Billy Bragg



Stephen William Bragg (born December 20, 1957), known as Billy Bragg, is a left-wing English musician renowned for his blend of folk, punk-rock, and protest music, and his lyrics dealing with political as well as romantic themes. He has been active for over 20 years, and has collaborated with many other leading musicians, including Johnny Marr of The Smiths, protest folk singer Leon Rosselson, members of R.E.M., Michelle Shocked, Less Than Jake, Kirsty MacColl, and Wilco.

Billy Bragg was born in a county of Essex, England that is now part of Greater London. He grew up in Barking. Although now living in a small village in Dorset, he is still associated with his London roots and is sometimes known, jocularly, as "the bard of Barking". Bragg is a self-declared West Ham United fan.

Attending a comprehensive school, Bragg had an undistinguished educational career. One source states that he excelled only in English. He left school with few qualifications, but determined to do something with his life. He joined his next-door neighbour, Wiggy, to practice guitar. They would teach each other new riffs from their widening record collection. Their main influences in the early 1970s were The Faces, The Small Faces, The Rolling Stones and eventually, punk (The Clash in particular). In 1977 they formed a punk/pub rock band called Riff Raff and toured London's pubs and clubs. The band also practiced in a farm house in Northamptonshire, and released a series of singles. However these records did not receive wide exposure and the band failed. He also worked for Guy Norris' Low Price Records North Street Barking, Essex.

Following the Riff Raff experience, Bragg became disillusioned with his musical career and joined the British Army as a trooper in the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars of the Royal Armoured Corps in May 1981. This move turned out very quickly not to be the right one for him, but would nevertheless act as an inspiration for his later work. After completing a one-month physical fitness course in Solihull and three months basic training at Catterick Garrison in Yorkshire, he bought his way out of the army for £175 and returned home to his mother 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 when Peel played a track from Life's a Riot, albeit at the wrong speed (since the 12" LP was, unconventionally, cut to play at 45rpm). Peel insisted he would have played the track even without the biryani and later played it at the correct speed.

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. (Back to Basics is a 1987 collection of the first three releases: Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, and the EP Between The Wars.)

He went on tour abroad. On September 30, 1985 he was at the "Zeche Bochum", Germany.

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. This was a drastic move for Bragg, dropping his solo guitar for a backing band and accompaniment.

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. The album also paid tribute to one of Bragg's influences in "I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night". This was an adapted version of "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night".

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 long-time 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 Vol. 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.

At the 2005 Beautiful Days Festival in Devon, Bragg teamed up with the Levellers to perform a short set of songs by the Clash in celebration of Joe Strummer's birthday. Bragg played guitar and supplied lead vocals on Police and Thieves and provided guitar and backing vocals on English Civil War and Police on my Back.

Billy Bragg 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 built 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.

Bragg backed the miners' strike of 1984 and the following year he joined the left-wing promotional tour Red Wedge, which aimed 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 himself with Neil Kinnock and the Labour Party. Following the defeat of Kinnock and the repeated victory of Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party government, Bragg joined Charter88 to push for a total reform of the British political system.

During the 1980s he made a few trips to the Soviet Union - often as extensions to trips to Finland - at that point when President Gorbachev had started to promote perestroika and glasnost. On one occasion he was accompanied by MTV, and on another occasion the trip was filmed as a mini documentary by Finnish documentary-maker Hannu Puttonen titled "Mr Bragg Goes to Moscow" (1988). The film shows him prepared to go anywhere, guitar in hand, even to factories, where he was introduced as part of the workers' entertainment as "Western pop music".

Also during the 1980s he promoted both his ideals 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.

During the 2001 UK general election, 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 Labour held Dorset South but Oliver Letwin increased his majority in West Dorset.

Bragg continues to write political songs. 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.

The former Prime Minister of New Zealand, David Lange, was also a big fan and attended most of his concerts in New Zealand

In 2004 he collaborated with American ska punk band Less Than Jake for a re-recording of their song "The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out". This was included as the final track on the first Rock Against Bush album.

In 2006 he published a book, The Progressive Patriot, in which he expanded on an argument he has long defended - namely, that he feels English socialists can reclaim patriotism from the right. He also supports Scottish independence.

Bragg has been an outspoken opponent of fascism, racism, bigotry, sexism and homophobia in all manifestations and a supporter of a multi-racial Britain. In response, Bragg has come under attack by the British National Party. In March, 2006 People journalist Garry Bushell (a former Trotskyist who switched allegiances to the English Democrats and a nationalistic position in the nineties) accused Bragg of "pontificating on a South London council estate when we all know he lives in a lovely big house in West Dorset".

After an article by Jonathan Freedland about Bragg's proposals for a reformed House of Lords, in The Guardian, February 18, 2004, some claimed that Bragg advocates the use of violence to intimidate political opponents, although it is more likely he is being humourous:

"The British National Party would probably make it [into a parliament elected by proportional representation ], too. It would shine a torch into the dirty little corner where the BNP defecate on our democracy, and that would be much more powerful than duffing them up in the street -- which I'm also in favour of."Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, with no Front-Cover Texts, and with no Back-Cover Texts.
Virtual Magic is a human knowledge database blog. Text Based On Information From Wikipedia, Under The GNU Free Documentation License. Copyright (c) 2007 Virtual Magic. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.1 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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