Friday, June 28, 2013

Billy Bragg - Life's a Riot with Spy Vs Spy

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy, the debut album from British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg. It charted at number 30 on the UK charts.

Here are two interesting facts about this one. The vinyl release of this record played at 45 rpm rather than 33.3 rpm. The cassette version was recorded only on one side with the second blank; the message on it actually said to use the second side to bootleg Bragg’s concerts.

Side one starts with “The Milkman of Human Kindness”. This tender love song, like all of the tracks on the record, is simply Bragg and his electric guitar.

“To Have and To Have Not” takes a critical aim at the education system and how many end up unprepared to work and thus face unemployment.

“Richard”, which sounds quite a bit like the previous track, looks at life and individuals.

Side two opens with “A New England”, a song about not trying to change the world and just finding someone to love. The opening line of “I was 21 years when I wrote this song/I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long” is the same as the opening line of Paul Simon’s “Leaves That Are Green” from the 1966 album Sounds of Silence. Bragg has also admitted to having “stolen” the melody from Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song” from the 1976 album Jailbreak.

Kirsty MacCool released a famous cover of “A New England” at the end of 1984; her version charted at number 8 in Ireland and number 7 in the UK. Bragg actually wrote two additional verses for her when she recorded it. Since her tragic death, Bragg has included the additional verses in his performances as his tribute to her.

I first became aware of the song through MacCool’s version but have since added Bragg’s original into my musical rotation. I like both presentations.

“The Man in the Iron Mask” goes to a bit darker place as it tells of a man trapped in a one-sided love affair. For me, the opening guitar almost has a bit of a medieval folk vibe which is a nice change of pace by this point on the record.

“The Busy Girl Buys Beauty” is a commentary on how females find themselves caught up in the trends and influence of beauty/style magazines. He suggests it is a trap that pulls them in like quicksand, difficult to escape.

Another love song with complications “Lovers Town Revisited” closes things out.

Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs Spy is a much stripped down album. Bragg’s bare and raw performance contrasts the trends that were going on in music at the time; while many were going for synthesized and glamorous presentation, he keeps it simple and honest. This review was my first time hearing this entire album, and I found it refreshing. Even at only fifteen minutes in length, he packs a lot into this debut.

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