Icons: Jim Keays/Masters Apprentices
One of Australian rock’s true gentlemen and a raconteur to boot, Jim Keays speaks to AARON CURRAN about his new album, The Masters Apprentices and other highpoints of a career characterised by few regrets. Photo of Keays by ROBERT CARBONE.
There’s not a lot of precedent in Australia for someone of Jim Keays’ vintage – he’s 65 – to be making a scuzzy, snarling garage rock. But with the recent release of new LP Dirty, Dirty, that’s exactly what the ex-Masters Apprentices lead singer has done. Recorded in cahoots with a crack band including guitarist Davey Lane (You Am I, The Pictures), drummer Brett Wolfenden (The Pictures, Rushcutter) and producer Ted Lethborg on bass, Dirty, Dirty features storming versions of songs by such cult outfits as Crazy Horse, Dream Syndicate, Flamin’ Groovies, Wimple Winch and The Haunted.
Listening to Dirty, Dirty is like hearing your favourite mixtape come to rude life, with Jim’s growling vocals sounding like a man half his age. But even more estimable is that Keays made the record while battling a severe, often-debilitating illness (Jim has been receiving treatment for multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer, since 2007).
How are you feeling today?
Good yeah. I should be dead and I'm still here, so I can't complain.
Congratulations on the new record, Jim, it's a corker, a very fine album.
Thanks a lot, we've had a really great reaction to it, beyond my expectations really. I just did it for fun and it seems to have grown from there, a lot of people like it.
How did Dirty, Dirty get started?
It was driven by Ted Lethborg who works for Aztec Records, an independent label in Melbourne that re-releases albums by Australian bands of the '60s and '70s that have never come out onto CD. They design them really well and do a great job of promotion. Aztec did a top job of repackaging the Masters' first album from 1967 (The Masters Apprentices) and of course a lot of that early Masters stuff was garage rock, well they call it either that or garage punk now, but back then we just called it rock’n’roll. It was that sort of album: raw. Ted said that it gave him the idea of approaching me to sing songs like that again now. At first I thought he was mad, I said hang on, I don't know if I can do this Ted, that stuff's pretty hard to do justice to. Also I don't write that sort of stuff anymore. And he said don't worry, he'd find the songs, the band and everything.
So Ted went away and came back with a CD he'd put together with about 25 tracks on it, all these no-hit wonders, weird but rocking shit from the '60s that hardly anybody has ever heard of. And when I listened to it I thought, “Hang on, this sounds pretty good and I could probably do a few of these.” So I said, “All right, Ted, you're on. I'll pick some out and let's rehearse them with the band and have a bit of fun.” It's all grown from there, next thing you know we've got a record deal (with Shock).
When you think back to rehearsing and recording with Davey, Wolfie and Ted, do any favourite moments stand out?
Well, the whole thing was a favourite moment really. They were so into the project. A lot of times when a guy like me makes an album he gets in session men, professional musicians, sure, but it's a job for them. But these guys had the right attitude, they loved the idea from the start and have such an affinity with this music, especially Davey – he even looks like a mod from 1968, let alone playing like the best of them – so the whole thing was just a joy. There were no problems at all. At no time did I have to disagree and say, “No, why don't you do it like this, or change this to that.” Straight away they knew exactly what to do. Playing and recording with them was a sheer joy, so smooth, just the way it should be.
You've been playing some live shows, how does that compare to the new album? What can people expect if they come see you perform?
Well it's a bit less full-on, I'm not going to be doing too much live work for a couple of reasons. First of all, I'd want to do it with Davey, Ted and Wolfie and those guys are all doing other things, so it's hard to coordinate everyone’s diaries to do a tour of any kind. Secondly, because I've got a few issues health-wise it's not easy for me to do a long gig where the focus is all on me. Especially doing something like garage rock where you can't just stand there and sing, it's a very physical thing. It's pretty hard for me to sustain that kind of energetic show for a long period of time. I could probably do it if I only had to do 40 or 50 minutes but most people expect an hour- and-a-half set. That'd be pretty difficult for me to do. So that's a bit of a problem. I'll do a few gigs, but they'll have shorter sets, with a few tracks from the new album and a few old Masters tracks thrown in. As far as a sustained tour is concerned, unless things drastically improve with my health it'll be difficult to do.
But recording will be a continued focus?
