Getting My Head Around The Necks
Adam Hills: Go You Big Red Fire Engine. Again.

Mr Smith goes to Bougainville


It was after one of Emma Driver’s gigs, failing to scarper fast enough – or at all, really – that I got to hear this tall guy in a loud shirt announce himself as Fred Smith. I had no choice but to lean over to Emma and her partner and say, “I wonder how Patti’s going!” because though now sadly deceased, Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith was, in addition to being the former guitarist of the MC5, also the husband of Patti Smith.

Fred Smith began with possibly too much cute patter, but it was clearly an attempt to capture the attention of a potentially indifferent audience. For the most part, it worked: Fred had good comic timing and a way with words, so it really wasn’t that much of a surprise to discover, much later, that he had in fact been a national finalist in the 1997 Raw Comedy competition. However, it wasn’t merely the between-song banter that won us over. His songs were also clever and witty.

Fred opened with ‘Imogen Parker’, a song in the traditional r ’n’ b mode (where ‘r ’n’ b’ stands for ‘rhythm and blues’, as it used to, rather than ‘romantic and black’, as it seems to today). It utilised a slight variation of the basic ‘hambone’ beat as made popular by Bo Diddley (hence its other name, ‘the Bo Diddley beat’) and as featured in the Buddy Holly song ‘Not Fade Away’ (recorded by the Rolling Stones, Patti Smith and Holly himself) – that ‘jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jingjing’ strum pattern:

I wanna tell you how it’s gonna be
(jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jing jing)
You’re gonna give your love to me
I’m gonna love you night and day
(jing ka-jing ka-jing, ka-jing jing)
Love is love and not fade away

‘Imogen Parker’ was a political song that dealt with the state of the Australian political landscape at the time of its writing. Its best verse is about Pauline Hansen:

Well I had a friend called Pauline Hansen –
Big, warm hart like Charlie Manson.
Y’know most redheads I’d take a chance on,
But she just made me wanna keep my pants on.

Fred Smith C 2004

A verse on the former Leader of the Australian Labor Party, the Right Honourable Kym Beazley, saw ‘Beazley’ rhyming with the election that ‘he was gonna win easily’.

In addition to the rollicking songs full of humour and politics, it turned out that Smith was capable of the most touching heartfelt ballads. He prefaced one of them with a story about the Claymore antipersonnel mine, which he described as “a box the size of a shoebox with an arrow and the words ‘point towards the enemy’ on top”. According to Fred, “it is considered prudent to do so since the weapon consists of a quantity of TNT and 500 ballbearings which project forward in a wide radius upon detonation by a hand-held remote control”. Fred had served as a peace monitor in Bougainville and the Solomons, and had likened the experience of the Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) in Bougainville to that of the American and Australian armies in Vietnam. A favourite trick of the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA), when coming upon a PNGDF camp, was to turn the Claymores that the PNGDF had set up as protection around to face the other way, and then make enough noise to cause them to be detonated. Ever seeking to see both sides of the dispute, the song Smith subsequently sang was written from the point of view of the wife of a PNGDF soldier.

Another stand-out song was ‘Mr Circle’. Sung entirely in pidgin, it told of the ‘spiralling cycles of hatred’ that tit-for-tat actions lead to. Smith used to sing the song to school children in Bougainville.

By this stage I decided that I had to interview Fred Smith. I could already ‘hear’ how it would be structured: begin with a couple of choice verses of ‘Imogen Parker’, include a bit of his experiences in Bougainville and the Solomons, play a version of ‘Mr Circle’ and have Fred explain the lyrics in English, as he did between each vocal line when he sang it live. He had advertisted the availability of a couple of his CDs while on stage, so I figured I’d buy the ones that had the songs I wanted on them.

Accosting Fred after his set, I proceeded to ask him how Patti was (well, come on, how could I resist) before telling him that I wanted to interview him. He offered to give me copies of his CDs, but I insisted that, as long as he gave me a receipt with which I could claim the expenses, I had to pay – independent artists need to make enough money to remain independent, and artists. One album, Bagarap Empires, consisted of songs inspired and written during his time as a peace monitor in Bougainville and the Solomons. Another, Into My Room, was a collaboration between Smith, Liz Frencham of JigZag and Kevin Nicol of Noiseworks. Fred gave me such a good discount that when he offered me an additional CD, I had to buy it as well. It was a copy of his first album, Soapbox, from 1998. When I saw it, the penny dropped: I already had a copy.

