Is it an album? Is it an EP? To be honest Life’s a Riot With Spy vs Spy is 35 years old now, and still no one is entirely sure how to classify it. What is not up for the debate is that it heralded the arrival of Billy Bragg to a music scene that was in desperate need of a unique voice like his, and that he was as much a breath of fresh air as his great friend Kirsty MacColl had been four years previously.
From the percussive electric guitar rhythm being the only musical accompaniment to Bragg’s instantly recognisable vocals, to the smart, yet utterly relatable lyrics, Life’s a Riot With Spy vs Spy is a release which oozes with a substantial quality all of its own, and is perhaps Billy Bragg’s definitive release. It certainly boasts some of his most enduring songs in “The Milkman of Human Kindness”, “A New England” and (my personal favourite) “The Man in the Iron Mask”. Released at a time of massively unsympathetic production methods, style over substance image and new-romanticism, Bragg’s minimalistic heavy-accent, clanging guitar and cutting lyrics must have sent shock-waves through the music scene at the time, an angry voice hollering to be heard over the howling wind of bland acceptance. It probably sounded under-produced and amateur at the time, however it has endured when so much music released at the same time sounds so hideously dated these days.
While probably the most famous song on Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy, most will be more familiar with Kirsty MacColl’s version of “A New England”, so hearing Bragg’s original version can come as a surprise, but its propulsive rhythm is infectious, and that guitar sounds for all the world like it is played at the far end of the most echoey corridor of the soul. Listening to both versions back to back, I still find it impossible to have a preference between the two, and it’s a shame that the only version of the song featuring both of them is on a difficult to find album of radio sessions. As good as “A New England” is, for me the slow burning resignation of “The Man in the Iron Mask” is Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy’s most effecting moment. It’s a song laden with the type of emotion that can only be delivered by a vocal that lacks technical greatness, but makes up for it in sheer believability. It’s an unforgettable gut-punch of a song, and is worth the price of Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy alone.
Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy is still a refreshing release, and Bragg still remains a musical force to be reckoned with 35 years later. Sure, his sound would inevitably evolve beyond the bare bones approach that he perfected with such efficiency here, but for a lot of people Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy is the release which encapsulates the appeal of Billy Bragg. Not many people can establish their greatness within seven songs and under sixteen minutes, but on Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy, Billy Bragg did, and we should all be grateful for that.