Billy Bragg

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Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg, May 2010 2.jpg
Billy Bragg in 2010
Background information
Birth name Stephen William Bragg
Born (1957-12-20) 20 December 1957 (age 56)
Barking, Essex, England
Genres Folk punk,[1] folk rock, indie folk, alternative rock, alternative country, Americana
Occupations Singer-songwriter, musician, activist
Instruments Vocals, guitar
Years active 1977–present
Labels Charisma, Go! Discs, Elektra, Cooking Vinyl
Associated acts The Blokes, Riff-Raff, Wilco
Website billybragg.co.uk

Stephen William "Billy" Bragg (born 20 December 1957) is an English singer-songwriter and left-wing activist.[2][3] His music blends elements of folk music, punk rock and protest songs, and his lyrics mostly deal with political or romantic themes.

Early life[edit]

Bragg was born in 1957 in Barking, Essex,[4] one of the sons of Dennis Frederick Austin Bragg, an assistant sales manager to a Barking cap and hat maker, and his wife, Marie Victoria D'Urso; both of Bragg's parents are dead.[5] Bragg was educated at Barking Abbey Secondary School in Barking.[6][7] Due to an uneventful academic career, he began to practice guitar with his next door neighbor, Wiggy; some of their influences being The Faces, The Small Faces, and The Rolling Stones.[8] Bragg was particularly influenced by The Clash and attended a Rock Against Racism carnival in April 1978 where they performed.[9] Prior to the concert, Bragg was reluctant to speak out against racism; his attendance in the audience inspired Bragg to join in the cause, as he knew he was not alone.[9]

Career[edit]

In 1977 Bragg formed the punk rock/pub rock band Riff Raff with Wiggy, and toured London's pubs and clubs.[8] The band released a series of singles, which did not receive wide exposure.[8] 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 passed basic training.[10]

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).[11]

Bragg performing at South by Southwest in 2008

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.[12] 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). Peel insisted he would have played the song even without the biryani and later played it at the correct speed.[12]

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.[citation needed]

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"). 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 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". 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. From 1984–1985 he toured North America.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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.[13]

Performing with The Imagined Village at Camp Bestival, 20 July 2008

In an attempt to receive more popularity in the US,[14] 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.[15] 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.[16]

At the 2005 Beautiful Days Festival in Devon, Bragg teamed up with the Levellers to perform a short set of songs by or associated with 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.[17] 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".[18]

In 2008 Bragg played a small role in Stuart Bamforth's film "A13: Road Movie".[19] Bragg is featured alongside union reps, vicars, burger van chefs and Members of Parliament[19] in a film that explored "the overlooked, the hidden and the disregarded."[19]

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.[20]

Bragg curated the Leftfield stage at Glastonbury Festival 2010.[21] 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. Bragg performed a set of the Guthrie songs that he had set to music for Mermaid Avenue during the Hay Literary Festival in June 2012, he also performed the same set on the Friday night of the 2012 Cambridge Folk Festival. Mermaid Avenue Vol. III and Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions were also released in early 2012.

On 18 March 2013, Bragg released his latest 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 (music) and Alternative country, both of which he has said he has been playing and writing regularly since Mermaid Avenue (1998).[22][23]

Politics[edit]

Bragg has been involved with grassroots, broadly leftist, political movements,[3] 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." 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."[24] In an interview with Bullz-Eye, Bragg stated:

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.”[25]

Bragg acknowledges that the aesthetic quality of his voice is lacking and that not everyone appreciates his music,[26] rather he utilizes his music as a mode of communication to those willing to listen and consider his statements.

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.[27]

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.

