Singer, songwriter, activist
Briton Billy Bragg began his career as a self-described “hard-core folksinger.” His marriage of the angry, “in-your-face” sensibility of punk rock with the humanitarian, activist ideals of traditional folk music made Bragg a particularly strange hybrid in the music business. Influenced by the seminal punk group the Clash and grim social conditions under conservative former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, Bragg set his unapologetic socialist politics to spare electric guitar melodies in service to both his music career and the higher purpose of inspiring his listeners to rethink their social and political complacency. Yet throughout his career, Bragg has managed to avoid the preachy posturing of many a pop star by mixing his messages with arch wit and self-mocking warmth.
Born Steven-William Bragg on December 20, 1957, Bragg was raised in the East London neighborhood of Barking—a working-class locale of row houses that produced his characteristic Cockney accent. He left school at 16, bought a cheap guitar, and embarked on a series of day jobs that included stints as a bank messenger and goatherd. By most accounts he actually learned how to play his guitar from his boyhood chum and current guitarist-confidante, Wiggy. Bragg’s music career began in earnest in 1977 when he and Wiggy formed the punk band Riff Raff. Bragg played rhythm guitar and contributed vocals. After releasing several independent singles, Riff Raff unveiled an EP titled / Wanna Be a Cosmonaut in July of 1978. Their musicianship of dubious quality—a Melody Maker reviewer remarked of the record, as reprinted in the Billy Bragg Songbook: “Riff Raff, ‘I Want to be a Cosmonaut,’ I wish he would and take his record with him”—Riff Raff drew little acclaim and folded early in 1981. ‘“Failure to come to terms with abject poverty,’ was the official reason for the split,” the Songbook explained.
Suddenly unemployed and frustrated by the dissolution of his band, Bragg joined Her Majesty’s Forces at Catterick Camp, where he hoped to learn tank-driving skills. He realized immediately, though, that he had no business in the military, served out his 90-day term, and retired from the service. Bragg returned to Barking, where he concentrated on both his songwriting and facility with the guitar.
While paying his dues as a musician, according to a 1991 Monthly Review interview with author David Batstone, Bragg became galvanized politically by the 1983 reelection of Margaret Thatcher, whose Tory government had ruthlessly cut the social programs Bragg had taken for granted. He told Batstone: “Then in ’84, of
For the Record…
Born Steven (one source says Stephen) William Bragg, December 20, 1957, in Barking, London, England; father was a building-supplies salesman.
Singer, songwriter, activist, 1977—. Worked variously as a shipping clerk, bank messenger, dog groomer, gas station employee, record shop assistant, and goatherd. Member of band Riff Raff, 1977-1981; began solo career, performing in pubs, billed as Spy vs. Spy, 1982; released Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy on GO! Discs, 1983; toured U.K., Europe, and U.S., 1984; performed at Feed the Miners benefits in British coalfields, 1984. Military service: British Army, 1981.
Addresses: Manager —Peter Jenner; c/o Sincere Management, 6B, Bravington Rd., London W9 3AH, England. Record company —Elektra Entertainment, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
course, was the miners’ strike, which was the big political catalyst for my generation.… A lot of us who had started to write political songs had the opportunity to find out whether those songs actually meant anything in a real political context.”
After a series of subway performances and club gigs, at which Bragg—billed as Spy vs. Spy—showcased his increasingly political songs, a lucky break arrived when a prescient soul gave him an opportunity to make demo recordings; several of these stripped-down “live” recordings would eventually find their way onto Bragg’s first album, Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy. Recorded in three days in February of 1983, the seven-song, roughly 17-minute EP contained what Bragg called during a 1984 appearance in Boston “highspeed punk-folk numbers.” The record, featuring both sweet-clever love songs—“The Milkman of Human Kindness”—and fierce indictments of British class structure and diminishing economic opportunity—“To Have and to Have Not”—did not immediately find its niche with any record company.
However, visionary Peter Jenner, at the time creative director of Charisma Records, spotted in Bragg’s unusual talent advantages where other record-company recruiters saw only liabilities. Bragg’s first effort was finally released in July of 1983 on Charisma’s Utility label. Although Life’s a Riot was not an immediate hit, The Billy Bragg Songbook reports that Melody Maker contributor Adam Sweeting was in the vanguard when he called Bragg a “hit and run attraction” spinning “deceptively robust melodies and razor-sharp earthy wit.” London disc jockeys John Peel and Kid Jensen gave Bragg’s career a further boost by playing cuts from the record on their popular radio shows.
