What's wrong with Billy Bragg, the spunky British rocker who just toured 17 U.S. cities, is that he does just as he pleases. Without Springsteen's sex appeal, Prince's wardrobe or a single arty video, Bragg is a different breed of rocker. His cranked-up guitar amps, his Cockney accent and his sometimes shouting, sometimes pouting delivery come right out of the punk mold. His songs—full of clever wordplay and strident political messages—are out of the folk-rock tradition. Yet his records hover consistently at the top of U.S. college radio charts, and without advertising or a hit single, his first album went gold in England. "I am genuinely pleased," says Bragg, 27. "All the guys who were rotten to me in school now have to sit and watch me on Top of the Pops."
There are other politicized musical acts (the Smiths, for one, who asked Bragg to join their U.S. tour), but no other rocker so actively champions causes. Last year Britain's Labour Party leader, Neil Kinnock, announced Bragg's concert tour from the floor in Parliament; the singer then persuaded hundreds of young fans at his shows to register with the Labour Party on the spot. "Margaret Thatcher puts her ideology before people," he says of the Conservative Prime Minister, "as though Thatcherism is more important than the people of Britain."
Bragg aims his workingman's politics at the music business too. Because his album, Life's a Riot With Spy Vs Spy, is an unadorned concert of voice and guitar, it cost little to produce. Bragg passed the savings onto his fans and even printed a message on the cover: "Pay no more than £2.99." Record-industry leaders, who usually charge £5.50 to £6.50 per album, weren't amused. Says Bragg, "A major distributor came back to us and said, 'Either you take your price off the cover or we're not going to sell your record.' So we said, 'Stick it.' " Bragg found other distributors and even got his U.S. label, CD Presents, to put a $6.98 price limit on the 30,000 copies of the album (which also contains his latest U.K. record, Between the War) that it just released here.
At last year's New Music Seminar, a New York convention for musicbiz trendsetters, Billy decided to shake up the ranks again. Angered by the enormous emphasis on video, he disrupted the event with an unscheduled live show. "It was very loud," says Bragg, who played with a portable speaker on his back. "It upset them, which pleased me no end." Security men booted him out, but only after Billy made himself heard clearly. "Live music has returned to claim its rightful place," he declares. "That's what I was sayin'."
Bragg's mother always wondered when her son Steven William would get a proper job. He spent much of his adolescence in London's East End strumming Rod Stewart songs in his backyard with his best pal, Wiggy. Instead of becoming a bricklayer like his brother or a building-supplies salesman like his dad, Bragg joined a punk-rock band called Riff Raff and changed his first name ("Everyone else was bloody Steven"). When the band split up, Billy, 23, went into the army for three months (a standard introductory stint), then started his solo career. In 1983, Britain's tiny Go! label released 1,500 copies of Bragg's first album. It eventually went gold and Billy's mom had something to brag about.
Bragg doesn't take his angry young man's causes with unrelieved gravity; witness the lyrics to his New England: "I don't want to change the world/ I'm not looking for a New England/Just looking for another girl." But at Washington's Warner Theatre in June the singer used politics to get through a tough task—playing for an audience that had come to see the Smiths. Indifferent at first, the crowd listened to Bragg's jabs at Reagan and cheered wildly for his pacifist tune Between the Wars. After the show, Bragg chatted with some new fans. Then he loaded his guitar and amps into the tour van himself. No army of roadies, no entourage. He cadged a ride to his hotel. No limo. Who does the guy think he is? "Think of doing what you've always wanted to do and getting paid for it," Billy says of his simple ways. "That's success to me, and I've done it."
Come on. This guy can't be a rock star. Just look at him. His hair is normal. He isn't wearing a paisley shirt or an earring. And if you think that's bad, you should hear his records. He doesn't have a drummer, let alone a dance beat. In concert he just stands there in a spotlight wearing blue jeans and a polo shirt, bashing on an old electric guitar. Then he stops and talks about miners' strikes and the welfare state. What's wrong with this guy?