Billy Bragg was recently described by The Times newspaper as a national
treasure. In the two decades of his career Bragg has certainly become
perhaps, the most stalwart guardian of the radical dissenting tradition that
stretches back over centuries of the country’s political, cultural and
Bragg was born in December 1957. He was thus 19 years old when punk made its
indelible contribution to English popular culture, in 1977. Bragg’s own
particular contribution was to form a band called Riff Raff, which released
a series of indie seven-inch singles including the wonderfully titled I
Wanna Be a Cosmonaut. Riff Raff eventually split in 1981.
Bragg then briefly joined a tank regiment of the British Army before buying
his way out with what he later described as the most wisely spent 175 of his
Armed with a guitar, amplifier and voice Bragg launched himself on a solo
musical career, ready at a moments notice to fill in as support for almost
His songs are full of passion, anger and wit, with a stark strummed electric
guitar and even starker vocals with a keen sense of melody and deeply humane
lyrics; a one man Clash.
Releases include Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy which hit the UK Top 30 in
early 1984. The album’s opening track, The Milkman of Human Kindness, is
infused with genuine insight and humour, as well as a sustained and personal
commitment to political and humanitarian issues.
His second album, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (1984), opened with the fierce
It Says Here, a strident song of political solidarity. The album went Top 20
in the UK.
Bragg’s third album, Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, was released in
September 1986. It was his most successful and accomplished release to date,
spawning a hit single, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, as well as Greetings to the New
Brunette, a collaboration with The Smiths guitarist, Johnny Marr. The album
was a Top 10 hit.
In September 1988, Bragg released his fourth album, Workers Playtime. More
focused on matters of the heart than political issues, the album also saw
Bragg move away from the sparse arrangements that had characterised his
earlier work. The public approved the album was a Top 20 hit in the UK.
Bragg, however, entered the Nineties with his most political work to date.
The Internationale mini-album, released in May 1990, included such tracks as
The Marching Song of the Convent Battalions, Nicaraguita and The Red Flag.
The following year, 1991, Bragg issued the critically acclaimed Don’t Try
This at Home, which reached number eight in the UK chart. With musical
contributions from such stellar talents as Johnny Marr and, from REM, Peter
Buck and Michael Stipe, the album ranged in themes from personal tragedies
to a strident condemnation of racists and football hooligans. Among the
songs was the hit single, Sexuality.
Bragg then took time out to concentrate on his family. When he did return,
in 1996, the resulting William Bloke album showed Bragg balancing his
political and personal commitments, an unsentimental examination of his life
and values. The album also marked a return to the stripped-down Bragg, often
no more than Billy and his guitar. William Bloke, a Top 20 hit, was to be
the last album of Braggs own songs in the Nineties. What followed next,
however, was an extraordinary and unexpected project.
Woody Guthrie was the dean of American folk artists, the author of such
classics as This Land is Your Land, Pastures of Plenty, Deportees, I Aint
Got No Home In This World Any More and Rueben James. His giant influence on
the entire course of American popular music, not least Bob Dylan’s
acknowledgement of his debt to Guthrie, made him one of the seminal artists
of the 20th Century. At the time of his death, in 1967, however, Guthrie
left behind some 2500 unfinished songs, the lyrics to which were belatedly
discovered many years later in the archives.
Guthries daughter, Nora, first became aware of Billy Bragg in 1992, when he
performed at New York Citys Summerstage birthday celebration for Woody.
Nora Guthrie decided that Bragg was the perfect candidate to set new music
to the unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. There was no record of any music
being written, thus Bragg was given the task of reinventing original Woody
Guthrie songs. The lyrics about New York City streets, film star idols,
drinking, loving, dying and even spaceships - were specifically chosen
because they presented a completely different aspect to Woody Guthries
public persona. Braggs role was to provide the musical platform for a
previously unexplored Guthrie.
The result was Mermaid Avenue, released in 1998. Bragg’s collaborators on
the project were American alt-country rockers, Wilco. Recordings began in
Wilco’s hometown of Chicago and then in Dublin, where English fiddler Eliza
Carthy and bluesman Corey Harris made their contributions. Natalie Merchant
also added her talents when Bragg was finishing the recordings in Boston.
So much material was recorded during those sessions that Mermaid Avenue
Volume II was issued two years later, in 2000. Both albums were nominated
for Grammy Awards.
Before the release of that second album, however, Bragg had returned to the
road, playing a 1999 UK tour fronting Billy Bragg & The Blokes. Among the
band members was the legendary Ian McLagan, the keyboards player with the
Small Faces and its later Rod Stewart incarnation, The Faces. The other
musicians in The Blokes were Ben Mandelson (lap steel guitar); Lu Edmonds
(electric guitar and vocals); Martyn Barker (drums); and Simon Edwards
The tour worked so well it was inevitable that The Blokes would be a
permanent band, playing with Bragg in the U.S. and the rest of Europe.
Just before the last UK General Election, in June 2001, Bragg launched
www.votedorset.net, a tactical voting campaign to unseat the
Conservative MP in Bragg’s Dorset constituency (where he now resides). Bragg
also turned his attention to campaigning for reform of the House of Lords
the UK’s second chamber by writing and publishing A Genuine Expression of
the Will of the People, a political pamphlet on the subject. It is available
in electronic form from the votedorset website.
Running concurrently with all this political activity, however, Bragg was
also working with The Blokes on his new album England, Half English. The
album, which explored Braggs notions about identity and Englishness, was
released on Monday 4th March, 2002 by sheer coincidence the precise 20th
anniversary of Braggs first-ever solo gig, the Sociology Disco at North
London Polytechnic on 4th March 1982.
On the 6th October Billy Bragg celebrated his long career with a double-CD
retrospective called Must I Paint You A Picture? The album features 40 of
the tracks that have defined his music and approach through the years.
Billy released the single ’We Laughed’ with Rosetta Life, a song Billy wrote
with patients facing life-threatening illness, as part of the Rosetta
Requiem project. It is still from Billy’s website.
CDNow - "Injecting
the best aspects of Americana to Bragg's inherently British approach makes this
one of the early contenders for folk-rock album of the year."