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Music / Billy Bragg

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Still waiting for that Great Leap Forward.

"I don't mind being labelled a political songwriter. The thing that troubles me is being dismissed as a political songwriter."

The Bard of Barking.

Stephen William Bragg (born 20 December 1957) is an English singer-songwriter and political activist. He started out in a pub band called Riff Raff, with a sound inspired by bands like The Rolling Stones and The Small Faces. But it was The Clash, whom he saw on the White Riot Tour and Rock Against Racism, that would change his life and align him with Punk Rock, 2 Tone and the Red Wedge.

Spending some time busking solo electric in London led to his first EP, Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy. His song "A New England" was later Covered Up by Kirsty MacColl, whose extra verse he now always adds In Memoriam when he plays it. His love songs are known for their wistfulness and their focus on very mundane and grounded working-class relationships.

In 1983, Bragg received his big breakthrough by happenstance. Legendary BBC DJ John Peel had mentioned on air that he'd really love to have some Indian food right now, and Bragg responded by buying him a mushroom biryani, rushing it to the BBC and hand-delivering it to Peel...along with a copy of Life's a Riot. Luckily for Billy, Peel absolutely loved the EP and played it on the air immediately. Bragg became a regular fixture and listener favorite on Peel's show for the remainder of the DJ's life, taped 11 Peel Sessions for the program and was even one of Peel's very few regular in-the-studio guests.

Bragg earned his first Top 40 in 1985 with the acoustic folk tune "Between the Wars", which he performed - live in the studio as opposed to lip-synching - on Top of the Pops. That song was followed by several more hits in both the UK and on American alternative rock radio. His cover of The Beatles' "She's Leaving Home" made it all the way to #1 in the UK in 1988, albeit as a double A-side with Wet Wet Wet's more popular take on "With a Little Help from My Friends".

However, he's best known for his political material and grassroots left-wing activism, and his involvement with labour unionism and organized opposition to overreaching corporatism, racism, homophobia and misogyny. In the late '90s he collaborated with Wilco on the Mermaid Avenue project, three albums of Woody Guthrie lyrics never before set to music.

Studio album/EP discography:

  • 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)
  • Bloke on Bloke: More from the William Bloke Sessions (1997)
  • Mr. Love & Justice (2008)
  • Tooth & Nail (2013)
  • Bridges Not Walls (2017)

with Wilco:

  • Mermaid Avenue (1998)
  • Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (2000)
  • Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions (2012), which includes both of the above plus the previously unreleased Vol. III

Tropes in his work:

  • Miniscule Rocking: Often, with many songs around the two-minute mark.
  • Posthumous Collaboration: The Mermaid Avenue albums.
  • Protest Song: Roughly half the Bragg canon. Probably the standout example in 80s Britain, and heavily influenced by Woody Guthrie and The Clash.
  • Shout-Out:
    • Life's a Riot With Spy vs. Spy refers to the satirical comic strip from MAD.
    • "I was 21 years when I wrote this song/I"m 22 now but I won't be for long" is a quote from Simon & Garfunkel's "Leaves That Are Green".
    • His album William Bloke is (obviously) a reference to William Blake. The title of Bloke on Bloke, a compilation of outtakes from that album, recalls Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde.
    • "I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night" is a double dose: it's Alfred Hayes' poem-turned-song "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night", a tribute to the famous labour activist/songwriter/martyr, rewritten in tribute to Phil Ochs.
  • Silly Love Songs: The other half of the Bragg canon.
  • Take That!: As a political songwriter, there are naturally many.
    • "Scousers Never Buy The Sun": In the wake of the News Of The World phone-hacking scandal, the song reminds people why Liverpudlians still don't buy The Sun, 20+ years after Hillsborough.
    • "Thatcherites" is an early-90s Take That! at the Margaret Thatcher era as a whole, including privatization, scabs and "Little Johnny" Major.
  • Three Chords and the Truth: His default writing and performing style is very basic and unadorned.
  • Wish Upon a Shooting Star: From "A New England":
    I saw two shooting stars last night
    I wished on them, but they were only satellites
    Is it wrong to wish on space hardware?
    I wish, I wish, I wish you'd care