Oh My Virgin Ears!: Billy Bragg's Life's a Riot with Spy vs. Spy

Oh My Virgin Ears!, Songbook
Gabe Pollak
With Oh My Virgin Ears!, KEXP's (young) intern Gabe Pollak takes a first listen at iconic albums in music history. With singer/songwriter and author Billy Bragg visiting KEXP's Gathering Space tonight as part of of Songbook: KEXP’s Music & Literature Series, we had Gabe reflect on his first time listening to Bragg's 1983 studio album debut, Life's A Riot with Spy vs. Spy. Bragg began his "Bridges Not Walls," US tour last night with a sold-out show at the Neptune. Bragg's new book Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World is out now via Faber & Faber.
The Milkman of Human Kindness

I knew Billy Bragg’s voice before I really knew the man. In December of my senior year of college, I finally got to know the British folk-punk hero through his studio album debut, Life’s a Riot with Spy vs. Spy. My college roommates had fled north to celebrate the holidays with their families. The rest of campus disappeared so quickly it was like they were never there. I’d stayed behind to work, stuck in Greensboro, a city in the middle of North Carolina that felt much more like a small town.

At the time, I was working at a bookstore-bar-cafe in downtown Greensboro. I was more a co-worker than friends with anyone there. Whenever someone asked me how I was doing, I wanted to sob, “Not so well!” But I obediently mumbled something about the weather or the bike ride there. The one thing I felt capable of doing was managing the music at work. While I was allegedly hired to make cappuccinos and grill tomato-feta sandwiches, I considered my real responsibility to be that of store DJ. I took on the responsibility with the utmost commitment. I determined, empirically, that Tame Impala was the best music for Friday nights, while Nick Drake should be reserved for first thing Saturday morning, right as the first pot of coffee gurgles full. My shift partner loved Wilco, so Mermaid Avenue, became a go-to. The 1998 album centered on an interesting premise: original music by Wilco and Billy Bragg set to previously unreleased lyrics from late American folk hero Woody Guthrie.

I’d known the album long before we started playing it at the store. My dad loved Bob Dylan, but my mom thought he sounded like a frog. Mermaid Avenue had been a kind of compromise. Other than his contribution to the album though, I knew little about Billy Bragg. I knew he was British (because I had ears), and that he sang one of my Mermaid Avenue favorites — “Ingrid Bergman” — which I had soaked up as a kid, lounging in the backseat of my family’s station wagon. One night at work, I decided to listen to Billy Bragg’s solo material for the first time. After searching the singer’s name on our store Spotify account, I cued up the first thing I saw: Billy Bragg’s seven-song 1983 studio album debut Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy.

To Have And To Have Not

An image formed in my head as I listened to Life’s a Riot... for the first time: Bragg dumps a sturdy black case onstage in the back of a no-name pub somewhere in England. The club manager shows up. “Where’s the rest of your band?” Working musician Bragg shrugs and continues unspooling cables. That was my first question for Mr. Bragg upon hearing Life’s a Riot... for the first time: where’s the rest of your band? The entire EP is raw vocals in a thick British accent and an electric guitar, loose, free, and combative. That’s it. I had stood in front of the register, waiting, waiting, waiting for the band to come in. They stood me up on our first date, defying my expectations about instrumentation in punk and rock’n’roll, two genres I thought I heard in the music. Was this a demo? The emptiness of the mix played out across the emptiness of the store, emphasizing the risk in Bragg’s solo performance.

Ask any musician, and they’ll tell you it’s different performing on your own. It takes extra vulnerability and energy to go it alone, which you could detect both in the feverish snarl of “To Have And To Have Not,” and the earnest delivery of “The Milkman of Human Kindness.” Hearing the investment in Bragg’s performance, I wasn’t surprised when I later learned the origin story behind the release of Life’s a Riot.... Bragg eventually got this EP released after impersonating a TV repairman to sneak into the office of an A&R agent. Say what you will about his music, but Bragg had courage.


The third cut on the EP, “Richard,” caught my ear listening alone later that night. It was well past midnight. I heard Bragg interrupt himself during the chorus. “There will be parties. There will be fun. There will be prizes for everyone, but--” Bragg suddenly changes course, “Hey! Hey! Hey! Here comes Richard.” He sounds like someone seeking to escape a dull conversation at a party, exaggerating excitement at another guest’s arrival as an excuse to run to the other side of the room. It’s a satire of small talk at a party -- a game no one likes, but everyone plays. I recognized it in the way I spoke to customers sometimes. “I really love your style. Did you read it on the Look and Learn?” Bragg sings, feigning interest. I didn’t catch the reference then -- Look and Learn was a popular British children’s magazine -- but I understood the frustrated feeling of keeping up the charade of social nicety. Who doesn’t? Bragg sounded more exasperated as the conversation drags on, playing over an increasingly unkempt guitar part. “How long can this go on?” he drawls.

Then, finally, the gig is up, and malformed words tumble out. Like a kid who can’t keep it in and finally shouts an inappropriate question. “Do you think I only like you because you sleep with other boys?” Cue eight quick stabs of electric guitar, the roughness of each chord mimicking the raw discomfort felt when the contents of your drunken mind spill out on the table. The party should have ended years ago. “Richard,” and other satirical songs on Life’s a Riot..., lessened the FOMO I felt cycling past the glowing signs of sports bars on the way home. Not that I ever particularly enjoyed going to bars to spend my hard-earned tip money. But that’s where everyone else was, right? Shouldn’t you go say “Hey!” to Richard? Turns out, time alone could be just as valuable, especially if you had some new music to listen to.

