He was born Stephen William Bragg in Barking, Essex to Dennis Frederick Austin Bragg, an assistant sales manager to a cap and hat maker, and Marie Victoria D'Urso. Billy is known as 'the Bard of Barking.'
In 1977 Billy formed the Punk Rock/Pub Rock band Riff Raff with his next door neighbour Wiggy. They released a series of singles, which did not receive wide exposure.
Billy joined the British Army in May 1981 as a recruit destined for the Queen's Royal Irish Hussars of the Royal Armoured Corps. However, after three months of basic training, he bought his way out and returned home.
Fresh out of the Army, Billy came second in the Bridge House Talent Contest, a landmark pub venue in the East London area that had initially defied the punk rock boom by booking heavy metal acts. The prize was £50. "I got a little bit of wonga for it," Billy said, "and I've never looked back."
Billy began gigging and busking around London, playing solo with an electric guitar. His roadie at the time was the future BBC DJ Andy Kershaw.
Billy got his first record deal after pretending to be a television repair worker, and getting into the office of Charisma Records' A&R man Peter Jenner and persuading him to hear a demo. His debut album Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy was released in July 1983 by Charisma's imprint, Utility, reaching #30 on the UK album chart.
The cassette version of Life's a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy was recorded on only one side of the tape; The second side was blank, inscribed with a message that fans should use it to bootleg Billy's concerts.
Billy was a founder member of Red Wedge, the music coalition which supported the Labour Party in the 1987 election. However, he became disillusioned with the New Labour movement and supported the Liberal Democrats at the 2010 UK general election. His left-wing political beliefs are often reflected in his lyrics.
Billy's first song to be a hit was a version by Kirsty MacColl of his Life's a Riot
track, "A New England
." When MacColl asked to cover the song, Bragg wrote her an extra verse because it was a bit short for a single. It peaked at #7 on the UK singles chart in 1985.
He had an unlikely UK #1 in 1988 with a cover of the Beatles' "She's Leaving Home
," which Billy recorded for the children's charity project album Sgt. Pepper Knew My Father
. A double A-side with Wet Wet Wet's version of "With A Little Help From My Friends
," it topped the charts for four weeks.
In 1994 Billy became a father, with partner Juliet, to Jack. He took a couple of years off to raise him before releasing his William Bloke album in 1996.
In 1998 Billy teamed up with American band Wilco
on the album Mermaid Avenue
, where they set some unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to music. The project was organized by Guthrie's daughter, Nora Guthrie. Man in the Sand
, a documentary about the collaboration was released the following year. A second album, Mermaid Avenue Vol. II
, was released in 2000.
Billy wrote about his interest in English national identity in his 2006 book The Progressive Patriot. The tome expresses his view that English socialists can reclaim patriotism from the right wing.