It was thirty-three years ago today when the Saturday boy from Essex who would become the UK’s foremost political singer-songwriter released his first record, Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy. It contained seven songs, honed live, bashed out on a punk rock electric guitar, and wrapped in a utilitarian, single-colour sleeve. It charted at number 30 in the national charts. Billy Bragg had arrived. His first record company bio stated that he had ‘risen from obscurity to semi-obscurity.’
Politicised by a Tory government operating without love or justice (hard to imagine now), this previously adrift young man from Barking, with few career opportunities, bought himself out of the British Army in 1981 (‘the best £175 I ever spent’), determined to make a living out of song. After Life’s A Riot, he blazed a modest trail with similarly direct follow-up Brewing Up with … and ‘difficult third album’ Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, on which Billy succumbed to the possibility of accompaniment, with additional guitar, piano and flugelhorn.
Despite his above-parapet leftist activism – best summed up by 1985’s classic Between the Wars EP – his next album, Workers Playtime, positively jangled, with the highest ratio of love songs to protest songs yet. He played the full pop card with Don’t Try This at Home, even making a jaunty video for the Aids-related ‘Sexuality’, but went back to basics for William Bloke, reflecting a changing geopolitical world after the Berlin Wall. In 1998, Nora Guthrie, daughter of the late folk legend Woody, invited Billy to set a treasure trove of his unsung lyrics to music, which he did in collaboration with US alt-rock stars Wilco. the resulting Mermaid Avenue albums, Grammy-nominated, repositioned Billy in the United States, and opened up a new frontier for his rootsy, heartfelt music. His next solo album, recorded with his regular band the Blokes, brought it all back home: England, Half-English.
His stripped-back tenth solo album, Tooth and Nail, recorded in five days in acclaimed songwriter/producer Joe Henry’s basement studio in Pasadena, allowed Billy Bragg to confidently state: ‘I did it my way.’ It was his highest charting LP in the UK since Don’t Try This at Home in 1991.
In March 2016, for Shine a Light, his eleventh long-player (and third in explicit collaboration with another artist), Billy reunited with Joe Henry for a trip across America, and through Americana, guided by the lights of the mythic American railway. They boarded at Chicago’s Union Station and set out for LA, ‘looking to reconnect with the culture of American railroad travel and the music it inspired’; 2,728 miles later, the result was a series of field recordings that hymned the very act of getting from A to B. the Observer called it ‘a muscular chronicle’, and it reached No. 1 in the UK Americana album chart. the US tour, which began in Nashville in September, would cover even more ground, and steam across the UK and on into Australia in 2017.
The intervening three-and-a-bit decades have been marked by numerous milestones and waystations for Billy, political and personal, including going topping the singles chart, having a street named after him, being mentioned in Bob Dylan’s memoir and meeting the Queen.
Named Trailblazer of the Year at the Americana Music Association UK Awards in February 2016, Billy was subsequently awarded the Spirit of Americana/Free Speech in Music at the Americana Music Awards in September, co-presented by the First Amendment Center. In his middle years, he really did start to straddle continents.
After 13 studio albums, eight compilations, two box sets, and countless tours across countless international borders, the elder statesman of today, bearded and ‘ruggedly handsome’ (according to one Facebook fan), refuses to slip into the dotage of self-parody. In his fifties, neither the fight nor the fight songs have left Billy Bragg.
For every protest song (‘Between the Wars’, ‘There Is Power in A Union’, ‘Never Buy the Sun’), there is a declaration of love (‘Must I Paint You a Picture’, ‘Brickbat’ or, from Tooth and Nail, ‘Chasing Rainbows’). ‘Mixing pop and politics’ is a tall order, but where there’s a starting block, there’s a great leap forward.
Governments rise and fall, fashions come and go, pop stars are built up and knocked down by a fickle media, and Billy Bragg adapts to survive. His enemies remain essentially the same: craven politicians, inhumane corporations, plus assorted racists, fascists, bullies, reactionaries and people with floppy fringes.
Orator, entertainer, rabble-rouser, negotiator, pamphleteer, the fabled ‘big-nosed bard from Barking’, Billy Bragg is many things. A regular contributor to the national debate as TV pundit and newspaper columnist, he continues to sharpen his pen as a writer, and his first book, the considered, wide-ranging treatise on English identity the Progressive Patriot, opened up a whole new vista of possibility for a man who never stops engaging with all the trouble in the world. Whether it’s unionized workers, constitutional reform, bankers’ bonuses, illegal wars or the undemocratic commandeering of a portable toilet backstage at a festival, Billy Bragg will help fight your corner.
To quote his enduring live favourite ‘Levi Stubbs’ Tears’: The world falls apart, but some things stay in place. That optimism lives on in ‘Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day’ from Tooth and Nail, since enshrined in a book of his selected lyrics, A Lover Sings, published by Faber in 2015.
“Take it from someone who knows the glass is half-full, tomorrow’s going to be a better day, no matter what the siren voices say … we’re going to make it that way.”