Jim Keays: master craftsman

I interviewed Australian rock legend Jim Keays for the ’60s retro issue of Roadrunner (September 1978). Although in a fallow period between his space-opera concept album The Boy from the Stars and 1983’s Red on the Meter, at the time Keays was a dynamic performer and as always, had some interesting observations on the then Australian music scene. He continued to entertain audiences, most notably with fellow ’60s icons Russell Morris and Darryl Cotton, until his death in 2014.

The crowd in the Countdown Disco at the Old Mariner Hotel in Hindley St was sparse. A few dancers went through their mechanical routines as Boney M., Donna Summers and Bob Marley blasted out of the speaker stacks. A lot more were propping up the bar and eyeing the dancers. It didn’t seem like many people had come to see the band.

The band? Yeah, the Jim Keays Band. Remember the Masters Apprentices? At one time they were the hottest rocking band in the country. But like most bands of the period, the late sixties, they went to England, made a couple of albums, did a few gigs and then parted company. Jim returned to Australia, made a few records —none of which had the same spectacular impact as the Masters—and then went to California to suss out the scene over there. Apart from an unfruitful effort with Phil Manning, this is his first band since returning from the States.

The band shuffled on stage looking slightly under the weather (it transpires that they were all suffering to various degrees from Russian ‘flu). But the sound showed no sign of the band’s ailments. Straight ahead versions of Springsteen’s Adam Raised A Cain, Tom Petty’s Fooled Again, Led Zep’s Rock‘n’Roll, plus chestnuts from Purple, Tommy Bolin and the Masters’ Turn Up Your Radio, kept the crowd on the dance floor (no mean achievement) and even had the drinkers pricking up their ears. For a band that has only been together 10 weeks their competence and dynamism was impressive.

I talked to Jim Keays the next day at Adelaide’s palatial (sic) Findon Hotel. I asked him about the ill-fated project with Phil Manning.

‘Well, I came back to Australia from California realising that to get anything happening over there, I would have to have much more sophisticated demo tapes than the ones I went over with. A finished album here would be classified as a good demo over there. So, the record company people told me come back here, get the demos, and we’ll talk a deal.

‘There’s a song we do that I wrote called Last Days that more or less typifies the direction of the band. It’s very Springsteen, good solid rock’n’roll but without that flashy, high camp thing. It’s a little more on the New Wave side.’

‘So I came back and started working on an album, writing songs. At around the same time, Phil Manning moved into the house where I was living and he was also working on a solo album. I told him what was going on in America and what I was going to do, get a record deal just for Australia. Now to get a record deal, you have to have management. We found this guy called Barry Coburn who’d done a few things; he’d brought over the Eagles and managed Split Enz before they came over here. He said “I’d like to manage you, but there’s two lots of talent here, why don’t you team up and do the one album, and I’m sure I could get a record deal anywhere in the world for you.”

‘We thought about that and decided O.K., so we took the best of Phil’s material and the best of mine, and Barry went ahead and got the deal that we wanted, and things got bigger and bigger; the record company said we’ll bring in an overseas producer so you get the right sound, and we said O.K. Well that was the mistake. The producer just wasn’t the right guy. It didn’t work.

‘Phil decided to go on and make the album, seeing as how there had been so much money put into it, and I decided I go off and do my own album which is what I’d intended in the first place. So although it doesn’t look as if I’ve been doing anything for the past 18 months, I have. I just haven’t got anything to show for it.’

So at the moment you’re working in this new band with the same goal in mind that you had when you returned from the States?

‘Yeah, exactly. Work the band around Australia, work it in. But I realise you can only do Australia for a certain period, then you have to project overseas.’

‘You can’t stand still. I’ve seen so many people reach a certain point then just stop. I don’t like to look back, I like to look forward.’

The set that you do at the moment only includes des a few original numbers. What’s the reasoning behind that?

“Mainly because it’s stupid, I think, to write all this material first then get a band together and go out and play it. You don’t know whether the guys in the band are going to be compatible with the material. So I picked out a bunch of material with a general theme and direction, and already we’ve started writing songs as a band and which we’ll start to phase in as we fade the non-originals out. That way the band evolves a direction and an identity rather than it being imposed.’

The general direction that you have picked seems to be very rocky. You’ve chosen songs by all the BIG rockers of the seventies, Springsteen, Zeppelin, Tom Petty…

‘There’s a song we do that I wrote called Last Days that more or less typifies the direction of the band. It’s very Springsteen, good solid rock’n’roll but without that flashy, high camp thing. It’s a little more on the New Wave side.’

You’ve been in the business a long time now. A lot of people, established people, have completely ignored the new wave, but you seem to have drawn inspiration from it.

‘I think it’s a very valid thing; I see music as having changed quite rapidly over the last year. It doesn’t yet know into what. I mean punk rock is too radical. New Wave is an ambiguous term; you can’t really say what is New Wave and what isn’t. But in the light of that, I do see a fairly radical change in music. And being aware of it is important. You can’t stand still. I’ve seen so many people reach a certain point then just stop. I don’t like to look back, I like to look forward.’

Masters Apprentices in Adelaide 1966

Masters Apprentices in Adelaide 1966

The Masters Apprentices in Adelaide, 1966.

A lot of New Wave bands are harking back to the style of music that the Masters used to play….

‘That’s why I can understand it. I remember at the Beat Basement in 1964 and 65, playing that exact music, with the same lack of expertise, but with a vibe, a real feeling. But there are different ways of doing it. I don’t think you have to resort back to a three chord format.’

