Music Reviews, Non-Fiction

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

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


Available from October 21, 2013.




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. I get 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 7 track album, played at 45 rpm, 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 7 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 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…

This article first appeared on Louder Than War  

Music Reviews, Non-Fiction

Mazzy Star: Seasons Of Your Day – album review

Mazzy Star – Seasons Of Your Day (Rhymes Of An Hour)  mazzystar2013


Release Date: 23/09/2013


 Mazzy Star return after 17 years with a new album. Is there a Halal or an Into The Dust? Louder Than War takes a listen.

The organ chords start up and, for a moment, I wonder if Mazzy Star have gone all high church on me. But then the slide guitar swoons and Hope Sandoval, with one of the most distinctive voices in music sings: “took a train into the city, you know the one that goes under the bridge”. The opening song is called ‘In The Kingdom’ and once that voice and the guitar are joined in harmony we know that all is right in the Mazzy Star kingdom tonight.

Seasons Of Your Day is the first album by Mazzy Star in 17 years; the last one being 1996’s  Among My Swan (preceded by She Hangs Brightly (1990) and So Tonight That I Might See (1993)) although the two main collaborators and writers – Hope Sandoval and David Roback – say they never actually split up the band and, indeed, claim to have written many songs together in those 17 years. Surely a treasure trove for fans to mine in the future. They return with all the original members, plus special guest Colm O’Ciosoig (My Bloody Valentine and member of Hope Sandoval’s Warm Invention; as well as being rumoured to be her paramour).


So have the band dramatically changed styles in those 17 years? The short answer is no. You get exactly what you’d expect from a Mazzy Star album. Which is basically a cross between The Doors and Joni Mitchell. It’s psychedelic folk. The slide guitars are a lonesome wail of a train hurtling through the night, through dust bowls, to the neon lit city at night. The voice is one of longing. Of half forgotten dreams. On ‘California’ (a song reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s song of the same name from her classic Blue album), Sandoval sings: “I think I’m going back to California, somewhere distant, and it’s all far away. It’s so far away.” Everything in the world of Mazzy Star is remembered or hoped for. There is no present. It’s looking back or dreaming of the future. The album was recorded in California and Norway which perfectly reflects the songs lush heat and cold ennui. Even when a mouth organ enters the mix it’s played as though by a crazed Huckleberry Finn.


There are two songs that are classic Mazzy Star compositions, ‘Sparrow’ and ‘Lay Myself Down’. Both have that guitar slide work and the haunting vocals. Though one of my favourites is ‘Common Burn’ where Sandoval sings about how common place acts, when done by a  lover, can burn us as much as the passionate moments. There are great blues moments here too, especially on ‘Flying Low’ and ‘Spoon’. On the latter the blues are played out against a duet of guitars from Roback and the late, great Bert Jansch. Both songs run over the 6 minute mark, the guitars crawling like king snakes through some shot gun shack moonshine still to the bar that steams with whisky soaked passion and the blues played back and forth. Sandoval is a strange blues singer – a  waif like, fragile, ethereal beauty, like a true medium of long dead blues men. Maybe she is more their muse; their dreadful, hopeless loves that woke up with them in the morning and broke their hearts by breakfast. They’d go to jail for her at the very least. They speak through her to us, from a long gone, half mythic, American Southern Gothic land of crazed preachers, femme fatales, whisky drinking cops, interbred mutants, and the black dark soul of the South.

Nobody quite does Mazzy Star like Mazzy star. As they say themselves the album is “music for lovers, music for broken hearts”.

There may not be a ‘Halal’ or an ‘Into The Dust’ here, but it’s a triumphant return.

Hope Sandoval official website here

Mazzy Star on Facebook here

Mazzy Star on Twitter here

This article first appeared on Louder Than War