Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg Biography

Musician, Songwriter (1957–)
Billy Bragg is a musician and political activist best known for his folk rock music and making several hit albums in Britain.


Billy Bragg was born December 20, 1957 in Barking, England, a working class suburb of London. Bragg realized a career in music was his best chance of getting out of Barking, so a chance experience with famous deejay John Peel gave him the opportunity to share his talent. His career took off with his embrace of leftist political songs and collaborative works with bands like Wilco.

Early Life

Singer-songwriter. Stephen William Bragg was born on December 20, 1957, in Barking, England, to Marie D'Urso and Dennis Bragg, an assistant sales manager at a local small business. In working-class Barking, a suburb on the northeastern edge of London, Bragg grew up with the understanding that unless he did something drastic, a career at the local car factory was waiting for him. "To get out of it, it seemed I needed to be a boxer, a footballer or a rock star. I didn't want to get punched in the head," Bragg later recalled, "and I'm not that good at football, so I went for music."

The future star's chosen escape plan started with punk rock, as Bragg joined the band Riff Raff in 1977. After devoting four years of his early 20s to earnest and heartfelt rebellion with Riff Raff playing at local pubs and clubs, Bragg more or less gave up on the band, which showed little promise commercially.

In an effort to hit the reset button on his life, the 20-something rocker went in a different direction by joining the British Army in 1981. Inspired in part by his father's tales of the Second World War, Bragg hoped to make a difference. He would later admit, "Most of all, I'd run out of options." He lasted just a few months in Her Majesty's armed forces before deciding that the soldiering life was not for him. He bought his way out of service for a mere 175 pounds.

Solo Career

Deciding to give music another shot, Bragg sought to break back into the London rock scene as a soloist. His big break came when he was playing football near BBC headquarters and heard the famous deejay John Peel lamenting his hunger pangs on the air. Still wearing his cleats, Bragg ran off to fetch Peel a mushroom biryani with hopes of gaining access and a little airplay. He succeeded on both accounts and Peel played a song from Bragg's first album, Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy.

Soon after this rather serendipitous radio triumph, Bragg signed a contract with Virgin Records and put himself on the path toward a real career in music. Virgin re-released Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy in 1983 and followed with a new record, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, in 1984. The latter album contained a host of political songs, establishing the style that would come to be the singer's bread and butter over the next three decades. Bragg had first become convinced that politically charged music could change the world at Rock Against Racism, a 1978 music festival headlined by The Clash. Ever since, activism has been a crucial part of his creative repertoire. Bragg's political views lean strongly to the left and he has committed himself to advocating worker solidarity and a broader socialist platform.

In 1986, Bragg got a taste of his first real commercial success with Talking With the Taxman About Poetry, an album that broke into the Top 10 on the U.K. charts. Bragg followed up in 1987 with the collection Back to Basics, a compilation of his first three releases. Bragg's early sound tended to be stark and sparse, with most songs featuring only the singer's voice and his electric guitar. On Talking With the Taxman, Bragg and his producers began to broaden his sound, adding additional instrumentation in the form of occasional horn and piano parts.

On his next record, 1988's Workers Playtime, Bragg continued in this direction, playing with a full backup band. For the next 10 years, Bragg continued to work and tour, building a reputation as a folk-rock troubadour.

In the late 1990s, Bragg was contacted by Nora Guthrie, the daughter of American folk music legend Woody Guthrie, and asked to collaborate with the band Wilco in setting some of Woody Guthrie's unrecorded lyrics to new music. The resulting album, Mermaid Avenue, won praise from critics and charted in both Britain and the United States upon its release in 1998. A somewhat less successful sequel, Mermaid Avenue Vol. 2, which followed the same recipe of rare Guthrie compositions, put to new music by Bragg and Wilco, followed in 2000.

Bragg's 2002 album England, Half-English and his 2006 book The Progressive Patriot reflect the musician's growing fascination with questions of local politics and national identity. His views on multiracial Britain and social issues such as homophobia and sexism have garnered him vocal enemies on the right. Undeterred by the pushback, the rocker remains a frequent participant in political demonstrations and benefit concerts around the world. He famously announced in 2010 he would withhold all income tax as a protest against huge bonuses being paid out to executives at the Royal Bank of Scotland, which had earlier been bailed out by British taxpayers following the financial crisis of 2008.

In addition to his political activism, Bragg pursues charity work, including a prison education project called Jail Guitar Doors, which aims to supply inmates with guitars to aid in their rehabilitation. The star is also a spokesman for a recording-artist rights group called the Featured Artists Coalition.

Despite a lifelong commitment to blending politics and music, Bragg remains humble about his impact: "You can't change the world through music, but you can give people a different perspective on the world."

Fact Check

We strive for accuracy and fairness. If you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!