It is not enough? The Smith Street Band and the endurance of political songwriting

Andy Chalmers talks to Wil Wagner from The Smith Street Band about the protest song, Tony Abbott and some other ‘fucking evil shit’.

Tony Abbot Smith Street Record Tony Abbot Smith Street Record

“It is not enough to be quiet on the train back home!”

So shouts Wil Wagner, frontperson of Melbourne folk-punk outfit The Smith Street Band, over the chorus of their latest single Wipe That Shit-Eating Grin Off Your Punchable Face. The song was released in the lead-up to Australia Day, and its lyrics openly lambast the Abbott government’s treatment of asylum seekers. The track comes from the very same place that social protest, in every one of its forms, always comes from — an inability to remain silent in the face of injustice.

Wagner describes his songwriting process as being rather haphazard – “I just try to let the words fall out of me before I figure out what I’m trying to say” – but on Punchable Face, the end result is remarkably focused and blunt: “Were we supposed to feel hope when you said you’d stop the boats?” he sings, before calling the government’s asylum seeker policy “some fucking evil shit”. It’s an approach that appears to work, there is no denying the song taps into a widely held disgust towards the actions of the federal government.

Punchable Face attracted a substantial amount of attention, receiving mainstream media coverage and achieving near-ubiquity on music and pop culture blogs. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about Punchable Face, however, is that its release was considered noteworthy at all, as Wagner and co. are hardly venturing into uncharted territory. Wagner tells me that much of the music he consumed in his formative years had “a political element to it”, citing British folk-punk royalty Billy Bragg and American working class icon Bruce Springsteen as major influences.

Australian rock music has also long had a strong political and social undercurrent, from Redgum warning people, over cheesy 80s synth, that their “life is in a databank at ASIO”, to Midnight Oil advocating for Indigenous land rights. While Wagner may not have realised it while writing Punchable Face — “I never really thought about our song as a protest song until people told me it was,” he claims — The Smith Street Band are following a long line of Australian musicians making political statements through music.

That is not to say, however, that the Smith Street Band’s foray into political commentary will have an impact at all comparable to that of Beds Are Burning. The Oils’ single was a crossover hit that sold upwards of 70,000 copies, whereas it is fairly safe to say that we won’t be hearing Wil Wagner’s distinctive Aussie drawl on 2Day FM anytime soon. Indeed, the role played by political music in Australian culture has diminished significantly since the turn of the century, with the only notable protest songs to make a significant mark on the ARIA charts coming from Americans: Macklemore’s self-aggrandizing Same Love and Pink’s toothless Dear Mr. President.

Could the reason behind this shift be that, with social media creating an environment in which the means for political protest have been decentralised, the protest song simply isn’t relevant in the 21st Century? “It’s definitely been watered down,” laments Wagner, “that’s something that has always been weird to me, the fact that everyone seems to have an equal voice in the comment section and on social media no matter how much they know about what they are talking about”.

Yet, so often the protest song is seen as an unnecessary form of artistic expression. You only need to look at the myriad Facebook comments decrying Wagner for ‘not sticking to the music’ or ‘pushing an agenda’. Wagner is certainly not claiming to be an expert on asylum seeker policy, but he does believe that Punchable Face serves an important purpose: “We are just trying to contribute in a way we can, and in a way other people like us may relate to,” he says, “But releasing something provocative and political is a really good way to learn to never read the comments on anything!”

As angry and abrasive as Wagner sounds on Punchable Face, there is a sense of hope that permeates the track: “A change is going to come,” he prophesizes, “Our country’s mind can’t stay this closed”. Indeed, with Indigenous hip-hop artist Briggs writing about his own lived experiences of institutional racism, and folk singer-songwriter Georgia Maq tackling gender issues while namechecking Tories, the protest song is still there, bubbling away under the surface; it’s more inclusive, more autonomous, and more potent than it has ever been before.

And the reaction to Wagner’s song, in combination with a government that has fallen severely out of favour with the public, makes it hard not to feel equally hopeful that the protest song will soon reclaim its place in Australian pop culture. It’s a movement that breaks through to the people when the people reach breaking point, when they decide that “it is not enough to be quiet on the train back home”, and it’s only a matter of time before that happens.

“I remember when Abbott was elected,” recalls Wagner, “one of my first thoughts was, this is gonna get ugly, but fuck, this is gonna be a good time for music”.

‘Wipe That Shit-Eating Grin Off Your Punchable Face’ is available for purchase from The Smith Street Band bandcamp page, with 100% of the proceeds from digital sales being donated to various asylum seeker and refugee organisations throughout Australia until the end of February.

The Smith Street Band will be playing two shows in Sydney, on the 13th and 14th of February, as part of the ‘Get High, See Everyone’ Tour. See their website for the full list of dates.