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.
Sydney, Ought Ten