The death of Jim Keays last week was another sad, “end-of-an-era” moment for fans of Australian popular music. With his band, the Masters Apprentices, Jim carved a swathe through the late ’60s and early ’70s music scene and helped build the foundations of Australia’s international music presence. He carried the stories, ethos and cultural heritage of a formative time in Australian popular music. He was living history.
Jim co-wrote two songs that are tightly woven into our cultural fabric — Turn Up Your Radio and It’s Because I Love You. I bet you can hum both of them. There’s a bit of Jim stitched into all of us.
Jim was on my bedroom wall in 1970. I was 10 and was hooked on this music thing. I had a couple of Master’s 45s in my kiddy collection. I loved the A sides and the B sides (what a strange, fascinating song A Dog, A Siren and Memories was). The Masters were different to the other pop fare on Happening 70. The Zoot were pink. The Valentines were kind of frilly. The Masters, on the other hand, wore leather. They had teaming waves of hair. Their superlative guitar player, Doug Ford, stared impassively and had a monster sound. Jim had swagger — a far more potent energy than the smiles and waves of the pop singers of the day. Jim hunched over the mic as he swung the stand around. He growled and screamed. He leered — less threatening than Bon Scott (who, at the time, was smiling and waving in the background of the Valentines, biding his time). Jim’s leer was cool, groovy pleasure; “isn’t this rock’n’roll thing great!”
In 1992 my old band, Boom Crash Opera, was sitting on an album rejected by our US record company; “we don’t hear a single.” I was being pushed into co-writes with hack Hollywood writers. In frustration I started demoing up a version of It’s Because I Love You. If we had to go down this road why not record a bona fide Antipodean classic? I thought it appropriate to seek out one of its authors and discovered that Jim lived nearby. Full of enthusiasm, he was all for it. The idea went nowhere but Jim returned the favour by hiring me for a reboot of the Masters some time later.
The Masters (without Apprentices in the title) featured Jim and Doug Ford plus three ring-ins. We played choice cuts from the Master’s catalogue plus a few other tunes from the era. The idea was to focus on the nascent corporate market. It didn’t work out. The band was too loud and noisy for corporate tastes. Meanwhile the hipsters and tastemakers hadn’t caught up with the band’s legacy. The time for an authentic critical reappraisal had not yet ripened.
I found the rehearsals fascinating. Jim declared that classic performances, fixed in my mind, were in fact off-the-cuff takes done, drunk, at 10pm in 1969. The recordings froze the performances but the performers had moved on. He had to “learn the songs” just like me. But Jim knew how to be Jim. At the first gig I saw the same moves, the same attitude I saw in 1970. Now that my “hits” are in the past I recognise the job Jim had to do; while you can still pull it off, pull it off!
Jim had no illusions. He was reflective and self-deprecating. He knew how important his past was to others. But he attempted to keep alive a contemporary artistic life. I must admit that, back in the ’90s, it was the past I was interested in. We had a gig in Barooga. This was a three hour drive. I had spent years touring in vans and was sick of long drives. I had a feeling that if I got Jim talking in the first five minutes then the drive would fly by. “So Jim, I suppose you’ve got a few stories…” He talked all the way to Barooga and all the way back the next day. We were treated to the whole gamut: starting out in Adelaide, recording the hits, waking up in his flat in St. Kilda to discover a herd of teenagers reverentially “watching him sleep”, the background of the song A Dog, A Siren and Memories, recording in London taking a piss next to John Lennon at Abbey Road. This was one of Jim’s great strengths. He knew we wanted to hear these stories and he was generous and funny in the telling. It’s sad that this living history is gone.
The Masters were one of the first Australian bands to attempt to climb out of the primordial slime of our naive, underdeveloped, cringing antipodean rock culture (The Bee Gees and the Easybeats preceded them). They realised that their music had to be heavy, both sonically and with intent. They knew they had to escape the suburban discos and dives of Melbourne and go to London. They knew they had to make serious recordings and rise to the standard of their contemporary pioneers in the UK scene. Very few Australian bands could compete with the Zeppelins, Sabbaths and Purples but the Masters almost pulled it off. Sadly they also realised that without the financial and institutional support of a decent record company/agency/management structure they were doomed. Jim was one of the first to recognise this.
It took a few more years until Australian bands cracked the code and escaped this island - bass player, Glenn Wheatley, used everything he learnt in the Masters with Little River Band. Jim, with the Masters, blazed a trail, acquiring and transferring vital industrial and creative knowledge that many followed. He created timeless music that lives inside all of us, like glowing radioactive ore. I only wish that he reaped the riches he so deserves. We should respect and celebrate what he achieved.