Everybody who loves music has one of those records. Many of us have one for every year of life.
One of mine is Billy Bragg's "Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy," which turns 30 this year and is now reissued in a slim sleeve that looks like the original 12" vinyl release. But instead of being 17 minutes long, this one's twice that, with the original seven songs remastered plus a June 5, 2013 performance of the record in London.
The sleeve is slim on historical context – really, there is nothing there other than photos and credits – so I'm giving you my version, from a Milwaukee angle.
My friends Eric Beaumont and Gerry Belsha – we three who were then The Blowtorch – had heard about this Bragg guy and his fellow travelers the Redskins, but, pre-Internet, could only imagine what they sounded like.
Standing in line at Radio Doctors on April 7, 1984 to buy tickets to see The Clash at the Auditorium the following month, there was a sole copy of "Life's a Riot," which Eric snapped up and we all devoured.
In August that year, Eric trekked to Chicago's Bismarck Theater on Randolph Street to see Billy open for Echo & the Bunnymen on his first U.S. tour. That's back when Bragg entertained pre-gig crowds outside wearing his backpack amplifier, so meeting him was a snap.
In the meantime, we three had spent so much time with "Life's a Riot," that Eric and I could each offer complete guitar renditions of its songs, from the alpha particles of "Richard" to the pedestals and pills of "A New England," with every nuance recreated. Soon, we'd be able to do the same for everything on "Brewing Up."
Gerry and I saw Bragg for the first time at the Cubby Bear the following January (the show is a brilliant one for its banter as much as for the songs, so click the link to listen) and we put the bite on him to come to Milwaukee. When he and his then-manager Peter Jenner (who had also managed Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd) expressed interest, we tried without luck to get a UWM gig lined up but settled for one at The Landing (later The Tasting Room) on Humboldt in May.
We opened that show – Eric has raw film of us with Billy on Humboldt Avenue and, yes, 1985-era Billy Bragg dined at Pitch's. In a stroke of genius, between our set and Bragg's, The Landing inserted a jazz fusion band.
We tagged along to Madison, too, for a gig at Bunky's. The following year we opened for Billy at The Metro in Chicago.
The year after that, we went to London and played three gigs, thanks to the Redskins, who lent us their gear and gave Gerry a bed to sleep on.
All the while we continued to worship at the altar of "Life's a Riot" for its slash and burn, no-frills approach that was perhaps British punk rock's final salvo.
Bragg and the Redskins provided the fuel for us while we were gassing up our nascent band, built on the same kind of no bullshit, from-the-heart approach we'd learned from The Jam and The Clash. And through them we learned of other like-minded bands, like Newtown Neurotics.
Billy has gone on to make other great work as a solo performer and with a variety of bands, including his masterpiece, "Don't Try This at Home," and the lauded "Mermaid Avenue" discs with Wilco, but nothing, for me, has burned quite as hot as "Life's a Riot."
I was 17 when I first heard "Life's a Riot With Spy Vs. Spy" and I've never stopped listening to it. Now that I'm officially a geezer, whenever I'm stuffed full of computer-created pop or overblown productions, I go back and listen to Billy sawing away at these songs – flubbed notes and all left in to swim with the fire and the passion – to remember what rock and roll is all about.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.