Yeah, Ted's already started to compile songs for the next album before this one was even released. [Laughs] He's right onto it. He actually has found a few beauties, so if Dirty, Dirty does all right then there's no reason not to record another one. Nobody's selling a lot of albums these days, unless you’re Gotye, so I’m not expecting to get rich and famous. But I’m quietly confident we could do another.
Maybe this time there'd be room for a couple of Australian garage rock classics?
Funnily enough that's exactly what I wanted to do, though I haven't found too much yet that I've had an immediate affinity with. That’s not so say that they're not around, we just haven't found the right ones yet. One band that caught our attention was Fanny Adams; they were an Australian supergroup with Doug Parkinson and others. They went to England in the early '70s, I think, and recorded just one album, but there are a couple of tracks on it that have got my attention so we'll see.
‘We came very close to falling apart’
The band's name, The Masters Apprentices, acknowledged your admiration for the blues and rock legends that came before you, but who were the first Australian musicians that you saw or heard that held their own against overseas acts?
There was a band out of Adelaide that nobody really knows called Blues, Rags and Hollers. They were just fantastic. If they'd gone on to make records and toured more I think they could have been one of the biggest bands in the world, I'm sure of it. I used to sit there watching them play live with my jaw just dropping down to the ground, they were amazing.
The Purple Hearts out of Brisbane I really liked, with Lobby [Loyde] of course but also Tony Cahill on drums, he was a great drummer, miles ahead of most others I'd seen. The Throb and The Missing Links were fantastic; they were probably the best of the early garage rockers here in Australia. I reckon all of them could have held their own anywhere in the world. I'd put The Masters Apprentices on the list with them too, it's just that in those days there was no infrastructure to project any of us out into the world.
Nowadays, you can be a young band in Geelong and get a deal with an overseas label with your first record, then release it on the internet, but not back then. No one had much contact with other countries, not even your own record label communicated much with their overseas equivalents. I know that some of those early Masters singles like 'Undecided', 'Buried and Dead', 'Living in a Child's Dream', they would have been hits in England if they'd got a proper release, I think they were comparable to what The Kinks or The Small Faces were doing at the same time. But no one here really knew how to get the stuff out there into the world.
All of the band's initial original material was written by guitarist Mick Bower but he left the Masters in 1967 after suffering nervous exhaustion, shortly after your had a smash hit with 'Living in a Child's Dream'. That must have been a real blow, to lose your friend, bandmate and chief songwriter in one go?
Yes, it was. We came very close to falling apart and calling it a day. Somehow I pulled it together, I knew the band was onto something and that to throw in the towel after having three or four big hits nationally was not a decision to be made lightly. I just thought we'd find a way to go on and luckily we soon got Doug Ford in, he was from a band called Running, Jumping, Standing Still, and he and I started writing together and it clicked. That started off a whole new sound and a new chapter for us.
But Mick was an amazing songwriter, the band was so lucky to have him. He was ahead of his time that's for sure. 'War Or Hands Of Time', 'But One Day', 'Theme for a Social Climber', the only person who was writing stuff like Mick then was Ray Davies, maybe a few others, but Mick was right up there at a very early time. If we'd been a band out of England, there's no way we wouldn't have had big hits with Mick's songs.
The Masters Apprentices moved to London in 1970, after the release of hit single 'Turn Up Your Radio'. How did living in England affect the sound of the band?
That year 1970 was a time of massive social change in Australia. In the '60s it was all pop bands, screaming teenagers and girls trying to rip your clothes off. But in 1970 things shifted radically; pub rock was born. It's hard to believe but up until then live rock music wasn't played in pubs. Pubs were the bastions of our fathers and not for us. But then baby boomers turned 18 or 19 and became of drinking age, and I think the Village Green Hotel in Melbourne was the first pub that put on loud live music. Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs played a residency there and it was just packed. Other bands started to do the same and the era of pub rock was born.
Now, pub rock was very much against the pop scene that had come before it, when bands like the Masters had been dolled up in frilly shirts and velvet jackets. The new era was more just jeans and a t-shirt; it was anti-fashion. Most of the pop bands that had been our peers broke up and disappeared, no one was interested in that anymore. So right at that time we'd gone away and we missed that change, but we'd made some changes of our own too. What had happened to us over in England was that we developed into a “prog rock” band … progressive rock had really taken hold. Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and bands that played with a harder sound like Free. The Masters had developed musically, we were much better players, not afraid of trying different instruments, different arrangements. As an act we were now much more focused on the music rather than just being a pop band.
