Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg

born on 20/12/1957 in Barking, England, United Kingdom

Billy Bragg

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Billy Bragg
Born December 20 1957
Barking, London, England

Stephen William Bragg (born 20 December 1957), better known as Billy Bragg, is an English alternative rock musician and left-wing activist.[1][2] His music blends elements of folk music, punk rock and protest songs, and his lyrics mostly deal with political or romantic themes. His music career has lasted more than 30 years.

Early life

Bragg was born in 1957 in Barking, Essex,[3] the son of Dennis Frederick Austin Bragg, an assistant sales manager to a Barking cap and hat maker, and his wife, Marie Victoria D'Urso.[4] Bragg was educated at Barking Abbey Secondary School in Barking.[5]


In 1977, Bragg formed the punk rock/pub rock band Riff Raff, and toured London's pubs and clubs. The band released a series of singles, which did not receive wide exposure. He also worked in Guy Norris Records in Barking. Bragg became disillusioned with his music career, and in May 1981 joined the British Army as a recruit destined for the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars of the Royal Armoured Corps. After three months, he bought his way out of the army for £175 and returned home, having attended basic training but having never served in a regiment as a soldier.[6]

Bragg began performing frequent concerts and busking around London, playing solo with an electric guitar. His roadie at the time was Andy Kershaw, who became a BBC DJ (Bragg and Kershaw later, in 1989, appeared in an episode of the BBC TV programme, "Great Journeys", in which they travelled the Silver Road from Potosí, Bolivia, to the Pacific coast at Arica, Chile).[7]

Bragg's demo tape initially got no response from the record industry, but by pretending to be a television repair man, he got into the office of Charisma Records' A&R man Peter Jenner.[8] Jenner liked the tape, but the company was near bankruptcy and had no budget to sign new artists. Bragg got an offer to record more demos for a music publisher, so Jenner agreed to release them as a record. Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy was released in July 1983 by Charisma's new imprint, Utility. Hearing DJ John Peel mention on-air that he was hungry, Bragg rushed to the BBC with a mushroom biryani, so Peel played a song from Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy although at the wrong speed (since the 12" LP was, unconventionally, cut to play at 45rpm).[8] Peel insisted he would have played the song 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. Stiff Records' press officer Andy Macdonald who was setting up his own record label, Go! Discs received a copy of Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy. He made Virgin an offer and the album was re-released on Go! Discs in November 1983. In 1984, he released Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, a mixture of political songs (e.g., "It Says Here") and songs of unrequited love (e.g., "The Saturday Boy"). The following year he released Between the Wars, an EP of political songs that included a cover version of Leon Rosselson's "The World Turned Upside Down" the EP made the top 20 of the UK Singles Chart and earned Bragg an appearance on Top of the Pops. Bragg later collaborated with Rosselson on the song, "Ballad of the Spycatcher". In 1985, his song "A New England", with an additional verse, became a Top 10 hit in the UK for Kirsty MacColl. After MacColl's early death, Bragg always sang the extra verse in her honour. In 1984-1985 he toured North America.

In 1986, Bragg released Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, which became his first Top 10 album. Its title is taken from a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky and a translated version of the poem was printed on the record's inner sleeve. Back to Basics is a 1987 collection of his first three releases: Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, and the Between The Wars EP. Bragg released his fourth album, Workers Playtime, in September 1988. With this album, Bragg added a backing band and accompaniment. In May 1990, Bragg released the political mini-LP, The Internationale. The songs were, in part, a return to his solo guitar style, but some songs featured more complicated arrangements and included a brass band. The album paid tribute to one of Bragg's influences with the song, "I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night", which is an adapted version of Earl Robinson's song, "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", itself an adaptation of a poem by Alfred Hayes.

The album Don't Try This at Home was released in September 1991, and included the song, "Sexuality", which reached the UK Singles Chart. Bragg had been persuaded by Go! Discs' Andy and Juliet Macdonald to sign a four-album deal with a million pound advance, and a promise to promote the album with singles and videos. This gamble was not rewarded with extra sales, and the situation put the company in financial difficulty. In exchange for ending the contract early 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.

