What can be said about the Masters Apprentices that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? One would think not all that much. After conquering Australia, they tried to break into the UK market, albeit unsuccessfully (a familiar story for many an Oz outfit). And when in 1972 the band broke up, it seemed that was it for one of Australia’s most exciting and pioneering rock groups. Lead singer Jim Keays would go on to record one more LP just a couple of years later, the excellent The Boy from the Stars (yes, you’ve got to love the ‘70s when it comes to album titles), and continued to perform, albeit sporadically. The rest of the members however appeared to go underground entirely, choosing to keep a relatively low profile as far as the music business was concerned, with the notable exception of bassist Glenn Wheatley, who would go on to become something of a music entrepreneur, and a manager for both Little River Band and John Farnham.
However in 1987, the band decided to reform as part of a TV special (which I distinctly remember), soon after which embarking on a tour, before releasing an album the following year (sans Wheatley, who was obviously too busy managing the affairs of Farnham at that point), the appropriately titled Do What You Wanna Do, which is today a little known and largely forgotten gem, featuring re-recordings of a couple of their classics along with some new material thrown in. But what also makes this such an important document, apart from Jim Keays himself, is the inclusion of one of the band’s original and earliest members, Gavin Webb (bass), along with Colin Burgess (drums) and Doug Ford (guitar), who both joined the band in 1968. So even without Wheatley, this was about as authentic a reunion as one could ever hope for.
“Howlin’ at the Moon” is a Keays/Ford original, and gets thing off to a bluesy start, albeit in an annoying ‘80s kind of way. It’s a good song, with plenty of big, bluesy, meaty riffs, courtesy of Ford; however the production pretty much sanitized any sense of intimacy, and utterly wrecks whatever energy the group were striving for. They revisit their old hit “Turn Up Your Radio”, a tune which was a great party number back in the day and one which remains so even now. This updated version is perhaps a touch less crazy and inventive, but no less enjoyable.
On “Bedtime Girl” Keays makes it clear that he’s been listening to a little too much Robert Plant, not a bad thing in itself, except for the fact that we are talking about ‘80s Robert Plant and not ‘70’s Robert Plant, which is a bit like comparing On the Waterfront to The Breakfast Club. Keays reflects on his younger days on “Birth of the Beat”, and is vocally in top form, as is Ford, mind you I can’t help but feel that if it had have been recorded in a garage, or at least on four track, like in the old days, it would stand up better. Especially considering that grunge was only just around the corner.
The classic “Because I Love You” is given a late ‘80s makeover, yet in the best possible way. It’s definitely smoother, lacking the raw punch of the original, although the addition of Tabla is a nice touch I must say, and only adds to the song’s DNA.
Let me say that I bought this album many years ago, so my relationship with it is very different now to what it was then. And nowadays it is the second side which I regard as the most superior, having being recorded live, at The Palace, St. Kilda. It is here that the Masters are clearly in their element, blending Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters as well as Robert Johnson into one cohesive medley. Starting off with a powerful interpretation of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful”, they soon segue into a hostile version of “Tobacco Road”, followed by a jumpy “I’m A Man” (by you know who), where Keays plays some fantastic harmonica this side of Keith Relf and Mick Jagger. Their interpretation of “Crossroads” undoubtedly owes itself to Cream, with Ford firing on all four cylinders throughout.
They perform a spirited adaptation of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited”, before launching into an exemplary version of “Future of Our Nation”, a song which first saw release on 1971’s live Nickelodeon LP. And although some seventeen years had passed since that recording, the composition has lost none of its relevance. Ford really does prove himself to be a master of the guitar, while Keays gets to belt out his inner Banshee in the process, just like he did in the old days.
The Masters Apprentices were, as many bands were from that era, destined to be short-lived, no matter how brightly they burned. Success, like life itself, is always such a fleeting thing, one always wants it to last forever while knowing that it never does. At least in this case the Masters were afforded the opportunity to not only relive their glory days but also bask once again in the golden splendour of their youth, proving that just because you’re old(er), doesn’t necessarily mean that one is no longer relevant. In fact, the less one keeps up with the latest trends, the more relevant one remains.