At that time (as now), if you weren’t a beautiful actor/model/coverboy-girl with a set of safe, bland, over-produced songs, you need not apply. Bragg didn’t fit into that mold, relying instead on talent, attitude and sheer guts in his attempt to make life-changing music.
Billy Bragg’s Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy
Somehow, Bragg succeeded. Never a commercial artist, but always an influential one, his creative emphasis was on the lyrics, especially with his earliest work, which eschewed niceties such as production values and lush instrumentation in favor of the word, the voice and a guitar. The result, on these seven songs, was simply devastating. A talented wordsmith with a taste for the bizarre turn of the phrase, Bragg had a sharp eye for the absurdities of modern life and relationships, and a satirical wit that sinks a razor-sharp rapier into the jugular of the subjects he aims at. Bragg’s political material voiced the most radical worldview since the early days of the Clash (Joe Strummer a major influence on Bragg’s songwriting), the songs made even more effective by the sparse musical accompaniment. Bragg’s love songs are both emotional and bittersweet, never maudlin, and infected with a contagious romanticism more common to the folk genre than to punk rock.
In the thirty-three years since its original release, Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy has aged well, songs like “A New England” and “The Busy Girl Buys Beauty” benefiting from the timeless style of Bragg’s writing and performances. The Yep Roc Records reissue of the EP features the original seven-song EP on one disc, and a second “bonus” disc of unreleased rarities, alternative versions and a great cover of John Cale’s “Fear Is A Man’s Best Friend.” Personally, I would have liked to have seen the label include the four songs from Bragg’s Between the Wars EP here, to flesh out the first disc somewhat. However, this is a minor cavil, and since Bragg personally oversaw the Yep Roc reissue series, it was his choice, not mine…
The Reverend’s Bottom Line
In 1985, when the vinyl version of Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy hit these shores, I wrote that Bragg had “a great artistic future,” and that although he would never become a “big star,” he would always be an “interesting and dedicated performer.” Through the years since, Bragg has never proved me wrong. (Yep Roc Records, 2006 reissue)
Review originally published by Trademark of Quality (TMQ) blog
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