Billy Bragg - Biography
English anti-folk rocker Billy Bragg is the sort of artist America just doesn’t produce anymore—i.e. a singer who hits both political and emotional issues with a sincere, even idealistic manner, while all the while maintaining a sense of humor. While Bruce Springsteen addresses politics carefully and metaphorically, and Rage Against The Machine does so without humor, the socialist Bragg smiles broadly as writes songs about literal political injustices and romance.
Stephen William Bragg was born on December 20, 1957, in Essex, England, and came of age during the punk explosion of the mid-to-late ’70s. In 1977, feeling a kinship with the punk movement, he formed his own punk outfit called Riff Raff, a name that suggested a kinship with the downtrodden in English society. Riff Raff set out on the local punk scene yet failed to garner much success, despite releasing a few singles.
Feeling at odds with the music business early on, Bragg began to wonder if he had any future in it. He joined the British Army but, finding himself at odds with everything about it that programmed way of life, bought his way out for £175 after serving a few months. He began working in a record shop in Essex and writing increasingly social conscious songs that borrowed from both the punk and folk ethos—songs of angst, protest, dissatisfaction and change. The army had solidified in Bragg not only a reluctance to fall in, but to, in fact, question authority.
By the early 1980’s, Bragg was chasing his dreams passionately, signaling protest along the way. He became a ubiquitous presence around London, playing gigs at a moment’s notice and busking in the streets with an electric guitar. Nevertheless, his efforts were met with little enthusiasm from the record industry in England, where punk was on the way out and the new wave and new romantic movements was just beginning to burgeon, often as far off the trail of political comment as possible. As a lone, perhaps unwelcomed voice of dissention, Billy Bragg decided to get creative.
By pretending to be a television repairman, Bragg snuck into Peter Jenner’s office at Charisma Records and dropped off a demo of his music. Jenner enjoyed the tape but, at first citing financial woes, alleged he couldn’t allocate to new artists. Jenner would eventually relent, releasing Bragg’s demo—Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy (1983)—on Charisma’s new side-label, Utility. The EP gained unlikely exposure when Bragg, upon hearing local DJ John Peel mention that he was hungry, subsequently rushed to the studio with food in hand. Virgin Records took over the Charisma label and Jenner was fired. He became Bragg’s manager, and see Go! Disks Records bought off the rights to Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy and re-released.
Bragg put out his first full-length in 1984, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (Cooking Vinyl), an album with more than its fair share of political tracks—no surprise in an England that was undergoing the right-wing economic transformations courtesy of Margaret Thatcher. Some of those transformations were directed towards a subject close to Bragg’s heart, namely labor unions. This was the time of the coal miner’s strike in England when Thatcher set out (successfully) to break the back of the coal miner’s union. Bragg was a big supporter of the union and, seeing Thatcher’s move as something of a declaration of war against the working class in Britain, made in known by appearing at leftist rally’s and writing songs to that end. Bragg was also a romantic, as the heartfelt love song “This Saturday Boy” from the album shows.
The following year, with a growing reputation for his affiliations and beliefs, Bragg released another EP—Between the Wars (1985 Go! Discs). On it Bragg again advocated for a Britain that was free of racism, fascism and homophobia, and he included economic options for the poor as well as the rich. Bragg’s cover of Leon Rosselson’s lament “Diggers,” re-titled “The World Turned Upside Down,” generated visceral feelings by serious leftists during Thatcher’s years in office. Bragg’s first three releases were eventually bundled together on the 1987 compilation, Back to Basics (Elektra).
Meanwhile Bragg attempted to put his money where his mouth was when it came to politics, journeying to the Soviet Union after glasnost and perestroika, and began to do his best to help bridge the gaps between East and West. On one such sojourn, MTV accompanied him for the ride.