Bragg released the album William Bloke in 1996 after taking time off to help raise his son. Around that time, Nora Guthrie (daughter of American folk artist Woody Guthrie) asked Bragg to set some of her father's unrecorded lyrics to music. The result was a collaboration with the band Wilco and Natalie Merchant (with whom Bragg had worked previously). They released the album Mermaid Avenue in 1998, and Mermaid Avenue Vol. II in 2000. A rift with Wilco over mixing and sequencing the album led to Bragg recruiting his own band, The Blokes, to promote the album. The Blokes included keyboardist Ian McLagan, who had been a member of Bragg's boyhood heroes The Faces. The documentary film Man in the Sand depicts the roles of Nora Guthrie, Bragg, and Wilco in the creation of the Mermaid Avenue albums.

In 2004, Bragg joined Florida ska-punk band Less Than Jake to perform a version of 'The Brightest Bulb Has Burned Out' for the Rock Against Bush compilation.

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 performed guitar and lead vocals on "Police and Thieves", and performed guitar and backing vocals on "English Civil War", and "Police on my Back".

In 2007, Bragg moved closer to his English folk music roots by joining the WOMAD-inspired collective The Imagined Village, who recorded an album of updated versions of traditional English songs and dances and toured through that autumn. Bragg released his album Mr. Love & Justice in March 2008.[9] This was the second Bragg album to be named after a book by Colin MacInnes. In 2008, during the NME Awards ceremony, Bragg sang a duet with British solo act Kate Nash. They mixed up their two greatest hits, Nash playing "Foundations", and Bragg redoing his "A New England".[10] Bragg also collaborated with the poet and playwright, Patrick Jones, who supported Bragg's Tour.

In 2008, Bragg played a small role in Stuart Bamforth's film "A13: Road Movie".[11] Bragg is featured alongside union reps, vicars, burger van chefs and Members of Parliament[11] in a film that explored "the overlooked, the hidden and the disregarded."[11]

He was involved in the play Pressure Drop at the Wellcome Collection in London in April and May 2010. The production, written by Mick Gorden, and billed as "part play, part gig, part installation", featured new songs by Bragg. He performed during the play with his band, and acted as compere.[12]

Bragg curated the Leftfield stage at Glastonbury Festival 2010.[13]

He will also be partaking in the Bush Theatre's 2011 project Sixty Six where he has written a piece based upon a chapter of the King James Bible.[14]


Bragg has been involved with grassroots, broadly leftist, political movements,[2] and this is often reflected in his lyrics. Bragg has recorded and performed cover versions of famous socialist anthems The Internationale and The Red Flag. Bragg said in an interview: "My theory is this; I'm not a political songwriter. I'm an honest songwriter. I try and write honestly about what I see around me now."[15] In another interview, Bragg said: "I don't mind being labelled a political songwriter. The thing that troubles me is being dismissed as a political songwriter."[16] In an interview with Bullz-Eye, Bragg said:

I would then say that I am Mr. Love and Justice, and to check out the love songs. Thats how I capture people. People do say to me, I love your songs, but I just cant stand your politics. And I say, Well, Republicans are always welcome. Come on over! I would hate to stand at the door, saying to people, Do you agree with these positions? If not, you cant come in.[17]

Bragg expressed support for the 1984 miners' strike, and the following year he formed the musicians' alliance Red Wedge, which promoted the Labour Party and discouraged young people from voting for the Conservative Party in the 1987 general election. Following the defeat of the Labour Party and the repeated victory of Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative government, Bragg joined Charter88 to push for a reform of the British political system.

Also during the 1980s, Bragg travelled to the Soviet Union a few times, after Mikhail Gorbachev had started to promote the policies of perestroika and glasnost. During one trip, he was accompanied by MTV, and during another trip he was filmed for the 1998 mini-documentary Mr Bragg Goes to Moscow, by Hannu Puttonen.

In 1999, Bragg appeared before a commission that debated possible reform of the House of Lords.[18]

During the 2001 UK general election, Bragg attempted to combat voter apathy by promoting tactical voting in an attempt to unseat Conservative Party candidates in Dorset, particularly in South Dorset and West Dorset. The Labour Party won South Dorset with their smallest majority, and the Conservative majority in West Dorset was reduced.

