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.
Despite his above-parapet activism around the miners’ strike and the efforts of the Labour-supporting Red Wedge – best summed up by 1985’s classic Between The Wars EP – his next album, Workers Playtime, positively jangled, with the highest ratio of love songs to protest songs yet. He played the full pop card with Don’t Try This At Home, even making a jaunty video for the Aids-related ‘Sexuality’, but went back to basics for William Bloke, reflecting a world where Margaret Thatcher was gone, the Berlin Wall was down, but the world still seemed to be on the brink. In 1998, Nora Guthrie, daughter of the late folk legend Woody, invited Billy to set a treasure trove of his unsung lyrics to music, which he did in collaboration with US alt-rock stars Wilco. The resulting Mermaid Avenue albums, Grammy-nominated, repositioned Billy in the United States. His next solo album, recorded with his regular band the Blokes, brought it all back home, to these multicultural shores: England, Half-English.
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.