On TV series After Dark in 1987

On 12 June 1987, the night after the UK General Election, he appeared on a notable edition of After Dark. In 1999, he appeared before a commission that debated possible reform of the House of Lords.[28]

Bragg has criticised musician Phil Collins for his anti-homelessness single "Another Day in Paradise", stating: "Phil Collins might write a song about the homeless, but if he doesn't have the action to go with it he's just exploiting that for a subject."[29]

During the 2001 UK general election, Bragg promoted tactical voting in an attempt to unseat Conservative Party candidates in Dorset, particularly in South Dorset and West Dorset.[30]

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.[31] Bragg has participated in a series of debates with members of the Socialist Workers Party who disagree with his argument. Bragg supports Scottish independence and Welsh independence.[32] In 2014, Bragg praised musician David Bowie for encouraging discussion amongst English people on the matter by publicly supporting Scotland's membership of the United Kingdom and urging residents of Scotland to reject independence. Bragg was quoted: "Bowie's intervention encourages people in England to discuss the issues of the independence referendum, and I think English people should be discussing it, so I welcome his intervention."[33]

Supporting a demonstration against police misuse of anti-terrorism legislation; Trafalgar Square, London, 23 January 2010

Bragg has been an outspoken opponent of fascism, racism,[9] 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.[34]

During the 2005 general election campaign in the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency, Bragg supported Oona King, the Labour Party's pro-Iraq war candidate, over George Galloway, the anti-war Respect Party's candidate, due to a belief that splitting the left-wing vote would allow the Conservatives to win the seat.[35] Galloway overturned King's 10,000-strong majority to become his party's only MP.[36]

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".[37]

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 a speech at Speakers' Corner in London's Hyde Park saying, "Millions are already facing stark choices: are they willing to work longer hours for less money, or would they rather be unemployed? I don’t see why the bankers at RBS shouldn’t be asked the same."[38]

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".[39]

Bragg was also very active in his hometown of Barking as part of Searchlight magazine'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.[40]

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 (taking its name from the song by The Clash), which supplies instruments to prisoners to encourage them to address problems in a non-confrontational way.[41]

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.[42]

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.[43]

In July 2011 Bragg 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.[44]

In 2011 Bragg joined the Occupy Movement protests.[45]

In 2013, Bragg urged people not to celebrate the death of former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, but was scathing of her legacy. Bragg was quoted:

The death of Margaret Thatcher is nothing more than a salient reminder of how Britain got into the mess that we are in today. Of why ordinary working people are no longer able to earn enough from one job to support a family; of why there is a shortage of decent affordable housing... of why cynicism and greed became the hallmarks of our society. Raising a glass to the death of an infirm old lady changes none of this. The only real antidote to cynicism is activism. Don't celebrate - organise![46]

In 2014 Bragg joined the March in March anti-government protests [47] in Sydney, Australia

