SCOTT SIMON, host:
If you're a Billy Bragg fan, what a great year. In February he released Billy Bragg, Volume One, a collection of over 115 cuts of music from the 1980s. This month, Volume Two arrives on shelves and online, with the four albums released between 1988 and 2002: Workers' Playtime, Don't Try this at Home, William Bloke, and England Half English. It also includes a DVD and four bonus CDs of new material, some previously unreleased live performances and demos. And if you like to read while listening to your music, Billy Bragg has published a memoir, The Progressive Patriot: A Search for Belonging.
You know Billy Bragg. He mixes jokes, pop, and politics into his songs about life, work, love, football thugs, and the changing face of his beloved England.
(Soundbite of song, "Waiting for the Great Leap Forward")
Mr. BILLY BRAGG (Singer/Songwriter): (Singing) Mixing pop and politics, he asked me what the use is. I offer an embarrassment of my usual excuses, while looking down the corridor about to where the band is watching. I'm looking for the great leap forward.
SIMON: That's from Workers' Playtime in 1988. Billy Bragg joins us from the studios of NPR West.
So good to have you with us. Thanks very much.
Mr. BRAGG: Great to be here, Scott.
SIMON: What's it like to put together a boxed set?
Mr. BRAGG: Well, to tell you the truth, it's a kind of wonderfully tactile thing. For future generations, where owning music is just a matter of clicking and dragging on a screen, rather than actually having something physical, tactile in your hand, it's going to be a slightly different experience. So I just love to see it all there, and the redesign of the boxed set looks great, the booklet that comes with it with all the lyrics in is - I'm very, very pleased with the whole thing.
SIMON: Did you spend a lot of time listening to yourself?
Mr. BRAGG: No. I'll be perfectly honest with you. The boxed set came together while I was writing the book, and a dear guy who's worked with me over the years, called Wiggy, who actually taught me to play guitar back in my hometown, because he been working with me for such a long time, he knew where all the bodies were buried and which tracks where we'd done more than version or different songs. And we set him loose in the archives. And he went in there and he digitized everything, which is really important these days, as magnetic tape after a couple of decades starts to break down. He came out with all these jams and between the two of us, we put it together.
SIMON: What was there about the punk era, because you're often associated with it for one reason or another.
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah. The great thing about punk was that it said, look, you know, you don't have to wait around for someone to do this for you. Just the fact that you can do this is enough. What is important is to get up and play. And it sounds foolish now to not realize that at the time. But at the time, I guess I was more in thrall to the music industry and didn't realize that the key to it was self-belief and being honest with yourself. And that's what gave us a confidence that whatever it was we had to say, it was worthwhile. We didn't have to conform anymore.
SIMON: Let's ask you about this song, Sexuality, from the early '90s.
(Soundbite of song, Sexuality)
Mr. BRAGG: (Singing) I've had relations with girls from many nations, I've made passes at women of all classes, and just because you're gay I won't turn you away, if you stick around I'm sure that we can find some common ground. Sexuality - strong and warm and wild and free. Sexuality - your laws do not apply to me.
SIMON: This is a wonderful song.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BRAGG: I love it. I love it.
SIMON: Totally hilarious.
Mr. BRAGG: Yes.
SIMON: We didn't play the lyric: I'm getting weighed down with all this information. Safe sex doesn't mean no sex. It just means use your imagination.
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BRAGG: I'm very proud of that. Audiences sing that at the top of their voices. It still holds out. I mean, I wrote that at the beginning of, you know, the AIDS scare. So I thought a song to celebrated sexuality of whatever kind was worth doing and worth doing as a big, shiny pop song.
SIMON: You know, one of the things that I rediscovered about your music as going over this set is that there often is the glint of humor. Even in sometimes the most serious of songs, you know? When you're writing about a - I love that song, Northern Town, for example.
(Soundbite of song "Northern Town")
Mr. BRAGG: (Singing) ...only two teams in this town, and you must follow one or the other, let us win, let them lose, not the other way round, in a northern industrial town...
(Speaking) You got to remember that I am in the entertainment business, first and foremost, and my experience with political bands that just do politics and nothing else, it just turns people off. If you can put a bit of - particularly a bit of self-effacing humor (unintelligible) the audience, you know, relax a little bit, and then you can, at the correct moment in the set, bring in, you know, quite a strong political content.
SIMON: As you look back on your music, is there some kind of line - it's through the year 1996, when you got married and began to have a family? Do you notice any difference?
Mr. BRAGG: I'm a believer that if parenthood didn't change the way you look at the world, then you're probably not doing it right. I don't see any other experience that can have that kind of effect on you. If you don't respond in that way, if you try and fight against it, you're going to both, you're family's going to suffer and your career is going to suffer as well. You have to try to find a way to reach a balance, and the only way I could see to do that was to pause and to enjoy this experience, to take some time out to reflect, and I'm glad for the time I spent and I think you can see it reflected on the next album, William Bloke. It has different concerns.