Bragg has developed an interest in English national identity, apparent in his 2002 album England, Half-English and his 2006 book The Progressive Patriot. The book expressed his view that English socialists can reclaim patriotism from the right wing. He draws on Victorian poet Rudyard Kipling for an inclusive sense of Englishness.[19] Bragg has participated in a series of debates with members of the Socialist Workers Party who disagree with his argument. Bragg also supports Scottish independence.[20]

Bragg has been an outspoken opponent of fascism, racism, bigotry, sexism and homophobia, and is a supporter of a multi-racial Britain. As a result, Bragg has come under attack from far right groups such as the British National Party. In a 2004 The Guardian article, Bragg was quoted as saying:

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.[21]

Also in 2004, Bragg collaborated with American ska punk band Less Than Jake to record a song for the Rock Against Bush compilation album.

During the 2005 general election campaign in the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency, Bragg supported Oona King, a pro-Iraq war Labour candidate, over George Galloway, an anti-war Respect Party candidate, due to a belief that splitting the left-wing vote would allow the Conservatives to win the seat.[22] Galloway overturned King's 10,000-strong majority to become his party's only MP.[23]

In March 2006, journalist Garry Bushell (a former Trotskyist who ran as a candidate for the English Democrats in 2005) accused Bragg of "pontificating on a South London council estate when we all know he lives in a lovely big house in West Dorset".[24]

In January 2010, Bragg announced that he would withhold his income tax as a protest against the Royal Bank of Scotland's plan to pay bonuses of approximately of £1.5 billion to staff in its investment banking business. Bragg set up a Facebook group, made appearances on radio and television news programmes, and made speech at Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park. Bragg said,Millions are already facing stark choices: are they willing to work longer hours for less money, or would they rather be unemployed? I dont see why the bankers at RBS shouldnt be asked the same.[25]

On the eve of the 2010 general election, Bragg announced that he would be voting for the Liberal Democrats because "they've got the best manifesto".[26] He also backed the Lib Dems for tactical voting reasons. Bragg later expressed disappointment with the party, stating that 'the Lib Dems had failed democracy'.[27]

Bragg was also very active in his hometown of Barking as part of Searchlight's Hope not Hate campaign, where the BNP's leader Nick Griffin was standing for election. At one point during the campaign Bragg squared up to BNP London Assembly Member Richard Barnbrook, calling him a "Fascist Racist" and saying "when you're gone from this borough, we will rebuild this community". The BNP came third on election day.[28]

Bragg is a board director and key spokesman for the Featured Artists Coalition, a body representing the rights of recording artists. Bragg founded the organisation Jail Guitar Doors, which supplies instruments to prisoners to encourage them to address problems in a non-confrontational way.[29]

Bragg is a regular at the Tolpuddle Martyrs' Festival, an annual event celebrating the memory of those transported to Australia for founding a union in the 1830s.[30]

In January 2011, news sources reported that 20 to 30 residents of Bragg's Dorset hometown, Burton Bradstock, had received anonymous letters viciously attacking Bragg and his politics, and urging residents to oppose him in the village. Bragg claimed that a BNP supporter was behind the letters, which argued that Bragg is a hypocrite for advocating socialism while living a wealthy lifestyle, and referred to him as anti-British and pro-immigration.[31]

In July 2011 Billy joined the growing protests over the News of the World phone hacking affair with the recording of "Never Buy the Sun" which references many of the scandals key points including the Milly Dowler case, police bribes and associated political fallout. It also draws on the 22 year Liverpool boycott of The Sun for their coverage of the Hillsborough Disaster.[32]

Personal life

Billy lives on the Dorset coast with his wife Juliet and son Jack.[33]


Main article: Billy Bragg discography
  • Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy (1983)
  • Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (1984)
  • Talking with the Taxman about Poetry (1986)
  • Back to Basics (1987)
  • Workers Playtime (1988)
  • The Internationale (1990)
  • Don't Try This at Home (1991)
  • William Bloke (1996)
  • Bloke on Bloke (1997)
  • Mermaid Avenue (1998) (with Wilco)
  • Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (2000) (with Wilco)
  • England, Half-English (2002) (with the Blokes)
  • Mr. Love & Justice (2008)

