Stephen William Bragg (born 20 December 1957 in Barking, Essex, England), better known as Billy Bragg, is an English alternative rock musician who blends elements of folk music, punk rock and protest songs. His lyrics mostly deal with political or romantic themes. His music career has lasted more than 30 years, and he has collaborated with Natalie Merchant, Johnny Marr, Kate Nash, Leon Rosselson, members of R.E.M., Michelle Shocked, Less Than Jake, Kitty Daisy & Lewis, Kirsty MacColl, and Wilco. Bragg often plays and speaks at the Tolpuddle Martyrs festival. Bragg Close, a street in Dagenham, Greater London, is named in his honour. He now lives in Dorset.
Stephen William Bragg was born in 1957, the son of Dennis Frederick Austin Bragg, a sales manager's assistant in a Barking cap and hat makers, and his wife, Marie Victoria D'Urso.
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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, Greater London. Bragg became disillusioned with his music career, and in May 1981 he joined the British Army as a trooper destined for the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars of the Royal Armoured Corps. After a few months, he bought his way out of the army for ??175 and returned home, having finished his training but not joining his regiment.
Bragg began constantly performing 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 appeared in an episode of the BBC TV programme "Great Journeys", in which they travelled the Silver Road from Potos?, Bolivia to the Pacific coast at Arica, Chile).
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. Jenner liked the tape, but the company was near bankruptcy and he 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, although at the wrong speed (since the 12" LP was, unconventionally, cut to play at 45rpm). Peel insisted he would have played the song even without the biryani, and he 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. 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". 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 ten hit in the UK for Kirsty MacColl. After MacColl's early death, Bragg always sang the extra verse in her honour.
In 1986, Bragg released Talking with the Taxman about Poetry, which became his first top ten 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 the first three releases: Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, and the EP Between The Wars. 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". It is an adapted version of "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night".
The album Don't Try This at Home was released in September 1991, and included the song "Sexuality", which made it into 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 of 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.
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 in "Police and Thieves", and performed guitar and backing vocals in "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.. 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: While Nash played "Foundations", Bragg redid his major single "A New England". Bragg also collaborated with Poet And Playwright Partrick Jones who supported Billy Braggs Tour. He also Set a Piece for Patrick Jones Album Released in March 2009.
In 2008 Bragg played a small role in Stuart Bamforth's film "A13: Road Movie". Bragg featured alongside union-reps, vicars, burger van chefs and Members of Parliament in a film that explored "the overlooked, the hidden and the disregarded" (Rayna Nadeem).
Billy Bragg at Bestival 2007
Bragg has been involved with grassroots political movements, and this is often reflected in his lyrics. Bragg backed the 1984 miners' strike, and the following year he formed the left-wing group 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. Billy Bragg has recorded and performed cover versions of famous communist anthems The Internationale and The Red Flag.
During the 1980s, Bragg travelled to the Soviet Union a few times, after Mikhail Gorbachev had started to promote 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 second chamber. In the same year, Bragg was heavily criticised by Nicky Wire of the Manic Street Preachers for appearing to intervene in the Crappergate argument (in which Manic Street Preachers requested their own toilet at Glastonbury 1999).
Performing with The Imagined Village at Camp Bestival - 20 July 2008
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 Dorset South and West Dorset. In the 2001 election, the Labour Party won Dorset South 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. Bragg has been involved in a series of debates with some socialists who disagree, notably the Socialist Workers Party. Bragg also supports Scottish independence.
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 by far right groups such as the British National Party. In a 2004 article in The Guardian, 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.
Also in 2004, Bragg collaborated with American ska punk band Less Than Jake to record a song for the Rock Against Bush compilation album.
Bragg supported the pro-Iraq war candidate Oona King against the anti-war George Galloway in the 2005 general election in the constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow, due to a belief that splitting the left-wing vote would allow the Conservative Party to win the seat. Galloway went on to overturn King's 10,000-strong majority to become his party's only MP.
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".
However, regarding his music and politics, 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." In another interview, Bragg said: "I don't mind being labeled a political songwriter. The thing that troubles me is being dismissed as a political songwriter." 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. That???s how I capture people. People do say to me, ???I love your songs, but I just can???t 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 can???t come in.???
Bragg is a board director and key spokesman for the Featured Artists Coalition, a body representing the rights of recording artists.