Working Class Hero
"I’m mean as hell, and I want to change the world.” These aren’t the words of Billy Bragg circa 1984 during the depths of the Thatcher regime, but Billy Bragg speaking in 2008, about to tour North America on the heels of his first album in six years, Mr. Love & Justice. The title pretty much sums up Bragg’s three-decade standing as Britain’s punk rock troubadour; throughout that time his songs became modern day rallying cries for labour movements, anti-racism campaigns and the basic human rights espoused by his spiritual forebear Woody Guthrie. Along the way he also wrote his fair share of timeless pop songs, all while keeping himself unapologetically rooted in an East End London aesthetic that nevertheless endeared him to fans all over the world. As times have changed, Bragg’s political and musical scope have both expanded, but the fire hardly diminished, as evidenced by his attitude toward this crucial election year in America. "I’m hungry for change,” he says. "I’m hungry for Americans to make a generational leap to Obama. I’m hungry for the war to end. I’m hungry for people to get engaged in politics again, to get up off their asses and do something meaningful.”
1957 to 1976
Stephen William Bragg is born Dec. 20, 1957 in the London borough of Barking & Dagenham. At school he gravitates toward history and woodworking, while listening mainly to folk rock. Paul Simon has a particular impact on Bragg, with songs like "America” and "Mrs. Robinson” creating an awareness of how aspects of a wider culture can be incorporated into pop music. As a confessed class clown and perpetual outsider, he leaves school at 16 for a succession of odd jobs and learns how to play guitar from his friend Wiggy.
1977 to 1980
Fired up by the rise of the Clash, the Jam and Elvis Costello, Bragg and Wiggy form Riff Raff, and begin playing pubs around London. The band sign with Chiswick Records in 1978, which releases the four-song EP I Wanna Be A Cosmonaut in June. The band members live together in a squalid country house for the next two years, playing infrequent gigs and recording eight more songs that are released as four separate seven-inch singles on their own Geezer label all on the same day, Oct. 27 1980. Bragg will compile and self-release them as Riff Raff: The Singles 1977-1980 in 2002.
1981 to 1982
Three months after the band’s break-up in February, Bragg enlists in the British Army but buys his way out after only 90 days of training. "I’d given up on the whole thing and joined the army really as a way of killing that notion that I could ever be a musician,” he says. "But once in there I just started writing more songs and I realised that this devil wasn’t going to go away. So I had to hatch a plot whereby I could get out and give music one more go. Going solo was the most kamikaze way I could think of — the ‘death or glory’ approach. I was up against a lot of Spandau Ballet kinds of stuff, so it did make sense to zig while everyone else was zagging.” A job in a record store fuels a love for American blues and R&B, as well as the songs of Bob Dylan, which ultimately leads him to Woody Guthrie. Bragg starts performing original material with an electric guitar and small amplifier on the streets and at pub talent shows under the name Spy Vs Spy, lifted from the Mad magazine cartoon. His distinct image as a "punk folkie” gains attention in the London underground, although labels roundly reject his first demo tape. Feeling desperate, on Nov. 2 1982 Bragg bluffs his way into the offices of Charisma Records and gets his tape in the hands of A&R head Peter Jenner. The one-time co-manager of Pink Floyd is impressed and agrees to work with Bragg even though the dying label no longer has the resources to pay for a recording session.
Bragg gets a publishing offer from Chappell Music and undertakes a three-day session to lay down his best material. Jenner takes seven of these raw recordings and releases them on his own Utility label as the "mini-album” Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy. The first limited pressing quickly sells out at the much-trumpeted bargain price of 2.99 pounds, pushing it to the top of the British indie chart. Audiences are particularly moved by the sharp social commentary of songs like "A New England” and "To Have And Have Not” that perfectly capture the country’s mood. In November the album is re-released on the new Virgin imprint Go! Discs in time for Bragg’s first major national tour of clubs and universities. "I’ve always tried to write songs that I believe in, and if you stay true to yourself, you’ll find that those songs resonate,” he says today. "I just sang ‘A New England’ in New York with Kate Nash playing tin whistle and singing on the choruses. I realise now that the song is strong enough that I can afford to mess around with it a little bit, mainly because my audience knows it so well.”
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