The loathsome Garry Bushell, ex-Sounds scribe, ex-Trotskyite, and now gurning tabloid hack, once accused Billy Bragg of hypocrisy for residing in an affluent, predominantly white part of Dorset, rather than in a thriving multi-cultural community (indeed this complaint has also been wheeled out by other journos, like Deborah Ross who also finds fault with his buying expensive guitars). So apparently being a practising socialist means you are duty bound to remain poor and certainly not entitled to enjoy the benefits of living by the sea should your income allow you to do so. This, as any right thinking person understands, is bollocks, but is pretty much par for the course when you are willing to stand up for what you believe in or, heavens preserve us, espouse an opinion whilst remaining a working part of our notoriously dunderheaded music business.
A staunch unionist and outspoken opponent of fascism, racism, bigotry, sexism and homophobia Stephen William Bragg (b. December 20, 1957) turned his rudimentary guitar and untutored vocal skills - developed whilst part of punk rock also-rans Riff Raff - to the creation of erudite, rabble rousing anthems, bitingly insightful social commentary and genuinely moving love songs when he took the infinitely more challenging step of beginning a solo career after an abortive fling with the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars. His now legendary early years playing every gig he was offered, and busking when he wasn’t, initially caught the ears of Pete Jenner (a man who had previously managed Syd Barrett, Roy Harper, Marc Bolan and the Clash) who was instrumental in releasing his debut, the scrappy statement of intent, Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy (83), which Bragg consequently rushed along to the John Peel radio show with a complimentary Biriyani after hearing the DJ mention on air that he was hungry. Peel, as regularly happened, promptly played a track at the wrong speed (although later corrected this mistake, and insisted he would happily have played the song without the gastronomic bribe).
The album would later be re-released on Go! Discs, with a slightly increased promotional budget, and in 1984 he delivered the superior Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, closely followed by the overtly political ‘Between The Wars’ EP released, at least partly, in support of the miners strike, of which he was a vocal supporter. Bragg even managed a top ten hit in 1985 when his song ‘A New England’ was taken into the UK charts by Kirsty MacColl. Touring continued apace (indeed it was this continual slogging around the venues of the world that helped cement his well deserved reputation as a hugely entertaining live entertainer) and in 1986 he once again stepped his recorded output up a notch with the excellent Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, featuring what many fans consider to be his finest moment, the beautiful ‘Levi Stubbs' Tears’ and also gave him his first top ten album. He promptly parlayed this new found chart success into audience numbers on the Red Wedge tour, an overtly political endeavour aimed at informing young voters of the Labour Party's policies, but despite his (and others like Paul Weller’s) best efforts the Conservative Party nonetheless went on to win the 1987 general election. Fourth album Workers Playtime (88), possibly his finest work, was also his first foray into the use of backing musicians and was followed by yet another heavily politicised EP ‘The Internationale’ (90).
Don't Try This At Home was released in September 1991 and spawned his best known solo hit ‘Sexuality’. Sadly Go! Discs were now struggling and, after repaying a sizable advance Bragg left the label taking all the rights to his back catalogue with him – an astute artistic and business decision, indeed something very few artists can boast – eventually signing with Cooking Vinyl (a label renowned for its support of fine singer songwriters like Mark Eitzel, Frank Black, Jackie Leven and Richard Thompson). He then set set about recruiting a band, the Blokes, including veteran keyboardist Ian McLagan - a member of Bragg's boyhood heroes The Faces - who subsequently played on his 1996 album William Bloke. He has since worked with Wilco on unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics (supplied by his daughter Nora) resulting in Mermaid Avenue (98) and Mermaid Avenue Vol. II (2000). Age, Marriage and the responsibilities of parenthood would ensure that the latter decade of his career involved less frenetic touring and less high profile political activism, but half-assed accusations of selling out (see intro) were suitably answered by England, Half-English (‘02) which once again lyrically mixed the overtly political with the soul-searchingly personal, the twin themes which have continued to informed his magnificent career to date.
Volume I, the exhaustive 7xCD/2xDVD box set which documents Bragg's work pre 1988, was released in March and is followed this month by the equally exhaustive 8xCD/1xDVD Volume II boxse,t which gathers together material from Workers Playtime onwards - including many unreleased and hard to find b-sides, cover versions, demos and two live shows on DVD.