Blame it on the Beatles, but by the 1970’s concept albums were here to stay, although the idea itself took a little longer to arrive in Australia. As lead singer of The Masters Apprentices, Jim Keays was one of the greatest pop/rock vocalists of all time, and a sort of Robert Plant and Van Morrison hybrid all rolled into one. The Masters might have received rave reviews in London, but by the early ‘70s the band was done, disillusioned with the record business while waiting for Gough Whitlam to come into government. However Keays felt he had a few more things to say after the demise of his former group, and went about recording his first solo album, the ridiculously titled The Boy from the Stars.
Released in 1974, there’s more to this record than meets the eye, or ear, than the shitty album cover, even if he does look like something off the front of Gay Viking Monthly magazine. Because inside its grooves is an experience unique in Oz rock, and popular music in general, which isn’t surprising really, considering all his knowledge and experience.
Things get off to a weird start I must admit, with all the amateurish sounding sci-fi effects during the first minute or so, but soon the title song settles into a pastoral eco-friendly groove, and a rather pleasant one at that. “Take It On Easy” is even more enjoyable, with its bluesy beat and classy guitar courtesy of Phil Manning. The politically themed “Nothing Much Left” is a combination of Bowie and Bo Diddley, with its repetitive, spacey rhythms, not to mention Keays’ amazing vocal work. Manning’s guitar solo at the end is extraordinary, so much so that I’d describe him as the Mick Ronson of Terra Australis. “Space Brothers” is one of those theatrical ambitious numbers that were so common in the ‘70s, but that’s alright, because it all works, even if Keays sounds as though he’d been reading a few too many books by Charles Berlitz.
“Alchemical Makeover” should have been titled “Pharmaceutical Makeover”, based on the subject matter solely. Even the keyboards sound like they’re on some sort of stimulant. The strangely titled “Urantia” is one of the best tracks so far. Whoever this ‘boy from the stars’ is, he’s obviously concerned with environmental issues. Perhaps a sort of Petite Prince of rock and roll. Speaking of which, “Kids’ Blues” sees the band turn up the amps and burn out the speakers. “The Right Way to Go” is Jesus Christ Superstar meets Spooky Tooth. Although fans of jazz-rock will revel in the exemplary “Reason To Be Living”, a brilliant piece, and a serious slab of sophisticated expression.
Raven have decided to preserve for us several bonus tracks, the first of which, “Inter-Planetary Boogie” is not without its moments, while “Give It Up (Cocainut)” is a white reggae track Eric Clapton had already explored a few years earlier. “For Someone” may be heartfelt though not the sort of song the listener is bound to remember nor listen to more than once or a twice. Likewise the last track, a live performance recorded at the 1975 Sunbury Music Festival of “Nothing Much Left/Urantia”. Plenty of primitive calculator sound effects going on, but a lot of great music. Even it is poorly recorded.
On the 25th anniversary edition, Raven Records have done a splendid job of presenting this likely forgotten masterwork from one of rock’s great vocalists. And if the listener can leave behind all of the science-fiction bullshit, then what you have left is a perfectly listenable record, played by perfectly competent musicians. That Keays wrote the majority of the lyrics and music in itself ought to be testament to his supreme talents. The man was like the Robert Plant of the antipodes, and the world should get to know him better.