Stephen William Bragg (born December 20, 1957), known as Billy Bragg, is a British musician known for his blend of folk, punk-rock, and protest music. He has been active for over 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., Kirsty MacColl, and Wilco.
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. One source states that the only class he got an A in was English. 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. 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.
Solo musical career
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.
Cover of Bragg's 1985 'Between The Wars' EP
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.
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 neo-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.
Woody Guthrie collaboration
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 who now lives in Dorset with his family, has long enjoyed a close relationship with grass-roots political movements and this is often reflected in his original lyrics and music. 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.
Billy Bragg backed the Miner's Strike of 1984 and the following year he helped to create the neo-communist youth movement called Red Wedge to inform young voters of the Labour Party's policies and discourage them from voting for the Conservative Party during the 1987 General Election.
During the election period he allied itself with Neil Kinnock and the left-wing faction of the Labour Party. Following the defeat of Kinnock and the repeated victory of Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party government, Billy Bragg joined Charter88 to push for a total reform of the British political system.
During the 1980s he also promoted both his ideas and music in the United States. In Dallas, Texas he was interviewed and often featured by George Gimarc on his Rock and Roll Alternative radio programme which originated at the studios of KZEW and was relayed internationally by the Four Freedoms World Service (4FWS).
During the 2001 UK general election Billy Bragg attempted to combat voter apathy by promoting tactical voting in an attempt to unseat Tory candidates in Dorset, particularly in Dorset South and West Dorset. At the 2001 election Labour took Dorset South with their smallest majority, and the Conservative majority in West Dorset was reduced. At the 2005 election these two seats are amoung the most fiercely contested.
Billy Bragg continues to use the lyrics of his music to promote his personal political ideas. To this end he developed an interest in English national identity and this was displayed on his 2002 album with the Blokes, England, Half-English.
In recent years Charter88 has allied itself to other groups which Billy Bragg also supports, in order to promote the idea of replacing the House of Lords with an elected second chamber using a Secondary Mandate voting system. The Secondary Mandate has been defined as a system of counting General Election votes by party at a regional level, and then allocating each party a number of seats according to the total votes gained by each party in the polls.
This proposed Secondary Mandate has attracted support from a number of Government ministers including Peter Hain and Lord Falconer, who invited Bragg to further present his ideas on the matter. However, the Secondary Mandate proposal has been criticised because instead of electing members, it relies upon appointments from a closed list controlled not by the voters, but by the political parties. Small parties would be at a disadvantage because they may not field candidates in all constituency seats and therefore their overall standing in the Secondary Mandate system would be very low.
Red Wedge - Formed to gain a youth vote to support Neil Kinnock.
4FWS - George Gimarc interview in Dallas with Billy Bragg concerning his political ideas (including Red Wedge.)
Charter88 - Supported by Billy Bragg and formed after the defeat of Neil Kinnock.
George Gimarc - Published author on the era of British punk rock music.
Albums and compilations
No Pop, No Style, Strictly Roots (1995)
Mermaid Avenue Tour (1999)
Going To A Party Way Down South (2002)
Live At The Barbican (web-only mp3 album) (2005)
Singles & EPs
Between The Wars EP (February 1985)
- "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)
Andrew Collins; Still Suitable For Miners (Billy Bragg: The Official Biography); Virgin Books; ISBN 0-7535-0691-2 (Revised and Updated edition, 2002)
Last updated: 08-26-2005 01:39:00