Discography[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Billy Bragg's 'Mao-ist Sing-Along' at SXSW". NPR. 14 March 2008. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  2. ^ Collett-White, Mike (18 January 2010). "Singer Billy Bragg to stop paying taxes over bank bonuses". Reuters. 
  3. ^ a b Walker, Kirsty (19 January 2010). "Billy Bragg in Facebook protest as he refuses to pay income tax unless RBS bonuses are curbed". Daily Mail (London). 
  4. ^ Deborah Ross (11 November 2002). "Billy Bragg: Rebel with a cause". The Independent (London). Retrieved 9 January 2010. 
  5. ^ Nick Barratt (31 March 2007). "Family Detective: Billy Bragg". London: Telegraph. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  6. ^ Andrew Collins (2007). Still Suitable for Miners: Billy Bragg (revised and updated ed.). London: Virgin Books. ISBN 978-0-7535-1245-6. 
  7. ^ Info re deaths of Billy Bragg's parents
  8. ^ a b c "Billy Bragg Biography". Retrieved 17 October 2013. 
  9. ^ a b c Bragg, Billy. "The Day I Realised Music Could Change the World". The Guardian. Retrieved 17 October 2013. 
  10. ^ Collins, Andrew (2007). Still Suitable for Miners: Billy Bragg (rev & upd ed.). London: Virgin Books. pp. 69–79. ISBN 978-0-7535-1245-6. 
  11. ^ Collins, Andrew (1998), Billy Bragg, Still Suitable for Minors, p. 204 
  12. ^ a b "Keeping It Peel". Radio 1. BBC. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  13. ^ "Joe Hill". Retrieved 17 October 2013. 
  14. ^ "Billy Bragg". Left of the Dial. Retrieved 16 October 2013. 
  15. ^ Shindo, Charles. "Guthrie, Woody (1912-1967)". St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture. Retrieved 16 October 2013. 
  16. ^ "Billy Bragg and Wilco: Man in the Sand (1999)". nytimes.com. Retrieved 5 October 2013. 
  17. ^ "Billy Bragg: Mr Love Justice". NZ: Love music. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  18. ^ "Billy Bragg and Kate Nash Mash at NME Awards". Anti. Retrieved 28 January 2010. [dead link]
  19. ^ a b c "A13 Road Movie". [dead link]
  20. ^ "Pressure Drop". Wellcome collection. April–May 2010. 
  21. ^ Glastonbury Festival announces return of Leftfield with Billy Bragg (press release), UK, retrieved 23 July 2011 
  22. ^ "Tooth & Nail". Allmusic.com. 5 June 2013. 
  23. ^ "Billy Bragg, The Serpa of Heartbreak". PBS. 5 June 2013. 
  24. ^ Gazette, The (16 June 2008). "Interview: Billy Bragg". Canada.com. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  25. ^ Harris, Will (20 October 2008). "A Chat with Billy Bragg, Billy Bragg interview, Mr. Love & Justice". Bullz-eye.com. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  26. ^ Havery, Gavin. "Theatre Critics". Northern Echo. Retrieved 17 October 2013. 
  27. ^ Denselow, Robert. "Bragg, Billy". Oxford Music Online. Retrieved 16 October 2013. 
  28. ^ "Ensuring the will of the people". BBC News. 22 July 1999. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  29. ^ Brunner, Rob (30 June 2000). "Bragg-ing Rites". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 9 February 2014. 
  30. ^ Ward, Lucy (19 April 2001). "Billy Bragg drives in voting wedge". theguardian.com. Retrieved 6 October 2013. 
  31. ^ Rhyme and Reason, BBC Radio 4, 25 January 2011
  32. ^ "Take Down The Union Jack". Billybragg.co.uk. Archived from the original on 6 October 2008. Retrieved 17 August 2011. 
  33. ^ "Oldest Brit winner David Bowie enters independence debate". BBC News. 20 February 2014. Retrieved 21 February 2014. 
  34. ^ "Jonathan Freedland: End of the peer show". London: The Guardian. 18 February 2004. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  35. ^ "Rockin' the vote: Billy Bragg for Blair? – Red Pepper". Red Pepper. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  36. ^ "Politics | Election 2005 | Galloway's East End street fight". BBC News. 6 May 2005. Retrieved 28 January 2010. 
  37. ^ "Bushell On The Box". garry-bushell.co.uk. Archived from the original on 16 July 2008. Retrieved 17 August 2011. 
  38. ^ Asthana, Anushka. "BraggRBS". The Times (UK). Retrieved 1 February 2010. 
  39. ^ "General Election 2010: Billy Bragg pledges to support Liberal Democrats". The Daily Telegraph (London). 22 April 2010. 
  40. ^ "Bragg Vs Barnbrook in Barking & Dagenham". Searchlight. 19 April 2010. Retrieved 23 February 2011. 
  41. ^ "Jail Guitar Doors". Retrieved 23 January 2011. 
  42. ^ Wilkes, David (6 January 2011). "Musician Billy Bragg victim of malicious 'hypocrite' hate mail attack in Dorset village". The Daily Mail (London). Retrieved 28 April 2011. 
  43. ^ Morris, Steven (6 January 2011). "Billy Bragg's neighbours urged to drive him out of village". The Guardian (UK). Retrieved 6 January 2011. 
  44. ^ "Never buy The Sun". Retrieved 13 July 2011. 
  45. ^ Perry, Kevin E.G. (25 October 2011). "Protest And Occupation: Billy Bragg Interviewed On The Future Of The Left". The Quietus. Retrieved 6 October 2013. 
  46. ^ "Billy Bragg: 'Margaret Thatcher's death should not be celebrated'". MSN. 9 April 2013. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  47. ^ "March in March: Tony Abbott, Gina Rinehart cop blasts in Sydney protest". The Sydney Morning Herald. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]