The Early Days
Alistair Hulett was born in Glasgow in 1951, and discovered traditional music in his early teens. In 1968 he and his family moved to New Zealand where he established a reputation on the folk circuit with his large repertoire of songs and his interpretation of the big narrative ballads.
In 1971, at the age of eighteen, Alistair moved over to Australia. For a couple of years he sang his way around Australia’s festivals and clubs before “going bush” for several years. During this time he began to write his own songs and, following a two-year stint on the “hippy trail” in India, he returned to Australia in 1979 to find the punk movement in full swing. He joined in with the garage ethos in a band called The Furious Chrome Dolls. At the same time Alistair began playing round the Sydney pubs with a bluegrass mandolin player from Virginia USA called Hunter Owens. Their duo Galliard first developed the blend of Celtic music with rockabilly/bluegrass rhythms that later characterised the early Roaring Jack. Indeed Hunter was a founding member of Roaring Jack along with Alistair, but quit in 1986 to be replaced by Steph Miller.
The Success of Roaring Jack
For the next five years the Jack’s punk/rockabilly take on Celtic folk made a startling impression on the Australian music scene. Their first album, “Street Celtabillity”, was released in 1986 and reached No.1 on the local Indie charts. By the time the second album, “The Cat Among The Pigeons”, was released in 1988 the band were headlining in major Australian rock venues as well as opening for overseas acts including Billy Bragg, The Pogues and The Men They Couldn’t Hang. The second album was nominated for an Australian Music Industry Association (ARIA) award and was released in Europe by the German label Intercord.
Alistair’s solo work was always a part of the Jacks live shows and offers to appear at festivals and clubs in his own right drew him further back into the folk orbit. By 1989 his songs were being extensively covered by several stalwarts of the Australian folk establishment, most notably John McAuslan and Kate Delaney & Gordon McIntyre. The demise of Roaring Jack coincided with this period and after the release of their third album, “Through The Smoke of Innocence”, the band decided to call it a day despite another ARIA nomination.
The Start of a Solo Career
Alistair’s first solo CD, “Dance of the Underclass”, was recorded in 1991. Completely acoustic, with contributions from other members of Roaring Jack, the album was instantly hailed as a folk classic and proved to be the turning point in Alistair’s return to the folk fold. His position as one of the most influential musicians on the Australian scene was now beyond dispute. In the UK his song “He Fades Away” was picked up by Roy Bailey and by June Tabor and later by Andy Irvine. All three performers recorded uniquely different but thoroughly compelling interpretations of the song.
Rather than follow with more of the same, Alistair recorded his next solo CD with a return to the punk fuelled energy of the days with Roaring Jack. “In the Backstreets of Paradise” was a collection of songs originally intended as the next Jack’s release and rather than let the songs go to waste Alistair formed an acoustic outfit called The Hooligans with the late great Jimmy Gregory (RIP) to complete the cycle. The album caught some of Alistair’s newfound admirers among the purists unawares, but during the next two years The Hooligans won many of them over with blistering live performances at every major folk festival in Australia. In the meantime Alistair continued his solo gigs with an ever-growing reliance on the traditional songs that have always formed the backbone of his writing.
The Alistair Hulett and Dave Swarbrick Collaborations
In 1995 Alistair compiled a collection of songs that owed little to punk and everything to the Folk Revival that had inspired him in the sixties. “Saturday Johnny and Jimmy The Rat” was originally intended as a solo affair in homage to the likes of Ewan MacColl, Jeannie Robertson and Davie Stewart, as well as an acknowledgment of the time when the folk movement was a vital political and musical force. At the time, the legendary English fiddle maestro Dave Swarbrick was living in Australia and Alistair toyed with the idea of inviting Swarb to join him in the studio. Nothing more would have come of the notion had it not been for a phone call from a mutual friend saying that Swarb had told him he wouldn’t mind working with the bloke who had written “The Swaggies Have All Waltzed Matilda Away”. Thus was forged a musical partnership that has won acclaim from audiences and critics alike.
Following a hugely successful Australian tour the duo returned to the UK. A concert performance at Sidmouth Festival in 1996 was broadcast by the BBC and was followed by a live in-studio session a few weeks later. For a couple of years Alistair and Dave toured extensively in the UK, returned to Australia for another successful tour and recorded their second album together. “The Cold Grey Light of Dawn” was enthusiastically received and garnered some impressive reviews. The partnership came to an abrupt halt in 1999 when Swarb’s ongoing battle with the debilitating lung condition emphysema seemed to have finally got the better of him, and over the next few years his public performances grew more and more scarce and logistically difficult to manage.
Ever resilient, Swarbrick set up a home recording studio where he produced several albums, including the third Hulett/Swarbrick collaboration, Red Clydeside. Critical acclaim for this historical ‘concept album’ was unreserved and the duo performed Red Clydeside at Celtic Connections 2003 in Glasgow with the legendary fiddler playing onstage in a wheel chair with an oxygen tank at his side. In 2004 Hulett performed the songs again at Celtic Connections along with the fine duo Nancy Kerr & James Fagan, in a dramatised stage adaptation of the album’s background booklet by the acclaimed Scots scriptwriter and actor Martin McCardie. This ran to a six-night string of sell-out performances at the Tron Theatre in Glasgow. In 2005 a successful double lung transplant restored Dave Swarbrick to full mobility and the partnership with Alistair was resumed for an Australian Tour the following year.
Back in Scotland
From 2006 until his death, and in partnership with 1960’s veteran Scots folksinger Jimmy Ross, Alistair performed word and song presentations with Powerpoint visual images at various events and festivals around the UK. Alistair and Jimmy shared a common political perspective, with both being deeply involved in socialist politics, and this bond is evident in the scripts they prepared together for the presentations – ‘Which Side Are You On? The Life And Times Of Pete Seeger’, ‘Ewan MacColl And The Politics Of The British Folk Revival’ and ‘Ireland – A History Of Struggle In Song’.
During this period Alistair also joined with some Yorkshire based musicians to form a five-piece, semi-electric band called The Malkies; Alistair’s first return to working with a full-time band since Roaring Jack called it a day in 1992. The Malkies debut, and as it so tragically turned out only, album, ‘Suited And Booted,’ was released in September 2008.