Billy Bragg: Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy (30th Anniversary Edition) – album reviewBilly Bragg: Life’s A Riot With Spy Vs Spy (30th Anniversary Edition) (Cooking Vinyl


Available  October 21, 2013.

10 / 10

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of his seminal 1983 debut recording, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy, Billy Bragg is releasing a special edition. Louder Than War gets all nostalgic.

I was 18 years when I heard these songs, I’m 48 now, but I won’t be for long.

I pull out my original vinyl edition of Life’s a Riot. The cover is a pastiche of a Penguin book cover, betraying the literary ambitions of Billy Bragg. It’s a seven track album, played at 45rpm, that has displayed, in big letters, that I should pay no more than £2.99. A small price to pay for 17 minutes of blistering passion. The remastered re-release, which also includes the whole album played live at the Union Chapel, London, June 5th, 2013  is pay no more than £3.49 (£2.49 if you just want the original seven tracks). My original vinyl crackles with the many plays it has yielded to me. A beer stain on the inner sleeve reminds me of taking records to parties. Vinyl was meant to be played back then, not collected. Thirty years, gone in the blinking of an eye.

Bragg says:

Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy has a very special place in my heart, being the first step on a 30 year journey that has seen me travel to places that I could never have imagined back in ’83. Also, as it’s only 17 minutes long, I can knock the whole album out as an encore if the fancy takes me – no need to book the Royal Albert Hall and the London Symphony Orchestra”

When Bragg hit the post-punk scene he came completely out of the left field. He played a mix of punk and folk that really hadn’t been heard before. He was Woody Guthrie crossed with Joe Strummer. Listening to this record again I’m struck by both the musicianship (often his guitar work is unjustly overlooked) and the precise, clever lyrics. Indeed, I’d forgotten just how quotable this album is.

The seven songs on the original release veer between tender love songs, biting anger at the bleak wasteland of Thatcher’s 80s that offered only the scrapheap to school leavers, and slice of life vignettes. Often it seems as though the ideas are spilling so quickly from his mind that his vocals struggle to keep up. It makes the whole album feel incredibly immediate.

To Have and Have Not is a diatribe against social injustice that gives qualifications which are:

“…now just a piece of paper. In the land of the free, there’s only a future for the chosen few.”

He doesn’t miss the chance to be self mocking though:

“Just because I dress like this, doesn’t mean I’m a Communist.”

A New England became his signature song for many years to come and still sounds great with that punk guitar intro, followed by that classic, nonsense couplet:

“I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I’m 22 now but I won’t be for long.”

Just about every line in this song is a great quote:

“I put you on a pedestal, I put you on the pill. When will I grow up to be a man, when all the girls up at school are already pushing prams. I saw two shooting stars last night, I wished on them, but they were only satellites. Is it wrong to wish on space hardware? I wish, I wish you cared.”

There is self-effacement here and self knowledge and a complete control of the language of song.


The Man In The Iron Mask still sends shivers down my spine with the haunting guitar work and the bitterness of a pathetic love that brings nothing but self abasement and self loathing.

The Busy Girl Buys Make-Up is a beautiful slice of life song, attacking consumerism with knife like clarity.

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 and a half. And you’re not yet engaged. Will you go look for the boy who says, I love you, let’s get married and have kids?

Thirty years on these are still great songs and I’m knocked out by what a great debut this was. The fact that this year Bragg also released one of my favourite albums of the year, Tooth and Nail, is testament to his song writing skills.

The live portion of the release could have been superfluous, but listen to them and be surprised at how Bragg sounds more angry in 2013 than he did in 1983.

With Peel Day fast approaching this month (October 25th), it’s worth re-calling the story of Billy and the biryani. Hearing John Peel mention on-air that he was hungry, Bragg hurried over to the BBC with a mushroom biryani, so Peel played a song from Life’s a Riot with Spy Vs. Spy. Peel insisted he would have played the song even without the biryani.

If you haven’t heard Life’s A Riot then get hold of a copy. If you have, then dig out your old copies and give it a spin. I can’t promise you a biryani, but I can promise you a great sounding album, 30 years on…


Billy Bragg’s website can be found here. He’s also on Facebook & Twitter.

All words by Mark Ray. More writing by Mark Ray can be found at his author archive. And he can be found on Twitter.

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  1. Brilliant though Brag undeniably is, I should point out that the couplet “I was 21 years when I wrote this song, I’m 22 now, but I won’t be or long” was lifted from Paul Simon – a fact that Bragg has always acknowledged.


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