Billy Bragg was recently described by The Times newspaper as a ‘national treasure’. In the two decades of his career Bragg has certainly made an indelible mark on the conscience of British music, becoming perhaps the most stalwart guardian of the radical dissenting tradition that stretches back over centuries of the country’s political, cultural and social history.
Bragg was born in December 1957. He was 19 years old when punk made its indelible contribution to English popular culture, in 1977. Bragg’s own particular contribution was to form a band called Riff Raff, who released a series of indie seven-inch singles including the wonderfully titled I Wanna Be a Cosmonaut.
True cultural significance, however, was to escape Riff Raff, who eventually split in 1981. Perhaps remarkably, given Bragg’s punk antecedents, he briefly joined a tank regiment of the British Army before buying his way out with what he later described as the most wisely spent £175 of his life.
Between time working in a record store, and absorbing his new-found love of blues and politically-inspired folk music, Bragg launched himself on a solo musical career. Armed with a guitar, amplifier and voice, he undertook a maverick tour of the concert halls and clubs of Britain, ready at a moment’s notice to fill in as support for almost any act.
His songs were full of passion, anger and wit, a ‘one man Clash’. This was not, however, what the major record companies wanted at the time – the punk attitudes of the late-Seventies had long since given way to the escapist rise of the New Romantics.
Bragg, however, finally managed to grab some studio time, courtesy of the Charisma label’s indie subsidiary, Utility. The result was Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy which, when eventually reissued as the first album on the new Go! Discs label, hit the UK Top 30 in early 1984.
Bragg’s stark musical backdrop – for the most part a roughly strummed electric guitar – and even starker vocals belied a keen sense of melody and passionate, deeply humane lyrics. The album’s opening track, The Milkman of Human Kindness, for instance, was a love song of the most compassionate variety, illustrating the very real humanist approach which informs his music. It was an early indicator that Bragg’s work would be infused with genuine insight and humour, as well as a sustained and personal commitment to political and humanitarian issues.
After seeing how the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher was changing the fabric of British society, particularly with the decimation of the mining communities, Bragg’s songs became more overtly political. He became a fixture at political rallies and benefits, particularly during the 1984 Miners Strike. Indeed, his second album, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (1984), opened with the fierce It Says Here, a strident song of political solidarity. The album went Top 20 in the UK; Bragg was on something of a roll. Instead, it took another two years before the release of his next album.
Much of his time was occupied with Red Wedge – an initiative to persuade young people to vote in the 1987 General Election (impicitly for Labour) for which he toured with such luminaries as The Style Council, Madness, The Communards and The Smiths.
His credentials as a songwriter, however, were confirmed when Kirsty MacColl released her classic version of Bragg’s A New England, a UK Top 10 hit in 1985.
Bragg’s third album, Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, was released in September 1986. It was his most successful and accomplished release to date, spawning a hit single, Levi Stubb’s Tears, as well as Greetings to the New Brunette, a collaboration with The Smiths’ guitarist, Johnny Marr. The album was a Top 10 hit.
Two years later Bragg found himself with a surprise hit – albeit on a double a-side single with Wet Wet Wet. As part of a children’s charity project, he recorded a version of The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home, accompanied by Cara Tivey on piano. This was subsequently released with Wet Wet Wet’s With a Little Help From My Friends, reaching number one in May 1988.
Later that year, in September 1988, Bragg released his fourth album, Workers Playtime. More focused on matters of the heart than political issues, the album also saw Bragg move away from the sparse arrangements that had characterised his earlier work. The public approved – the album was a Top 20 hit in the UK.
Bragg, however, entered the Nineties with his most political work to date. The Internationale mini-album, released in May 1990, included such tracks as The Marching Song of the Convent Battalions, Nicaraguita and The Red Flag.
The following year, 1991, Bragg issued the critically acclaimed Don’t Try This at Home, which reached number eight in the UK chart. With musical contributions from such stellar talents as Johnny Marr and, from REM, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe, the album ranged in themes from personal tragedies to a strident condemnation of racists and football hooli