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Jim Keays (The Masters Apprentices)
(September 9, 1946 – June 13, 2014)
A fortnight ago saw the passing of one of Australia’s most influential musicians. Jim Keays, who filled a position advertised by Adelaide surf band The Mustangs in 1965 and brought them out of obscurity as The Masters Apprentices later that year, was taken off of life-support in a Melbourne hospital, finally succumbing to the physical toll of the multiple myeloma he had been fighting for almost a decade.
In the past twelve months the world has lost many of the greats; including Lou Reed and Pete Seeger, both masters of very different genres – each equally important. With Keays’ passing closely following the death of another Australian icon, Doc Neeson of The Angels, it certainly feels like a significant chapter is closing.
The Masters Apprentices were icons of the Australian rock scene in the 1960s and early 1970s. Keays was born in the UK, like many of our rock legends, and migrated to Australia by boat, settling in Adelaide with his adoptive parents when he was five years old.
The Masters Apprentices were Australia’s first bad-boys of rock; long-haired, clad in leather and experimenting with LSD. Their lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock and roll was exposed nationally in the media, and with wildly successful songs like the loud and growling Turn Up Your Radio, they gave a unique gift to the Australian musical scene.
Unwashed punks with with dirty jeans and glassy eyes, and a hard-hitting grunge style a la Lou Reed, they threw out the old songbooks and made Australia truly uncomfortable, in the best possible way.
Keays, like his band mates, grew up listening to the masters of blues – an important experience resulting in the name; The Masters Apprentices. The band never forgot their roots, frequently injecting the heavy bass tones of blues into their songs, and the summery vibes of their previous incarnation as a surf band into others.
The music of The Masters Apprentices varied wildly; loud and in-your-face anthems, sensitive, romantic ballads and politically charged hits – the band grabbed Australia by the balls and refused to let go. Their affinity for the blues, unseen in other popular Australian music of the time, influenced many of the bands that came after them, such as Matt Taylor’s Chain, who brought Australian blues to the masses with hits like Black and Blue. They planted the seeds and all who followed them revelled in the shade.
Keays married his first wife in 1970, not far from where I live, while she was pregnant with their son, James. The Masters Apprentices disbanded two years later, after a failed attempt to break into the UK charts, and Keays eventually moved to Melbourne, where he settled with his second wife and their two daughters.
In their 1969 single Think About Tomorrow Today the Apprentices sing of peace through unity, revolution and beer. And in 1971’s Future of Our Nation, Keays speaks of a national despair and the incompetence of our politicians, before urging Australians to think about the path our nation is on. They may have been the wild outlaws of Australian music at the time, but they were politically conscious on the level of their Adeladian folk compatriots, Redgum.
They produced music which was so poignantly of its time, in an era of regional instability during the Vietnam War, but which is still equally relevant today. No matter which side of the political spectrum you sit, it is hard not to relate to the words Keays shouted into that microphone all those years ago, it is hard to not wonder just where Australia is heading, to not think about tomorrow today.
In the sunny hymn Brigette, Keays sings that the trees looked extra green and the sky looked extra blue, but on the morning of his passing, everything looked extra grey. It rained all day in Adelaide – it had been raining sporadically all week – but I dare to believe that on this particular day, the city knew that we had lost one of our best.
Keays’ final concert was at the fourth annual Masters of Rock in Melbourne last month – a benefit gig supporting Myeloma Australia, with fellow champions of Aussie rock; Blackfeather, Spectrum and Madder Lake – all veterans of the fabled Sunbury Pop Festival.
Maybe this year’s Masters of Rock was the swan song of an almost lost tradition of Australian music, but the optimist in me chooses to see it as heralding in a new generation of equally important musicians. One thing is for certain; Jim Keays left an indelible impression on the landscape of Australia.
All we can do now is say goodbye, remember the words of The Masters Apprentices, and turn up our radios.
Rock and roll music will never fade away…in memory of Jim Keays.