Billy Bragg in his first session for John Peel, recorded on July 27, 1983 and broadcast on August 3rd. Currently on tour of the U.S., not only is his timing auspicious, his message is imperative. He is glowing evidence that protest and music are alive and well and the most compatible of bedfellows.
In 1977 Bragg formed the punk rock/pub rock band Riff Raff with Wiggy. The band decamped to rural Oundle in Northamptonshire in 1978 to record a series of singles (the first on independent Chiswick Records) which did not receive wide exposure. After a period of gigging in Northamptonshire and London, they returned to Barking and split in 1980. Taking a series of odd jobs including working at Guy Norris’ record shop in Barking high street. Bragg became disillusioned with his stalled music career and in May 1981 joined the British Army as a recruit destined for the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars of the Royal Armoured Corps. After completing three months’ basic training, he bought himself out for £175 and returned home.
Bragg peroxided his hair to mark a new phase in his life and began performing frequent concerts and busking around London, playing solo with an electric guitar under the name Spy vs Spy (after the strip in Mad magazine).
His demo tape initially got no response from the record industry, but by pretending to be a television repair man, he got into the office of Charisma Records’ A&R man Peter Jenner. Jenner liked the tape, but the company was near bankruptcy and had no budget to sign new artists. Bragg got an offer to record more demos for music publisher Chappell & Co., so Jenner agreed to release them as a record. Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy (credited to Billy Bragg) was released in July 1983 by Charisma’s new imprint, Utility. Hearing DJ John Peel mention on-air that he was hungry, Bragg rushed to the BBC with a mushroom biryani, so Peel played a song from Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy albeit at the wrong speed (since the 12″ LP was, unconventionally, cut to play at 45rpm). Peel insisted he would have played the song even without the biryani and later played it at the correct speed.
Within months Charisma had been taken over by Virgin Records and Jenner, who had been made redundant, became Bragg’s manager. Stiff Records’ press officer Andy Macdonald – who was setting up his own record label, Go! Discs – received a copy of Life’s a Riot with Spy vs Spy. He made Virgin an offer and the album was re-released on Go! Discs in November 1983, at the fixed low price of £2.99. Around this time, Andy Kershaw, an early supporter at Radio Aire in Leeds, was employed by Jenner as Bragg’s tour manager. (He later became a BBC DJ and TV presenter, and he and Bragg appeared in an episode of the BBC TV programme Great Journeys in 1989, in which they travelled the Silver Road from Potosí, Bolivia, to the Pacific coast at Arica, Chile.)
Though never released as a Bragg single, album track and live favourite “A New England”, with an additional verse, became a Top 10 hit in the UK for Kirsty MacColl in January 1985. Since MacColl’s early death, Bragg always sings the extra verse live in her honour.
In 1984, he released Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, a mixture of political songs (e.g. “It Says Here”) and songs of unrequited love (e.g. “The Saturday Boy”). This was followed in 1985 by Between the Wars, an EP of political songs that included a cover version of Leon Rosselson’s “The World Turned Upside Down”. The EP made the Top 20 of the UK Singles Chart and earned Bragg an appearance on Top of the Pops, singing the title track. Bragg later collaborated with Rosselson on the song, “Ballad of a Spycatcher”.
This session for John Peel was the first of an astounding 11 sessions recorded between 1983 and 2000. He will be in Minneapolis for a few days starting on the 18th of this month before heading over to Chicago for another stint from April 25-27 and eventually back to the UK. If you’re going to miss him this time around, the least you can do is hit the play button and crank this one up.