New England

It’s embarrassing to say, but the chorus of “New England,” the EP’s best-known song, pretty much summed up the extent of my limited goals at the moment: “I don’t want to save the world. I’m not looking for New England. I’m just looking for another girl.” I guess that’s how pop songs work (A version of “New England,” went to the top of the charts in 1985 with a cover by Bragg’s late friend, Kristy MacColl). If the melody is memorable, we take on the hooks as our mantras. I sang mine loudly each day, barreling across the train tracks at the edge of town on an old blue bike, doing my best British accent: “I’m just looking for anotha gul!” The day I lost my gloves, my knuckles bled in the wind, but I kept singing the song. If I hadn’t been so focused on shedding the shame of my singledom, I might have noticed that the relationship described in the verses of “New England,” wasn’t necessarily ideal. It was a break-up song I chose to hear as a love song.

Either way, other lyrics became equally enmeshed in my day-to-day headspace. The bridge of “The Milkman of Human Kindness” greeted me like a warm cup of coffee each morning that winter. “Hold my hand for me. I’m waking up,” Bragg sang, jumping up in volume as he landed on the bridge. He sustained “up,” till the last second, ending only when he was completely out of breath, even if that meant stopping after an odd number of measures. As he held onto the notes, I held onto the determination I heard in his voice, clinging to it like I had fallen overboard and the music was the hand pulling me to safety. I’d never been more thankful to my college roommate than when he left behind his giant studio quality speakers for me to listen with. With a hula doll dancing on top of them, the speakers stood on the shelf in our living room like guards watching over me. I laid on the dirty carpet, stained with you-don’t-want-to-know-what from decades of college-aged tenants, and sang along, feeling a new sense of movement at an otherwise stagnant moment in my life.

The Man in the Iron Mask

“The Man in the Iron Mask” was was the one song I sometimes wanted to skip. With its dirge-like tempo and vocals, the song suddenly stalled the EP’s riotous momentum like a stoplight in the middle of a parade. But it wasn’t just the song’s sad disposition that I disliked. It made me uncomfortable to hear Bragg mope so openly. “You said you loved me and it broke my heart,” Bragg intoned towards the end of a verse. “I was always your prisoner, right from the start.” He was around twenty-five when he released the song, but the lyrics made him sound like an emo kid. As Bragg began the slowly-plucked minor-key guitar line, I wanted to rush to his side and stop him, like you would a friend who drunkenly decides to confront an ex in the middle of a party. “Hey buddy,” you say, sliding quietly across the room to intervene, exchanging apologetic eye contact with anyone watching. “Why don’t we save the poetry for English class.” But Bragg plowed forward with his confessional. “The nights you spend without me this house is like a dungeon,” he sang. “And you only return to torture me more.”

All of the sudden, Bragg didn’t sound like the image I made him out to be, a bold young man resisting societal norms at the top of his lungs. He sounded more like an angsty teen. I remembered with a shiver that the lyrics to “The Man in the Iron Mask,” were lines I would have been proud to write when I was fifteen. I was the kind of boy who wrote a poem for a girl I liked, biked to her house, rang the doorbell, ditched the piece of crumpled yellow notepad paper on the doormat like a murder weapon, and bolted out of there before she could see who left it. Why did I think I needed to express my feelings? Especially in writing. What a terrible impulse. But I didn’t dislike “The Man in the Iron Mask,” because I was embarrassed for Bragg, but because it defied the image of him that I felt I needed at the moment. I wanted someone to admire, not someone who reminded me of myself. He was wearing his heart on his sleeve. I thought he should cover up. But that's hardly how vulnerability -- or great music -- works.

The Busy Girl Buys Beauty

By mid-January, I bought into Bragg completely. The earnestness, passion, and vulnerability I sensed in the music made for good company. I spent all the time with that EP that I could. I learned that the title of “The Milkman and Human Kindness” came from a line in Macbeth and scavenged local free libraries for an extra copy. I read an interview in which Bragg explained that he had been inspired to write “New England,” after seeing two satellites orbit each other, hence the famous line: “I saw two shooting stars last night. I wished on them but they were only satellites. It’s wrong to wish on space hardware.” I fell asleep wondering what happened to the avoidant narrator in “Lover’s Town Revisited,” who ends the EP reflecting on nightly violence at a neighborhood pub, “at times it makes me stop and think, but most times it makes me run away.” I watched parody videos of Billy Bragg and dreamed of living in a place (England, perhaps?) where jokes about Billy Bragg appealed to the general public. I had found a worthwhile obsession to fill my time.

Lover’s Town Revisited

When I first heard Life’s a Riot..., I felt overwhelmed with loneliness. My life felt completely stagnant. The music moved in, filling the emptiness I felt like water filling a glass. Easily. Those seven songs didn’t help me miraculously find love, win the lottery, or suddenly shed my fear of vulnerability. Instead, that music was one last swig of a hot toddy before you open the door and step out into the cold. Life's a Riot with Spy vs Spy gave me the spirit to weather the winter.

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