I think the reason punk happened when it did, and was so raw and raucous, was that there was so much shit around, and punk was a laxative or an emetic to clear everything away…

‘They were rebelling; they were rebelling against the laser light show and the 10,000 watt quadrophonic PA… and it’s also a social thing. When Johnny Rotten screams “No Future” it’s because for a lot of people in England, there is no future. I mean here and in the States, there is a future and I think that’s why punk never caught on here or in the U.S. What punk has done is given people a new look at music, and everyone playing rock music, from the Stones on down, is modifying their music accordingly. And bands like Pink Floyd and E.L.O. won’t evolve in the present climate. They’ll still sell a lot of records because a lot of people have grown up with that type of music, but you won’t get any new bands like that.’

When Johnny Rotten screams “No Future” it’s because for a lot of people in England, there is no future. I mean here and in the States, there is a future and I think that’s why punk never caught on here or in the U.S.

What is your impression of the Australian music scene at the moment? There seem to be a lot of outlets opening up overseas especially America, for this country’s music…

‘Yeah, but I’ve heard that story so many times over the past 14 years…. I don’t know. Possibly. But there’s an awful lot going on there. They don’t have to look here. But they are. It is a fairly major market. The number one single here sells more, on average, than the number one in the U.K. You’ve got the U.S. then Japan, then Europe, then Australia. But I don’t think there is going to be an Australian Invasion.’

Maybe they see Australia more of a market than as a breeding ground for talent?

‘Yeah, I think so. It’s a big investment for them to bring over an Australian band. So they have to be pretty sure.’

Do you think that Australian bands have to tailor their sound to make it overseas? For instance the Little River Band seems to have changed their sound to a laid back Boz Scaggs type of sound…

“Yeah, Reminiscing is out and out AM radio compromise. But I’ve talked to Glenn Wheatley (LRB’s manager), I know how he thinks… Whaddya do? Do you go out on a limb for music and maybe blow it or do you play safe, when you know you can make a lot of money. When you’re faced with that prospect of making a real lot of money because the record company has done their market research and they know it’s going to get airplay and sell, whaddya do? Do you turn round and say, “No”?‘

I guess with the LRB, they’ve all been around a long time and paid their dues and now they want to make some money for a change…

‘Yeah. There it is staring them in the face. They’ve been assured it’s the best thing to do, so they do it and do it well and good luck to them. Whether I could do the same thing, I don’t know… maybe I could.’

And when it’s all over they’ll come back and start producing records…

‘But that’s great. Glen Shorrock will come back and buy a house and put a little recording studio in it and do all the things he really wants to do. That’s not a purist’s attitude, but in this day and age…’

Masters in Melbourne  1967

Masters in Melbourne 1967

The Masters Apprentices, Melbourne 1967. Jim Keays seated on the chair.

Why do you think that none of the Australian bands who went over to England in the late sixties ever cracked it there?

‘The Easybeats, the Twilights and the Masters were the three big bands who tried to crack England and they were all E.M.I. bands. The problem was that E.M.I. Australia didn’t know what it took to break a band over there. E.M.I. over there, couldn’t help us. All of those bands could have taken off there.’

That situation seems to still be with us, if you look at the trouble Split Enz have had with being signed to Mushroom here and Chrysalis in the U.K. They haven’t got a contract with either now and they are a great band.

‘Yeah. The only trouble with Split Enz is that there are certain bands who will never take off in the States and the Enz are one. Glenn Wheatley once told me, and I believe he is right, that people in the States are into music with three main ingredients; rhythm, harmony and melody. Split Enz, while being a brilliant band hasn’t got any of those going for them.’

It sounds like it’s very hard for any original sounding band to take off in America if they have to have those ingredients….

‘That’s the trouble with America. It’s market research/AM radio dominated.’

Are you confident about the band you’ve got now?

‘Yeah, I am. There is a definite English sound and there is a definite American sound. And gradually there is becoming an Australian sound. It’s on the verge of getting there. That’s where I see the band. Taking the best elements of the English sound and the best of the American sound and blending them to create an Australian sound.’

Who else do you think is doing it?

‘I don’t think anyone is actually doing it although there are bands who are almost doing it. I think Skyhooks are. Sherbet definitely aren’t. Dragon, maybe.             They’ve got U.K. and U.S. elements. Jo Jo Zep and Sports are a little bit too derivative, but they’re good. They’re trying. AC/DC are very English sounding.

‘The work availability in Australia is basically pubs. You’ve got maybe a few Uni shows and a few concerts, but it’s basically pubs. In the pubs, especially in what I call supermarket pubs—pubs that are big rooms or discos as the case may be, if not one then the other—they don’t want to know about sophisticated music. If you don’t play rock’n’roll, then you starve. So this country is a fair compromise even before you start. If Pink Floyd had started in Australia, they probably wouldn’t have got to Ummagumma—in fact, they probably wouldn’t have got the contract in the first place. Progressive bands just don’t get the chance to evolve here. Even Split Enz evolved somewhere else.

‘To make it you have to play the right type of venues, the venues where the record company spotters hang out. And to get into those venues you have to play that certain type of music.

‘Australia is a pretty basic sort of place. It’s almost Wild West-ish. Australian music reflects that. All the big Australian bands have played roughneck music. Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs, Daddy Cool, AC/DC. Nothing’s changed really.’

1 Discussion on “Jim Keays: master craftsman”
  • Jim Keays did a version of Adam Raised A Cain? That would have been something special. I was too young for the Masters Apprentices’ heyday but really liked The Boy From The Stars. Can even remember, with some embarrassment now, that I once wrote Keays a fan letter. Looking forward to further excerpts from Roadrunner.

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