Sunday, 11 November 2007

Life's A Riot With Spy Vs Spy by Billy Bragg

It seems that each generation has its troubadour. In the 1950's there was Woody Guthrie, the 1960's gave us Bob Dylan, the 1970's Nick Drake. All these artists were steeped in folk music and Guthrie and Dylan in particular were overtly political. Punk was meant to smash all that away. Gone were the hippy generation and gently strumming a guitar. The next generation's troubadour came along in 1983. Billy Bragg was an ex-member of the British Army and member of punk band Riff Raff and he combined a punk sensibility, a loud electric guitar and the song craft of a folk musician to really capture the spirit of Thatcher years. Bragg was a tireless performer and travelled the country with his guitar and his amp strapped to his back playing gig after gig.

Life's A Riot is in reality a mini-album. It is barely 20 minutes long and has just 7 tracks but it was so different from the scene at the time it was a breath of fresh air. It is raw, passionate and full of energy and still sounds as good today as it did when it was released. I first heard this on John Peel's show and I remember having to order it from my local record shop and I had to wait for ages before it was delivered. In those days you had to do things like that. There was no Amazon, Myspace or iTunes where music was instantly obtainable so if you wanted something you had to work at getting it. It was later reissued on the newly formed Go-Disc label and went into the Top 30 album chart.

The first track 'The Milkman Of Human Kindness' is one of Bragg's brilliant love songs. He has always been able to balance his political work with gorgeous love songs which are humorous, clever and above all completely unsentimental. 'Milkman' is all of these and was an early indicator of just how good a song writer Bragg was to become. 'To Have And To Have Not' is a challenge to the mean Thatcherite dogma that was preached by the Daily Mail, Express and Murdoch's Sun. Lyrically it is as angry and passionate as you'd expect:

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.

The song sums up the early 1980's in the UK. If you were not earning obscene amounts of money you were deemed as a lazy good for nothing despite the fact that you were almost certainly doing something far more worthy than the champagne swilling Yuppies in the City.

Another of my favourite tracks is 'A New England' which is probably Bragg's best known song. Kirsty MacColl had a sizable hit with a cover version of this song but Bragg's original is far superior. Another of Bragg's marvellous unrequited love songs 'A New England' has one of my very favourite verses:

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, I wish you'd care.

Billy Bragg has now been around for close on 25 years and he is still making great music. His appearances on Question Time or Any Questions show that he has lost none of his political fight and his recent book 'Progressive Patriot' is a marvellous cross between auto-biography and Bragg's vision of a Socialist Britain.

Bragg is still touring extensively playing countless festivals and benefit gigs as he did 25 years ago. On Thursday 15 November he is playing a gig in Acton to commemorate a concert given to raise money for the Fire Brigades Union which was the final time Joe Strummer appeared on stage (and I'm going). He has just signed up to play some gigs for Mencap's Little Noise Sessions and he is touring in Australia and New Zealand in early 2008.

We should all be thankful for Billy Bragg. He is a national treasure.

Billy Bragg - Official Website


Planet Mondo said...

I remember this and the later BB albums being on constant rotation on the marmite music centre. I'll have to start reinvestigating

Loved his green guitar, being an axe anorak.

BLTP said...

topstuff Billy rules! I was digitising this myself recently.