Looking back on all the pop star excess of the decade, the 80s needed Steven William Bragg more than anyone could have imagined at the time.
From Brewing up with Billy Bragg right through to Don’t Try This At Home and all points between (the wars), this man accompanied us through some of the toughest and bitter-sweet years of the late 20th century. So, let’s talk with the Taxman about poetry . . .
Billy Bragg was inspired to pick up a guitar by punk – and more specifically, a Clash gig in 1977. In true DIY fashion, he formed a band, Riff Raff, with his childhood friend Wiggy, who taught him how to play the guitar he’d just picked up.
Riff Raff split in 1981. Bill’s next bizarre career move was to join the British Army – he wanted to drive a tank. He lasted just three months, bought himself out (“the wisest £175 I ever spent”), and – fresh out of uniform – began to gig as a solo artist.
After a year of touring, he came to the attention of music publishers Warner Chappell, who allowed him to record some demos in their studio.
The results turned out to be a full debut seven-track EP, Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy (named after a comic strip in Mad magazine) released by Go! Discs in 1984. The record was a jolt – right from the clarion guitar that leads into Milkman of Human Kindness.
It was a tour of Britain – through 1984 and 1985 – visiting communities torn apart by the miners’ strike that turned Bragg into the political songsmith of current legend. He began to play benefits and pen overtly political songs, some of which found their way onto Brewing Up With Billy Bragg (1984).
Bill hit his stride, penning powerful anthems like It Says Here – a damning exhortation aimed at the press – along with studies of romantic complications like Love Gets Dangerous.
Serious chart action was to follow in 1985, first with Kirsty MacColl‘s version of A New England (for which he wrote a new verse) and then with his own Between The Wars EP (1985), for which he took a lone guitar, an amp and a checked shirt on to the image-dominated Top of the Pops TV show, and into the Top 20.
1986 saw the political stakes raised with a leading role in Red Wedge, an organisation and tour (also involving The Style Council, Madness, The Communards and Morrissey) that threw its weight firmly behind the Labour Party and unsuccessfully tried to make politics ‘sexy’.
Later in the year, Bragg released what was to be his first great single, Levi Stubbs’ Tears – an agonisingly sorrowful snapshot of love and violence (and The Four Tops).
The album that followed, Talking With The Taxman About Poetry (1986) – subtitled ‘the difficult third album’ – not only broadened the musical backdrop but saw a new and sharper lyricism that ranged from trade unionism to the pressures of young marriage.
The album – named after a Vladimir Mayakovsky poem (which was printed on the inner sleeve) – still stands as his grandest statement yet and contains the evocative Greetings to the New Brunette. A love song of no small grandeur, Brunette is a bona fide masterpiece.
With pianist Cara Tivey, he recorded She’s Leaving Home, a contribution to an NME benefit album of Beatles covers, Sergeant Pepper Knew My Father (1988); released as a double A-side with Wet Wet Wet‘s With A Little Help From My Friends, it topped the UK charts for a month, with all proceeds donated to Childline, an organisation devoted to helping children in trouble.
‘Capitalism is killing music’ was the cheery message emblazoned on Bragg’s next release, the accomplished Worker’s Playtime (1988), but the album’s political element was kept to a minimum – essentially, this was an honest and beautiful set of love songs.
Disillusioned by the ‘failure’ of Red Wedge in the wake of Labour’s 1987 election defeat, Bragg shied away from political dogma in favour of rumination on a recently failed relationship with ex-lover Mary Bollingbroke (after listening to the record for the first time, she threw it off Hammersmith Bridge).
1990s The Internationale, on the other hand, focused on out-and-out socialist lyrics.
The two were to mix on Sexuality, the 1991 single that took Bragg back into the charts; its 12″ version even boasted a dance remix.
For Don’t Try This At Home (1991), a full band (still featuring Wiggy) was recruited and augmented by guests like Michael Stipe and Peter Buck of R.E.M.
Bragg then took a break from the music business after the birth of his son Jack in 1993, popping up only to play alongside S*M*A*S*H at the Carnival Against The Nazis in 1994 and at the Glastonbury Festival in 1995.
Always more than just a musician, Billy has also assumed the role of political and social commentator, contributing to British newspapers and the NME and fronting several documentaries for BBC radio and TV. Nevertheless, eagerly awaited new material and live work was not far away.
This new role of father was one that was to shape much of his next album, William Bloke (1996). A companion piece, Bloke On Bloke (1997), was followed by the ‘Blatant Electioneering Tour’ running up to the General Election, culminating on the night itself with an emotion-drenched London show.
Fittingly, his first-ever gig under a Labour government came at the union-backed May Day free festival in Finsbury Park.
The politics of another period provided the basis for his next project, Mermaid Avenue (1998). Backed by country heroes Wilco, it took a collection of Woody Guthrie‘s lyrics and set them to new music.
An immensely fitting combination and one that drew high praise from all quarters, not least Guthrie’s own daughter, Nora.
By 2000 – and now backed by The Blokes (featuring Small Faces‘ Ian McLagan on keyboards) – England, Half English amounted to a musical thesis on England’s national identity. By way of official protest, the self-explanatory Take Down the Union Jack was released as a single during Golden Jubilee week.
Whether writing about terrorism, or reform of the House of Lords, or campaigning to get his local MP voted out of office – or whether he is simply trying to delineate the complex workings of the human heart within a simple pop song – Bragg refuses to shirk from what he sees as the most pressing issues of the day.
“I don’t try to stir up a fight,” he says, “but I always try to march towards the sound of gunfire.”