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Billy Bragg

+ {Riff Raff}

A stalwart of the third generation British folk-music scene of the mid-80s, BILLY BRAGG (born Steven William Bragg, 20th December 1957, Barking in Essex) has taken punk-rock elements from his days as a CLASH fan and the leader of new wave/pub-rock outfit, RIFF RAFF.
Not considered to be a highspot in his illustrious career, this Peterborough-based quintet nevertheless released a string of obscure indie 7” singles, including the wonderfully titled `I Wanna Be A Cosmonaut’; they split in 1981, Billy totally ill-at-ease with the music business.
Putting a spell in British Army behind him (he bought himself out after 90 days), BRAGG kick-started his solo career. Complete with electric guitar and amp, he busked around the streets of London; his roadie and friend at the time (and still is) Andy Kershaw has since went on to bigger and better things at the BBC as a much-revered radio DJ; however, it would be along the corridor at the John Peel Show where Billy received initial airplay – albeit at the wrong speed.
This was in 1983 when Peter Jenner (an A&R man with troubled Charisma Records) furnished busker Billy with some studio time, the results LIFE’S A RIOT WITH SPY VS SPY {*7} duly appearing on indie subsidiary Utility Records; with the help and distribution of new label Go! Discs, the mini-LP finally hit the UK Top 30 in early ‘84.
BRAGG’s stark musical backdrop (for the most part, a roughly strummed electric guitar) and even starker vocals, belied a keen sense of melody and passionate, deeply humane lyrics. `The Milkman Of Human Kindness’ was a love song of the most spirited variety which illustrated that BRAGG approached politics from a humanist perspective rather than a soapbox. After seeing first-hand how Thatcher had decimated mining communities, Billy’s songs became more overtly political.
BREWING UP WITH BILLY BRAGG (1984) {*8} opened with the fierce `It Says Here’, but again the most affecting moments were to be found on heartfelt love songs like the wistful `St. Swithin’s Day’. Only a minor hit on the continent it was surpassed by his first UK Top 20 smash, `Between The Wars’ (not on the album), while `A New England’ (from his mini debut) strolled into the Top 10 via KIRSTY MacCOLL (daughter of EWAN MacCOLL).
A well intentioned, but ultimately hopeless initiative under the “Red Wedge” banner failed to persuade people to vote Labour, while to coincide and promote such activities, BRAGG toured alongside The STYLE COUNCIL, MADNESS, The COMMUNARDS and MORRISSEY. As the Conservatives romped home to another sickening victory, BRAGG licked his wounds and bounced back with a third album, TALKING WITH THE TAXMAN ABOUT POETRY (1986) {*8}. His most successful and accomplished release to date, the record spawned the classic single, `Levi Stubbs’ Tears’ (about the FOUR TOPS singer) as well as the JOHNNY MARR collaboration, `Greetings To The New Brunette’. And of course, who could argue with the sentiments of `Help Save The Youth Of America’?!
Not content with saving our transatlantic cousins, BRAGG also did his bit for kids back in Blighty, recording a cover of LENNON-McCARTNEY’s `She’s Leaving Home’ (with Cara Tivey). BRAGG found himself at No.1 when the song was released as the flip-side to WET WET WET’s cover of `With A Little Help From My Friends’, the not inconsiderable proceeds going to the Childline charity fund.
BRAGG’s next album, WORKERS PLAYTIME (1988) {*7}, saw a move away from the sparse accompaniment of old, while lyrically the record focused more on matters of the heart than the ballot box. THE INTERNATIONALE (1990) {*5}, meanwhile, was BB’s most political work to date, with the likes of Carlos Mejia Godoy’s `Nicaragua Nicaraguita’ and Jim Connell’s `The Red Flag’. A mini-set released for Utility (again!), its traditional folk themes once the property of ERIC BOGLE (`My Youngest Son Came Home Today’), EARL ROBINSON (`I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night’) were somewhat hijacked by (William) `Blake’s Jerusalem’. Note that the bonus CD versions included extra readings of DICK GAUGHAN’s `Think Again’, Bernice Johnson Reagon’s `Chile Your Waters Run Red Through Soweto’, PHIL OCHS’ `Joe Hill’, WOODY GUTHRIE’s `This Land Is Your Land’ and SAM COOKE’s `A Change Is Gonna Come’.
Over the years, Billy has covered a number of other people’s songs, among them:- `Walk Away Renee’ (The FOUR TOPS), `Jeane’ + `Never Had No One Ever’ (The SMITHS), `Seven & Seven Is’ (LOVE), `Dolphins’ (FRED NEIL), `Everywhere’ (Sid Griffin-Greg Trooper), `When Will I See You Again’ (The Three Degrees), `Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend’ (JOHN CALE), `She Smiled Sweetly’ (The ROLLING STONES), `A13, Trunk Road To The Sea’ (Bobby Troup) and `Dry Bed’ (WOODY GUTHRIE).
On DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME (1991) {*8}, BRAGG enlisted a cast of musicians to flesh out the sound (including sidekick roadie Wiggy from RIFF RAFF), a tactic that elicited mixed results. His stance with CND and anti-apartheid, anti-poll tax, etc., often saw him on wrong side of the law, although with plenty of time on his hands, he helped raise his son. With WILLIAM BLOKE (1996) {*6}, Billy was now a bona fide alt-folk artist, songs like `A Pict Song’ (with lyrics by poet Rudyard Kipling) fitting in neatly alongside `Northern Industrial Town’ and `King James Version’; BLOKE ON BLOKE (1997) {*5} was a rather disappointing outtakes mini-collection.
In 1998, Billy and alt-country group WILCO decided to do a tribute album dedicated to their dustbowl hero, WOODY GUTHRIE. The {*8} MERMAID AVENUE (named a street in Coney Island where the folk legend lived with his family in the late 40s and early 50s) was the title, the lyrics seemingly found in an attic while Messrs BRAGG and WILCO set them to tunes. From the bawdy, sing-along raucousness of opener `Walt Whitman’s Niece’ to the gorgeous, yawning back porch swing of `California Stars’ and the desolate fragility of `Birds And Ships’ (featuring a heart-stopping guest vocal by NATALIE MERCHANT), this ranked among the cream of both artists’ back catalogues. While they each interpreted the material in their own way – BRAGG obviously coming closer to the mould of GUTHRIE’s worldly, open-hearted troubadour – both WILCO and Billy brought their own personality to bear on Woody’s words of wisdom. As well as being a great record in its own right – surely a contender for album of the year – this collection served to underline just how unceasingly prolific and inventive a songwriter GUTHRIE really was. The spirit of this work cut to the heart of popular music’s foundations, no argument. Inevitably, MERMAID AVENUE VOL.II (2000) {*6} couldn’t quite match that high standard but was nevertheless an enjoyable companion piece to its predecessor.
Cut by BILLY BRAGG AND THE BLOKES, ENGLAND, HALF ENGLISH (2002) {*5}, was again courting controversy, its obvious themes depicting the country’s (or tabloid newspaper’s) backlash against immigration, revised cultures and inherent tribalism. Sadly, it seemed to backfire against Billy who was apparently living it up in a posh house in the Dorset suburb of Burton Bradstock – hardly a crime if you’ve made good from a humble working-class background and still have time, space and the bottle to march alongside the dispirited of Old Blighty and beyond.
Like its predecessor, MR LOVE & JUSTICE (2008) {*7} took its title from a Colin MacInnes novel, and was another to be augmented by The Blokes (aka Ben Mandelson, Lu Edmonds, IAN McLAGAN, Simon Edwards, Martyn Barker); BRAGG was now pigeonholed as an “anti-folk” artist, a weird term indeed for someone with folk in mind. Anyway, one of his many recent successes outside his sparse solo work has been his part in the worldly-folk collective, The IMAGINED VILLAGE.
Railing against the oppressors and part-time dictators of London-centric Old Blighty, BB kept himself busy on the protest circuit; RBS, BNP and the NOTW main targets of his on-the-road media campaigns to make our world a better place to live. On the music front, the Barking bard played it low-key, although he would pop up from time to time, most notably as a Leftfield stage curator at 2010’s Glastonbury Festival and to promote an extra disc “Volume III”, for the WILCO shared “Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions” (2012).
Exactly five years on from his previous solo outing, BRAGG emerged from working with fellow artist/producer, JOE HENRY, in a Pasadena studio basement. The resultant country-folk “comeback” set, TOOTH & NAIL (2013) {*6}, shifted gears from his old-style political-activism animal, to a softer, AOR approach. But for the obligatory GUTHRIE paean, `I Ain’t Got No Home’, Billy, Joe and his team (Patrick Warren on pump-organ/autoharp and Greg Leisz on dobro, pedal steel, et al) carry the cathartic can on outsider-Americana dirges, `No One Knows Nothing Anymore’, `Tomorrow’s Going To Be A Better Day’ and `Chasing Rainbows’.
A million miles – or at least a couple of thousand – from his LIVE AT THE UNION CHAPEL LONDON (2014) {*7} CD/DVD package, BILLY BRAGG’s link-up with alt-country/roots specialist JOE HENRY (himself a top producer), the tracks were laid for 2016’s aptly-titled SHINE A LIGHT: FIELD RECORDINGS FROM THE GREAT AMERICAN RAILROAD {*6} album. Commendable as it was, Billy boy’s fixation with digging up the past only proved he was busy on his own political campaign trail. And on an altogether other note, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn needed not another doubter in thinking he wasn’t Prime Minister material – though Billy was misread by the JC-bashing media. Musically, if BRAGG and HENRY brought anything new to the dozen or so traditional tunes, then it was missing some scenic quality along the Amtrak lines from the simplistic tones of `The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore’ and `Lonesome Whistle’ to `In The Pines’ and `Hobo’s Lullaby’.
© MC Strong 1994-2011/GFD2/MCS// rev-up MCS Jul2012-Sep2016

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