my parents were among them — but expenditure on books was a class marker). Middle-class people were less likely to have video cassette recorders. They were less prone, too, to visible markers of religion, though that may have been complicated by the immigrant communities bringing pictures of the Pope, or of Hindu deities. I once asked Maria’s mum about the holograph-style picture on her living room wall. “Who’s the bearded fella?” I asked. She looked at me, horrified. “It’s Jesus.”
I was unprepared for this change to my world. Though both my parents had been born into the working class, they had both used grammar school educations in the postwar years to change their lives. They were the first generation in their families to have the chance to go to university, and they had none of self-hatred for becoming middle class that one sometimes sees among people who’ve made the same educational journey a couple of generations further on. But the village I grew up in, though a suburb of Slough, was a very different place from the Britwell or Manor Park, and Spender’s poem rang very true: my parents did keep me from children who were rough. Like him, “I feared the salt coarse pointing of those boys … They threw mud / While I looked the other way, pretending to smile.”
Bragg’s class hackles rose the other way. When The Clash came along, he says, he was suspicious they might be art students. “I’d fallen for that before with Roxy Music, and I didn’t want to fall for it again.” Art students represented the class enemy. “Same with sixth formers. Anyone who stayed on in further education: ‘The fuck is that about?’ The town I came from, as soon as you could get out of school, you work on the line at Ford, make some money, or go to America and become a hairdresser.”
What he now thinks is “really, really weird” is that the kids at school he identified as posh were nothing of the sort. “They were middle-class people who’d fallen on difficult times and moved out to where we were to do other things. The middle-class kids at our school had two things in common: they had no tellies and they played piano. But between me and them there was another level, who were aspirant working-class, whose parents generally were self employed: builders, decorators, mechanics. They had new money and new things. They had colour tellies. They had BBC2: that was a huge divider at one point, whether or not you had BBC2. Those people who could stand around and discuss Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, I perceived that as a class divide, but it wasn’t really. It was just that my parents didn’t take telly seriously enough to go out and get a new one. I think the dividing line between the kids whose parents had the new things and us was that their dads hadn’t been in the war. Which meant their parents were born in the 30s, unlike my parents, who were born in the 20s. I think there was a generational divide there. They were people who’d been evacuated, come back at the end of the war, got into work, and they had a more postwar sensibility. Neil Kinnock was the first leader of a political party to be born after the war; that previous prewar world, embodied by Margaret Thatcher, was the one my parents come from. Whereas Kinnock represented the world of those kids whose houses I used to go round, where they would go to Spain for their holidays and they would have a new car, and their mums would have new Tupperware.”
* * *
The Saturday Boy manages to encompass almost all of those ideas in its 36 lines, without ever addressing any of them explicitly. We can infer that the narrator is bullied, or at least a long way from being socially accepted, because he never made the first team, he just made the first team laugh. We can guess that his school isn’t posh, because of where the school dance is held — not in the hall, but in the canteen. The fact of rejection, of course, is the heart of the song. It encompasses all the quotidian emotional devastation of the teenage boy. And in a single couplet it pins teenage desire, like a butterfly, to the mounting board of real life: “She became a magic mystery to me and we’d / Sit together in double history twice a week.”
I remember Bragg introducing The Saturday Boy at one of the countless shows I saw him play in the late 80s. He told the audience he had played a benefit the previous week that had been stewarded by volunteers from the Socialist Workers’ Party. One of them approached him with a request. It wasn’t for There Is Power in a Union or Chile, Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto. “He says to me, ‘Bill, can you play The Saturday Boy? I love that one.”
“It was always one of those songs people responded to,” he says now. “There were lines in it that connected with people’s own experience. And in some ways it has something in common with Tank Park Salute. In that I am writing about things that were personally very painful to me at the time. I’m not trying to write a generalist song, one that generally talks about the way I generally felt and you might generally feel. I was going right into the nitty gritty of how it felt, and you’d be surprised how many of those painful things are quite common experiences. You think you’re the only person it’s ever happened to, but actually you’re not. And you’re hooking them out of somewhere very dark and very reticent — if you can overcome that reticence and do it in a way that is not self pitying, you’re in with a chance of really connecting with people, and Saturday Boy has elements of that, though not as much as Tank Park Salute, because of the nature of what it’s about. It’s the same trick, if you like. But it’s not a trick.”
The Saturday Boy set a new bar in Bragg’s writing. “It set a mark in terms of writing songs that were vulnerable, where you talk about relationships in a way that wasn’t macho, wasn’t bitter, wasn’t cynical. I was such a huge fan of Elvis Costello: those twisted songs, I loved them. And I so wanted to be that person. But I ain’t. I ain’t that person. I just can’t do it, either as a songwriter or a person. So in the end, rather than project someone I wasn’t, I decided to match up with someone I was.”
His debut mini-album, Life’s a Riot With Spy, had been a palpable hit, and made him into something of an indie superstar (which bore the same relation to being a real superstar as driving a Ford Capri did to driving a Ferrari). He had started 1983 playing as the Thursday night opener at the Tunnel Club at the Mitre Arms, a pub a few hundred yards from the southern entrance to the Blackwall Tunnel in remote south-east London. “By the end of the year, the day after I recorded that Kid Jensen session, I went up to Newcastle to appear on The Tube on the Friday night. I don’t think I’ve ever had a year that’s been so different from one end to the other. I was opening for New Model Army, Icicle Works, Richard Thompson, Incantation. I was opening for everybody, everywhere. Incantation sent me down to Plymouth on the train. It was the furthest I’d ever been in the south west. I went down there with my amp and my guitar to a lovely little theatre. It was preposterous: me cranking out Milkmen of Human Kindness with these guys pretending to be Andean wearing woolies and hats. I made the audience have it whether they wanted it or not. But the Icicle Works and New Model Army gigs were really great. They really sharpened me up. What you learn is how to steal an audience. How to engage an audience. How to do something that makes you memorable that they weren’t expecting.”
But while Life’s a Riot had bags of charm and energy, it felt like a blunt instrument. The Saturday Boy didn’t signal a new direction, but it did bring a new refinement to Bragg’s writing, which was reflected in other songs on Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, released in November 1984, songs like St Swithin’s Day, or A Lover Sings, which sounds as if it could be a sequel to The Saturday Boy. “Yeah, you’re right,” he says. “There’s a strong similarity there. What’s different about A Lover Sings is it’s a much more confident song. It’s someone who understands now, someone who’s an equal, someone who recognises that we both have something to gain from this. It’s not all going to be about me. We’re both going to get something out of this. St Swithin’s Day, that’s a slightly different kettle of cod and chips. That’s about a particular person. When I played it to her she burst out in tears, and I thought, ‘Oh shit, I might have really overdone it here. I might have really done too much.’ But I went back and I looked at the lyrics, and I thought, ‘No, no, there’s nothing in here that’s nasty. She just understands it better than anybody else is ever going to understand it.’”
When I hear The Saturday Boy now, I am still transported. To the warren of streets near my school; to waiting on Tube stations for trains to venues; to going to Greater London Council free festivals and cheap shows, back before Ken Livingstone felt the need to shoehorn Hitler into everything he said. I feel 15 again. And, seemingly, it still says something truthful to 15-year-olds. The other week in the car, my son put on a Spotify playlist. The Saturday Boy came up. “Not gonna lie,” he said. “This is a banger.” He paused. “I had to Google ‘unrequited’ though.”