Earlier this year, Porky was somewhat disgruntled with Billy Bragg’s Tooth and Nail, (see here https://craighaggis.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/billy-bragg-tooth-and-nail-but-theres-no-fighting/) but what better way than to shed a lame album, than delving into the past. It was 30 years ago that Bragg unleashed Life’s A Riot With Spy vs Spy (Cooking Vinyl), a 16-minute seven-track mini album sold for the price of a 7” record.
Listening to the reissue (and what a time to release a record with that title), it’s hard to believe that this was just one man and his guitar; Bragg sang and strummed like a one-man Clash. Life’s A Spy was released a year before the Miner’s Strike invigorated him, but he was clearly a musician with no leanings towards the dark and evil philosophy of Thatcherism that was waging an unnecessary and unjustified war against the working class for the benefit of the few.
There are some memorable one-offs “I am the milkman of human kindness, I will leave an extra pint”, and tales of the heart, both The Man In The Iron Mask and Richard touchingly explore the “trapped” relationship from the male perspective. Meanwhile, The Busy Girl Buys Beauty explores a theme that remains in our garish 21st society: the women’s magazines that push products and an attitude young women feel they must adhere to.
A New England always felt like a pop song even with its minimalist structure, long before Kirsty MacColl sang role reversal to take it into the top 40. The line “all the girls I loved in school are already pushing prams” was part of the small p politics that Bragg was developing, and which came to the fore on To Have And Have Not, exploring school qualifications, life expectations and the rat race: “The factories are closing, the army’s full, I don’t know what to do.”
To understand this record fully, it’s worth rewinding to 1983, when Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and ABC took glamorous suits, scantily-clad women, yachts, and a 1920s Hollywood movie sense of the good life into everyday culture. Guitars were hidden behind synthesisers, and hair was big and spangly. Bragg, The Smiths, and a little later James were part of a small crop that were apposite to all the above. There was a feeling of back to basics, of exploring personal issues that were amiss on Girls On Film and Karma Chameleon, although to be fair, the New Romantic bands were not without feeling, far from it, but the substance was often clouded out by the style.
As with reissues, there are extras, but Life’s A Spy is not the deluxe triple CD edition some may expect. The add-on is Bragg redoing the mini album at Union Chapel in London this year, and as he poignantly notes, in introducing it, that it fits handily into a second encore. It’s a faithful replaying of his debut, without the addition of a band, orchestra or leggy backing vocalists, with the odd twist, such as slightly reworking the line in To Have And To Have Not, “just because I dress like this, doesn’t mean I’m a communist” with narcissist replacing the final word.