The Masters Apprentices – Nickelodeon

apprentices

Having finished recording Choice Cuts at Abbey Road studios in London, The Masters Apprentices headed back to Australia, but as the album was still a few months away from release, their record company, EMI, was eager to issue something in the interim, perhaps as the lucrative Christmas season was only a few weeks away (the music business obviously worked fast in those days). The result, Nickelodeon, was recorded live in Perth, December 1970, with a portable tape recorder, hardly the latest technology, but for Australian standards, it would do. This gives it a raw sound, but then the performance itself was no doubt pretty raw, so it likely wouldn’t have mattered what they used to record it, whether a modern 8 track deck or by some kid in the audience holding a reel to reel.

For some reason opener “Future of Our Nation” was never attempted in the studio (to my knowledge), so it’s likely that it was written during the group’s passage back to Oz (I’m guessing), where the band thought it must have been good enough to give it a test try in front of a live audience. And you know what, it works. Hailed by some as the first ‘hard-rock’ recording issued in Australia, whether this is true or not, some forty plus years later, probably doesn’t really matter. All that does matter however is the quality of the performance. Obviously the Masters were attempting to make some sort of political/social statement on this one, a common enough sentiment amongst the rock scene in England and America, but not yet as prevalent in the antipodes of the British Commonwealth. And by the way, what they’re stating here remains still relevant to this day.

The inclusion of “Evil Women” in the band’s repertoire at this time seems to suggest that they had been listening to Spooky Tooth, another rock outfit of shaggy musical misfits, who recorded an inspired version of this tune on their second album Spooky Two. The song starts off slow, before building up to the famous riff we all know and love. It’s a perfect vehicle for Jim Keays, whose voice is simply tailor made for the sort of singing necessary for this style of white bluesy histrionics. But you better make a cup of tea, or pour yourself a tall drink, because the band have decided to show off some of their newly learned improvisational skills, a whopping nineteen minutes of it! Because once Keays has finished with his bitter wailings, it’s pretty much guitarist Doug Ford’s affair from here on, at least until about the eleven minute mark, where we have a repeat of the main chorus (probably to give the singer something to do), and then we’re off again with Ford as our bus driver, taking us on a six string excursion into his imagination (sometimes via Hendrix), which despite its length, never gets boring.

Judging by the short applause from the crowd “Because I Love You” was already familiar to their fans. Ford’s playing is exemplary, as is the rest of the band, but it lacks some of the punch and finesse which makes the studio version so memorable.

“Light a Fire within Yourself” is pretty much your standard proto-hippie message song. Nothing remarkable, but nothing all that offensive either.

Things pick up with “When I’ve Got Your Soul”, a Ford driven number, which has blues licks aplenty, and a thumping Neanderthal rhythm section. The last track, on what would have been the original LP (my copy has four bonus tracks), is a Free inspired composition written by Ford, called “Fresh Air by the Ton”. The man obviously loved his blues, and here he lets loose like a demon possessed, and proves to be the real creative force behind much of the Master’s magic, and who was undoubtedly on an equal par with those other blues behemoths of Australian rock, Lobby Loyde and Billy Thorpe.

Unfortunately the extra tracks are nothing to transmit into outer space. “Tears of Sorrow” comes across as a clichéd attempt to cash in on the paisley crowd. “New Day” sounds like a Van Morrison out-take circa Moondance, replete with vibes, and Van-like intonations of coming home and connecting with nature. “Jam It Up” is an obvious rip off of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”. Ford apes Jimmy Page’s crunchy riffs, while Keays howls like Robert Plant at his lemon squeezing best. Rip off or not, they obviously had a blast recording it.

I have no idea where “Freedom Seekers” fits into the picture, but it’s included here for you to either enjoy or press the stop button. For me it’s the latter.

Ultimately Nickelodeon remains a rare and obscure snapshot of where the band were at in 1970, whose star was obviously on the ascent in the progressive rock sphere, at least in Australia, where their fan base was strongest. Yet for some reason the album remains unavailable in remastered form (I had to import my copy from Germany, and it’s a needle drop to boot! Master tapes please). Let’s hope it is given its due respect sometime in the future. That is, if whoever owns the original reel to reel (if it still exists) eventually decides to pull it out from under his bed.