“Just a second,” says the affable, cockney-accented voice on the other end of the phone before a bit of muffled background conversation. “Sorry, it’s my wife telling me I’m on the TV just now. I did an advert for American Express.”
“No . . . that was a joke. It’s a documentary on folk music. You know me — I’m Billy Bragg!”
Whew — the vociferously leftist punk-folkie from East London hasn’t sold his soul to AmEx just yet. Although his temples have grayed as he nears 50, and he’s less inclined to record and tour than he was when he launched his career 23 years ago, he’s still the same Billy Bragg who wrote solidarity anthems for striking British coal miners in the mid ’80s, skewered Thatcherism and Reaganism with a throaty voice and keen wit, crafted love songs with the same passion he brought to his political observations, and earned a loyal following for spending most of his adult life crusading against racism, fascism, and economic injustice around the world with music and missives that often veered close to full-fledged socialism.
You can hear all of that in his new box set, Volume I (Yep-Roc). And he’s celebrating with a brief tour that comes to the Somerville Theatre next Thursday, March 23. The nine-disc collection includes remastered versions of Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy (1983, his debut), Brewing Up with Billy Bragg (1984), Talking with the Taxman about Poetry (1986), and two EPs — 1988’s Live & Dubious and 1990’s The Internationale — as well as three bonus discs of B-sides, demos, alternate takes, and other goodies and two DVDs of live and documentary footage shot in East Berlin, Nicaragua, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain.
Raiding the vaults was a relatively simple undertaking for Bragg. “That’s ’cause I sent Wiggy in to do it!” he laughs, referring to his erstwhile band mate/guitar teacher/producer/roadie. “Bless him, he did a lot of great, great work, found loads of old stuff, and sent me all these CDs and video to go through and pick from. Some of it’s kinda like pre-history.”
Indeed, the 11-track disc that accompanies Life’s a Riot — a disc that spotlights nascent solo material recorded after Bragg’s three-year run in the Clash-inspired punk outfit Riff Raff and his three-month stint in the British army — finds him operating in the pop mold of an Elvis Costello or a Nick Lowe, with a gentle voice and subdued acoustic sound as opposed to the caustic delivery and aggressive, percussive electric guitar style that would establish his reputation. “After Riff Raff I was starting to revert back to that singer-songwritery stuff I’d always been a fan of. But then what happened was that I felt I needed more of a buzz-saw attitude to deal with Spandau Ballet and what they were doing to my world. I needed something that was a bit spikier, so I left that singer-songwriter stuff on the shelf.”