So we came back to Australia and the response initially was pretty lukewarm. But when they actually heard us, people in Australia were really surprised that we’d become part of the new era, without them even knowing it. So going to London is what saved the Masters Apprentices in many ways. We’d developed and gotten ahead of what was happening back home. England was revolutionary for us. It changed us so much. We metamorphosed into something completely new.
The first LP the band recorded in London was Choice Cuts (1970). What was it like recording it at Abbey Road studios?
It was the first time that we’d made an album in one studio as a proper album; a complete thing of its own. The pattern in Australia through the ’60s was you’d record a track or two here or there, release a single now and then, and then stick them all together every year or so and there’s your album.
But when we got to England, we approached things differently. The Masters went into one studio for a decent period of time – eight weeks I think it was – and worked on Choice Cuts with real focus. Most of the songs were written and ready and sounded of a similar theme. We had a proper producer [Jeff Jarratt] who’d worked on the last couple of Beatles albums, and a proper engineer [Peter Bown] who’d done loads of stuff with Pink Floyd. In the studio next door to ours, John Lennon was recording his first solo album [Plastic Ono Band]. The Moody Blues were popping in and visiting us. It was such a creative environment. This was just such a fantastic new experience for us; it was everything we’d hoped for, being able to explore making new music in such a detailed and complete way. It was exciting, you know? When you’re around people with such ability and experience you lift your own game. We worked harder and achieved more and I think the proof of that work can still be heard on Choice Cuts.
'Because I Love You' from Choice Cuts was a hit single at home and the album was well received both in Australia and the UK. But the band failed to capitalise on those positive reviews. What got in the way?
Well, it’s similar to what I was talking about earlier. There was no infrastructure for Australian bands that were working overseas. The Masters had gone to the UK on the back of our own savings, with very few contacts, and we found it difficult to get established. We didn’t have the money to buy new equipment so that we could tour on the back of the growing public interest for us in England, and we’d only brought a few guitars and amplifiers with us. No PA or anything, no van to get around in. So normally what would happen is that a record company would give you a decent advance on sales of your record, so that you could get set up with those kinds of basic requirements to compete on a professional level. But back in Australia, there was no such thing as getting a significant advance … If they did it was just a couple of hundred dollars, that wouldn’t buy you one JBL speaker. [Laughs]
“Nobody’s selling a lot of albums these days, unless you’re Gotye, so I’m not expecting to get rich and famous.”
Now compare that to other bands there at the time who were getting hundreds of thousands of pounds for an advance and kitting themselves out with the kind of top-range equipment that audiences were starting to expect of live shows in the early ’70s. It was just impossible for the Masters Apprentices to achieve anything similar. Even though Choice Cuts got some great reviews in England, we weren’t playing live anywhere so we weren’t properly promoting it. That was really frustrating because we were going out in London and seeing other big bands of the time play and we knew we could compete on their level. We had the songs; we were seasoned players that knew how to work an audience, all that stuff.
So that was frustrating and unfortunate but I don’t regret anything, none of us got bitter and twisted. [Laughs] It was just the way it was. For most bands coming to England from Australia, the record companies, the publishing companies, the management, all of that just wasn’t there.
The Masters Apprentices came to an end in 1972. You returned to Australia and became a writer for Go-Set magazine and also appeared in the Australian stage version of Tommy, with Billy Thorpe, Doug Parkinson and more. What do you remember about that? How was it working with Keith Moon?
Doing Tommy was one of the absolute highlights of my career actually. The music and performances were spine tingling. We did one show at Myer Music Bowl, another at Randwick Racecourse, both with a huge orchestra and a 50-piece choir. Working with Keith Moon was as mad as you might imagine but an absolute thrill. Before I started rehearsing I hadn’t really listened to The Who’s album, I knew it was a rock opera but doing the live show blew me away, the scale of it just grew and grew. Such a complete piece of work; a complex storyline, with wonderful songs and great players. David Measham conducted it, he was from the London Symphony Orchestra. There was Daryl Braithwaite, Thorpie, Wendy Saddington, so many others. It’s just such a shame the shows weren’t properly filmed, that would have been a great thing for posterity.
‘I came down in a big spaceship’
The Boy from the Stars was your first solo album in 1975 and was successful at the time, though is a bit of a lost classic now. What can you tell me about making that album?
