Billy Bragg Bio:
Billy Bragg was recently described by The Times newspaper as a national treasure. In the two decades of his career Bragg has certainly become 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 thus 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, which released a series of indie seven-inch singles including the wonderfully titled I Wanna Be a Cosmonaut. Riff Raff eventually split in 1981.
Bragg then 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.
Armed with a guitar, amplifier and voice Bragg launched himself on a solo musical career, ready at a moments notice to fill in as support for almost any act.
His songs are full of passion, anger and wit, with a stark strummed electric guitar and even starker vocals with a keen sense of melody and deeply humane lyrics; a one man Clash.
Releases include Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy which hit the UK Top 30 in early 1984. The album's opening track, The Milkman of Human Kindness, is infused with genuine insight and humour, as well as a sustained and personal commitment to political and humanitarian issues.
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'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 Stubbs' Tears, as well as Greetings to the New Brunette, a collaboration with The Smiths guitarist, Johnny Marr. The album was a Top 10 hit.
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 hooligans. Among the songs was the hit single, Sexuality.
Bragg then took time out to concentrate on his family. When he did return, in 1996, the resulting William Bloke album showed Bragg balancing his political and personal commitments, an unsentimental examination of his life and values. The album also marked a return to the stripped-down Bragg, often no more than Billy and his guitar. William Bloke, a Top 20 hit, was to be the last album of Braggs own songs in the Nineties. What followed next, however, was an extraordinary and unexpected project.
Woody Guthrie was the dean of American folk artists, the author of such classics as This Land is Your Land, Pastures of Plenty, Deportees, I Aint Got No Home In This World Any More and Rueben James. His giant influence on the entire course of American popular music, not least Bob Dylan's acknowledgement of his debt to Guthrie, made him one of the seminal artists of the 20th Century. At the time of his death, in 1967, however, Guthrie left behind some 2500 unfinished songs, the lyrics to which were belatedly discovered many years later in the archives.
Guthries daughter, Nora, first became aware of Billy Bragg in 1992, when he performed at New York Citys Summerstage birthday celebration for Woody.
Nora Guthrie decided that Bragg was the perfect candidate to set new music to the unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics. There was no record of any music being written, thus Bragg was given the task of reinventing original Woody Guthrie songs. The lyrics about New York City streets, film star idols, drinking, loving, dying and even spaceships - were specifically chosen because they presented a completely different aspect to Woody Guthries public persona. Braggs role was to provide the musical platform for a previously unexplored Guthrie.
The result was Mermaid Avenue, released in 1998. Bragg's collaborators on the project were American alt-country rockers, Wilco. Recordings began in Wilco's hometown of Chicago and then in Dublin, where English fiddler Eliza Carthy and bluesman Corey Harris made their contributions. Natalie Merchant also added her talents when Bragg was finishing the recordings in Boston.
So much material was recorded during those sessions that Mermaid Avenue Volume II was issued two years later, in 2000. Both albums were nominated for Grammy Awards.
Before the release of that second album, however, Bragg had returned to the road, playing a 1999 UK tour fronting Billy Bragg & The Blokes. Among the band members was the legendary Ian McLagan, the keyboards player with the Small Faces and its later Rod Stewart incarnation, The Faces. The other musicians in The Blokes were Ben Mandelson (lap steel guitar); Lu Edmonds (electric guitar and vocals); Martyn Barker (drums); and Simon Edwards (bass).
The tour worked so well it was inevitable that The Blokes would be a permanent band, playing with Bragg in the U.S. and the rest of Europe.
Just before the last UK General Election, in June 2001, Bragg launched www.votedorset.net, a tactical voting campaign to unseat the Conservative MP in Bragg's Dorset constituency (where he now resides). Bragg also turned his attention to campaigning for reform of the House of Lords the UK's second chamber by writing and publishing A Genuine Expression of the Will of the People, a political pamphlet on the subject. It is available in electronic form from the votedorset website.
Running concurrently with all this political activity, however, Bragg was also working with The Blokes on his new album England, Half English. The album, which explored Braggs notions about identity and Englishness, was released on Monday 4th March, 2002 by sheer coincidence the precise 20th anniversary of Braggs first-ever solo gig, the Sociology Disco at North London Polytechnic on 4th March 1982.
On the 6th October Billy Bragg celebrated his long career with a double-CD retrospective called Must I Paint You A Picture? The album features 40 of the tracks that have defined his music and approach through the years.
Billy released the single 'We Laughed' with Rosetta Life, a song Billy wrote with patients facing life-threatening illness, as part of the Rosetta Requiem project. It is still from Billy's website.