That September, Charisma was swallowed by Virgin Records, and Bragg and Utility were transferred to the GO! Discs label; there, the record began to take off. Buoyed by public enthusiasm for the track “A New England,” which featured the refrain “I don’t want to change the world/I’m not looking for a new England/I’m just looking for another girl,” Life’s a Riot reached the top spot on the British independent charts in January of 1984—remaining there for three months—and eventually sold over 500,000 copies to earn a gold record. Putting his friend-of-the-workingman philosophy to practical use, Bragg caused a brouhaha when he insisted that copies of the record be labeled with a maximum-price sticker, thereby guaranteeing that retailers would not charge more than a low, preset price; as the record had been made on a shoestring budget, Bragg reasoned, the savings should be passed on to the consumer. Triumphant in the ensuing struggle with infuriated distributors of his record, Bragg was soon on tour in Europe and the U.S. warming up for better-known acts. September of that year saw him performing in British coalfields for a Feed the Miners benefit.
Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, the singer’s second solo release, appeared in October of 1984. It reached Number 16 on the British LP chart—without a single or video—before dropping from sight. The 11-song release added organ and trumpet to Bragg’s trademark lacerating rhythm guitar. Brewing Up mixed outrage at the careless acceptance of undisguised sexist and right-wing propaganda in England’s newspapers, in “It Says Here,” with bitter contemplation of betrayed emotional commitment, in “The Myth of Trust.”
The next record, 1985’s four-track Between the Wars EP —released in conjunction with a Jobs for Youth tour sponsored by Britain’s Labour Party—featured the song “Between the Wars,” which radiated Bragg’s ripening songwriting gift and vocal nuances; a tender, pacifist ballad, sung from a workingman’s point of view, the song captures Bragg’s suspicion of the military’s role in economic recovery and his belief that it is the fundamental responsibility of government to provide its citizens with “a living wage.” Arguably one of his most moving compositions, “Between the Wars” has an anthem-like quality that surfaces frequently in Bragg’s work.
The American music press began to take notice of Bragg in 1985. People contributor Susan Schindehette summed up initial U.S. response: “In concert he just stands there in a spotlight wearing blue jeans and a polo shirt, bashing on an old electric guitar. Then he stops and talks about miners’ strikes and the welfare state. What’s wrong with this guy?” American students, nonetheless, seemed to feel there was nothing wrong with Bragg; his records regularly held their own at the top of the college charts.
The previous year Bragg had articulated his politics and motivation for his growing American audience. He stated in Rolling Stone, “Some things have to be defended: the welfare state, free education, free health care, the right for old people to retain their dignity. My government just doesn’t care anymore, and if that doesn’t inspire you to write songs…” With typical understatement, he added, “I’m not a revolutionary. Just someone who managed to overcome the shyness of my generation to sing political songs.”
1987 marked the release of Bragg’s third LP, Talking With the Taxman About Poetry. Taxman further enlarged Bragg’s sound—this time with a variety of instrumental, and some vocal, accompaniment; the raw style so evident on the early records had been enriched by a distinct flavor of pop and rhythm and blues. “While purists might bitch,” allowed Rolling Stone reviewer David Handelman, “the result is a winning mesh, by turns as political as the Clash, as clever as [acerbic wit] Elvis Costello, as melodic as [Kinks front man] Ray Davies and as rocking as [rock and roll pioneer] Chuck Berry.” The inclusion of songs like “There Is Power in a Union” and “Levi Stubbs’ Tears” indicates that Bragg was equally concerned with the ideas of communist theory and the comforting power of Motown tunes.
When not in the studio, Bragg continued to tour, joined by local grassroots activists who gathered petition signatures for human rights organizations, encouraged voter registration, and distributed free condoms in the lobbies of concert halls. In 1988 he made news by cofounding Red Wedge—described by The Progressive as “a coalition of artists and musicians supporting the Labour Party and various progressive causes in Great Britain”—and by releasing a live EP called Help Save the Youth of America, culled from performances in Moscow, London, and Washington, D.C.
Also in 1988 Bragg unveiled Workers Playtime, its title borrowed from a post-World War II radio show. Fans and critics again found Bragg flexing his musical muscles; Workers Playtime includes a haunting a cappella examination of the special bond between soldiers called “Tender Comrade,” a bouncy sing-along titled “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” full of clever, self-referential couplets that address Bragg’s mix of “pop and politics,” and perhaps the record’s strongest cut, “Must I Paint You a Picture,” which exposes a guilty lover claiming that “Virtue never tested is no virtue at all.”
With Workers Playtime American critics woke up to Billy Bragg. Said Michael Small in People, “Bragg defiantly bucks the trends by writing sweet melodies that are easy to sing and adding lyrics that are clear, clever, and meaningful.” Stereo Review contributor Steve Simels, on the other hand, averred, “Like anybody else who’s got strong opinions, Bragg can be a bloody bore as often as he can be compelling,” concluding, “He doesn’t have a good beat, and you can’t dance to him.” But most reviewers echoed David Fricke’s Rolling Stone comment on Workers Playtime: “Bragg’s pithy, poignant wordplay, combining … tragicomic ingenuity … with the directness of a political tract, is a treat in itself.”
