It was thirty years ago today when the Saturday boy from Essex who would become Britain’s foremost political singer-songwriter released his first record, the mini-album Life’s a Riot With Spy Vs Spy. It contained seven songs, honed live and bashed out over three days on a punk rock electric guitar, and its utilitarian, single-colour sleeve bore the following legend: ‘Pay no more than £2.99.’ In the same week, you could buy the new album by Big Country or Paul Young for £3.99, and many punters did. But, after famously bribing John Peel to play a track on Radio 1 by hand-delivering a mushroom biryani to reception (Peel vouched that he was going to play it anyway), Life’s A Riot charted at number 30 in the national charts. Billy Bragg had arrived. He was in reception. His record company biog stated that he had ‘risen from obscurity to semi-obscurity.’ And he was already a thorn in the industry’s side.
Politicised by a Tory government operating without love or justice, this previously adrift young man from Barking, whose failure at the eleven-plus had reduced his career opportunities to two, bought himself out of the British Army in 1981 (‘the best £175 I ever spent’), determined to make a living out of song. After Life’s A Riot, he blazed a modest trail with similarly utilitarian follow-up Brewing Up With … (pay no more than £3.99), and ‘difficult third album’ Talking With The Taxman About Poetry (£4.49), on which Billy succumbed to the possibility of accompaniment, with additional guitar, piano and flugelhorn.
On the eve of release of his self-financed tenth solo album, Tooth and Nail, recorded in five days in acclaimed songwriter/producer Joe Henry’s basement studio in Pasadena, Billy Bragg can confidently state: ‘I did it my way.’ The intervening three decades have been marked by numerous milestones, political and personal, including going to number one, having a street named after him, being the subject of a South Bank Show, appearing onstage at Wembley Stadium, curating Leftfield at Glastonbury, sharing spotted dick with a Cabinet minister in the House of Commons cafeteria, being mentioned in Bob Dylan’s memoir, meeting the Queen, and getting royally upstaged by his son’s guitar solo at a gig in the East End with his proud Mum in the audience.
‘Mixing pop and politics’ is a tall order, but where there’s a starting block, there’s a great leap forward. To smuggle a song called ‘Take Down The Union Jack’ into the charts and onto Top of the Pops in the year of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, takes a certain amount of cheek, and some clever promotion; but it also takes a tune you can whistle. (Without that, it’s a pamphlet.)
Orator, entertainer, rabble-rouser, negotiator, leafletter, the fabled ‘big-nosed bard from Barking’, Billy Bragg is many things. A regular contributor to the national debate as TV pundit and newspaper columnist, he continues to sharpen his pen as a writer, and his first book, the considered, wide-ranging treatise on English identity The Progressive Patriot, opened up a whole new vista of possibility for a man who never stops engaging with all the trouble in the world. Whether it’s the miners’ strike, House of Lords reform, bankers’ bonuses, illegal wars, the justice system, the BNP in Barking, or the undemocratic commandeering of a Portaloo backstage at a festival, Billy Bragg will help fight your corner.
“Take it from someone who knows the glass is half-full, tomorrow’s going to be a better day, no matter what the siren voices say … we’re going to make it that way.”