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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Billy Bragg: Life's A Riot With Spy Vs. Spy

BILLY BRAGG: LIFE'S A RIOT WITH SPY VS. SPY (1983)

1) The Milkman Of Human Kindness; 2) To Have And To Have Not; 3) Richard; 4) A New England; 5) The Man In The Iron Mask; 6) The Busy Girl Buys Beauty; 7) Lovers Town Revisited.

This might be the single most influential (or, at least, most revered) LP in the history of pop music (or, at least, UK pop music) that takes no more than sixteen minutes in total to tell you everything it needs to tell you. A much later CD edition has expanded it to more than twice its length with the addition of demos and rarities, but even then it was divided into two discs and the first one contained nothing but the original album — so you don't ever forget the importance of brevity in this line of artistic business. (I only have the record as part of the 1987 compilation Back To Basics, so I have not yet heard the additional tracks on the expanded release).

Now even though for Billy Bragg social activism and politics have always been every bit as im­portant as his music, Life's A Riot already clearly shows that he is a «singer-songwriter doing politics», not a «social activist pretending to be a musician in his spare time». The thing that he does here was something largely unheard of in 1983: «folk-punk» in the most literal sense of the word, where the artist is a one-man band, playing energetic, uptempo tunes on an electric guitar, but using it in the manner of a folk troubadour. Give the man a complete rhythm section to go along, and you will have something in between The Clash and Elvis Costello; as it is, what you have is a modern day Woody Guthrie, updated to reflect contemporary realities and certain ad­vances in playing, writing, and verbalizing that took place since the 1940s.

The way to enjoy and understand Billy Bragg is through his «persona» rather than any specific musical gift. As you see them here, these songs are neither particularly well written nor amazing­ly well performed: sure Billy can write, play, and sing, but there is nothing about these chord changes, guitar tones, or vocal inflections that has not been done better by more artists than you will have the chance to listen to in your sweet short life. However, once you put it all together — his choppy garage-rock guitar chords, his rough, earnest, Strummer-influenced voice, his deep-reaching lyrics (way above whatever you'd expect from the average leftist stereotype), and that stripped-down attitude, as if he were just recreating his usual busking on the streets of London in the studio — the whole is far more impressive than the parts.

Besides, at this point it is not even completely clear if social messages are more important for Billy than pure expression of emotion: after all, the album opens with ʽThe Milkman Of Human Kindnessʼ (already an awesome song title, isn't it?), which is basically just a romantic love song (unless, of course, you want to interpret the line "I will leave an extra pint" as indication that the protagonist is simply willing to make love to as many women as there are milk bottles, and that the current addressee is just one of the many. Ah well, still a romantic love song, just with an ad­ditional Don Giovanni twist then). As the song opens with loudly blasting, ass-kicking folk-rock guitar chords, you most naturally expect the opening to be followed with the band kicking in — bass, drums, second guitar, maybe Al Kooper on the organ or something — but it never does, and I still wonder just how much better the song could have worked on its own, if given a full arran­ge­ment. Not much better, perhaps, because the chorus has no well-placed hook (that "I will leave an extra pint" is merely memorable because it is a fun line delivered accappella for the whole world to hear and memorize) — but no harm in wondering.

Social conscience begins to kick in with the second track: ʽTo Have And To Have Notʼ is basi­cally the Clash's ʽJulie's In The Drug Squadʼ (or some other Clash song, no matter) with new ly­rics ("just because you're better than me doesn't mean I'm lazy"), but since it's more derivative, it's also catchier, and Billy's enthusiasm may even be more infectious than Strummer's, precisely because of the stripped-down arrangement. ʽA New Englandʼ makes a subtler point: "I don't want to change the world / I'm not looking for a new England / I'm just looking for another girl" could be superficially understood as reluctance to introduce changes, but in fact, it is quite clear that getting another girl is a difficult task in old England, so... anyway, the chorus here is probably the most charismatic spot on the entire record, combining a bit of melancholy, a bit of puzzled con­fusion, and a bit of optimism in the face of depressing odds. Additionally, it's a good example of Billy's way of genre-welding: "I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I'm 22 now but I won't be for long" is written and sung as if it were an old talkin' blues (close your eyes and hear Woody, or Dylan, sing this), but the accompanying guitar is doing it surf/rockabilly-style. Kinda cool.

The odd man out on this short record is ʽThe Man In The Iron Maskʼ, which totally eliminates all the garage/punk stylizations, slows down, and turns to dark European folk for inspiration — again, singing about torturous unrequited (or betrayed) love rather than social problems, and sin­ging surprisingly well: given Billy's well-defined, in-yer-face cockney accent all over the place, his take on the «quasi-medieval balladry» genre works out all right, as he never falters on the prolonged notes and switches from higher to lower registers to good effect. Maybe this is not exactly a Lou Reed or a Peter Hammill level of deep-reaching psychologism, but for just a guy with just a guitar, this is exceptionally well crafted stuff.

Nevertheless, like I said, Life's A Riot earns its thumbs up «on the whole», as a successful first-time stylistic experiment of merging the «wisdom» of old folk with the «brute force» of new punk, rather than through individual tracks — and yes, to do that, sixteen minutes are just enough (already the last two ultra-short songs bordered on «slightly tedious»). Being the people's cham­pion and all, though, Billy even made sure that you do not get overcharged: "Pay no more than £2.99 for this 7 track album", the front cover says in ineffaceable type (which still seems a bit high — that's something like £9.50 in today's prices, which is the price of a solid CD, but then again, it looks like three pounds was a fair price for a 12" release back then). Ironically, the 2-disc edition as sold on Amazon in the UK goes for £7.89 today — and the cunning bastards have erased the original small type, replacing it with the boring (but serving its purpose) tag of «30th Anniversary Edition». Apparently, there's just no getting away from capitalist swine games even for a true people's champion. Tough world.

2 comments:

  1. That 'I was 21 years...' line is actually a quote from Simon & Garfunkel's 'Leaves That Are Green'.

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  2. Billy wrote to Paul Simon to ask for permission. I remember an interview where Paul said he had a letter from a "Billy somebody" about the song.

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