Richard Roberts Reports
On the Street, 231 November 1988, p. 27.
In past years every Sunday at the Bald Faced Stag a group of Scots would sit around in a big circle, get out their squeeze boxes, fiddles and banjo's and play traditional Celtic jigs and reels until the pixies came home. Their contourful grab-bag of imagery described events which, for one reason or another, only happened in the month of May. In fact nothing seemed to happen in any other month of the year until the 'merry month of May' – then everything would happen.
String together that traditional Celtic sound, electric guitars, bass, drums, contemporary issues and you've got Roaring Jack.
Their's is far more than straight Celtic music, it has a rock'n'roll sensibility with elements of The Clash and rockabilly. Similar to what Steeleye Span were doing in the late '60s – without the pixies!
Alistair Hulett, lead singer, songwriter and passionate social activist has been into Celtic music since he was 14, left Scotland at 18 and met up with Steph Miller (accordian, guitar and mandolin), Rab Mannell (guitar and bozouki) and Davey Williams (bass) in Sydney.
They had been all playing Celtic music for a long time individually and decide to get together to form an acoustic band.
In 1985 they rehearsed for eight months … and one day started stuffing around with electric guitars, did one song and thought: "stuff it, let's get a drummer", - later Rod Gilchrist joined – 'he's the only one in the band who wasn't originally into celtic music,' says Alistair.
'I could never get into singing about elves skipping through the gay green woods. There has always been the pixies singers and other musicians like Enoch Kent and Dick Gaugh[an] who sing in the Celtic style, but about things that have an up-to-date relevance.
'Both. We have a lot of converted down at the gigs obviously and a lot of people who just come down to hear the music.
'I accept that the two minute pop song is not really the ideal format for in-depth political analysis … we all accept that.
'A growing number of people who come down to our gigs are becoming a lot more politically aware, which is really encouraging. Prepare to accept that if they don't take an interest in what's happening around them, then things might start happening that they might not necessarily like.
'A lot of people who come down to our gigs are, as you said, the converted – but it's constructive.
'We have people who come down regularly from the Australian Communist Party, the International Socialists, or socialist Workers Party, even Young Labor. We've got Christians coming down to our gigs, who're quite politically aware. We get Hippies, Punks, even a few Skinheads.'
All these different groups, vaguely from the broad left, would only ever get together for mass demonstrations. A Roaring Jack gig has become a place where they can all meet each other without the banners. But don't think for a second that this marks Roaring Jack as political gurus.
'Often they have a much more astute perspective on things than I have and I am often corrected by them. Sometimes after a show someone will say "Hey Comrade, what you cum out wi' there is not quite so” '. If ever the Jacks have rock star glints in their eyes this affinity with the audience would certainly snap them back into shape.
Back onto music.
Roaring Jack is seen by Alistair as being more traditionally oriented than bands like Weddings, Parties, Anything, Midnight Oil, Spy's, Paul Kelly, etc. In what respect is this?
'Well, we draw more directly from Celtic music, more influenced by traditional Celtic music. Traditional in the sense that it has been handed down in the oral tradition. It wasn't scribbled on bits of paper because most of the people who played it couldn't write.
'In the case of someone like Weddings, Parties, Anything, they have been exposed to a lot of colonial Australian music and Scots and Irish music.
'They've obviously drawn a great deal of inspiration from it … using it more as a flavouring to their music, we use it as a direct source'.
By swiping whole sections out of traditional Celtic music, lines in Roaring Jack songs become a cross reference back to the original song, with a new dimension added to them. This is part of the tradition. Similar to traditional blues where phrases regarded as common property turn up all over, from Count Basie to Rickie Lee.
'It's a bit of a joke really because with traditional songs, no-one remembers who originally wrote it. Everyone singing or telling it adds their own little bit.
'If a song was to move from Ireland to Scotland, all the place names would get changed, so that it had local reference. There's no sense of ownership.
'It's a way of locking into the tradition, which is by nature extremely conservative, lacks change, or if there is, it happens very slowly. It would not be possible to capture the style of traditional music without adopting the same attitude'.
These entrenched roots add a tremendous amount of fuel to the fire of Roaring Jack's music. Whereas if it was simply flavoured rock'n'roll, would it come across with the same emotion on stage and vinyl?
'I think the fact that we're drawing really heavily on a working class tradition, on a traditional music form which stretches back for centuries, reinforces our commitment to class politics. Making that message much stronger and unequivocable'.
'Socialism is Australia is more about spreading an awareness of the Australian Government's collaboration in things like the exploitation of the Third World.
'Australians need to know their status and relationship with the States. We're told we're their allies. We're not allies at all, we're their lackies. We do what we're told and if we don't the economy slumps.
'Hawke takes his orders not only from Uncle Sam, but also the corporate heads of Australia. He's been given a job in the short term, to pull down the basic quality of life for the Australian working class. He's doing it the clever way, an inch at a time, and getting away with it. Unlike Greiner who just bowled straight in to do it creating a groundswell of opposition against him', says Alistair.
Do you think you're statements will bring about change of attitude to some or are you preaching to the converted?
"I love rock'n'roll, although in the '70s I was disgusted and went back to Celtic and other roots music.
'I've always been against the rock star iconism, up on stage a guy blow drying his hair, looking ever so romantic with a white scarf around his neck singing: "Ooh baby, my dick is enormous”.
Late '70's the Sex Pistols and The Clash said exactly what had been said in the folk scene. Punk was prepared to get in there and say screw the excess, it's crap.
'I heard The Clash's song about the Brixton riots, a reworking of an old Irish tune called "Johnny I Hardly Knew You'. What a great idea I thought - punk - folk! Then it went out of my head again.
'The Pogues, The Men They Couldn't Hang and Billy Bragg have brought back certain punk attitudes which were dropped in the post-punk era.
'We have taken folk music, play the attitudes we all held dear in the late '70s, which we betrayed in the '80s and pulled them back into folk music.
'When I first heard the Pogues I really liked the idea, but they couldn't play for shit, now they've gotten a lot better'.
Although remotely similar there are certain differences the Jacks have to The Pogues which make the two distinctive from one another. The Pogues derive most of their influence from Irish, not Scottish music and even though the Scots like a drink or two, they don't sing a great deal about getting drunk.
Roaring Jack had a hard time gaining acceptance during their first 6 months or so, playing supports for The Bushwackers and Redgum to audiences which disliked them intensely.
'When we started playing places like The Sandringham and The Harold Park Hotel, everyone liked us. I think because we put an anti-commercial, anti-corporate attitude right up front, on and off stage, a few people were drawn to the attitude before the music'.
An attitude which will rock the boat a bit, upset the apple cart, or like their first album on Mighty Boy Records fiercely articulates it'll set the Cat Among the Pigeons.
'In my mind the album's title, Cat Among the Pigeons, is a metaphor for revolutionary socialism', says Alistair.
Now we're getting deeper into the core of the band's beliefs. There's a short poem at the start of the instrumental called The Cat Among The Pigeons.
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