For my first solo album, I was pretty determined that it wouldn’t be just an extension of the Masters Apprentices; it had to be different. In retrospect it might have been better if I had just continued in the Masters vein – hard rock, prog rock, or whatever – but at the time, I thought doing something completely new was the best move. Glam rock was coming in and creating a new dynamic in the scene and I felt that following that would be something different for me. So that’s what I did and, again, no regrets.
It was difficult to stage, right?
Well, yes. It was quite an intricate recording, and to pull it off I’d used lots of different players who were all the absolute cream of Australian music at the time. So to replicate that live was very challenging. I was going for a mix of rock and theatre, so my experiences with Tommy might have had an influence there.
I only performed it live three times. The first time was at Sunbury ’75, which was the last Sunbury, and that was a great success. I came down in a big spaceship, there were three or four complete set changes onstage during the show … The lights would go down and the set would be completely rebuilt. Different costumes. A 14-piece band. And I was planning and directing this myself as well as performing! Most of it, for better or worse, was my work but it was just too much for one bloke to do really. It was also too costly, as it needed lots of trucks to move the sets and lots of money to pay the musicians and crew. I didn’t mind, I knew going in it was going to be difficult to pull off, and I thought it was worth trying it to do something different.
“We had the songs; we were seasoned players that knew how to work an audience, all that stuff.”
Are you proud of the influence you’ve had on Australian music? It must be gratifying?
A friend of mine, Nick Smith, who’s a songwriter who has composed things like ‘Harley and Rose’ and ‘Chained to the Wheel’ for the Black Sorrows, he rang me up a few years back and said there’s a new band out and they’re ripping you off, they sound like the Masters Apprentices. So I asked, who are they? They’re called Jet, he said. So I tracked down a copy of Jet’s record and I thought, “Well, yeah maybe Nick is onto something.” [Laughs] Though it reminded me of other bands too, that’s the way music works isn’t it? Later I learned that Nic Cester from Jet is actually a Masters fan, which is great. Also Brad Shepherd from the Hoodoo Gurus, he told me that he was about 11 or 12 years old when he came along and saw the first big show in Brisbane that the Masters did when we came back from England. Brad said that after seeing that he just thought, “Wow, they’re rock gods! That’s what I want to do with my life!”
It makes you feel good to know that there’s a bit of a legacy from what you’ve done, like you’ve taken a few knocks that have helped other bands get to where they’re going. That bands like The Easybeats and the Masters Apprentices helped create an original Australian sound that has inspired younger musicians to look back and take what they need to do their thing too. That maybe we’ve left something behind that’s worthwhile.
Davey Lane on Jim Keays
Can you tell me about your first encounter with the Masters Apprentices? Where did you first hear them and what song or album was it?
I guess I was too young to consciously remember the first time I heard the Masters, but I was raised on songs like ‘Because I Love You’ and ‘Turn Up Your Radio’. I guess they're ingrained in any Australian who has exposure to classic rock radio. It wasn't till I was about 15 or so that I made the effort to find out a bit more about them and dig a little deeper.
What Masters/Jim Keays records would you recommend to those who might be interested but who haven't heard them before?
The first record is obviously a bona fide scuzzy, brattish garage classic. The Aztec reissue is the one to get as it includes some of those incredible non-album singles (‘Elevator Driver’, ‘Living In A Child's Dream’). Choice Cuts is incredible for different reasons. Dunno if it's a byproduct of having recorded at Abbey Road but it's got a real Pretty Things sound to parts of it ... ‘Easy To Lie’ is one of the heaviest, most menacing songs I've ever heard. I keep hassling Jim to play it but he doesn't think enough people know it ... I won't let up until we get to play the bloody thing.
How did you get involved in playing with Jim on Dirty, Dirty? Had you met or played with him before?
I played with Jim in a recent permutation of the Masters lineup close to three years ago. It was later that night that Ted and I discussed the possibility of getting Jim to record what turned out to be Dirty, Dirty. He is a lovely bloke, quite the raconteur.
What are your favourite memories of making 'Dirty, Dirty' with Jim and the rest of the band?
My memories of actually making the record are pretty hazy. We worked at such a breakneck pace there wasn't really any opportunity to sit back and absorb the experience. Hearing the playback of the first song (I think it was ‘Save My Soul’ from memory) and collectively realising it was all gonna work was a moment of equal measures immense joy and relief!