Bragg moved a giant step closer toward his goal of media access for his causes with the 1991 release of Don’t Try This at Home. On it Bragg effortlessly mixes flawed romance, weighty social issues, ingenious puns, and a head-spinning variety of musical genres, all in an impressively broadened, though still heavily accented, voice. In England the single “Sexuality”—from which a very un-Bragg-like dance mix was made—became a runaway hit. The song’s dynamic and responsible attitude toward the title subject, its catchy melody, and lines like “Just because you’re gay/I won’t turn you away” seemed positively revolutionary and attracted attention on both sides of the Atlantic. Teaming with Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, members of the rock band REM, Bragg also recorded the rollicking, countrytinged “You Woke Up My Neighborhood.” Another standout on the record was “Cindy of a Thousand Lives,” its lush, surging production almost obscuring the cut’s dark lyrics of envisioned ruin and paranoia.
Don’t Try This at Home, which presented Bragg for the first time with a full band, received raves from almost every critical corner. One dissenter, Rolling Stone contributor Rob Tannenbaum, groused that “[Bragg’s] songs are so full of Britannia … that his albums should come with footnotes.” Calling the record “morose” and “sometimes listless,” Tannenbaum nevertheless mustered some praise: “With his consistently fresh rhymes and winning sense of self-parody, Bragg sings about racism, jingoism and other liberal themes without succumbing to a stiff political correctness.” Sally Margaret Joy was less ambivalent in Melody Maker, enthusing, ‘“Don’t Try This at Home’ is Bragg’s most complete and accessible album to date. He has waded into the waters of pop and his principles haven’t dragged him down.”
The further spread of Bragg’s message is difficult to predict; what is certain, however, is that he will continue to use his personal experiences to explore the human condition and urge his listeners to social action—whether or not he succeeds critically and commercially. As he stated to David Fricke in Rolling Stone of his aspirations for society, “Because we can’t get Utopia tomorrow doesn’t mean we should stop trying.”
(With Riff Raff)/Wanna Be a Cosmonaut (EP), Chiswick Records, 1978.
Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy (mini-LP; includes “The Milkman of Human Kindness,” “To Have and to Have Not,” and “A New England”), GO! Discs/Utility Records, 1983.
Brewing Up With Billy Bragg (includes “It Says Here” and “The Myth of Trust”), GO! Discs, 1984.
Between the Wars EP (includes “Between the Wars”), GO! Discs, 1985.
Back to Basics (contains Life’s a Riot With Spy vs. Spy, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, and Between the Wars EP), Elektra, 1987.
Talking With the Taxman About Poetry (includes “There is Power in a Union” and “Levi Stubbs’ Tears”), Elektra, 1987.
Help Save the Youth of America, Elektra, 1988.
Workers Playtime (includes “Tender Comrade,” “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards,” and “Must I Paint You a Picture”), Elektra, 1988.
The Internationale (EP), Elektra, 1990.
Don’t Try This at Home (includes “Sexuality,” “You Woke Up My Neighborhood,” and “Cindy of a Thousand Lives”), Elektra, 1991.
The Peel Sessions: 1983-88, Strange Fruit, 1992.
Also recorded several independent singles with Riff Raff.
The Billy Bragg Songbook, International Music Publications, 1985.
Audio, January 1989.
In These Times, November 13, 1991.
Melody Maker, September 14, 1991.
Metro Times (Detroit), November 20, 1991.
Monthly Review, February 1991.
Mother Jones, November/December 1990.
Musician, December 1991.
New Musical Express, September 14, 1991.
New Statesman & Society, June 22, 1990.
People, July 29, 1985; December 5, 1988; August 13, 1990; February 3, 1992.
The Progressive, July 1988.
Pulse!, November 1991.
Rolling Stone, September 12, 1985; March 26, 1987; June 2, 1988; November 17, 1988; January 12, 1989; October 18, 1990; November 15, 1990; January 24, 1991; June 27, 1991 ; October 13, 1991; January 23, 1992.
Select, September 1991.
Spin, April 1991; November 1991.
Stereo Review, February 2, 1989.
—Julia M. Rubiner
"Bragg, Billy." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/bragg-billy
"Bragg, Billy." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved November 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/bragg-billy
Born: Steven William Bragg; Barking, Essex, England, 20 December 1957
Best-selling album since 1990: Mermaid Avenue (with Wilco, 1998)
Hit songs since 1990: "Sexuality," "You Woke Up My Neighborhood"
Always political, always outspoken, and always witty, British singer/songwriter Billy Bragg counts the Clash and Bob Dylan as equal influences on his folk rock protest songs. Bragg started off as a brash singer in the 1980s, admiring the Clash for their outspoken, do-it-yourself ethos and unabashed political beliefs, and infused his own music with barbed wit and picayune observations of life, class stratification, irresponsible governments, and male-female relationships. Bragg's music has historically sold well in his native country, but he mostly enjoyed a cult following in the United States during the early part of his career.
