On Tuesday, Australia’s freshly minted prime minister, Anthony Albanese, drew on the words of a songwriter – and committed socialist – in announcing his first ministry. “Just because you’re going forwards doesn’t mean I’m going backwards,” Albanese said. He was citing one of Billy Bragg’s early songs, To Have And To Have Not, a bitter attack on inequality and privilege. Bragg said he was thrilled for his “old mate”, whom he has known since the 1990s.
Albanese has made a habit of casually dropping song lyrics into his public appearances. At the beginning of the election campaign, he quoted the Ramones’ rallying cry “Hey ho let’s go” (from arguably that band’s best-known song, Blitzkrieg Bop). In 2013, he enjoyed the rare distinction of programming the Australian music television staple Rage, alongside former foreign affairs minister Julie Bishop and Greens leader Adam Bandt.
While not as image-obsessed as his predecessor Scott Morrison, whose background was in marketing, there’s no denying that “DJ Albo” is part of the Albanese brand. Unlike Morrison, though, Albanese is not just mugging for the cameras. Quoting a dedicated activist and polemicist like Bragg tells us that Albanese’s music fandom goes beyond image: it speaks to who he is – or at least, how he defines himself. So, what does it tell us about him?
It’s worth pointing out that Albanese is the first card-carrying member of what Richard Hell called the Blank Generation to occupy the highest office in the land: that is, he is a product of the punk and post-punk eras. And he knows his product. His Rage set, which included the Saints, PJ Harvey and the Triffids, spoke of a man who had spent his formative years looking for musical nourishment towards the Left Of The Dial.
That is, he was mostly looking away from the blandishments of mainstream radio towards Sydney community stations such as 2SER and the original 2JJ (Double J) and Triple J (long before it went national). At the time, these stations could be a refuge for people who either rejected or felt like they didn’t quite fit into the status quo: part of punk and post-punk’s appeal was its inclusiveness to outsiders and misfits.
We should be careful not to overegg this. Albanese has been in politics most of his life; in that sense, he could hardly have been more inside the tent – albeit mostly in opposition. But punk was never a music for the overprivileged: it began, in part, as a back-to-basics reaction to the gulf that had opened up between audiences and performers in the 70s, when rock was in danger of becoming another cocaine-addled plaything of the leisure class.
In a fan bio of Blondie, Lester Bangs spelled out how punk bridged that divide. He wrote that rock & roll was “democracy in action, because it’s true: anybody can do it … Rock is for everybody, it should be so implicitly anti-elitist that the question of whether someone’s qualified to perform it should never even arise.” This do-it-yourself credo to seize the musical means of production was punk’s equivalent of the Communist Manifesto.
It makes sense that Albanese, who grew up in social housing with his single mother and grandparents – as he is not shy of telling us – would gravitate to music that was a bit rougher around the edges, but which elevated performers who valued energy, originality and ideas over chops and bombast. It also makes sense that his values might have been partially shaped, or at least reflected in the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen, Midnight Oil and Billy Bragg.
But it’s what happened after punk that was more interesting. What do you do after you’ve gone back to basics? In Blank Generation, Richard Hell made the blank literal, falling silent where the word would otherwise have been sung – an invitation to let your imagination fill it in for yourself. In her song Land, Patti Smith spoke of it another way: of dipping into and seizing the sea of possibilities.
This federal election has profoundly reshaped the electoral map in Australia, and Albanese finds himself the leader of a post-two-party landscape. Hard-right elements of the Liberal party are already writing off what were once heartland seats, lost to independents and Greens. History has shown those seats, once lost, are hard for the major parties to win back. As Tim Dunlop writes: “We now live on a political grid, not a line.”
It is encouraging that, unlike many men of his age, Albanese is not held hostage by the music of his youth. His most recent DJ sets have included tracks by Courtney Barnett, Alex the Astronaut and Taylor Swift, alongside old favourites. He presides over a party room more diverse than ever before, with more Indigenous and non-white voices, bringing to the parliament a far wider range of perspectives than the previous incumbents.
If Albanese really wants to shake out and shake up Australian politics, the size of the crossbench gives him an opportunity to be bolder than he might have been with a thumping majority. Notwithstanding his recent decline, he would do well to heed the words of John Lydon: “There will be no future if you don’t make one for yourself. If you accept the forms that be, then you are doomed to your own ultimate blandness.”
First published in the Guardian, 2 June 2022