Billy Bragg's epic debut album lasts just shy of 16 minutes. 16 minutes of singer-songwriter music for the working man, the 'anarchist' and the general lower - middle class public. Bragg attacks the British government on more than one occasion. He attacks the education system, and he speaks the relevant information every Tom, Dick & Harry knows. The politically charged songs fail to shadow the themes of love and the undeniable influences from the left-wing folk king, Woody Guthrie. Bragg takes a major influence from Guthrie. It seems Bragg has a love for meaningful folk songs and 'pub rock', mixing it with the then devil called the Conservative party. And now you're asking, 'So why is this a 'classic album'? I'll help you answer your own question.
Lets take ourselves back to England, 1983. Millions of people are without jobs and current Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher closes MORE mines, factories and shipyards. Her attempt to bring inflation down was a success, but at what cost. Strikes was a major news story and with 12% of the British workforce without a job, with the ability to strike.. It led Thatcher to fight the trade unions and strengthen privatised businesses, aiding the future of Britain massively. But at the time, she was many peoples enemy. Billy Bragg's world outside his window isn't a lot different to the world of today.
Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy opens with 'The Milkman of Human Kindness', one of his strongest tracks. An eerie vocal mixes with the epic reverberation of an empty room. It's Bragg and his electric guitar, at their best. He plays fast, loud and technical. The way his lyrics flow with the songs pace is beautiful. The track slows and fades to the chorus as Bragg sings the most memorable line in the song, "I love you, I am the milkman of human kindness. I will leave an extra pint." In 1983, nothing sounds better than Billy Bragg and an opinion. It's why 'To Have And To Have Not' stands out on this album as the most politically fuelled and angry tracks. Again, Bragg sings above his raw electric guitar which is covered in this striking reverb/distortion. Delivering bombshells such as "Qualifications once the Golden Rule. Are now just pieces of paper" / "Just because you're better than me, doesn't mean I'm lazy. Just because you're going forwards, doesn't mean I'm going backwards" / "Just because I dress like this, doesn't mean I'm a communist" / "I've come to see in the Land of the Free. There's only a future for the Chosen Few" / "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." It's a track fans consistently shout back at him during concerts.
'Richard' is an exquisite track about 'love' and the mind. The chorus is one of the most ear melting choruses with Bragg's alternative delicate voice, compared to his usual harsh cockney accent. The track flows in a punk fashion, with Bragg sounding like The Clash. Carl Barat of The Libertines is a known fan of Bragg. They played Richard live at Glastonbury together in 2008. The theme of love continues with the dazzling 'A New England', Bragg's signature song. His early life can be capped off by listening to A New England. The lyrics are mouth watering, and with a gripping chorus, makes this track the best of 1983. He sings, "People ask me 'when will you grow up to be a man?' But all the girls I loved at school are already pushing prams" / "I loved you then as I love you still. Though I put you on a pedestal, they put you on the pill." These early love songs are Billy's cry at society for producing the most basic and simple minded women. The chorus underlines the tracks theme with, "I don't want to change the world. I'm not looking for a new England, I'm just looking for another girl." It's as simple as that. The thing that sticks out the most whilst listening to this track is the atmosphere which takes over the room. The listener is entranced in this silky reverberation and Bragg's heartfelt, but angry vocal. Brilliant.
Bragg's rendition of 'The Man In The Iron Mask' takes a steady, slower structure with a focus on the spacious trickling guitar picking. He takes the original story of The Man In The Iron Mask and makes it relevant to modern day form with a flawed relationship. This track spawns Bragg's most sweetest moment, "The nights you spend without me. This house is like a dungeon, and you only return to torture me more." This track is the most hindmost and cautious on the album, right before the upfront and cultural 'The Busy Girl Buys Beauty'. Now this track isn't sexist, it really isn't. Bragg outlines some key flaws in Britain's female population. Granted, this does not include 100% of the female population, but.. say, 99%... Yeah. The opening few lines set the standard. Billy Bragg was saying these things about women in the early 80's. I must say, not a lot has changed. "The busy girl buys beauty. The pretty girl buys style. And the simple girl buys what she's told to buy" / "What will you do when you wake up one morning, to find that God's made you plain, In a beautiful person's world? And all those quick recipes have let you down. And you're 20 & a half and not yet engaged will you go look for the boy who says 'I love you let's get married and have kids'."
The short and sharp closer 'Lovers Town Revisited' mixes folk and punk rock. Bragg delivers his vocal with conviction and humility. The song structure differs from the other verse/chorus/verse tracks, to a standard story telling track with a refrain at the end. Above all, this track has energy and passion. With Bragg singing, "There's boys outside preaching genocide, and trying to think up some sort of threat." The two 'ism's' Bragg fights against the most begin to formulate in this closing track, racism and fascism.
In a career spanning five British Prime Ministers, Billy Bragg has been able to establish himself as a voice. His powerful freedom of expression makes him the most prevalent politcal singer-songwriter since Woody Guthrie. Joe Strummer's influence aided Bragg's punk orientated fanbase which gradually became rock, folk and finally political. Planet Earth saw the rise of folk-punk in the mid to late 80's, meanwhile Bragg gathered a support of straight edge left wing punks for his honest, brave opinions and philosophy. Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy is more than just a Billy Bragg album, it's an influential piece of singer-songwriter material with one man and his guitar. Bragg's influence can be heard everywhere you look, with the likes of Jamie T, Kirsty MacColl, Carl Barat, Wilco and Lars Frederiksen covering songs from Bragg's 16 minute debut. Singer-songwriters who actually have something to say, are hard to find. In 1983, Billy Bragg made it, and he's never looked back (He gave John Peel a mushroom biryani. Peel then gave Bragg his first radio airplay). Behind all the politics and opinions is an album of sophisticated punk. Your opinion on Billy Bragg as a man doesn't matter here, it's all about the music.