An old and dear friend of mine who works for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade had been posted in Port Moresby for a time, and on one of his trips home, had handed me a copy of Soapbox, explaining that Fred Smith was not only someone he had encountered while working in Papua New Guinea, but an independent musician and a good bloke. I, of course, made the ‘did you ask him how Patti was going?’ reference and pretty much ignored the disc after giving it a cursory listen. Despite being hip and knowledgeable, I have a basic distrust of cultural phenomena I haven’t discovered on my own terms. It has been a source of frustration for my friend, who also tried to switch me on to Patti Smith before I was ready to embrace her music. I had his copy of Radio Ethiopia for about a year without paying much attention to it. I came to my senses eventually.

Like all converts, I am now an annoying zealot whose task, along with proselytising, is to piss off all of the quietly faithful who have known the truth from the beginning. Fred Smith is an awesome, under-appreciated talent. One critic has gone so far as to dub him ‘Australia’s answer to Billy Bragg’. He has four CDs to his credit, the most recent, a mini-album entitled Party Pieces, sadly deleted. It contains the song ‘Imogen Parker’, and for that reason alone should be re-pressed. Visit Fred Smith’s website – to check out his tourdates as well as to e-mail him and demand that he sell you, in addition to his three still-available albums, a burnt copy of Party Pieces. Unless he does come to his senses and makes Party Pieces available once again. The new pressing should, in addition to the original, include an updated version of ‘Imogen Parker’ featuring new verses dealing with the likes of Abbott & Costello as well as Latham.

This interview was broadcast Saturday 20 March. Read it or download and listen to this MP3 version.

Music: ‘Imogen Parker’ – Fred Smith

I had a friend called Natasha Despoja
I met her in the parliamentary foyer.
She’s as hard as a Sydney lawyer
That’s Natasha Despoja for ya!
She was the leader of the Democrats
But the Democrats just fight like cats…

I had a friend called Kymberly Beazley.
I remember when he was gonna win easily.
And then there came along the NV Tampa.
And now Kim's not such a happy camper.
Simon Crean, I don't know,
Mate I felt a little sad to see Kym go…

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: Does the political folk song still have a role in contemporary society, and, if so, what is it?

FRED SMITH: That’s a good question, whether you can change people’s minds with a political song. I don’t know if you can, but I know that young people are susceptible to political songs, and so I think it’s worth doing. You have to say what you feel, don’t you. I don’t think that the mainstream press is doing enough by way of offering alternative ideas and I think there’s a lot to be criticised and a lot to worry about. So I do sing the odd political song.

Demetrius Romeo: After the release of your first album, Soapbox, in 1998, you went to Bougainville and the Solomon Islands as a ‘peace monitor’. What exactly is it that you do for a living?

FRED SMITH: I’ve got a bit of part-time work with the public service in Canberra. As some people might be aware, over the last five years there’s been a peace monitoring group in Bougainville, mainly Australian army but also a handful of public servants, and I went over as one of them. But I took my guitar.

Demetrius Romeo: How did that line of work affect the music that you were making?

FRED SMITH: Well, a big part of my job was to get out into the villages and communicate with people about what was going on in the peace process and how things were changing and how things were moving, and to basically put some encouraging messages forward. It just so happened that I can play guitar and enjoy writing songs; it’s something I do pathologically. So I wrote a whole lot of songs in pidgin that really served that purpose and we ended up having a sort of traveling road show where we’d all pile into a four-wheel drive and get out and set up in a village square or a church or a school yard or an airstrip. I’d play a few songs and talk about peace process issues and developments, and some of the soldiers would do backing vocals.

Music: ‘Bagarap Empires’ – Fred Smith

East Indonesia, Iryan Jaya,
Papua New Guinea, Solomons too:
Beautiful islands, beautiful people
Uncertain future to look forward to.

While the rest of us –

Are we surprised that
Things turn to shit?
That our notions of nationhood
Don't seem to fit?
Will the bagarup empires all rust
In the tropical sun?

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: There’s an album that came out of your time in Bougainville and the Solomons called Bagarap Empires. What does the title mean?

FRED SMITH: A lot of the stories are from Bougainville and the Solomons and the word ‘bagarap’ in pidgin means ‘when things get buggered up’, which is very much what is and was happening at the time in that part of the world. The whole archipelago is very fragile, as you’re aware. Everything went badly in Bougainville for a few years – after the mine closed down, the civil war there, there was a real disintegration. The Solomons were going in very catastrophic directions up until about six or seven months ago. So, yeah, that’s what it’s about: things getting ‘buggered up’.


Demetrius Romeo: There’s a lovely song on the album called ‘Mr Circle’ that is sung entirely in pidgin. Can you tell me a bit about the song and what the words mean and how it came about?

