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Billy Bragg Biography

Home > Music > B > Bragg, Billy > Biography

Birth Name: Stephen William Bragg
Born: 1957/12/20
Birth Place: Barking, England, UK
Years Active: 1977–present
Genres: Folk Punk, Folk Rock, Alternative Rock

Billy Bragg (born Stephen William Bragg, December 20, 1957) is an English singer-songwriter and left-wing activist originally from Barking, Essex. His music blends elements of folk music, punk rock and protest songs, and his lyrics mostly deal with political or romantic themes.

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 at 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 passed basic training.

Bragg began performing frequent concerts and busking around London, playing solo with an electric guitar. His 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 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-inch LP was, unconventionally, cut to play at 45rpm). 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 and songs of unrequited love. In 1985, 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 U.K. 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 1986 Bragg released “Talking with the Taxman about Poetry,” which became his first Top 10 album. Its title was 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” was 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 U.K. Singles chart. 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 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.

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, featured new songs by Bragg. He performed during the play with his band, and acted as compere.

He took part in the Bush Theatre's 2011 project “Sixty Six” where he wrote a piece based upon a chapter of the King James Bible. “Mermaid Avenue Vol. III” and “Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions” were also released in early 2012. In 2013, Bragg released his studio album, five years since “Mr. Love & Justice,” titled “Tooth And Nail.” It featured 11 original songs, including one written for the Bush Theatre, and a Woody Guthrie cover. Stylistically, it continues to explore genres of Americana and alternative country, both of which he has said he has been playing and writing regularly since “Mermaid Avenue.”