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Billy Bragg
Billy Bragg, May 2010 2.jpg
Bragg in 2010
Background information
Birth name Stephen William Bragg
Also known as William Bragg
Born (1957-12-20) 20 December 1957 (age 65)
Barking, Essex, England
Genres Folk punk, folk rock, indie folk, alternative rock, alternative country, Americana, country folk
Occupation(s) Singer-songwriter, musician, author
Instruments Vocals, guitar, bass guitar
Years active 1977–present
Labels Charisma, Go! Discs, Elektra, Cooking Vinyl, Dine Alone Records
Associated acts The Red Stars, The Blokes, Riff-Raff, Wilco, Joe Henry

Stephen William Bragg (born 20 December 1957), known as Billy Bragg, is an English singer-songwriter and left-wing activist. His music blends elements of folk music, punk rock and protest songs, with lyrics that mostly span political or romantic themes. His music is heavily centred on bringing about change and involving the younger generation in activist causes.

Early life

Bragg was born in 1957 in Barking, Essex (which is now in Greater London) to Dennis Frederick Austin Bragg, an assistant sales manager to a Barking cap maker and milliner, and his wife Marie Victoria D'Urso, who was of Italian descent. Bragg's father died of lung cancer in 1976, and his mother died in 2011.

Bragg was educated at Northbury Junior School and Park Modern Secondary School (now part of Barking Abbey Secondary School) in Barking, where he failed his eleven-plus exam, effectively precluding him from going to university. However he developed an interest in poetry at the age of twelve, when his English teacher chose him to read a poem he had written for a homework assignment on a local radio station. He put his energies into learning and practising the guitar with his next-door neighbour, Philip Wigg (Wiggy); some of their influences were the Faces, Small Faces and the Rolling Stones. He was also exposed to folk and folk-rock music during his teenage years, citing Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan as early influences on his songwriting.

During the rise of punk rock and new wave in the late 1970s, Elvis Costello also served as an inspiration for Bragg. He was also particularly influenced by the Clash, whom he'd seen play live in London in May 1977 on their White Riot Tour, and again at a Rock Against Racism carnival in April 1978, which he admits was the first time he really stepped into the world of music as it is used for political activism. The experience of the gig and preceding march helped shape Bragg's left-wing politics, having previously "turned a blind eye" to casual racism.


Early career

In 1977 Bragg formed the punk rock/pub rock band Riff Raff with Wiggy. The band decamped to rural Oundle in Northamptonshire in 1978 to record a series of singles (the first on independent Chiswick Records) which did not receive wide exposure. After a period of gigging in Northamptonshire and London, they returned to Barking and split in 1980. Taking a series of odd jobs including working at Guy Norris' record shop in Barking high street, Bragg became disillusioned with his stalled 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 completing three months' basic training, he bought himself out for £175 and returned home.

Bragg peroxided his hair to mark a new phase in his life and began performing frequent concerts and busking around London, playing solo with an electric guitar under the name Spy vs Spy (after the strip in Mad magazine).

Billy Bragg shot by Kris Krug
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. 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 music publisher Chappell & Co., so Jenner agreed to release them as a record. Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy (credited to Billy Bragg) 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 albeit 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.

Within months Charisma had been taken over by Virgin Records and Jenner, who had been made redundant, 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, at the fixed low price of £2.99. Around this time, Andy Kershaw, an early supporter at Radio Aire in Leeds, was employed by Jenner as Bragg's tour manager. (He later became a BBC DJ and TV presenter, and he and Bragg appeared in an episode of the BBC TV programme Great Journeys in 1989, in which they travelled the Silver Road from Potosí, Bolivia, to the Pacific coast at Arica, Chile.)

Though never released as a Bragg single, album track and live favourite "A New England", with an additional verse, became a Top 10 hit in the UK for Kirsty MacColl in January 1985. Since MacColl's early death, Bragg always sings the extra verse live in her honour.

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"). This was followed in 1985 by 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, singing the title track. Bragg later collaborated with Rosselson on the song "Ballad of a Spycatcher".

In the same year, he embarked on his first tour of North America, with Wiggy as tour manager, supporting Echo & the Bunnymen. The tour began in Washington D.C. and ended in Los Angeles. On the same trip, in New York, Bragg unveiled his "Portastack", a self-contained, mobile PA system weighing 35 lbs (designed for £500 by engineer Kenny Jones), the wearing of which became an archetypal image of the singer at that time. With it, he was able to busk outside the New Music Seminar, a record industry conference.

