Life's A Riot With Spy V Spy (Special Reissue Bonus Edition)

Billy Bragg

Cooking Vinyl, 2007

REVIEW BY: Phil Jones


I am slowly in the process of replacing my old vinyl record collection with CDs; the originals met a very unfortunate demise over ten years ago, going missing in a house move, and while the collection wasn’t big in quantity (I had much more on tape and disc), it was of high sentimental quality. Now, the replacement process hasn’t been easy, as a number of records weren’t available and until recently, had not been rereleased.

Still, this results in a dilemma over which CD to buy – the normal album, or as all seem to have nowadays, the Special Bonus Edition (but, as I keep discovering, more is not always better).

This brings me to Billy Bragg’s debut release from 1983, Life’s A Riot With Spy V Spy, which I will review in two parts, as this is the 2007 Special Reissue Bonus Edition. Billy Bragg, who could be described as a modern British folk singer with punk influences, is featured here singing in his very distinctive Essex accent, and his songs cover both politics and relationships.

The original record was distinctive for a number of reasons; first, it clocked in at only 15.57, which required it to be played at 45 rather than 33 1/3 RPM ; secondly, due to his Socialist politics, the disc featured the slogan on the front cover “Pay no more than £2.99.”

On the first disc, which contains the original album, all the tracks are very simply musically, involving just Billy and his electric guitar. The majority of the material here leans towards love/relationships. The album opens with very upbeat “The Milkman Of Human Kindness,” and it’s clear that a lot of the guitar on this record owes a nod towards The Clash.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

“To Have And To Have Not” is the only overtly political song, which looks at the inequality of the education system between private and state education. Meanwhile, “But I’ve Come To See In The Land Of The Free, There’s Only A Future For The Chosen Few” shows his future direction, as Billy supported a number of left wing causes and even formed Red Wedge, a collection of artists that included Paul Weller, Madness, and The Smiths in a campaign supporting the Labour Party against Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government.

The standout cut is “A New England,” which is a song about unrequited love that begins with the same opening lines as Paul Simon’s “Leaves That Are Green:”  “I Was twenty-one years when I wrote this song / I’m twenty-two now, but I won’t be for long,” and contains the brilliant tragicomic image, “I saw two shooting stars last night / I wished on them but they were only satellites / It is wrong to wish on space hardware? / I wish, I wish, you’d care.” This song was later covered by Kirsty MacColl, making the UK Top 10 in 1984 (with an extra verse written by Bragg).

This is followed by the heartbreaking “Man In The Iron Mask,” about a man accepting that his wife is having an affair. The album is rounded off with “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty,” which refers to the power of women’s magazines, and “Lovers Town Revisited,” covering trouble on Saturday nights out.

Overall, it is surprising that so much can be packed into fifteen minutes, and also how much this contrasted with the British music scene of the time, which was very much in its New Romantic phase.

Musically, the second bonus disc features more instruments; however, on a number of tracks, these are very dated drum machines and keyboards, which sound decidedly cheap, especially on “Love Lives Here” and “Love Gets Dangerous,” and end up detracting from the songs.

The rest of the material is pleasant but feels very much like B-sides; even the alternative version of “Man In The Iron Mask” with added trumpet is not as good as the original

The one must-have highlight is an alternative take on “Route 66,” which rather than starting in St. Louis and finishing in California, is rebranded as “A13, Trunk Road To The Sea” and travels Wapping to Southend – and if you know the road, the contrast couldn’t more marked.

Life’s A Riot is as short and exciting as I remember it, and as a collector I want to have the extra tracks, but perhaps on a separate B-sides and rarities release so they don’t devalue the strength of the original.

Rating: B-

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