Life's a Riot Still Speaks Volumes in Only 16 Minutes
If you could go back in time to early 1983 and ask a 25-year-old Billy Bragg if he thought his first record would someday get a special 30th Anniversary Edition, he would probably have laughed at the question. At the time the singer was working days in a record shop that sold overstock 45s at 5p and then hopping on the tube after work with his guitar and amp to play at any London pub that would have him. As an opener he spent his time competing with music videos and distracted crowds by honing his comedic stage banter and bashing out his own East London version of Route 66 at volumes impossible to ignore
But Bragg’s circumstances were no match for his burning desire to be heard. With the help of future BBC DJ Andy Kershaw, Bragg recorded a live demo tape during one of his shows which he relentlessly flogged, earning a brief write-up in the Melody Maker. He later snuck into Charisma Records by posing as an electronics repairman in order to leave the tape with A&R man Peter Jenner. Jenner was impressed enough to offer the young upstart a contract, vowing “we must do something, however trivial”. After three five-hour sessions in which Bragg recorded songs from his live set straight to tape and some creative use of Jenner’s petty cash to pay for artwork, the first release was finally born.
At seven songs and 17 minutes, the record was really more of a glorified EP (it was even played at 45 rpm), but on July 1st, 1983 Charisma released Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy as a 12” mini-album with Bragg’s admonition “Pay No More Than £2.99” stamped on the cover. Fortunately, the songs were such a refreshing antidote to the prevailing musical trends that their statement-of-purpose quality made up for their brevity. At a time when many bands were trading their guitars for synths and embracing a more-is-more production ethos, the sound painfully earnest cockney witticisms barked over a thin, scratchy guitar couldn’t have stood out more prominently.
The record’s title was derived from Bragg’s stage name when he first started performing solo, Spy Vs Spy (a reference to a Cold War-spoofing comic strip from Mad Magazine). Although he always imagined himself as a “one-man Clash”, Bragg knew that most venues pegged all solo performers as fey folkies and chose a name that sounded more like a full band to secure bookings It’s not like he was lacking a pedigree, having been a member of punk outfit Riff Raff in the late ‘70s. But as a solo performer Bragg melded the guitar assault and righteous anger of punk with the tunefulness and confessional approach of some of his other favorite artists such as Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel.
Taking cues from both Strummer and Zimmerman, Bragg explored the electric guitar’s sonic and rhythmic range, which was necessary, given the sensitivity of some of his songs. “The Man in ihe Iron Mask” is both remarkably raw as well as achingly tender and in it Bragg’s guitar mirrors his voice—spiky, mournful and hauntingly resonant. No one in the world of punk was writing songs as open-hearted or defiantly emotional as Bragg. For example both “The Man in ihe Iron Mask” and “Richard” (an old unrecorded Riff Raff tune) featured cuckolded protagonists, angry at the betrayal of their women and yet unable to free themselves from the relationship. That kind of anti-machismo was shockingly new. Though Bragg’s friend and contemporary Morrissey would soon be bringing those kind of sentiments onto the charts, they were still not a part of the either the musical or working-class English vernacular in 1983.
But though many Bragg’s characters were spurned by women, his attitude towards women is far from bitter. In fact, with “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty” he delivered one of the all-time great male feminist anthems. Picking up from his rueful observation in “A New England” that “all the girls I loved in school are already pushing prams”, he needs less than two minutes to utterly deconstruct painfully limiting options that working-class women faced. Bragg depicts women’s magazines (or, as he puts it “the brightly-lit eyes of the glossy romance of fashion”) as manuals for the kind of socially-prescribed self-doubt, clipped horizons and subservience expected of women. Bragg lists the kinds of lessons (explicitly stated and not) that women must master from these publications—“top tips for the gas cook, successful secrets of a sexual kind, the daily drill for beautiful hair—and the truth about pain.”
Such songs illustrate a revolution in the punk ethos. He showed that a music born out of a desire for anarchy, confrontation and rejection could be just as daring and transgressive while expressing doubt, love and empathy. The opener, “The Milkman of Human Kindness”, isn’t about smashing the system or rebellion, it’s a love song to community and friendship. It’s hard to think of a more earnest delivery of the words “I loooooove you” than Bragg’s in that song. The record’s most enduring moment, “A New England”, became a singalong favorite because it speaks to one’s not-quite-yet-jaded romantic side. Even when his heart was broken, Bragg looked only for a star to wish on and only received an unfeeling satellite. Even the album’s angriest moment, the socially incisive “To Have and Have Not” is more about sympathizing with the plight of the working class (“the system has failed you, don’t fail yourself”) and giving voice to painful human struggles rather than about lashing out at others. The most defiant line here finds Bragg on the defensive saying “just because you’re going forwards doesn’t mean I’m going backwards.”
Sadly, though the original seven songs sound as vital as ever, there seems to be little rhyme or reason behind this re-issue than the fact that 30 is a large, round number. The CD does feature live versions of all seven songs taken from a performance this June in London’s Union Chapel, and they are all fine and spirited performances but nothing that couldn’t be found on any decent bootleg. For most fans, the best way to experience Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy remains as part of the Back to Basics compilation created by Elektra in 1986 to introduce Americans to the Brit. Combining this mini-album with his first full length, Brewing Up with Billy Bragg and the Between the Wars EP gives you all of Bragg’s essential earliest work in one place. Completists are best served by the 2006 re-issue of Life’s a Riot whose 11-track bonus disc includes live staples “A13 Trunk Road to the Sea” (his take on “Route 66”), a ripping cover of John Cale’s “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend”, as well as a treasure trove alternate versions and unreleased songs from the same period.
In fact, a 30th anniversary reissue seems almost dissonant for a record as deliberately modest as Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy. At seven songs, 16 minutes and no guitar solos, this isn’t music that benefits from being over-anthologized or draped in nostalgia. This is music that gets in, says what it has to say and doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s that simplicity that has given the songs such resonance. On 1988’s “Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards”, Bragg delivered one of his most quintessential lyrics: “if no one out there understands then start your own revolution and cut out the middleman.” If his advice seemed especially inspiring, perhaps it was because a half decade earlier, he’d already shown us just how such a thing is accomplished.