Long admired here at Rock’n’Reel, former frontman of sadly missed Aussie punk-folk act Roaring Jack. Alistair Hulett is also responsible for some of the most stunning, impressive contemporary ‘folk’ songs ever written. A fact. Now resident in this country, Sean McGhee finally got the chance to speak to him …
(Rock’n’Reel, Issue 27, Winter 1996/97, p. 31)
Alistair Hulett first came to my attention as songwriter and frontman of sadly missed Aussie punk-folk act Roaring Jack. It was early 1989 when a reader from Finland sent me a home taping of four of ‘The Jacks’ tracks that he’d first heard via another reader in Germany. I realised from the first few Celtic-fuelled bars of ‘Thin Red Line’ that I’d been missing out seriously on one of the entire roots scene’s brightest lights and made it a priority to track down their material and speak to the band.
And so it began, a love affair with an act based on the other side of the world who had almost nil distribution over here. I managed to get my first copies of their recordings, an album, 12” EP and three singles, via surface mail from their label, taking a mammoth three months to arrive and looking like they’d been lying in the rain soaked hold of a cargo ship for most of the journey. Luckily, everything was playable and I was able to absorb myself in the unmistakable world of the Jacks.
Over the years I kept an eye open for their activities which culminated in their second album Through the Smoke of Innocence, and then there was a quiet period as the band decided to call it a day. Soon after (1991) Alistair Hulett released via German label Intercord his first solo collection Dance of the Underclass, an album that beautifully showcased Hulett’s composing skills including, as it did, a host of acoustic folk classics rich in Celtic flavours and proving that Hulett had a lot more strings to his bow than frontman of an admittedly superb punk folk act.
The follow-up The Back Streets of Paradise released in 1994 saw Hulett joined by another ex-pat (Hulett was born in Scotland) Jimmy Gregory and a group of musicians who were titled The Hooligans, who would for a short period of time gig, before once again calling it a day.
After his latest album which he recorded with folk-fiddle legend Dave Swarbrick in Australia (Saturday Johnny and Jimmy the Rat) Hulett decided to return to the UK to base himself here for the foreseeable future, which is where I finally managed to track him down after so many years of distant admiration.
Alistair began with a bit of background.
”When I was 16 I emigrated to Australia with my family. We were £10 tourists in the days of assisted passage. We went first to New Zealand. I was so pissed off. If we’d gone somewhere interesting but Christchurch N.Z. There was no ethnic diversity what so ever, there was just anglophiles referring to the UK as home even though they’d never been there. I’ve lived on and off in Australia since then.
”Just a few months ago I recorded a CD with Dave Swarbrick over there and although I’d already decided at that stage that I was gonna come back, but that was just the sort of impetus I needed. I originally decided to come over to play the Sidmouth festival and then go back to Australia, but then I thought what’s the point when we’re probably gonna end up here anyway. The folk scene in Australia has got a lot of really talented people, it’s just that it’s such a small population that you can’t make a living out of it over there. It wasn’t so hard for me ‘cos I had this pub following from the Roaring Jack days. So I’ve come over here to see if I can make it on the folk circuit.”
The story of Roaring Jack was something Alistair was also keen to explain.
”We formed in 1985. We got a recording contract with Mighty Boy in 1986. We made three records. We were probably able to play around on the circuit more often than most bands could because a lot of folk who came to our gigs came basically to have a party and the fact that our playing was like a soundtrack to what they were doing, which was mainly going mental. In a way that became kind of frustrating ‘cos it meant that we had nowhere left to go. Splitting up was sort of inevitable because of that. We kept it up for eight years and decided to call it a day, quite amiably too.”
Alistair’s solo work sort of grew from his writing/work with Roaring Jack.
”Eventually folk festival organisers began to realise that if they got Roaring Jack they got a crowd of young people coming who wouldn’t normally have come. Initially we’d get booked and put in a little tent miles from anywhere. A few of the older folkies liked us but the majority didn’t, but they gradually began to get a taste for it and they’d be in the scrum at the front with all these punks and skins. Most times in a show I’d do two or three songs on my own with an acoustic guitar and that sort of began to grow and I was asked if I’d like to come to some festivals in my own right, and I did. So that sort of re-launched my folk career.”
At the moment, though, composing some of the best contemporary ‘folk’ songs I’ve heard, his most famous song is ‘He Fades Away’ covered by June Tabor and Roy Bailey in the UK and Andy Irvine as Alistair was keen to point out adding, “It’s just about got to the stage now where I could be billed as Alistair “He Fades Away” Hulett.”
Living here in the UK, our attitude and view of Australia is generally moulded by its portrayal on the small screen via soap operas, Neighbours/Home and Away. This is by no means the reality as Alistair pointed out.
”I lived a long way from the tropical paradise in a place called Newtown, which is a very ethnically diverse, multicultural suburb, near the centre of Sydney. There’s a lot of poverty. It’s really not what it’s like in Neighbours at all, that’s pure escapism. It’s much like here, you have your haves and have nots and to be on income support in Australia is to be very poor indeed.”