SIMON: I want to play a song which I had not encountered before. It's from the William Bloke album. I don't mind telling you, as a father, it reduced me to - and a child of the era you're describing here, it reduced me to tears. This is The Space Race is Over.
(Soundbite of song "The Space Race is Over")
Mr. BRAGG: (Singing) My son and I stand beneath the great night sky, gaze up in wonder, telling the tale of Apollo. He said, why didn't I ever go. It may look like some empty gestures to go all that way just to come back. But don't offer me a place out in cyberspace, because where in the hell is that at, now that the space race is over, been and gone now. Never get out of my room now that the space race is over and I can't help feeling we're all just going nowhere.
SIMON: So would I be close to on target thinking you want the world to be as interesting for your son as it has been for you?
Mr. BRAGG: I do. And you know, it's funny that you mentioned Jack, because that song was actually inspired by the first word he ever said, other than mommy and daddy, was moon. He pointed at a full moon in the garden one night at our house and he said moon. And thought, wow, that's very interesting. The thing that really got his attention outside of me and his mom is not even on our planet. And I sort of understood the pull of that then, and kind of wrote that song as a, you know, I think all of us who were children in the space race feel a bit shortchanged by the outcome. You know, I saw a documentary about Apollo Eight when they first went around the back of the moon. And it occurred to me that that was all done by mathematics, by guys on Earth working out on a piece of paper what would happen.
Mr. BRAGG: And then those three guys getting in that tin can and saying, okay, we believe you. We believe that when we're on the backside of the moon, if we press this button, the retro will fire at the right angle at the right time for the right amount of thrust, and that will bring us back to Earth. What incredible courage to do that. And the other thing is, it's really great, because now I can go with the (unintelligible) and say Jack - who's good at school, apart from math - and say look, that was all done by math, nothing else.
You know, the hippies and hipsters did some great stuff in the '60s, but the geeks pulled their weight too, you know. They got those guys to the moon and back, and they caught our imagination. And more power to them, I say.
SIMON: I want to ask you about the song England Half English.
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah.
SIMON: You've been writing about the fact that Britain has become as multi-racial as the United States, as we think of ourselves as being in the United States, let's put it this way.
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah.
SIMON: And you think this is a wonderful thing. This song is a great evocation of it.
(Soundbite of "English Half English")
Mr. BRAGG: (Singing) My breakfast is half English and so am I, you know. I'd a plate of marmalade toast, wash it down with a cup of tea now. And I'll have a bit of curry about once a week and (unintelligible) because my appetite's half English and I'm half English too.
SIMON: This is great. You like the way your country is blooming.
Mr. BRAGG: I do, yeah. I do. I'm, you know, I'm patriotic about my society rather than just my country. It's not an abstract to me.
Mr. BRAGG: It's what - whatever Britishness is what happens on the streets of Britain every day. And that's, you know, different from the country than it is in the town. But it's all part and parcel of it. But I've come to the conclusion, unless we do start to try and make a case for an inclusive society based on where you are rather than where you're from, then we're leaving the whole landscape to the far right to declare who does and doesn't belong. And we can't afford to do that anymore. We need to start (unintelligible). Because the reason why can't do that anymore is because, you know, those British-born suicide bombers who attacked the subway and the bus in London last year - people who've said since then we should be integrating the Muslim community. One of those guys worked in his family chip shop. I mean, how more integrated could you be?
SIMON: You know, your song England Half English winds with the line, Oh my country, oh my country, what a beautiful country you are.
Mr. BRAGG: Yeah.
SIMON: Leaving no doubt that the beauty of the country is in the different complexions it's absorbed and taken on.
Mr. BRAGG: The weird thing is, the first time I sung that song, one of my dear friends - a fellow traveler said to me, you're being ironic, aren't you? And I said, no, man, I am not being ironic. I do love my country.
SIMON: Billy, do you have any advice for people just starting out as to how you keep learning, how you keep trying new things?
Mr. BRAGG: You have to kind of discern issues that other people might not be talking about that you might have something to say about, to write about those things. It's almost a journalistic discipline, songwriting, I think. Or topical songwriting, anyway. I mean, when I first start - when I wrote England Half English, about 10 years ago now, I mean people really didn't want to talk about that, that issue.
Mr. BRAGG: And I was banging on about it and everyone was saying, oh, for heaven's sake, Bill, leave it alone. Now it's top of the political agenda. Everyone is talking about it. You have to learn to overcome your cynicism and believe in humanity and the ability of people working together to make the world a better place. Cynicism is the enemy of that, not capitalism, not conservatism, but cynicism. And to do this job, you have to be able to overcome your own in order to inspire other people to overcome theirs.
SIMON: Billy Bragg, always a pleasure. Thanks so much.
Mr. BRAGG: Thank you, Scott.
(Soundbite of song)
SIMON: Billy Bragg, Volume Two, out this month. For more songs and conversation, come to our Web site, npr.org.
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.