Throughout his various activities and political segues, Bragg continued to pump out high-quality, passionate music. In 1986 he released Talking with the Taxman about Poetry (Go! Discs), the title lifted from a poem by futurist playwright, Vladimir Mayakovsky. As testament of how aware the country had become of Bragg at this time, the release became his first top ten album in the UK Bragg desperately hoped that his growing popularity might mean something in helping to influence people against the Tories in the 1987 general election. His popularity didn’t extend that far, as Thatcher remained in power until the early 1990’s. Bragg’s response at the time was to join a group called Charter88, whose aim was nothing less than to fundamentally alter the landscape of British politics, making the process more democratic, more progressive, and more tolerant. He also put out an album.
The Joe Boyd-produced Workers Playtime was released on Go! Discs in September of 1988, and it featured a richer, deeper sound than Bragg’s previous efforts. This was due to the fact that, for the first time, Bragg had added a backing band. That same year, Bragg scored a #1 hit on the UK charts with his rendition of The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.”
For the next few years Bragg licked his political wounds and continued to let it be known in his songcraft. His 1990 EP—The Internationale (Go! Discs)—was an avowedly left-wing album, one that marked a return to a guitar-centered folk style while advocating, in earnest, fundamental change in Britain and across the world. On the release Bragg covered Phil Och’s “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” only he changed the subject of the song to Ochs himself.
If sincerity and conviction were Bragg’s calling cards by the early 1990’s, he was certainly swimming upstream against the zeitgeist. After the terms of Thatcher in England and Ronald Reagan in the States, many leftists grew weary of living a life of politics, tired of rooting for the losing team. Bragg, however, continued to examine social problems just as hell-bent as ever.
The fight was to become increasingly more complicated for the singer; ironically for a socialist, this was in part due to money. Bragg signed a four-album deal with Go! Disks worth a million pounds, on the understanding that he be agreeable to marketing schemes and to putting more effort into the commercial side of the business—such as releasing singles and videos. This approach initially paid off. His song “Sexuality,” off the new full-length Don’t Try This At Home (1991), made the UK Singles Chart and even raised something of a ripple in America, where Bragg’s influence had been confined to college radio. However, the increased airplay did not result in more sales and this led to a split between Bragg and the studio. Bragg repaid some of the cash, but he got to keep the rights to his music.
After having signed for so much money and seemingly selling out, many criticized Bragg as a being hypocrite, and he took a lot of sniping in the press as well. Tired, and perhaps needing to clear his head of the music business and everything along the periphery, when Bragg got off the road from touring he decided to take an extended hiatus. For the next five years, he focused on fatherhood, raising his son. At the end of his time away, he was both refreshed and his convictions were renewed.
William Bloke came out on Elektra in 1996. While some saw the record as a sign of Bragg’s maturation, others found it morose and full of bitterness, none more so that Rolling Stone, who gave it a particularly harsh review. Bragg continued to write. He collaborated with Natalie Merchant and Chicago’s alt-rock buzzband, Wilco, on some unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics. These collaborations led to the Mermaid Avenue (1998 Elektra) and Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (2000 Elektra). Bragg had a natural affinity for Guthrie’s lyrics, with the heart of protest song so bold and unreserved. Unfortunately, Bragg had a squabble with the members of Wilco over the remixing of Mermaid II, and formed his own backing band, The Blokes.
Bragg continues to involve himself in myriad of activities and causes. His album England, Half English (2002 Elektra) had all the elements of up rise, with commentary on what has become of England. He appeared with The Levellers at the 2005 Beautiful Day Festival, performing covers of The Clash’s “English Civil War,” “Police And Thieves,” and “Police On My Back.” In 2006 Bragg discussed his feelings about the future of Britain and the possibilities of being both progressive and patriotic in the book, The Progressive Patriot (2006 Transworld).
In 2008, Bragg released a solo album called Mr. Love & Justice (Cooking Vinyl), which garnered his strongest reviews since Talking with the Taxman About Poetry for its sincere, if toned down and freshly resolved, look at the world. In 2011 he released Fight Songs, followed by Tooth & Nail in 2013.