Roaring Jack: The Complete Works of Roaring Jack

The secret from Sydney is finally revealed.

Back in the mid-80’s when pop music had become more heartless than ever, at a time when that disgusting tsunami of “New Wave” was at its peak of commercial success, two bands from London, were busy developing a unique sound by combining Irish/Celtic folk songs to rock’n’roll songs. Then adding the attitude of punk rock in for good measure. It was 1985, and the first band was The Pogues, who had finished recording the greatest album of all time, (Rum, Sodomy & the Lash. You may have heard of it!) and The Men They Couldn’t Hang were busy with “Night Of A 1000 Candles”. Little did we know about a third band that was forming within the inner city wastelands of Newtown, a slum district in Sydney, Australia. Roaring Jack they were called, and roar they damn well would. They gave a little bit more than a simple nod to left-wing politics, it was more like a clenched fist in the air. Roaring Jack were mixing traditional songs into their own and adding some highly intelligent and political lyrics on top of them. Mostly supporting the working class, they also had songs about the highland clearances, the English policy of “Divide and Rule”, and even Communism. For the next five years they left a startling impression on the Australian music scene. With their first EP, “Street Celtability” (1986) they tore up the local indie charts, going all the way to #1. The band describes themselves as “A Celtic folk band, spiked, gelled, and electrified using the traditional forms and playing styles of Scots and Irish music to carry tales of class struggle and ordinary madness.” Two years later, they released “The Cat Among The Pigeons” (1988) and the band was now headlining major Australian rock venues as well as opening for overseas acts including Billy Bragg, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, and the mighty Pogues. “The Cat Among The Pigeons” was nominated for an Australian Music Industry Association (AIRA) award. The third and final album “Through The Smoke Of Innocence” (1989) also received another (AIRA) nomination.

Then suddenly, the band called it quits and the inferno Roaring Jack had lit dimmed into smoke before it could leave the shores of Australia. Silence prevailed. It was 1991, and on the other side of the globe, The Men They Couldn’t Hang had also basically quit, and The Pogues gave Mr. MacGowan the boot. (Or the other way around, depending on whom you ask!) The creators of this new sound of Celt-folk-meets-punk came and went…….like a breeze in the air. Roaring Jack went into relative obscurity, a secret the Aussies kept to themselves. Luckily, the seed was already planted. The music these three bands created would continue. Within a year or two, bands such as The Mahones, The Tossers, The Real McKenzies, and others would begin to turn up their amps, and tune up those mandolins.

As I reached into my mailbox, I grabbed a CD package. I tore it open within a second or two, and had in my hands a copy of The Complete Works of Roaring Jack. It was judgement day. I had heard all about this band for months, so I stormed into the house toward the CD player. The double album has just been re-released by a small German label, Jump Up Records. I grabbed a seat as I turned the volume up. Within seconds my eyes lit up, and a smile grew upon my face. I usually don’t go out a buy an album based on a whim, let alone an album recorded in the late 1980’s. So when I heard a few songs I gave a huge sigh of relief! The best way to describe Roaring Jack, is to look at who they opened up for on gigs across Australia. Pretend for a moment that Billy Bragg had a Glaswegian accent, and he sang for The Men They Couldn’t Hang. That’s how I’d describe it. The band actually sounds a bit harder than TMTCH, and I’ll admit, on a song, or two, it’s slightly dated in an 80’s kind of way, but I will also say this, Roaring Jack is the real thing! I place them right up there with the best bands of this genre. (What the hell is this genre, anyway?) RJ is also one of the most political bands to rise from this genre. (With a nod to The Tossers, Devil’s Advocates, etc.) Lead singer, Alistair Hulett is an absolute amazing songwriter. Check out his solo folk stuff. http://www.folkicons.co.uk/alistair.htm/

The Complete Works have all three albums Roaring Jack recorded, dating from 1986 to 1990, plus a few outtakes. The back cover actually says 1978 on it instead of 1986, but don’t be fooled. I’m sure a typesetter down at the record label knocked back a few prior to printing the sleeve notes. Even some of the songs are spelled incorrectly, (but I can’t really complain about that ’cause we here at S’n’O are guilty of that offense every other review, except for Sean.) The first album was called “Street Celtability” (1986 (tracks 1-6)) I feel it’s the more raw and unpolished out of the three. It is also my favorite section of the entire double album. Second was “The Cat Among The Pigeons” (1988 (tracks 6-19)) It captured RJ in it’s prime. Containing some of the most top-notch lyrics I have read in a long, long time! Finally we have “End Of Innocence” (1989 (tracks 1-12 + B-sides13-16)) and features a change in the overall sound of the band. It sounds the darkest of the three. It’s almost like the celt-meets-folk-meets-punk feel is not quite gone, but more in the background on this one. Almost like the band was stretching in uncomfortable positions. It still has some gems on it, but not as quite as golden compared to the previous two. I’m not going to describe this entire album track by track because, that would take too long. There’s simply is just too much information, and too many topics to explain. If you are even slightly interested in this CD, I highly suggest buying it. The lyrics in the liner notes alone are worth the money. I know a few people who bought it online at http://www.musikfolk.com/ (should be available through S’n’O soon) I have heard a couple of bootlegs, and they should have released a live album. Those bootlegs sound EVEN BETTER than the studio works! I wish I could have witnessed it live. I’ve heard about these legendary performances, and dream that it was 1987, and that I was a drunken Aussie living in Sydney, watching Roaring Jack play live every weekend!!

Out of the Pogues, TMTCH, and Roaring Jack, each and every one reunited for a spell or two. After a long rest, (hangover?) The Pogues as we all know, reformed in 2001. What comes from that I can’t tell you, but I’d love to see them together for good. TMTCH also reformed, and currently have some projects to release sometime soon. Even Roaring Jack had a lightning quick Australian reunion tour back in 1995, so it could happen again folks, and it should happen again! So get the album, crank up the volume, read the lyrics, and hope that they will reunite again. This time we are in on the secret! There’s not much information on the net, with the exception of Andy Carr’s fantastic Roaring Jack site, located in the links section of Shite’n’Onions or if your a drunken lazy bastard click here, http://www.angelfire.com/folk/roaringjack/

February 2003

Review by Brian Gillespie

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