One of the most celebrated and fondly remembered rock groups of the Australian music scene in the 1960’s and early ‘70’s, The Masters Apprentices originally formed in Adelaide, before making the move to Melbourne in 1967 on the basis of their first single “Undecided” (written in 15 minutes apparently) getting decent airplay and reaching a respectable #13 on the local charts. Fronted by the charismatic Jim Keays, who could sound like Van Morrison one moment and Robert Plant the next, along with lead guitarist Mick Bower, who was also the group’s principle song writer, the band’s future seemed assured. Successfully blending pop-rock with a primal energy, the only other serious contenders at the time were The Easybeats, who in 1966 had an international hit with the single “Friday on My Mind”.
Fast forward to 1970, and on the footsteps of several proto-psychedelic hits (“Turn Up Your Radio” being the most well known (a sort of two fingers at the recording industry), and after a number of line-up changes (Bower had retired a few years earlier after suffering a nervous breakdown, not the last member to do so), the “Masters” relocated briefly to England to produce what would arguably be their finest album, Choice Cuts.
Somehow through their ever parsimonious label EMI they managed to book time at Abbey Road studios, whose facilities were light years ahead of anything in Australia, thus allowing them the opportunity to take risks and expand on their ideas.
“Rio de Camero” is the stylish and energetic opener, whose hard-rock Latino based shuffle will put any listener into instant party mood, while Keays’ double tracked vocals drop in an out between the superlative drive of Doug Ford’s guitar. The next song “Michael” starts off as a reflective acoustic ballad before soon evolving into an all out riff-fest of the sort I’m sure Black Sabbath wished they’d thought of. “Easy to Lie” is the most hard edged song here, anchored by a demonic wah-wah riff, and menacing rhythm section, as Keays wails like Beelzebub on acid. In other words, a classic. And speaking of classics, “Because I Love You” is the centre piece of the album, and one of the greatest post summer of love anthems ever written. A song so good that it makes you want to give up your boring day job and drop out with all the other drop outs, that is if you only had the money. “Catty” is another forceful hard-rock number, in the vein of early Free, while “Our Friend Owsley Stanley III” sees the band continue in Black Sabbath territory, with just a pinch of Jethro Tull (one thinks their time in London was well spent). Things continue with the Martin Luther King inspired “Death of a King”, showing that the group were not out of touch when it came to race and politics. “Song for a Lost Gypsy” is a heavy by numbers album track, which doesn’t stick in my mind, likewise “I’m Your Satisfier”. The final track “Song For Joey Part II” ends the record on a plaintive and pastoral note, as if asking the listener to sit back and reflect on all that’s been, thus ending the whole proceeding on a whimper, not a bang. But who’s complaining, because there are more than enough great riffs and ideas on this record to inspire an entire generation of heavy rock wannabes.
Although warmly received by the critics, Choice Cuts sold poorly, at least when compared to other prog acts of the day, and subsequently sank into obscurity. Yet the good news is that the “Masters” would record one more minor masterpiece, with the fantastic follow-up A Toast To Panama Red. But more of that later.