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Billy Bragg

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About

Folk troubadour and activist

If social conscience is the glue that binds punk and folk, then Billy Bragg is that adhesive brought to life. Equal parts Woody Guthrie and Joe Strummer, Bragg’s ragged folk anthems have always been squarely on the side of the underdog, punching up with an eternally potent mix of righteous fury, laser-guided wit and romanticism.

Bragg started off with short-lived stints in punk bands and the army, before finding a more appropriate environment working in a record store. He spent his free time writing songs and touring wherever he could find a gig. By the time he released his debut EP Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy in 1983, it was evident that he’d already built up a solid audience.

His 1984 album, Brewing Up With Billy Bragg, coincided with the miners’ strikes in England, during which Bragg became a familiar face as he regularly performed and spoke at events and rallies around the country. Bragg’s first significant hit followed in 1985, via Kirsty McColl’s cover of his song New England. A year later, he scored his first top ten album with Talking With The Taxman About Poetry.

Bragg’s one and only No.1 was a cover of The Beatles’ She’s Leaving Home, released in 1988 as a double A-side with Wet Wet Wet’s cover of With A Little Help From My Friends. In 1989, he released Workers Playtime, which saw Bragg record with a full band for the first time and examine his own growing fame on his seminal song Waiting For The Great Leap Forwards.

The fuller sound remained for 1991’s Don’t Try This At Home, which yielded another hit in the shape of Sexuality. Following his 1996 album William Bloke, Bragg was selected by Woodie Guthrie’s family to complete a treasure trove of unfinished songs left behind by the great folk singer, teaming up with Wilco for the project. The album was released in 1998 as Mermaid Avenue. A second volume followed in 2000 and a third in 2013.

In 1999, Bragg formed the Blokes with Ian McLagan of The Small Faces, alongside Ben Mandelson, Lu Edmonds, Simon Edwards and Martyn Baker. Together, they recorded England, Half English, released in 2002. In 2003, Bragg released a best of compilation Must I Paint You A Picture? as well as a career-spanning box set and re-issues of four earlier albums.

Studio albums were intermittent, with a six-year gap separating 2008’s Mr Love & Justice from its predecessor. It would be another five years before Bragg released Tooth And Nail, produced by American singer-songwriter and kindred spirit, Joe Henry. Henry would team up with Bragg again in 2016 for Shine A Light, a tribute to American railroads, recorded on a train journey from Chicago to LA.

In 2017, Bragg released his response to Brexit and Donald Trump, a six-song EP called Bridges Not Walls. He followed it in 2019 with Best Of Billy Bragg At The BBC, a collection of live performances spanning Bragg’s entire career. 

In October 2020, Bragg announced a huge UK and Irish tour for 2021. “We all need something to hang on to,” Bragg said. “My hope is that we’ll be able to get together again and enjoy the uplift that live music brings, to audience and performer alike.”

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Review: Billy Bragg, Union Chapel, London

Review: Billy Bragg, Union Chapel, London

Remarkable singer-songwriter Billy Bragg stopped over for two nights at Islington’s magnificent Union Chapel