Billy Bragg: Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy (30th Anniversary Edition)

Three decades after its initial release, the 30th Anniversary Edition of Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy reminds us that great music holds up, with or without new window dressing.

Billy Bragg

Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy (30th Anniversary Edition)

Label: Cooking Vinyl
US Release Date: 2013-10-29
UK Release Date: 2013-10-21
Artist Website

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.