Bragg grew up in the East London suburb of Barking, a working-class neighborhood that accounts for his Cockney accent and his approach to songwriting. At age sixteen Bragg left school and started a spate of odd jobs, including working as a goat herder and a bank messenger, and bought a cheap guitar. His guitarist friend Wiggy, with whom Bragg still plays, taught him how to play, and the two formed a band called Riff Raff in 1977. The band split by 1981, and Bragg became a solo artist. Galvanized by the reelection of Margaret Thatcher, Bragg found his muse: political injustice. Angered by Thatcher's cuts to social services, and the miners' strike of 1984 in England, Bragg wrote some political songs and produced an EP that eventually landed him a deal with Charisma Records' Utility label. Through a series of record label shuffles, Bragg wound up at Go!Discs, after which his song "A New England" reached the top spot on Britain's independent charts in January 1984. The refrain of the song sums up Bragg's lyrical skills: "I don't want to change the world / I'm not looking for a new England / I'm just looking for another girl." It also shows his ability to mesh the political and the personal within a song.
Many years and several albums later Bragg broke through in the United States with the humorously titled Don't Try This at Home (1991), his most pop-minded, accessible album to date. The album even garnered him a number two hit on the Billboard Modern Rock chart with the sly, witty "Sexuality," which pokes fun at sexual mores and politics with its chorus "Sexuality / Young and warm and wild and free / Sexuality / Your laws do not apply to me." Thanks to "Sexuality," with the jangly guitar work of former Smiths member Johnny Marr, and the country-tinged love song "You Woke Up My Neighborhood," the album was his first to appeal to American radio. It also warmed up American audiences to his political leanings, which became prized later in the decade.
Bragg's political views and his ability to turn them into insightful melodic songs no doubt appealed to Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody Guthrie, the American folksinger who had performed at Communist Party rallies in support of their fight against fascism. Guthrie commissioned Bragg, who in turn sought out Wilco, the alternative country band, to write and perform music for unreleased Woody Guthrie lyrics. The ensuing Mermaid Avenue project helped boost Bragg's visibility in the United States and secured his position as one of pop music's more unusual talents: a singer/songwriter with a biting, witty intelligence who manages to work everything from class inequality and global warming to the politics of interpersonal relationships into consistently engaging pop tunes that are never boring or preachy.
Spot Light: Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2
In the spring of 1995 Woody Guthrie's daughter Nora invited Billy Bragg to visit the Guthrie Archive in New York. Sensing a kinship, and hoping he might be the person to provide the musical context, she showed Bragg thousands of unpublished lyrics her father had written prior to his death. Bragg told the British publication The New Statesman, "We've had similar influences. But the political angle really binds me to Woody. I'm writing songs about unions, too, and there's not many of us about." Bragg recruited the Chicago alternative country rock band Wilco to collaborate with him on a Guthrie tribute, and the two proved an apt pairing: Bragg, for his Socialist, literate songwriting, and Wilco, for its keen understanding of American roots music. The album Mermaid Avenue (1998), with Bragg and Wilco songwriter Jeff Tweedy sharing composing credits, was recorded in Dublin, Ireland, and has sold more than 500,000 copies. Named for the street on Coney Island, New York, where Guthrie lived with his family after World War II, Mermaid Avenue is a timeless folk rock classic, from the bawdy "Walt Whitman's Niece" to the cavernous yearning of "California Stars" and the nonsense rhyming lyrics in the children's song "Hoodoo Voodoo." A follow-up, Mermaid Avenue, Vol. 2 (1999), was recorded shortly thereafter, and both albums were nominated for Grammy Awards. A companion documentary on the project's genesis, Billy Bragg & Wilco: Man in the Sand (1999), offers a more intimate look. The Mermaid Avenue project boosted the career of both parties and sparked a renewed interest in a seminal American folksinger.
Life's a Riot (Charisma/Utility, 1981); Talking with the Taxman about Poetry (Elektra, 1986); Don't Try This at Home (Elektra, 1991); Reaching to the Converted (Rhino, 1999). With Wilco: Mermaid Avenue (Elektra, 1998); Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II (Elektra, 1999). With the Blokes: England, Half English (Elektra, 2002).
A. Collins and B. Bragg, Billy Bragg: Still Suitable for Miners—the Official Biography (London, 2002).
"Bragg, Billy." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/bragg-billy
"Bragg, Billy." Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Popular Musicians Since 1990. . Retrieved November 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/bragg-billy