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Alistair Hulett: `A truly great singer, songwriter, activist and socialist'

January 29, 2010 -- Alistair Hulett died at the Southern General Hospital in Glasgow on Thursday evening, January 28, 2010. Alistair's partner Fatima thanks all those who wrote in with messages of support in the past week since news of Alistair's illness became public. The response was overwhelming, and shows just how many people cared about Alistair and his music.

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Alistair, a truly great singer, songwriter, activist and socialist, will be greatly missed by us all.

Alistair Hulett was born in Glasgow 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.

In the early 1980s Alistair was again performing folk material around Sydney and was a founding member of a five-piece punk folk outfit called Roaring Jack, which specialised rocking Celtic reels and radical and revolutionary lyrics. Alistair was an active revolutionary socialist, with the International Socialist Organisation, and he and Roaring jack offered their talents for many benefits, rallies and demonstrations, in support of the antiwar movement and solidarity with workers in struggle.

For the next five years the Jacks 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 was 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 The Cat Among The Pigeons 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. 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.

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 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 Jacks' release and rather than let the songs go to waste Alistair formed an acoustic outfit called The Hooligans to complete the cycle. The album caught some of Alistair's new found admirers among the purists unawares but during the next two years The Hooligans won 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.

In 1995 Alistair compiled a collection of songs that owed little to punk and everything to the folk revival that 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 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 friend saying that Swarb 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 triumphant perormance at Sidmouth in 1996 was broadcast by the BBC and was followed by a live in studio session a few weeks later. Since then Alistair and Dave have 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 gathered some impressive reviews


Alistair, having returned to live in Scotland, continued to work solo and with Swarb. He wrote and performed three workshop presentations. "From Blackheath To Trafalgar Square" looked at "insurrection and resistance in the Disunited Kingdom" from the Peasants' Revolt to the poll tax riots. "The Fire Last Time" was a study of the protest song movement of the 1960s and "Red Clydeside" examined the working class unrest on the Clyde between 1915 and 1920.

Alistair, based once again in Glasgow, toured Australia in a double bill with US singer/songwriter David Rovics in December 2008-January 2009, playing benefits for Australia's leading radical newspaper, Green Left Weekly. Two more solo albums, In Sleepy Scotland and more recently Riches And Rags, confirmed Alistair Hulett’s position as one of the most consistent songwriters, musicians and interpreters of the tradition in Scotland. Folk On Tap called him "One of the defining voices of Scottish music" and a reviewer in the influential music magazine fROOTS wrote: "Hulett is at once an intense singer, radiating conviction, and a genuinely imaginative lyricist."

In partnership with 1960s veteran Scots folksinger Jimmy Ross, Alistair Hulett presented 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 was evident in the scripts they prepared together for these presentations. The three they have performed so far are titled 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.

Most recently, Alistair Hulett joined with several Yorkshire based musicians to form a five-piece, semi-electric band called The Malkies. This was Hulett’s first return to working with a full-time band since Roaring Jack called it a day in 1992. Their debut album was Suited And Booted (2008).

Alistair toured Australia for the last time in late 2009, and again made his talents available to the socialist cause.


Reviews of Alistair Hulett in Green Left Weekly:
Revolutionary music from 'Sleepy Scotland'
Album puts Hulett among the best

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