We Made the Steel – Nigel Walters

The latest Roaring Forties (hot off the ‘steel’ press), the fourth by the Roaring Forties but departs from their more usual shanty and folk repertoire and is a themed collection of songs and poems about the steel industry in 1960s in NSW. As mentioned in the very detailed sleeve notes (16 glorious colour pages detailing all lyrics and supplementary photographs and notes) all but two of the 14 songs and two poems were written between 2007 and 2010 by Robin Connaughton and John Warner. Track 1 (Steeler’s March) was written by Robin in 1961 and Track 9 (Weevils in the Flour) is a famous poem by Dorothy Hewett written in 1963.

The authenticity of the songs and story telling comes from the fact that Robin worked in the steel industry from 1960 to 1975 at Newcastle and Port Kembla and was pursuaded by John to record in song and verse some of the stories of his experience.

The album has a clever thread of one song “The Ballad of Lovely Tom” (in 6 parts) which is the narrative of a Polish migrant worker. Many themes are touched on including the displacement of indiginous people, the despoilation of the environment, the high rate of leukemia, relationships between workers and with their bosses, pranks and risk taking, women in the workplace and the abiding pride that workers have in their work. There is a rich diversity of musical styles ranging from English and Australian folk genres to country blues, sleazy blues and Queen.

The Roaring Forties in this album are: the four Santa Clauses (quoting my daughter as she saw them arriving for a practice one night at our house) Robin Connaughton, John Warner, Tom Hanson and Chris Maltby plus the very lovely Margaret Walters (no relation Ed). The album was very well recorded, mixed and mastered by Jason Roweth at Humph Hall, Allambie Heights in 2012 (run by Gial and Wayne Richmond). In addition to the voices and playing of the above RF members the music is supplemented by the terrific playing of Jason Roweth (acoustic double bass and second guitar) and Chloe Roweth (mandolin).

The Roaring Forties web site contains details of each of their CDs including for this album a rich and informative write up for each song and general background on Robin’s time in the steel industry and is well worth a visit and read. Robin says that the idea is not to try to achieve a technical history of the steel industry but to “sing the feeling of the steelworkers”.

This album is an absolute delight. It provides a slice of social history for this industry and era in a package containing a marvellous mix of mirth (evocative songs like the “Mount Ousley Breakdown” and the brilliantly crafted and delivered poem “The Strange Death of Georgie Bell”) as well as wonderfully poignant songs such as “The Price of Steel” which tells of the tragically poor health and safety aspects of the large steel mills in this era and is reminiscent of Alistair Hulett’s “He Fades Away”.

The musical performances on this album are all excellent (as one would expect from the Roaring Forties), however the real heart of the album is in the wonderful words that are skillfully crafted and presented to really draw the listener back to the feel of the 60s and the hard, knock-a-bout lives of the steelworkers at this time.

A great buy (order through the Roaring Forties website) and something to ensure that Santa brings you or your friends this year.

Nigel Walters

[This review appeared in the December 2012 edition of The Cornstalk Gazette – published by the Folk Federation of NSW]

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