Tag Archives: Alistair Hulett

In Memory of Alistair Hulett

January 29, 2010

Alistair Hulett, 1951-2010.

Schooldays over and I was working Saturday nights in a lowlife outer suburban bar as bilge monkey still far from fully grown – a scrap of a kid, I was – when I discovered the great Roaring Jack of Sydney City. I spend most nights playing tin whistle along to favourite on a scratch-built stereo and was well pleased to bring home a 45 single I found in Parramatta, ‘The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away’ by Roaring Jack. As The Pogues’ iconic ‘If I Should Fall From Grace With God’ rarely left my turntable, I was delighted to learn of an original folk rock act at large in my home city. So there was the 45, with yesteryear’s vagrant on the cover with his sad hurdy-gurdy slung over him and the Mighty Boy Records athletic logo on the disc. The song drew a shuttle across the loom of Australian history, a song written by a Glaswegian migrant, one Alistair Hulett. He reiterated popular sentiments of The Powers That Be fucking people around and the ironically resentful-yet-malleable nature of the colonial-gone-capitalist Australian psyche. ‘Swaggies’ culminated in a call to “raise the red flag” but I’d listened to enough Billy Bragg to not find the radical politics overtly stark (I was left by nature anyway). What I really liked was the raw, strong melody, a tune that bespoke of sincerity. The song had the feel of a march about it and it was not hard to imagine a colliery brass band playing behind it.

And so, consulting the street press, I sought out the band in question. Only just old enought to get into the pre-sterilized, pre-wankerfied pubs of Newtown (that change being addressed, prophetically, by Alistair in a couple of his own songs), I followed Roaring Jack from the rabble of The Sandringham Hotel and its bubbling mosh, like a tavern built into a ship’s dungeon, to The Harold Park Hotel near the racetrack at Glebe, and back again.

Alistair Hulett was the lead singer and main songwriter of Roaring Jack and he cut a mean, neat figure with his electro-acoustic six string and John Lennon specs. He was fit and sharp and direct in speech, delivery and stage presence. Multi-instrumentalist Steph Miller was like a quartermaster or First Mate at his side and Alistair would slice through set after set without missing a beat. I have never since heard such a quality and quantity of songs from a pub band. One Roaring Jack set would put most Sydney’s bands’ entire repertoires to shame and there was no shortage of these sets, they’d just play all evening and right into the night.

I could not believe that I got to be amongst it all. Leaping from bar and stage with the drinking songs, ‘Lights Of Sydney Town’, ‘The Lass Behind The Beertaps’ and the blazing, fatalistic ‘Buy Us A Drink’. Alistair made fond nods to tradition with the waltzy ‘Wild Rover Again’ and ‘Polythene Flowers’, and then there was the boozey reggae of ‘Ball Of Yarn’. And the defiant Union songs, ‘Days of ’49’, ‘Lads Of The BLF’ and ‘Cat Among The Pigeons’, a four segment folk-punk epic that took in everything from Steeleye Span to hillbilly hoedowns to Marxist prose.
From the first time I heard ‘Proddy Dogs And Papes’, I considered it Alistair’s finest work. A sad and pretty melody in Scottish cadence, he ong is one of those rare gems that sounds equally powerful in slow ballad form or as a flatknacker punk rocker. It follows the theme he explored in ‘The Auld Divide And Rule’; the futile, self-thwarting machismo of sectarianism. You want to physically turn away from the infantile, deluded automatons that are the football fans described in the song, it is emotive stuff.

Alistair was a prodigious writer of no-bullshit folk ballads who played like a crusader. He did great justice to his influences; Billy Bragg, Woody Guthrie, Dick Gaughan and Shane MacGowan. Roaring Jack were electrified Celtic punk before Flogging Molly were a glint in Dave King’s eye and were always undaunted in their own powers of expression. Alistair was the sharpest edge on a sharp band that gave me something to look forward to seeing at least once week, and listening to on the days and nights in between shows.

… Goodnight, and joy be with you all.

Will Swan
Sydney, Ought Ten

Alistair Hulett: Riches & Rags

“Imagine a Scottish Billy Bragg, playing folk songs on the same level as Woody Guthrie, with the lyrics (almost) on par with Robert Burns.”

