September 28, 1984: Thirty-five years since Billy Bragg played Sunderland miners' benefit gig

To misquote the man himself, it is now 35 years since Billy Bragg performed perhaps his most famous song for the first time in Sunderland.

Saturday, 28th September 2019, 8:00 am
Billy Bragg, left, with Sunderland South MP Chris Mullin on a return visit to Sunderland in 1988.

September 28, 1984, saw the Bard of Barking perform a benefit concert in the then town at the height of the bitter Miners’ Strike.

With the grim realities of the six-month-old dispute beginning to cripple tens of thousands of families nationwide, Bragg volunteered to play a series of gigs in some of the most affected communities.

The Bunker, still thriving today in Stockton Road, was one of the venues chosen to host the Essex activist’s generous tour.

A ticket from the gig. Note the price.

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Bragg’s visit also came at a time when Sunderland was gradually crawling itself out of a musical malaise.

After the Sunderland Empire infamously banned punk acts following trouble at a Boomtown Rats concert in 1978, fans of alternative bands had to mainly traipse through to Newcastle to see the latest names.

At least The Mayfair, in Newcastle Road, now home to Tesco’s supermarket, offered occasional resistance by hosting household acts such as The Stranglers, Elvis Costello and the Attractions and New Order.

Nor did Sunderland itself offer too many opportunities for tomorrow’s talent to thrive.

That is where The Bunker, originally formed as the Sunderland Musicians’ Collective in 1980, stepped in.

Its Stockton Road premises offered young musicians the chance to both rehearse and perform in front of an audience at a time when many of them were unemployed and too skint to hire more established studios.

The venue went on to support the likes of The Futureheads, Frankie & the Heartstrings and Field Music.

As well as showcasing local performers and attracting spectators from across the region, punk and independent acts from further afield were soon heading to the venue.

Bragg was the most established name to appear by September 1984 and delighted the Friday-night audience at the crammed gig with passionate renditions of signature tunes such as A New England and Between the Wars.

And Bragg didn’t forget about Sunderland. Less than four years later he played a March 1988 concert at the nearby Sunderland Polytechnic in aid of the not-for-profit enterprise and found time to visit the premises to meet its users and Sunderland South MP Chris Mullin.

The singer could never be accused of celebrity aloofness

One tipsy teenager recalls bumping into a bloke in The Bunker’s toilets in 1984.

“I asked him ‘what time is Billy Bragg on, mate?’ He replied ‘as soon as I’ve had this wee’. Or words to that effect.”

You don’t get that at a Spice Girls or Take That concert over the river at that plush Stadium of Light.