‘The personal Roaring Jack’ by Michael Smith
The Drum Media, 15 January 1991
Sex, death and politics. They’re supposed to be the three things that keep the world going round (not love like the pop songs say) and Roaring Jack have certainly made their thoughts on the last item well known over the last few years, but with their latest album, Through the Smoke of Innocence, people might be surprised to find the other two far more prominent on the agenda than they ever expected from these Celtic stirrers. The fact that death is treated with some aptly hilarious irreverence and that sex is never directly evoked, but the politics of sex are, might make more sense, but either way, this is a very different Roaring Jack to the one you’ll find on Street Celtabillity and Cat Among the Pigeons, and that’s just what Alistair Hulett and the boys intended, as Alistair explained as we sat in the Lobby of the Drum Media, in the ‘comfy chairs’.
‘I think it’s important not to become a cliché, not to become a predictable stereotype. It’s not that we’ve become any less politically involved – in fact the opposite is true – this has been our most intense year for political activity yet (supporting the call for Bring Back the Ships from the Gulf, and the Free Tim Anderson campaigns only the two most recent examples). But because we put out an album which was mainly political previously, we thought we’d avoid being a bore by hammering the subject and explore personal rather than social politics with this album.
‘I would hate if every album we put out said "Support Trade Unions" or "Stand Up to the New Right" – I mean that would be terribly boring! But I think, the way the material is coming out, the album after this will be much more political.’
One factor that ensured Through the Smoke of Innocence would not be quite as political as previous Roaring Jack albums was a serious soul-searching reappraisal of beliefs that was triggered by the collapse of communist regimes of Eastern Europe last year.
‘We were actually in the studio recording this album at the time the tanks were rolling through Tienanmen Square and Stalinism was collapsing in Europe. It was a time of a lot of soul-searching for most socialists, myself included. I mean, after that I spent the next year going over everything of Trotsky’s or Lenin’s I could lay my hands on seeing if there was anything in there that could have led to this. I was questioning my own beliefs quite deeply. I mean, there was stuff I knew about these regimes because we’d experienced the invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the Cultural Revolution in China, all those atrocities, but to be directly confronted with it on your TV screens. For a time, I was "shocked and stunned and it shut my mouth!" until I was able to work out what I believed.
‘At the end, I still believe that the system that has collapsed in Eastern Europe and is being held up by oppression in China is not communism as I know it. I think it’s quite significant that after Stalin came to power, one of the earliest things he did was to exile and eventually assassinate Trotsky because of his continued condemnation of what had happened to their revolution. It was communism in name only, what I would describe as State or Bureaucratic Capitalism, because in no sense was it direct workers’ control, which is what communism is. ‘October Wind’, on the album, was part of the process of trying to discover what I though of all that. It’s a good way to do it, to write. So I guess for that reason as well, Through the Smoke of Innocence is not a particularly political album. It’s not that I was particularly silenced – I just had to sort this one out in my head.’
But then, when Roaring Jack and Alistair Hulett say ‘personal politics’ is the thrust of an album, you can bet your little Red School Book (remember them?) that the dichotomy between personal and social politics is not as great as you might imagine. Take the song ‘Latest Affectation’, ostensibly about a woman who is, shall we say, a little heartless in her approach to love and relationships.
‘What I suppose I had in mind with that song was the way, when you’re hurt, and I think it happens on a personal and a social level, like it happens to whole countries sometimes, whole societies, where they’re injured themselves, they internalise the injury and then become an agent of the same hurting action, like the Irish who were dispossessed who went over to America and began putting the same sort of shit on the Indian nations. I suppose on a personal level, and it’s not autobiographical although there are some bits of me in it, the song’s looking at the way experiences just go around and around. Someone gets hurt and then they go around hurting other people, basically.’
See what I mean? There are, however, the more straightforward love lost and sad songs, treated with a more delicate approach than the band might on stage. Approaching this new album as one people would listen to at home rather than once again trying to recreate the frenetic energy of the live Roaring Jack as seen on the first two albums, there is a finer sense of the dynamic and the dramatic on Through the Smoke of Innocence, allowing the acoustic instruments a lot more space in which to be heard. Not that there are the odd frenetic jig-based pieces of occasional venomous statements there too – from the opening ‘Girl on a Gate’ through the almost sea shanty ‘Ways of a Rover’ to the vitriolic invective of ‘The Ball of Yarn’ (‘Sometimes I just can’t help myself!’ chirps Alistair, gleam in the eye and a wicked smile on his lips) – but there are truly gentle moments like ‘Just Like Cigarettes’, that makes this quite a different album for Roaring Jack. Not a compromise, just a tad gentler, in places.
But then, none of the Celtic mist has been sacrificed. In fact if anything, it’s more defiantly there than ever, with Alistair no longer afraid to sing in his own accent, and the acoustic instruments, allowed more space, embroider it more keenly with Celtic lace. And a touch of that wicked humour too, with the hilarious ‘Polythene Flowers’, which could have been straight Banjo Patterson in a Scottish accent.
‘That’s actually based on a story my grandad told me when I was a wee kid, and it happened on the Isle of Skye, they actually had this wake – I‘ve changed it to the Australian bush, but it’s still a Celtic wake – and they actually took the corpse down to the pub and they all got so pissed that they went to the graveyard afterwards and when they arrived they realised that they’d left the cask [i.e. casket] behind and they were all staring at an empty hole paralytic!’
So, Through the Smoke of Innocence, an album that perhaps might be ideal for the unconverted as an easy way into the world of Roaring Jack – don’t let the ‘quieter’ approach of this album lull you into a false sense of security, Roaring Jack are committed men, and more power to them for that, and behind the ribaldry and the swirl of traditional Celtic hoedown, there lurks a wealth of material to cogitate upon, and it’s worth the effort to discover.
‘There’s this one half of me that has a tendency to preach, the other half of me that writes songs for myself, mainly to work out what I feel about things within myself. I try to keep the preachy side of my nature as much in check as I can – but when I’ve had a few jars, it runs rampant, let me tell you!’
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