In Australia the Masters Apprentices were giants who couldn’t put a foot wrong. But like the majority of Oz bands, international success remained an elusive prospect. Their previous album Choice Cuts had sold several thousand copies in the U.K., and was given positive praise by the ever growing number of pernickety rock critics and DJs ever burgeoning by the minute. However competition was extremely tough, far tougher than in Australia, because let’s not forget that London in the early ‘70’s was already overflowing with its own avalanche of talent: bands like Free, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and (need we be reminded) Led Zeppelin, practically owned the town, not to mention every other heavy metal outfit made up of long haired hippies, all vying for their own little piece of rock and roll Valhalla. Just by being great at what you do doesn’t always guarantee a key to the lodge. And so it was that the Masters returned to their homeland, disappointed naturally, but wiser nonetheless for their experiences abroad.
Undaunted, the band began touring, in order to replenish the coffers, releasing a limited edition LP subsequently, called Nickelodean, and is considered by many to be the first live hard rock release by an Australian band. But the members, along with the record company itself, felt that they had made a decent enough dent, however slight, on the English music scene, to warrant another attempt, which is exactly what they did. But instead of taking the most expedient mode of transport, i.e. by plane, they went by ship, a journey that would take some several weeks to reach its intended destination. Though the time was not spent idly, as it allowed them to write and compose material for what would ultimately be their final album (not that they knew this at the time).
The subsequent title, A Toast to Panama Red, is a dedication not to mention pseudonym for a particular type of substance well known amongst those who are familiar with its effects. Enough said.
So what do we have? First on this delicious progressive rock menu is “Answer Lies Beyond”, where Doug Ford serves up some infectious blues guitar, before the rest of the group jump in behind him. Jim Keays wails like a ghost in the distance, and it doesn’t take long for Ford to start wailing with him.
“Beneath the Sun” makes it clear that Panama Red would be a much more reflective outing than the band’s predecessor. Whether this was due to the realisation that sitting around smoking dope while singing “Do what you wanna do, be what you wanna be” wasn’t going to seriously change the world, or maybe something else (the cruise to England maybe?), I cannot say.
“Games We Play Part One” begins with some major playing by Ford, before segueing into a plaintive medieval section (popular and obligatory for any prog band at the time), allowing Keays to explain to us, in his best sixteenth century troubadour imitation, the title of the song, but the pretty interlude doesn’t last long, because before you know it the rest of the boys come running in like a bunch of blood thirsty Vikings on the rampage, especially Ford, who is ready to murder anyone with his mean wah wah and plundering riffs. And now that we’ve slaughtered all those country & western heathens, burnt all their instruments, and the looting is done, we’re off to the Norse Hall to feast and celebrate in “Games We Play Part Two”. But seriously, this is a great track which any fan of Sabbath would appreciate (no wonder the Masters achieved something of a cult following in Germany).
“The Lesson We Listen” is fairly generic song-wise (not to mention encouraging bad grammar), but remains a fantastic showcase for Ford’s skills as a guitarist. Likewise “Love Is” which immediately follows it, until changing into an all chorus driven extended outré, with a nice little brass arrangement to compliment it. Although it isn’t long before we’re hit by some stormy riffing and heavy pounding with “Melodies of St. Kilda”, another Ford dominated number, as is “Southern Cross”, which finds the boys paying homage to their humble Australian origins, and where once again Ford’s playing is a clear standout, proving that he was one of the finest exemplars of the instrument back in the day.
The album ends with the acoustic “Thyme to Rhyme”, a brief and philosophical exeunt, by what was one of Australia’s most gifted and talented bands from the mid 1960’s through to the early ‘70’s. It’s a shame they never broke through the international sound barrier of success, but then again, if they had, the whole band probably would have become heroin addicts and spent the rest of the decade in and out of rehab. So, perhaps it was all for the best.
While A Toast to Panama Red might be just a notch or two below Choice Cuts in terms of overall song writing, it remains nevertheless an essential purchase for anyone interested in progressive/hard-rock in general.
By the way, for those who are curious, the album’s cover is actually an original painting by Jim Keays. A sort of deformed mastiff meets Colonel Blimp hybrid, and is certainly far superior to anything Bob Dylan did with his own brush (Music from Big Pink anyone?).