To put it as blunt as possible, when I think of modern Scottish folk music, I think of Alistair Hulett. There, I’ve said it. I can now take a deep breath and continue on. The former frontman of Roaring Jack has produced yet another stunning album that continues to define the way folk music should be played. “Riches & Rags” is Ally’s seventh acoustic album. That’s not counting the (3) Roaring Jack albums. Many of you have probably heard a few of those Roaring Jack tunes by now, so now is as good a time as any to pick up an Alistair Hulett solo album. I’d start with this one.

Actually, The full title of the album is: “Riches & Rags; Modern Music for Wireless and Gramophone” Performed by: Alistair Hulett and several of his friends. (Friends include Gavin Livingstone, Nancy Kerr, & James Fagan) “Riches And Rags” is the first album without longtime collaborator Dave Swarbrick since the mid-nineties. It’s an album that mixes everything from his self penned hard-hitting political songs, to some traditional material, to a couple of blues numbers. Out of all the Alistair albums I own, “Riches & Rags” cover the most ground. It contains four originals, (Two of them reworked Roaring Jack tunes!) four covers, and three traditionals. I’ve had “Riches & Rags” in my CD player for over a month now, and after playing it a few dozen different times, I can promise you this: the album is absolutely brilliant from start to finish.

1. The Fair Flower Of Northumberland. (Traditional)
An 18th century border ballad. Alistair interprets the Scots version. The song is basically a warning to all the young Englishwomen to avoid any romantic endeavors with the Scots border reivers. If you ask me, it’s a perfect song to play while you ask some English lass for a dance, & give a wee wink to your Scottish ancestors when she’s not looking!

2. Criminal Justice (Words & Music by A. Hulett)
Originally recorded with Roaring Jack. It’s a song about the derailment of the justice system by the powers that be. I enjoyed listening to Alistair’s acoustic versions of all these old Roaring Jack songs.

3. Riches And Rags (Words & Music by A. Hulett)
For those keeping score, this song is the most recent Hulett original to date. According to Ally, this is a song about remembering not to forget.

4. The Recruited Collier (Traditional)
More or less, a song about recruiting the poor, to fight the rich man’s war. Something’s never change eh?

5. The Dark Eyed Sailor (Traditional)
One of my favorite tracks on the record! A Nautical tune! Alistair gives new light to this “dark-eyed” traditional number.

6. Stealin’ Back To My Same Old Used To Be (Will Shade)
This song was originally written and recorded back in 1926, by Will Shade & his The Memphis Jug Band. Alistair makes a great point, the jug band tradition of using household utensils and DIY ethic is similar to 70’s punk music. A bluesy number that surprised me the first time I heard it.

7. Shot Down In Flames (Words & Music by A. Hulett)
Another Roaring Jack song about those not-so-happy moments at the end of a relationship. Fantastic lyrics, Mr. Hulett…Yet again!

8. Militant Red (Words & Music by A. Hulett)
A fantastic love song about a woman who wants to overthrow a certain “you-know-who” This song was originally on my favorite Alistair album “In The Back Streets Of Paradise” (Think acoustic Roaring Jack) Alistair originally recorded it with The Hooligans after Roaring Jack disbanded, and before he moved back to Scotland.

9. Old King Coal (John Kirkpatrick)
John Barleycorn moves to the city, if you will. I’d love to track down the original.

10. The First Girl I Loved (Robin Williamson)
Let’s be honest, sometimes you need to sit back and reflect on things. Sometimes an image of an old girlfriend pops into your head when this happens… If I were a guitar player, I’d love to learn this beautiful song. I’m not a guitar player and I’d still love to learn this beautiful song. (Just don’t sing it around your wife) The dorbo resonator guitar playing in the background completes the mood perfectly.

11. Trouble In Mind (Richard M. Jones)
What a great blues song! It’s even greater to hear Ally covering it. (Yet another song to track down.) The perfect track to end a perfect album on.

In other news, Alistair Hulett will be touring the USA this April. If you are in the Northeast/Midwest part of the country, consider yourselves lucky. (Can I sleep on your couch?) More details to be posted on Shite’n’Onions soon! Also, in Roaring Jack news, there may be another album coming out this year! A Live/Rarites album is the rumor. We’ll keep you posted.

For more information check out: http://www.folkicons.co.uk/alistair.htm and for anything Roaring Jack related check out Andy Carr’s excellent site http://www.roaringjack.com (Tell him I sent ya!)


Review By Brian Gillespie