Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 17. Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 17. 
Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy - Billy Bragg

Seven songs, sixteen minutes. Raw, simple, direct and thrilling. Life's a Riot seemed like nothing else when it emerged and it still does. Bragg may have gone on to release more ambitious and sophisticated albums than this and the pared back, primitive sound might have delivered diminishing returns over the longer term but in this short, sharp blast it works perfectly.

Raw and simple the sound may be but Bragg was not afraid to be vulnerable and The Man in the Iron Mask, the tale of a man cuckolded but resigned, is tender and heartbreaking. This is Bragg's standby persona on this record, the naive, well meaning but ultimately discarded lover. In A New England (the song which, in Kirsty McColl's deft hands would take him to the heart of the music buying public), he says, finishing with a girl who has long finished with him "I put you on a pedestal, They put you on the pill." He is a little old fashioned and time is passing him by, as are women.
The most overtly political song here is To Have and To Have Not, and it is really a song about those left adrift by time and economics, prepared for a world that no longer exists. In 1984, as I prepared to finish school, it seemed to reflect the world outside.

"At twenty one you're on top of the scrapheap
At sixteen you were top of the class
All they taught you at school
Was how to be a good worker
The system has failed you, don't fail yourself"

I've always loved the final track, Lovers Town Revisited, which in one minute and twenty seconds takes me back to nights out as a teenager with the mixture of excitement and fear, and the "fighting on the dance floor" that makes him "run away". It seems like Ghost Town with the eeriness replaced by nostalgia.

Billy Bragg was one of the first gigs I went to in Dublin and it still stands out as one of my favourites. As Billy himself went on to say, "I'm more impressionable when my cement is wet." I went with a few friends in a Fiat 650 (I think). It kept stopping on the way in and we had to keep getting out to push. On the way home we took on some more passengers but somehow the car got all the way back without breaking down once - fuelled no doubt by the sexual tension as the new passengers were female. I can still picture the (then unknown to me) Andy Kershaw running around and one of my friends took the setlist home. We leant against the stage while a no mans land behind us was empty bar a bunch of moshing skinheads and the remainder of the crowd were pressed to the walls as far away from the skins as they could get.

I still remember the cracking sound when one of the skinheads was thrown off the stage by a rather over zealous bouncer. Said skinhead seemed to simply bounce up off the concrete floor like a gymnast from a trampoline but Billy stopped mid-song to enquire if the guy was ok and praised his sound producing properties with a quip that Trevor Horn would have been proud of the sound he made. I remember that Richard, in particular, was a favourite of the skins. The highlight was probably Billy's rewrite of Route 66 as A13, which is featured in the South Bank Show clip above.

I also remember coming across Billy on an all night pan-european rock show which must have been in 1983 or 1984. Can't find anything on the net although there is footage of him playing with Echo and the Bunnymen on a Whistle Test all nighter from around that time, incongruously (for Bragg) doing a cover of the Velvets Run, Run, Run. Anyone remember that programme? It was one of the first 'all night' shows on Irish television and featured Light a Big Fire as one of the Irish acts. The only earlier all-nighter I can remember was for an Ali fight. (All night, at the time, probably ran until 2am or some such hour!)

He made you feel that he was singing directly to you and I can still hear that when I listen to this album. He went on to record some more cracking albums, particularly Talking to the Taxman about Poetry which includes a contender for my favourite single - Levi Stubbs' Tears.

In memory of the Red Wedge tours from the mid-eighties here's a fine live cover of Levi Stubbs' Tears by The Redskins.


  1. Great cover. Was it really on 16 minutes long?
    Levi Stubbs Tears a high for me too...

    1. Yes, not quite 16mins. 7 songs ranging in length from 1'20" to 2'50". Light on guitar solos.

    2. The design is very 'Penguin', isn't it?

  2. it was the pay no more than ... line that appeared on all his early stuff that I liked! I too saw him early o . He had just played the tube (when they used to do this strange thing of having someone paying in the foyer to those queuing to get in.)

    He played a venue in Peterborough - no one ventured into the fens in those days (in fact they still don't) so we went in a friends 2cv( had to lean into the corners as if we were on a motorbike). I cant remember much about the gig apart from the fact that it was a very small venue and a very small audience and the constant threat of being thrown out of the pub where he played for being under age

    1. People must have been gawping at the fancy cars outside Bragg gigs in those days!