Where would the Australian rock music scene have been in the 1960’s without the steady migration of English migrants to its shores? The Bee Gees are probably the most famous, although they weren’t really rock and roll singers, just a trio of nice chaps with amazing voices. But in terms of rock and roll, most of the major pop/rock groups seemed to consist of musicians who had found their way to the antipodes from the British Isles. And thank God they did. Because the Oz music industry in those days might have been a whole lot more boring and less dynamic if they hadn’t.
Now I would love nothing better than to declare that the Masters Apprentices’ debut album is one of those exemplary masterpieces people today have to hear to believe, like The Zombies’ Odessey and Oracle, or The Doors’ debut, but alas that is not the case – or at least not entirely speaking. Because in order to appreciate this record one must travel back in time, to a period when owning a Beatles LP could probably get you laid, and trends came and went as quickly as the seasons. For any budding young musician it was a period when musical equipment was difficult to come by, and obtaining a record contract was about as likely as being abducted by aliens. So it’s little wonder that in 1967, the year that the Masters first vinyl entrance presented itself, these obviously talented suburban rockers should still be covering the likes of Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, when even The Rolling Stones had already moved on to far more original, progressive material, in the form of “Satisfaction” and “Paint it Black”. However Australian teenagers were ever hungry for the blues, a form of music completely foreign to what their parents considered to be proper listening. And just as today most parents probably scratch their heads as to why their young daughter is mad about Justin Bieber, so too did parents in the ‘60s seem perplexed as far as their own children’s fixations went when it came to the likes of Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger.
Like many albums in those days, the band’s debut was largely assembled from various tracks recorded as far back as 1966, with a few additional tracks completed in order to round things off. And that’s perhaps where the problems lie, that the record was stitched together before the band had any opportunity of writing better material, which they did, but only after the LP was released.
First up is “But One Day”, an almost raga like number dominated by Mick Bower’s chiming, meditative guitar, and Jim Keays semi-Middle Eastern vocals. There is a nice touch of psychedelia at the end with the backwards tape effect, something of a novelty for a local group at that time. “Wars or Hands of Time” is another Bower penned tune, and is one of the first, if not the first anti-war song recorded in Australia. Perhaps not surprising since the country was involved in the Vietnam conflict, and young men were being conscripted by the government to fight. The song itself is built around a strong chord progression, interesting time signatures (at least for pop-rock), as well as an energetic rhythm section. It may sound somewhat dated today, and lack the punch of a song like Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs”, but for 1967, this was pretty inventive stuff.
The Masters do a respectable cover of Bo Diddley’s “Dancing Girl”, followed by Lennon and McCartney’s “I Feel Fine”, which is a brave choice I must say, though unfortunately the version here pales in comparison to the original. Maybe if they had of ‘garaged it up’ a little, and been a bit more imaginative with the arrangement then they really might have been on to something. Their version of Smokey Robinson’s “My Girl” just doesn’t work at all. One could forgive them if they had of actually written it, except that the Masters were a garage rock band, which at the end of the day can only mean one thing; loud roaring riffs, and high-pitched Viking vocals. Speaking of which, “Undecided” practically blows just about everything else on the album right off the turntable (and in only 2:20!). Keays growls and grunts like a gorilla on heat, while the rest of the band pump and grind their instruments in similar primordial fashion. The dirty fuzz-tone you hear from Bower’s guitar was apparently due to a faulty amp valve. But fortunately the band liked the sound so much they chose not to re-record it.
The riff to “Hot Gully Wind” for whatever reason reminds me of a theme song to some super hero show from the 1960s. Obviously the band had been listening to a lot of Yardbirds when they wrote this one. “Theme for a Social Climber” and “Don’t Fight It” are both decent tunes but not enough to get Ahmet Ertegun out of bed in the middle of the night. Likewise “She’s My Girl”, which might have got teenage girls day-dreaming about the boy next door, but I can’t imagine too many feeling the same way if they heard it today. The band cruise through a rather perfunctory version of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”, revealing not just their love of classic rock and roll, but their own limitations in the process. The last track “Buried and Dead” is nothing short of a rockadelic tour de force, and is a sort of 1967 equivalent to anything recorded for Never Mind the Bollocks. Indeed a lovely little nugget to be sure.
However that’s not all. The Aztec Music label has chosen to include all the singles (and their respective b-sides) released after the album was recorded. And so we have the paisley-coloured “Living in a Child’s Dream”; the quasi-psychedelic “Elevator Driver”, along with a few other tracks I shan’t bother to analyse, mainly because they stink.
There can be no doubt that The Masters Apprentices were a great band, whose visceral, almost punkish attitude and approach was certainly unique as far as most Australian groups were concerned. That Radio Birdman were fans says something in itself, because let’s face it, punk rockers could be some of the snobbiest of all when it came to music.
There is a bonus disc of rarities included, the quality of which alone should be enough to increase the heart rate of any ardent fan. Consisting of demos and rehearsals, it offers the listener a raw and open window into how the group would have sounded live. However in terms of the album itself, perhaps it’s proper that the late Jim Keays should have the final word: “I certainly think the sound had a big thing to do with it. It’s a very raw sound. It’s also the personalities within the band, the combination, the chemistry as they all say, of the members of the band. And also the song writing in large part was down to Mick Bower who was an inspired writer. It’s a product of the sum of its parts.”