Further reading

  • Andrew Collins (2007). Still Suitable for Miners: Billy Bragg, revised and updated, London: Virgin Books.
  • Billy Bragg, The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging (London: Bantam Press, 2006) ISBN 978-0-593-05343-0
  • Billy Bragg, How we all lost when Thatcher won: (, 5 March 2009)[34]

See also

  • Red Wedge
  • Charter88
  • George Gimarc


  1. Collett-White, Mike, Singer Billy Bragg to stop paying taxes over bank bonuses, 18 January 2010.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Walker, Kirsty, Billy Bragg in Facebook protest as he refuses to pay income tax unless RBS bonuses are curbed, Daily Mail, 19 January 2010.
  3. Deborah Ross, Billy Bragg: Rebel with a cause, The Independent, 11 November 2002. URL accessed on 9 January 2010.
  4. Nick Barratt Published: 12:01 am BST 31 Mar 2007, Family Detective: Billy Bragg, Telegraph, 31 March 2007. URL accessed on 28 January 2010.
  5. Bragg school named
  6. Andrew Collins (2007). Still Suitable for Miners: Billy Bragg, revised and updated, p. 6979, London: Virgin Books.
  7. Billy Bragg, Still Suitable for Minors, Andrew Collins, 1998 ed, p. 204.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Radio 1 Keeping It Peel Billy Bragg. BBC. Retrieved on 28 January 2010.
  9. Billy Bragg: Mr Love Justice. Retrieved on 28 January 2010.
  10. Billy Bragg and Kate Nash Mash at NME Awards. Retrieved on 28 January 2010.
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 A13 Road Movie.
  12. Pressure Drop, AprilMay 2010.
  13. Glastonbury Festival announces return of Leftfield with. Billy Bragg. Retrieved on 23 July 2011.
  14. Bush Theatre. Bush Theatre. Retrieved on 23 July 2011.
  15. LiP | Interview | Bill Bragg Interview: Preaching to the Unconverted. Retrieved on 28 January 2010.
  16. Gazette, The (16 June 2008). Interview: Billy Bragg. Retrieved on 28 January 2010.
  17. Harris, Will (20 October 2008). A Chat with Billy Bragg, Billy Bragg interview, Mr. Love & Justice. Retrieved on 28 January 2010.
  18. UK Politics | Ensuring the will of the people, BBC News, 22 July 1999. URL accessed on 28 January 2010.
  19. Rhyme and Reason, BBC Radio 4, 25 January 2011
  20. Take Down The Union Jack. Archived from the original on 6 October 2008. Retrieved on 17 August 2011.
  21. Jonathan Freedland: End of the peer show | Politics | The Guardian, The Guardian<!, 18 February 2004. URL accessed on 28 January 2010.
  22. Rockin' the vote: Billy Bragg for Blair? Red Pepper. Red Pepper<!. Retrieved on 28 January 2010.
  23. Politics | Election 2005 | Galloway's East End street fight, BBC News, 6 May 2005. URL accessed on 28 January 2010.
  24. Bushell On The Box. Archived from the original on 16 July 2008. Retrieved on 17 August 2011.
  25. BraggRBS. The Times. Retrieved on 1 February 2010.
  26. General Election 2010: Billy Bragg pledges to support Liberal Democrats, The Daily Telegraph, 22 April 2010.
  27. Template error: argument title is required.
  28. Bragg Vs Barnbrook in Barking & Dagenham. Searchlight (19 April 2010). Retrieved on 23 February 2011.
  29. Jail Guitar Doors. Retrieved on 23 January 2011.
  30. Template error: argument title is required.
  31. Billy Bragg's neighbours urged to drive him out of village, The Guardian, 6 January 2011. URL accessed on 6 January 2011.
  32. Never buy The Sun. Retrieved on 13 July 2011.
  33. We Love Leftie Lord of the Manor Daily Mail, retrieved 22nd September 2011.
  34. Logged in as click here to log out, Billy Bragg: Thatcher's victory over the miners led directly to this economic crisis, The Guardian, 5 March 2009. URL accessed on 28 January 2010.

External links

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Billy Bragg

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  • Official website
  • Braggtopia
  • Billy Bragg collection at the Internet Archive's live music archive
  • Billy Bragg at
  • [1] Billy Bragg's Big Busk At Lincoln Center, 27 July 2011
This page was last modified 22.09.2011 21:24:02

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