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Billy Bragg – Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy (30th Anniversary Edition)

"Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy (30th Anniversary Edition)"

Billy Bragg – Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy (30th Anniversary Edition)
14 October 2013, 14:30 Written by Matt Tomiak

The Bard of Barking’s debut is a quarter-hour of raw punk energy and wide-eyed idealism. This celebratory edition features the album played in full to mark its 30th year during a London Union Chapel show encore last summer, alongside a re-mastered version of the original studio recordings.

Billy Bragg would refine his trademark blend of the personal and the polemical on subsequent releases, but this blink-and-you’ll-miss-it seven track collection (“fortunately for those of you with expensive babysitters” as he quips in the intro to the live segment) lays the groundwork for a career of genuine warmth and insight. The next three decades might find him “mixing pop and politics” as Bragg himself has it on 1988’s ‘Waiting For The Great Leap Forward’, but as a statement of intent Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy is hard to top.

From the moment he bellows “AHH LAAHV YOU!” in his unfettered Essex snarl on opener ‘The Milkman of Human Kindness’, it’s obvious that this isn’t going to be the most refined of records. But these aren’t just the sketchy rantings of some gobby kid. Despite the rudimentary vocal/guitar arrangement, the mocked-up Penguin paperback album sleeve hints at his burgeoning literary persuasions.

Bragg would also soon be making a name for himself as a left-wing activist via his involvement with Red Wedge and its predecessor pressure groups, as well as gaining a reputation as a songwriter of note via John Peel’s endorsement. The description of him as a ‘One-man Clash’ by DJ, pal and former roadie Andy Kershaw seems entirely apt.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about Life’s A Riot… is how contemporary it feels in 2013. As the controversies surrounding our collation government’s social welfare plan for the under-25s continues to rumble on, ‘To Have And Have Not’ offers as incisive a portrait of a post-exam malaise as you’ll find anywhere in pop. ‘The Busy Girl Buys Beauty’ pre-empts today’s female body-image debates. ‘Lovers Town Revisited’, a call to activism in the face of fatuous distractions (“there’s nothing safe in watching TV…”) feels equally relevant.

The best known tune here is surely signature anthem ‘A New England’, the traditional finale performed at most Bragg shows to this day. The take recorded at the Union Chapel concert contains the extra verse added by the late Kirsty MacColl in her 1984 cover: a fitting end to a truly great British rock debut.

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