‘More Than A Whisper : Roaring Jack with Street Celtabillity’
By Susan Ryan
Published in On the Street, 21 October 1987.
Lively local lads Roaring Jack have been gaining ground in the inner city venues for some time, and now they are out on the vinyl tiles with a mini album aptly titled Street Celtabillity. Already into its second pressing, showing the band have more than a cultish future ahead, how did they get thus far and where does the open road beckon? Alistair Hulett and Steve Miller explained Roaring Jack’s evolution, from a collection of musicians who were acquainted through the folk scene and playing in bands which at times overlapped members, and eventually sifted together in their leanings toward Irish rock.
The original band was going to be acoustic, but got cold feet about playing an acoustic set in the places they wanted to play, basically the pub circuit. Alistair believes they could get away with acoustic now, with bands like The Proclaimers working well, but at the time they decided to go electric.
‘We were mates before we played together. There are not that many people in Sydney into Celtic music, so there weren’t that many people to pick from, who knew folk music in the traditional Celtic style. If anyone was to leave I don’t know who would replace them.’
Why Celtic music in rock venues?
‘It’s our favourite music, and it felt like the right time. With the interest in roots music we felt we might be able to do it.’ Before Roaring Jack, Alistair and the various members had been content to play the folk clubs, but he didn’t want to make the compromises most solo performers had to make to play the pubs. They also found the folk clubs not the most interesting places to play, and gigs few and far between. They began acoustic as they had no big p.a. and all acoustic instruments, but gradually the songs Alistair was writing began to call out for bass and drums.
Songs are brought to rehearsal sounding all right just acoustic, ‘and everyone says "sounds like a bleedin’ folk song". But by the time everyone’s put in their two bob’s worth it’s a completely different song. Everyone contributes, no one’s precious about their work’.
Roaring Jack see themselves as taking Celtic music and other styles and mixing them, with elements of garage punk, rock’n’roll, and he’s keen to try some Celtic heavy metal. As most rock and roll is based on something else, blues and country for example, Roaring Jack want to look away from the U.S. and to Scotland and Ireland. They feel this is a more logical base for a truly Australian music, that there’s more than enough to explore in our folk heritage which is Anglo-Celtic. They see themselves as one of several Australian bands working this way, the Aboriginal bands, Gondwanaland, Paul Kelly, Midnight Oil and of course, Weddings, Parties, Anything, ‘though it’s really only Weddings, Parties, Anything and Roaring Jack that are using the traditional forms, and we’re much more traditionally influenced than they are.’
With such acceptance from rock crowds, how do their old folk associates view Roaring Jack’s crossover?
They are playing the Trade Union Club soon, and will include an all-acoustic set, so are not totally abandoning that "pure" folk past, but on the whole there are some big differences in their presentation and what they used to do in days gone by. Steve says they’ve lost all contact with the folk scene to some extent, although ‘I see some of them sneaking into our shows.’ Alistair adds, ‘I think if they heard the album they’d like it. They don’t like the volume we play at – you don’t get residents complaining about noise from folk concerts.’ There are arguments too that you can’t hear the words, they don’t like the drums, or the punk influence, though the band ‘regard punk as a type of folk music’.
‘Everyone in the band always looked like outlaws in the folk clubs, where a lot of people are into the scene more than the music.’ Their look reflects the mixed background of music they’ve been involved in and gone to see at the same time as being involved in folk. Favourites of the band are as varied as Tactics, the Dead Kennedys, and Tom Waits, and Alistair is currently impressed with John Lydon’s new single, ‘Sounds like an English folk song’ and Elvis Costello’s magnificent Blood and Chocolate album.
Playing live is the most important thing still for Roaring Jack, ‘we have such a good time. We’re not thinking far beyond that, as long as everyone gets into it and we have a good night,’ stated Alistair.
Their aim now is to ‘see how far we can take Celtic music – ultimately I’d like to make a new form of contemporary music which is based on traditional music of Scotland and Ireland, but is completely contemporary. The more I experiment with Celtic music, the more I see that I can do. If you start with something like ‘Jailhouse rock’ and take the form up to Talking Heads, I think you can do the same with Celtic music.’ Without building great expectations, Roaring Jack just work from day to day, their contract with Mighty Boy is ‘really loose’, and they have ‘no aspiration to be a household name, not the next INXS.’
Roaring Jack are one of the strongest examples you can find of audience band interaction, and it’s their close identity with their audience which has established them firmly in the inner city venues. They are also good drinking crowds, which assures the band continued bookings by pubs. Whatever you want to see in Roaring Jack, they are working – venues now ring them, so the crossover has been successful. ‘I think it’s pretty widely known we’re anti-cool’ Alistair adds. All his writing is about the effect social and political changes have on him personally, from the band’s own situation at the lower end of the economic spectrum, ‘my so-called political songs’. The western suburbs is their next target, as ‘the things we have to say have to be said out there’.
There are few ways as enjoyable to drink in your political awareness than with the intoxicating energy of Roaring Jack.
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