FRED SMITH: ‘Mr Circle’: yeah, well, as I said, I was getting out into the villages and to schools and singing songs to kids about what was happening in the peace process and I wanted to get a message across about the cycle of violence – how one thing can lead to another. So I’d get up in front of the kids and I’d look the kid in the front in the eye and say,

Okay piccaninny. Sapos yu gat wanpela man bilong viles bilong yu.

Okay, suppose there’s a guy in your village.

Na dispela man i gat bel hat wantaim wanpela man bilong narapela viles.

This bloke, he’s got the shits with a bloke in another village.

Olsem em i go na paitim man bilong arapela viles.

So he goes and hits the man in the other village.

Bai yu lukim long wanem samting i kamap nau: planti man bilong arapela viles i go na paitim man bilong arapela viles bilong yu.

See what comes up now: blokes from the other village come and hit the man from your village.

Olsem yu inap lukim wei we dispela samting i go roun.

So it all goes around.
Then I’d sing this song, ‘Mr Circle’.

Music: ‘Mr Circle’ – Fred Smith, speaking translations after each line

Sun go down, sun go down
Sun go down, sun go down
Mr Circle sing sing taim long sun i go down
Mr Circle sings as the sun goes down.
Olgeta, Wanpela, mi na yu
Everybody, one person: me and you
Papa Deo kolim wantaim bigpela kundu
Papa Deo calls with his big bass drum.

‘Papa Deo’: yeah, pidgin is made up of mainly English, but a bit of German and also Latin. So ‘Papa Deo’ is ‘God’.

Woa wokim bagarap, Woa wokim bagarap
War buggers things up, war buggers things up.
Lukim olsem dispela woa i wokim bagarap
See how the war buggers things up.
Olgeta crai crai, Olgeta crai crai
Everybody cries. Everybody cries.
Olgeta crai crai taim long woa i wokim bagarap
Everyone cries when war buggers things up.

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: What has been inspiring your music since you’ve returned from Bougainville and the Solomons?

FRED SMITH: Well, I suppose a lot of the writing that I was doing there was relating the stories and things and impressions that I had while I was there. Since then I’ve been writing more personal material and in fact I’ve written a whole lot of songs that work well for a girl’s voice, and I’ve been working with a woman called Liz Frencham, and we did an album called Into My Room, which is more personal, less political, less historical material.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith

Wherever does it end? Wherever did it start?
The mountains and the valleys of the country of my heart –
First the pain and flat terrain and then the undulation;
It's time to send a message to the captain of the station.
Saying ‘Into my room, the sun must shine…’

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: You’re also working with the percussionist from Noiseworks on that album. How did that relationship between the three of you come about?

FRED SMITH: Basically, I’d written all these songs for a woman to sing and I went looking for the right girl and started working with a girl in Canberra who subsequently fell pregnant ‘Subsequently’, not ‘consequently’. ‘Subsequently’ fell pregnant, and got married. And so I went looking further afield and found Liz Frencham who plays double bass really beautifully and sings with an honesty that affects people, so that’s how that started: I basically buttonholed her.

The drummer, Kevin, was actually managing me at the time, funnily enough, and I was doing this album and I needed a percussionist. He mentioned that he had played in a small Sydney pub band for a while and we said, ‘all right, let’s give it a go’, and we rehearsed, and we did. But as you’re aware from the Noiseworks days, he cracks the drums pretty hard, so we had to give him a bit of warm milk before we went into the studio and rub his head a bit.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith

I will do what I do, you do what you have to.
If we found common ground or accidental laughter,
Such give-and-take may help to break the ice of isolation
It's what we do with loneliness that helps the situation.
Into my room the sun may shine…

Fred Smith C 2004

Demetrius Romeo: Is there a large difference writing about more personal things as opposed to writing about political things?

FRED SMITH: Well, I never set out to write political songs. I tend to write pretty instinctively about whatever’s on my radar screen. There’s an author called Margaret Attwood who said, ‘concentrate on the writing and let the social relevance take care of itself’, and that’s very much my approach: I set out to tell stories and if people come to conclusions about my politics from that, well then so be it. Writing about political things has a bit of a responsibility to get it right and for it to be balanced, because political writing, whether it be in music, prose or in the press, only endures if it is balanced. With writing political stuff, I feel a real responsibility to make it balanced, otherwise it smells.

Music: ‘Into My Room’ – Liz Frencham and Fred Smith

Into my room the sun may shine.
Into my room… the sun may shine.

Fred Smith C 2004

comments powered by Disqus