Swirl O' The Celt - The Roaring Jack Archives

Shaefer holds a meeting with Roaring Jack representative Alistair Hulett and discusses politics, musicology and upcoming LP, The Cat Among The Pigeons. (RAM, 2 November 1988, p. 19.) Article supplied by Steph Miller, from Rod Gilchrist’s private collection.

‘I would the time I’d see the day
When tyranny is swept away
Honest work for honest pay
Becomes the right of all sir’.
(The Old Divide and Rule)

”I agree, to take something so infinitely complex as human society and divide it into three neat categories is simplistic. However, it is a useful abstraction in broad terms.”

Mentally exhausted and word weary after a long day of continual interviews, Alistair Hulett, singer/spokesperson of contemporary folk band Roaring Jack, is articulating his attitude to cultural and class extremities within the framework of this music.

”In Australia you can say we are either a predominantly working class society with middle class aspirations, or a middle class society with a working class background. To me, this is not the issue. The real debate is: who are the ruling class? The half dozen people who own 90 per cent of Australia and dictate to the government. I don’t think it matters whether you are working or middle class, you are still being ripped off.”

As history books are written from the top down, the culture of the ruling class has tended to dominate. The folk tradition, dating back centuries in Europe, is the ‘indigenous music of the working class’ and as a result, inherently political. Usually of anonymous authorship, handed down and reshaped through generations via oral delivery, folk songs provided a voice for the poor to relate their own stories.

Firmly rooted in the spirit of community and camaraderie, the tunes served as an expression of emotion, as entertainment and as an effective news service in the days of mass illiteracy. Today, even with our education system and sophisticated technology, the music of Roaring Jack still works in a similar way argues Alistair:

”Newspapers are owned by corporate media, the news is distorted to preserve their self-interests but, as we know, there are two sides to every story. Take the case of the Builders/Labourers Federation. They were de-registered in 1986, press coverage gave the impression they were thugs, this was generally accepted. In reality they were fighting a wage freeze, much the same thing as the miners strike when most English people I spoke to were down on [Arthur] Scargill.”

Folk 1988, Roaring Jack style, still covers traditional themes but within a modern context, subject matter includes tales of domestic upheaval, class division and political treachery – especially what they feel’s the Labor Party sellout of the people.

”We have had more anti-union legislation and attacks on the working class since [Bob] Hawke got into power than the conservatives could ever dream up. Living standards are being pushed below the poverty level in favour of the rich elite, this should not happen under Labor. The Australian working class in our view can only be served by a revolutionary workers’ party, which is to say, this concentration of wealth and power to a few must be stopped.”

A sentiment succinctly stated on the new single ‘Thin Red Line’: “With the left as a swing to the right / They smile at the angel of light / As they fight for the back of their economic growth / Saying justice or jobs you can’t have both / … Hold on fast to the thin red line / Yellow-faced Bob is no friend of mine”. [sic]

”We don’t think we can create a revolution by singing political songs, but we hope we can raise awareness to a degree. There is obviously a certain preaching to the converted but it’s positive to go to a gig and meet others who think in the same way, the only other time they would get together would be at rallies or marches.

”It’s possible to come along to a gig and just have a good knees-up, we’re not po-faced about things. At the Sandringham in Newtown we get lots of old people who hang around from the daytime staying to see us. It’s quite fun, we have lots of interaction with the crowd and try to break down the idea of the performer on stage, up out of reach and the audience down there. We get heckled, we answer. It’s a two way thing.”

The stage is one platform. What about using the biased media?

”I’ll play the game, if you want to push ideas you need to use every avenue open. We’d make videos if they were strong socialist statements, not just to make us look good. Going on TV shows is not being untrue to oneself. We’d even talk to the Murdoch press if we weren’t censored.”

Having such strong ideals, could you defeat your own intentions by having a hit single?

”We make music closer to the garage than the arena. We have to accept we don’t make music for mass consumption, so as unlikely as I see it, I’ll answer anyway. To get successful and wealthy is to become detached from the human race, to opt out and accept luxury would destroy creativity.”

But there are political popsters who are successful, Paul Weller for example, who use the subtle as opposed to head-on approach.

”There are lots of different ways of getting in there, we think confrontation is the best way to go, in this respect we are closer to the Redskins. We can respect what people like Billy Bragg are saying, which is that Labor is supposedly the lesser evil, but that doesn’t mean to say we agree with them.”

Differing politically within the Left, Roaring Jack also differ musically with Bragg within the folk tradition. Bragg, being a solo artist, adheres to the ballad strain while Roaring Jack stick their two-pennies worth with the reeling jig. Bragg, affectionately known as the Barking Bard, is a southerner whereas Alistair is a true bred Celt from Scotland.

”I got into folk music in Scotland and had quite a few solo gigs there until I came here at 18 years old. Leaving your country makes you nostalgic, it’s nice to hang onto a little bit of your background. The Celtic scene here in Sydney is not that big so I quickly got to know everyone. Finding like-minds – Davey Williams, Rab Mannell, Rod Gilchrist and Steph Miller, the band formed in 1985.

”Originally we were just going to be acoustic, but we realised the danger of getting stuck on the existing folk scene which we found musically conservative, so we played around with form.”

Playing around with form means mixing traditional instruments such as tin whistles, accordian and Balkan zither with modern day implements like electric bass and an electronic Irish bouzouki. The resultant sound is loud and coarse – a true folk trait necessary to cover the racket of hoofing dancers – but one still relying on melody.

Is it easy to update a traditional sound?

”If you work in any roots music you have to be open-minded. We could do things totally inappropriate, for instance, there is not much syncopation as in jazz or blues, so to do that would sound odd.

”Every new type of music has been created by taking elements of often quite diverse sources and putting them together. Our roots obviously go back before the white settlement of Australia 200 years ago. Having said that, there is a lot of rockabilly and punk in what we do. We play Celtic rock and roll.”

Continuing the evolution of folk’s course by removing themselves one step away from the woolly jumper brigade – rewriting their version of the 80s for our earth’s inheritors – Roaring Jack offer more for our money than most of today’s fizzy pop, premature ejaculators. This was proved a few days after the interview with the band’s appearance at the Hopetoun [Surry Hills], friends who came along basically for the beer found they couldn’t tie their legs down as the band set into motion. Nor could I stop their agitated tongues wagging as the ensuing ‘state of the nation’ debate raged over my living-room floor long into the early hours of the following morning.

One EP, Street Celtabillity, already exists as a declaration of intent, an LP Cat Among The Pigeons, is soon to be released. Musical complacents and friends of Bob Hawke beware, conscience sits on your right shoulder in the shape of Roaring Jack. As long as they have a cause they will continue to power their multi-pronged purpose to the people.

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