Miners' strike benefit shows

Billy Bragg

In 1984 the miners' strike threw coal-mining areas across the UK into industrial chaos and social upheaval. It contributed to a shift in the political landscape and, according to Billy Bragg, illustrated Wales' almost unique role in social and political change, still visible now.

You can click on the audio clips below to listen to BBC Wales Music's interview with Billy Bragg in full.

Musicians and music fans in Wales were proactive in assisting the miners and their families through benefit shows: gigs designed to raise money to bolster the minimal strike pay of those who had withdrawn their labour.

In the Newport area, Simon Phillips and his colleagues put on over 200 shows during the course of the strike, in aid of the Bedwas Food Fund. One of his earliest benefits was headlined by Bragg, fresh from a number one album in the indie charts and with a social and political fire to assist where he could.

Effecting change

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"There was an element of musicians wanting to step up and support the miners," says Bragg. "The idea that music is supposed to change the world was still current." The benefit shows that happened across South Wales, not just in Newport, saw hundreds of artists and bands support the cause, putting food and money in the hands of affected families.

Tackling hardships

Because the strike was illegal, benefit shows were one method of keeping families out of abject poverty, says Bragg.

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"Any money you could raise was very positive," he says. "They had a rather grim Christmas at the end of 1984 to go through and particularly for their kids... The best, most practical way to help out was to raise money for the families so they could carry on the fight."

Assessing his role

Bragg recalls that his career and song writing choices up to 1984 forced him to assess his work in the light of the strike.

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"I had a reputation as a political songwriter... When the strike happened I felt I had the opportunity to find out if these songs that I was writing - this position I was taking - had any relevance whatsoever to what was really happening in and around Britain."

Once he'd taken the decision to play benefits where he could, he put the word out through the music press, and the Newport collective of promoters got in touch.

Recalling the shows

While Bragg's show for Bedwas at the Docks Way Social Club was actually recorded and exists as a bootleg album, he recalls not particular shows, but the social changes that were happening before his very eyes.

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"What I tend to remember from those shows... is the wives of the miners. You wouldn't find lads from the picket lines, because mostly they were either still on the picket lines or in prison...

"These were ordinary women who'd never really thought before about standing up and speaking in public ever and to see them stand up and speak in front of a dark club with loads of spiky-topped punks in their leather jackets who scared the life out of me... their presence and their experience and the way they articulated it was just incendiary."

Assessing the legacy of shows

The legacy - especially in South Wales where benefit shows for various causes are still a regular occurence - is no surprise to Bragg, who believes there are qualities almost unique to the area which keep social and political positive action going.

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"I'm not surprised this tradition has carried on because there seems to me a tradition of progressive resistance particularly in South Wales that we've lost touch with in England... Given the economic situation we're in now, these ideas that people don't passively accept what the market sends them... we need to be reminded of that and connect again with that traditon.

"If I had search for that anywhere on this island that we live on it would be here in Wales that I begin that search because I think that tradition is strongest here still... it still has the ability to inspire."

Commemorating the strike

To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the strike, Bragg is embarking on a tour around Wales. Nine dates in June will take him from small towns to cities.

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"I wanted to do a tour of Wales for two reasons: firstly, I've never done one and there are a number of places on this tour I've never even been to... and it being the 25th anniversary of the miners' strike I really wanted to do something to memorialise that event.

"There's a generation out there that needs to be reminded of those ideals [of progressive resistance] so I'm hoping the tour will be an opportunity to sing some of the old songs, but not to get all teary-eyed about the 'good old days'.

"I'm not interested in that, I'm interested in where we are now and how much of tradition that still lives and breathes in Wales will be revived in order to help us deal with the great difficulties we face as a result of the forces that were unleashed in the wake of the miners strike."


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