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JIM KEAYS: Turns up the dirt

March 2012. by Greg Phillips

JimKeays19HighResColourIt’s disappointing that I have to even explain who Jim Keays is. The Brits and the Americans seem to embrace their rock n roll history, whereas here in Australia our music pioneers are relegated to obscurity. OK, listen up. Jim fronted The Masters Apprentices, a legendary Australian band who had a string of hits in the sixties including Turn Up Your Radio, Because I Love You and Living In A Child’s Dream. The earlier incarnation of the group played a brand of music labelled garage rock and at the age of 65 and with the assistance of You Am I’s Davey Lane, Keays has returned to those garage roots with a new album called ‘Dirty, Dirty’. Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips wants to know why!

The new album wasn’t Jim’s idea. He knows enough about the psychology of the local music industry to realise that they don’t sign artists who have already had their day in the sun. It was album producer Ted Lethborg, who planted the album seed by presenting Jim with a mixed tape of garage, freak beat obscurities which he thought would suit the singer’s style. Add the encouragement of guitarist Davey Lane to the mix and it was enough to convince Keays to at least lay down a few tracks with no real agenda in mind other than having a little studio fun. Luckily, Lethborg then had the forethought to play the demo tapes to Shock records blind. He didn’t reveal to the record company who they were listening to until they began to get excited about what they were hearing. Kudos to Shock for following through and releasing the album in February.

Once the album was green-lighted, JIm was more concerned about a spirit rather than any particular sound. “It was more … let’s record in the time-honoured way of getting in the studio and thrashing it out and whatever it is, it is,” said Keays. “That’s how I remember recording in 1965. We initially wanted it to be garage punk but it evolved into more than that and we just let it go its own way.”

Despite being diagnosed in 2007 with a life-threatening cancer and still undergoing treatment for it, Keays looks remarkably well and his recorded voice is not only strong but versatile. Dirty, Dirty also reeks of a a good time. Davey Lane revelled in the opportunity to bust out a collection of abstruse guitars, amps and pedals in pursuit of the the swaggering, rambunctious brew they arrived at (see sidebox for gear rundown). With Lane’s former Pictures bandmate Brett Wolfenden behind the drum kit, the project is driven with energy and authority and also impressive is Keays’ dynamic harp playing.

“You may not believe me but I was taught to play harmonica by Brian Jones from The Rolling Stones,” offers Keays. “I sneaked into the band’s dressing room in the ’65 or ’66 tour. I’d just joined the Masters and we were doing blues covers. I couldn’t bend a note on the harmonica which you have to do with the blues. I went to The Stones concert and in those days, there was no security and I just walked straight into the band room. I started talking to Brian Jones. I told him I played harmonica but couldn’t bend the notes, and he said, I’ll show you. So he showed me … saying you’ve got to do this with your tongue etc and I practiced a few times and he said, you’ve got it!  After that, I never looked back. I loved playing harp. So I had a chance to play a bit on this album.”

The Dirty, Dirty project was never about making any sort of comeback statement. For Jim, it was all about adding to his body of work.  “The body of work is more important than what it achieves. It was a fun project to do and if it does achieve something then it’s a bonus,” said Keays. Apart from having fun, the only other criteria Keays placed on the album was that the end product needed to be both relevant and honourable, characteristics he has carried with him since the Masters’ days. “I learned back then not to sell out and to try to do things that pushed the boundaries rather than play safe.  Certainly in the Masters we always tried to have a musical integrity that was hopefully above what the others around us were doing.”

GEAR BOX: Guitarist Davey Lane runs through the gear he used on Jim’s album
Guitars: I used a Rickenbacker 325 (the Lennon one), it’s a short scale, which means intonation is a little shaky in places … perfect for nasty sounding barre-chord garage stuff. I used my Custom Shop Nocaster Relic in places, but mostly helped myself to Craig Harnath’s vast collection of guitars at Hothouse Studios, including a couple of great sounding rarities like a Fender Starcaster and a Gibson Moderne, though I kept going back to their 1967 Gibson 330, fitted with a Bigsby and P100 pickups. Like a kid in a proverbial candy store, I was.

Amplifiers: Most notably, a Greg Fryer-modded AC30 – Greg kindly lent me this for recording, he developed a modification for Brian May, that amp just sung when wound right up. I also used Hothouse’s 1970 Sound City 120R which is basically an early Hiwatt, into a old Hiwatt quad – perfect for the record’s more Townshendian moments!

Pedals:  Fryer Treble Booster Special, hand made by Greg Fryer, an incredibly versatile boost pedal, leaves my old scratchy Tube Screamer for dead. In lieu of an Echoplex or old Binson Echorec I used an Ibanez AD-150 Analog Delay for slapback, space or manipulated to create that “Piper”-style spookiness I mentioned above. A Covington MayZPhase, basically a replica of the circuitry of a ’70’s Foxx Phaser without the foot treadle. Add a Zvex Fuzz Factory and that pretty much covers it.

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