Stephen William Bragg (born December 20, 1957), known as Billy Bragg, has been described as being amongst the best known and best loved popular musicians, with a career spanning 20 years. His music is a fine blend of poetry and political comment, with a dash of romance, demonstrating his musical flexibility. He has collaborated with many other musicians, from Johnny Marr of The Smiths, protest folk singer Leon Rosselson to R.E.M. and Kirsty MacColl.
Billy Bragg was born in a district of Essex that is now part of Greater London. He grew up in the district of Barking, which he has always considered his home. However, his successful career was to take him across the globe, singing songs of freedom and advocating social change. He is still associated with his London roots and is sometimes known, jocularly, as 'the bard of Barking.'
Attending a comprehensive school, Bragg's educational career was uneventful. He left school with few qualifications, but determined to do something with his life. He teamed up with his next door neighbour, Wiggy, and practised guitar. They would teach each other new riffs that they had listened to from their widening record collection. Their main influences in the early 1970s were The Faces, The Small Faces, The Rolling Stones and eventually, punk.
Riff Raff and the army
They formed a punk/pub rock band called Riff Raff and toured London's pubs and clubs. The band also practised in a farm house in the county of Northamptonshire, and released several singles. However these records didn't receive wide exposure and consequently the band failed.
Following the Riff Raff experience, Bragg became disillusioned with his musical career and joined the British Army. This move turned out very quickly not to be the right one for him, but it would never the less act as an inspiration for his later work. He bought his way out of the army and returned home to his parents and his music.
Bragg turned to tirelessly gigging (and even busking) around London, performing solo with an electric guitar. His demo tape fell initially on deaf ears, but by pretending to be a television repair man he got into the office of Charisma Records' A&R man Peter Jenner. Jenner liked the tape, but the company was near bankruptcy and he had no budget to sign new artists. Bragg had an offer to record more demos for a music publisher, so Jenner agreed to put them out as a record with Bragg's industrious gigging as the only promotion. Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy came out on Charisma's new "Utility" imprint in July 1983. The album was widely received as a demonstration of a promising new talent. Hearing DJ John Peel mention on-air that he was hungry, Bragg rushed to the BBC with a mushroom biryani, and was rewarded with airplay that Peel insists he would have had anyway.
Within months Charisma had been taken over by Virgin Records and Jenner, who had been laid off, became Bragg's manager. A copy of Life's A Riot fell into the hands of former Stiff Records press officer Andy Macdonald, who was setting up his own record label, Go! Discs. He made Virgin an offer and the album was re-released on Go! Discs in November.
In 1984 he released Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, a mixture of political statements ("It Says Here") and songs of unrequited love ("The Saturday Boy"). The following year he put out "Between the Wars", an EP of political songs which included a cover version of Leon Rosselson's Diggers anthem "World Turned Upside Down". He later collaborated with Rosselson on the song "Ballad of the Spycatcher". Also in 1985, his song "A New England", with an additional verse, became a top ten hit in the UK for Kirsty MacColl. After MacColl's early death, Bragg always sang the extra verse, in her honour.
In 1986 Bragg released his "difficult third album", Talking with the Taxman about Poetry. Its title is taken from a poem by Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, which was printed in translation on the inner sleeve. Taxman was well received, and with promotion from the single "Levi Stubbs' Tears", gave Bragg his first top ten album.
In between recording music in the studio, Bragg was building up a regular following of fans at live performances. Here, his sense of humour is shown in its truest form, allowing himself to ridicule those in power. He backed the Miner's Strike of 1984, and then helped to create Red Wedge in 1985 in order to inform voters of the Labour Party's policies, and encourage people to vote against the Conservative Party.
September 1988 saw the release of his fourth album, Workers Playtime, which some claimed to be his finest work to date. This was a drastic move for Bragg, dropping his solo guitar for a backing band and accompaniment, but adding a new dimension and style.
In May 1990, Bragg released a strongly- political mini-LP, entitled The Internationale. The songs were, in part, a return to his solo guitar style but other tracks featured more complicated arrangements, including brass bands.
Don't Try This At Home was released in September 1991 and included his best known hit at the time "Sexuality" which was released as a single and made it into the UK charts. Bragg had been persuaded by Go! Discs bosses Andy and Juliet Macdonald to sign to a new four-album deal with a million pound advance, and to promote the album with singles and videos. This gamble was not rewarded with extra sales, and put the company in difficulty. In exchange for ending the contract and repaying a large amount of the advance, Bragg regained all rights to his back catalogue. Bragg continued to promote the album with his backing band the Red Stars, which included his Riff-Raff colleague and longtime roadie, Wiggy.
It would be five years until the release of his next album, William Bloke, as Bragg took time off from the music business to help look after his young son.
Around the time William Bloke was released, Bragg was asked by Nora Guthrie, daughter of American folk legend Woody Guthrie, to set some of her father's unrecorded lyrics to music. The result was a collaboration with the band Wilco with a contribution from Natalie Merchant (with whom he had worked previously), released as Mermaid Avenue (1998) and Mermaid Avenue Volume II (2000). A rift with Wilco over mixing and sequencing of the album led to Bragg recruiting his own band, the Blokes, to promote the album. The Blokes include veteran keyboardist Ian McLagan, a member of Bragg's boyhood heroes The Faces.
Billy Bragg now lives in Dorset with his family. In recent years he has proposed a scheme of democratic reform for the House of Lords, promoted tactical voting during the 2001 UK general election in an attempt to unseat Tory candidates in Dorset, and has developed an interest in English national identity which was displayed on his 2002 album with the Blokes, England, Half-English.
Since beginning his crusade for reform of the House of Lords, Bragg was invited to present his ideas to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, to promote the idea of proportional representation in the House and to drive up the numbers of people voting in an attempt to combat voter apathy.
Albums and Compilations
Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy - May 1983
Brewing Up With Billy Bragg - November 1984
Talking With The Taxman About Poetry - September 1986
Back To Basics - June 1987
The Peel Sessions - June 1987
Workers Playtime - September 1988
The Internationale - May 1990
The Peel Sessions Album - 1991
Don't Try This At Home - September 1991
Victim Of Geography - November 1993
William Bloke - September 1996
Bloke On Bloke - 1997
Mermaid Avenue (with Wilco) - June 1998
Reaching To The Converted - August 1999
Mermaid Avenue Volume II (with Wilco) - May 2000
England, Half English - March 2002
Must I Paint You A Picture? The Essential Billy Bragg - October 2003 (A double CD compilation of "greatest hits" was released on Cooking Vinyl, with a limited edition B-sides and rarities compilation)
No Pop, No Style, Strictly Roots - 1995
Mermaid Avenue Tour - 1999
Going To A Party Way Down South - 2002
Singles & EPs
Between The Wars EP - February 1995
Days Like These - December 1985
Levi Stubbs' Tears - June 1986
Greetings To The New Brunette - November 1986
She's Leaving Home - May 1988
Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards - August 1988
She's Got A New Spell - November 1988
Sexuality - June 1991
You Woke Up My Neighbourhood - August 1991
Accident Waiting To Happen (Red Star Version) - February 1992
Accident Waiting To Happen (Live Version) - February 1992
Upfield - 1996
The Boy Done Good/Sugardaddy - May 1997
Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key (with Wilco) - 1998
She Came Along To Me EP (with Wilco) - 1998
England, Half English/St Monday - February 2002
Take Down The Union Jack - May 2002