Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Cassette experiment day 109 - Billy Bragg 'Life's a riot with Spy vs Spy'

For a dyed-in-the-wool waffler like me, the concept of ‘less is more’ can be a bit of an anathema. I know that there’s a reason why we have one mouth and two ears, but if there’s an option to go with ten words or one I always tend to favour the former.
There was a time of course when even the ‘three minute pop song’ was considered to be at least a minute too long and many of the greatest songs ever recorded clock in at just under or just over the two minute mark. At the opposite end of the spectrum lies Prog which tends toward the ‘there’s no such thing as ‘too long’ when it comes to drum solos’ theory when it comes to the concept of brevity.
Many Punk bands appreciated the concept of not overstaying their welcome and in many ways our cassette today may just be the last great album of the punk era – Billy Bragg’s tribute to the joys of brevity, his 7 track, 16 minute debut ‘album’ ‘Life’s a riot with Spy vs Spy’.
As we discovered back on day 73, this cassette was one of the great triumvirate on heavy rotation on my Sanyo personal stereo as I walked to work at Laws Stores in Southwick in the 1980s (the other two being (the now sadly snapped) 'Forever now' by The Psychedelic Furs, and 'The Smiths' by The Smiths).
I’m sure I heard that Billy got his big break by appearing with an Indian takeaway for John Peel when he said he fancied one on air. I’m not sure how true this is, but it’s definitely a lesson in never under-estimating the power of a curry.
From the first jangling guitar on ‘Life’s a riot’s’ first track (‘The milkman of human kindness’) this is an album that never stops for breath, sounding for all the world like it was recorded in Billy’s bathroom*. The best known track is ‘A New England’, an unconventional love song that subsequently achieved great success when brilliantly covered, with help from Billy himself, by Kirsty MacColl. I was shocked when I found out years later that ‘The big-nosed boy from Barking’ (his description, not mine!) had ‘borrowed’ the iconic opening lines word-for-word from Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Leaves that are green’. All credit to Billy for his breadth of musical knowledge though.
Other tracks lurch from the political to the romantic (often in the same song), with the spiky ‘To have and to have not’ passing scathing comment, in what would become Billy’s trademark style, on education and opportunity, and on my favourite on the album, ‘The man in the iron mask’ which takes mournfulness to previously unplumbed levels.
At 16 minutes I could listen to this twice on my walk to work almost thirty years ago. When I drive to work in 2013 I can still fit it in twice if I choose to go by a slightly longer route than usual!
Label – Go!/Utility
Year – 1983
If you’re a fan of music in bathrooms, as I am, then why not check out this little beauty by The Lake Poets -  The Lake Poets - Windowsill 
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