Late 1980s and early 1990s

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 Between the Wars. He enjoyed his only Number 1 hit single in May 1988, a cover of the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home", a shared A-side with Wet Wet Wet's "With a Little Help from My Friends". Both were taken from a multi-artist re-recording of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band titled Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father coordinated by the NME in aid of the charity Childline. Wet Wet Wet's cover dominated radio airplay and its video was shown over three consecutive weeks on Top of the Pops; in week four, Bragg went on the programme to play his cover, with regular accompanist Cara Tivey on piano.

Bragg released his fourth album, Workers Playtime, in September 1988. With this album, Bragg added a full backing band and accompaniment, including Tivey on piano, Danny Thompson on double bass and veteran Micky Waller on drums. Wiggy earned a co-production credit with Joe Boyd.

In August 1989 Bragg took lead vocal on the ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ sampling Norman Cook's UK top 40 hit "Won’t Talk About It", which was a double-A-side with "Blame It On the Bassline". The track was a bigger hit a year later with Lindy Layton replacing Bragg as lead vocal.

In May 1990 Bragg released the political mini-LP The Internationale on his and Jenner's own short-lived label Utility, which operated independently of Go! Discs, to which Bragg was still contracted. The songs were, in part, a return to his solo guitar style, but some 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. Though the album only reached Number 34 in the UK Charts, Bragg described it as "a reassertion of my rights as an individual ... and a childish two fingers [to Go! Discs boss Andy Macdonald, who'd recently signed a distribution deal with entertainment industry giant PolyGram]."

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

His sixth studio album Don't Try This at Home was recorded in the shadow of the build-up to the Gulf War and subsequent ground war, inspiring the track "Rumours of War". Although there is social comment ("The Few", "North Sea Bubble"), it was intended as a more commercial pop album, released in September 1991. A more commercial sound and aggressive marketing had no appreciable effect on album sales, and after a grueling, 13-month world tour with a full band (the Red Stars, led by Wiggy), and a period of forced convalescence after appendicitis, Bragg left Go! Discs in summer 1992, paying back the remainder of his advance in return for all rights to his back catalogue.

Late 1990s and 2000s

Bragg released the album William Bloke in 1996 after taking time off to help new partner Juliet Wills raise their son Jack. (There is a reference to him in the track "Brickbat": "Now you'll find me with the baby, in the bathroom.") After the ambitious instrumentation of Don't Try This at Home, it was a simpler record, musically, more personal and even spiritual, lyrically (its title a pun on the name of 18th-century English poet William Blake, who is referenced in the song "Upfield").

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. The first album was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Contemporary Folk Album category. A third batch, Mermaid Avenue Vol III, and The Complete Sessions followed in 2012 to mark Woody Guthrie's centennial. A rift with Wilco over mixing and sequencing the first album led to Bragg recruiting his own band, The Blokes, to promote the album live. 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.

A developing interest in English national identity, driven by the rise of the BNP and his own move from London to rural Dorset in 1999, informed his 2002 album England, Half-English (whose single, "Take Down The Union Jack" put him back on Top of the Pops in the Queen's Golden Jubilee year) 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. 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.

In December Bragg previewed tracks from his forthcoming album Mr. Love & Justice at a one-off evening of music and conversation to mark his 50th birthday at London's South Bank. The album was released in March 2008, the second Bragg album to be named after a book by Colin MacInnes after England, Half-English. The same year, during the NME Awards ceremony, Bragg sang a duet with British solo act Kate Nash. They mixed up two of their greatest hits, Nash playing "Foundations", and Bragg redoing "A New England". Also in 2008, Bragg played a small role in Stuart Bamforth's film A13: Road Movie.

In 2009, Bragg was invited by London's South Bank to write new lyrics for "Ode to Joy", the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (original libretto by Friedrich Schiller), since adopted as an international anthem of unity. The London Philharmonic Orchestra performed it at the Royal Festival Hall in front of the Queen and Bragg met her afterwards to earn "brownie points" with his mother, also in attendance.


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.

Bragg was invited by Michael Eavis to curate the Leftfield stage at Glastonbury Festival in 2010, which he has continued to do in subsequent years. He also took part in the Bush Theatre's 2011 project Sixty-Six Books, where he wrote a piece based upon a book 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.

On 18 March 2013, five years after Mr. Love & Justice, Bragg released the studio album Tooth & Nail. Recorded in five days at the home studio of musician/producer Joe Henry in South Pasadena it featured 11 original songs, including one written for the Bush Theatre and a Woody Guthrie cover. Stylistically, it continued to explore genres of Americana and Alternative country, a natural progression since Mermaid Avenue. The album was a commercial success, becoming his best charting record since 1991's Don't Try This at Home.

Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
Bragg with Joe Henry at the Union Chapel, Islington.

In February 2014, Bragg started a series of "radio shows" on Spotify, in which he talked listeners through self-curated playlists of "his favourite tracks and artists, and uncovering some little-known musical gems." On 14 April 2014, Bragg put out Live at the Union Chapel, a souvenir album and DVD of a show he played on 5 June 2013 at the Union Chapel in London, featuring songs from Tooth & Nail as well as favourites from his back catalogue.

In February 2016, Bragg was given the Trailblazer Award at the inaugural Americana Music Association UK Awards in London. Following that, in September he was given the Spirit of Americana Free Speech Award at the Americana Music Association US Awards in Nashville.

In August 2016, Bragg released his eleventh album, a collaboration with Joe Henry, Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad, recorded at various points on a journey between Chicago and Los Angeles by train in March. It reached number 28 in the UK Album Charts and number one in the UK Americana album chart. The pair started a dual Shine a Light tour at the Americana Music Festival in Nashville in September 2016, and taking them across the States and Canada, the United Kingdom and Ireland. In April 2017, they played in Australia.

Faber published Bragg's second nonfiction book (after 2006's The Progressive Patriot), Roots, Radicals and Rockers in June 2016, a history of the British skiffle movement, tracing the form from its 1950s boom back to ragtime, blues, jazz and American folk music. On BBC Music Day 2017, he helped unveil a blue plaque marking the studio (Trident) where the late David Bowie recorded two classic albums and the single Space Oddity, in Soho; he joined album sleeve designer George Underwood and BBC Radio London’s Robert Elms. In November, he released all six tracks from the mini-album Bridges Not Walls as downloads through the Billy Bragg website, followed by the single Full English Brexit through Cooking Vinyl.

In April 2018, Bragg was invited to deliver a Bank of England Flagship Seminar; his presentation was titled Accountability: the Antidote to Authoritarianism. The speech was made available on the Bank of England's website. At the Ivor Novello Awards (the Ivors) in May, he accepted the PRS Outstanding Contribution to British Music award. Also in May, his official biography Still Suitable for Miners was published in a new, 20th anniversary updated edition.

He ended 2018 touring New Zealand and Australia. In Auckland, he road-tested a new live format for 2019 (first tried out in Toronto), One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. The idea was to play three consecutive shows over three nights at each venue: the first night a current, mixed Bragg set; the second from his first three albums; the third from his second three albums. "It’s a way of keeping things interesting," he said. The tour would cover the United States and the UK and Ireland throughout 2019.

In May, Faber and Faber published The Three Dimensions of Freedom, a short polemic by Bragg intended, according to the publisher's blurb, to "protect ourselves from encroaching tyranny." The author urges readers to "look beyond [the] one-dimensional notion of what it means to be free" and "by reconnecting liberty to equality and accountability, restore ... the three dimensions of freedom."

Politics and activism

For all of Bragg's 30-year-plus recording career he has been involved with grassroots, broadly leftist, political movements, and this is often reflected in his lyrics. He has also recorded and performed cover versions of famous socialist anthems such as "The Internationale" and "The Red Flag".

Bragg travelled twice to the Soviet Union in 1986, the year Mikhail Gorbachev started to promote the policies of perestroika and glasnost. He played a gig in Leningrad, and the Festival of Song in the Struggle for Peace in Kiev.

Billy Bragg on After Dark
On TV series After Dark in 1987
Supporting a demonstration against police misuse of anti-terrorism legislation; Trafalgar Square, London, 23 January 2010

Bragg has been an opponent of fascism, racism, bigotry, sexism and homophobia, and is a supporter of a multi-racial Britain. As a result, he has conflicted with far-right groups such as the British National Party (BNP).

At the NME Awards in 2007, on the fifth anniversary of Joe Strummer's death, Bragg founded Jail Guitar Doors (taking its name from a song by the Clash), an organisation aimed at supplying instruments to prisons and encouraging prisoners to address problems in a non-confrontational way. An American chapter of the organisation was launched in 2009 by MC5's Wayne Kramer.

Bragg supports both Scottish and Welsh independence.

Personal life

Bragg supports West Ham United FC.


  • Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy (1983)
  • Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (1984)
  • Talking with the Taxman About Poetry (1986)
  • Workers Playtime (1988)
  • The Internationale (1990)
  • Don't Try This at Home (1991)
  • William Bloke (1996)
  • England, Half-English (2002) (with the Blokes)
  • Mr Love & Justice (2008)
  • Tooth & Nail (2013)
  • Bridges Not Walls (2017)
  • The Million Things That Never Happened (2021)

See also

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