Alistair’s songwriting follows in the fine tradition of folk style protest, although he is far from being a simple sloganeer or rabble rouser, instead option for an articulate intelligent style of writing that expresses his left wing viewpoint. How well did his writing go down in his adopted home?
”Well, we certainly had a large left-wing following. We had a residency in a hotel in Newtown called The Sandringham. We held it every Thursday night that band was together and that was kind of lefties night out. Everyone from trade unionists to communists to anarchists, they’d all get together down the Sandringham when we were playing there.”
The band took their political ideals very seriously, releasing a single ‘Framed’ that in its own way helped secure the release of an Australian political activist jailed on false charges, they were also involved in the occupation of Cockatoo Island. Alistair Hulett took up the story.
”Cockatoo Island was an island in Sydney Harbour which had a ship repair factory and they closed the factory down in order to sell the island to a casino operator. So the workers on Cockatoo occupied the island, actually occupying the factory, and they were there for nearly 50 days. So we began collecting at our gigs and also going over at the weekend and playing for them, ‘cos they were out of their minds with boredom.”
Being born and raised in Glasgow I wondered whether Alistair inherited his political views from the likes of the Red Clydesiders and Glasgow’s strong left-wing heritage.
”No it’s not something that ran particularly in my family. It was really to do with exposure to folk music at an early age, ‘cos I really got interested in folk music when I was about 14. I used to go to the Attic folk club in Paisley. It was really frustrating, ‘cos I had a curfew on me, I had to be home by 11 o’clock so I always had to leave before the main act started. In those days a great many of the big name folk singers were communist or socialist and listening to the songs of people like Ewan McColl and Leon Rosselson, that is probably where my politics came from.”
Staying with his political side, recently with the collapse of the old eastern bloc countries it’s become a very popular thing for the right-wing press and various European govts., to pronounce communist/socialist/leftist ideas dead and redundant. Did Alistair sometimes feel that he was banging his head against a brick wall with his songs.
”I think a lot of the pessimism stems from the incredible dismay. That’s a lot of the left’s experience with the collapse of the eastern bloc. For myself, I belong to a political tradition which didn’t ever see either the Soviet Union or its eastern bloc satellites, China or Cuba for that matter, as being socialist, but actually state capitalist. So the collapse from our perspective was always extremely likely. I’m actually surprised that it was able to last for as long as it did. I think because a lot of the left identified these totalitarian states with socialism it’s very understandable, but now they go ‘Oh well, the experiment failed, the people don’t want it’, so they think the best they can do is tinker around the edges with capitalism to try to make it more human.
”Like most of the left I do have days when I think what’s the point. When is the proletarian ever gonna get up and take power”, he said with a mixture of humour and weariness in his voice before adding, “But I think there’s enough to do in this day and age fighting things like the Criminal Justice Act which is particularly disgraceful.”
Now teamed up with folk fiddler extraordinaire, Dave Swarbrick, the duo have already recorded an album together, Saturday Johnny and Jimmy the Rat, and performed Australian and the UK at Sidmouth Festival. How did this come about?
”I was originally gonna record Saturday Johnny … as a solo album because the album before, In the Backstreets of Paradise, I played with a band that I put together called the Hooligans and a lot of the songs on that album I would normally have played with just an acoustic guitar, and I was doing arrangements of them with a band and a few people said they wished I’d do them just like I do live just with myself and an acoustic guitar, so I decided that was what my next album was gonna be. Then one day I happened to mention to my friend Fatima that I was thinking of ringing up Dave Swarbrick, who was living just outside of Sydney, and asking him if he would like to play on a session, and then I thought what if he doesn’t want to do it and it makes him feel awkward, so I didn’t ever do it until one day I got a phone call from a good friend of mine in South Australia, a singer called Rob Bartlett, and Dave had been on tour and had stayed with Rob and had mentioned that he liked what I do, and sometime he would like to work with me. So when I heard that I called Dave up and he was keen to play on the album and it grew from there. It became much more of a joint project. We sat down and talked about the songs, he made quite a few alterations to arrangements, I thought they were very positive things. To record with Dave was a real learning experience.”
Since arriving in the UK, apart from a brief appearance at Cropredy and the Sidmouth shows, Alistair has been settling into a new home and all that entails, and planning a tour with Dave Swarbrick in April/May 1997.
”We’ll be doing stuff mainly from Saturday Johnny, but also stuff from Dance of the Underclass but as we’ve only toured together once round Australia our repertoire is not extensive at present. Since I’ve been in the UK I’ve been inspired so I’ve gone back into songwriting mode again. I’m hoping by the time we tour we’ll also be doing some new stuff. I’ll also be performing solo as Dave won’t be working exclusively with me.”
And apart from plans for a new album mid ’97, again with Dave Swarbrick, Alistair is just starting to find his feet and hoping to fit into the scheme of things. Hopefully the folk and wider musical world won’t be blinkered for too long and will accept him for what he is, one of the finest contemporary singer/songwriters today as equally able in a traditional medium as he is in producing startling self compositions like ‘The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away’ and ‘Destitution Road’, ‘Proddy Dogs and Papes’ and ‘He Fades Away’. A return to glory. I hope so!
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