The last time I had spoken to Jim, a couple of years ago, he talked about his plans to record an album of ‘garage rock’. At the time, I have to say, I found it a bit hard to get my head around that idea.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Seemed like a strange idea for me too but now, in retrospect, it seems like a good idea because it’s basically what I did in the early days with the Masters (Apprentices). It’s what I feel comfortable doing and it’s fun for me to do. I’m not your classic singer/songwriter type guy. I’m more a‘garage/grungy’ band guy and I always have been.”
The project actually started off as a bit of fun. “It wasn’t even going to be an album.” Jim revealed. “We just thought ‘let’s rehearse some songs and see what they sound like, just for fun’, and then we thought they sounded pretty good so let’s record them and so we recorded a few and then we thought we might be able to get a record deal which I thought was totally out of the question because nobody in my age group gets a record deal and, lo and behold, we did get one. Shock Records loved it and decided to go with it so it went from just a fun project to a fully- fledged album.”
The album is a somewhat eclectic mix of genres. As Jim points out, “It started off as a sort of punk album and we realised after a while that it was no use trying to force some songs into being like that. We just had to let them be what they were and some of them turned out to be not ‘garagey’ and some of them turned out to be, well, ‘retro’ sounding but they’re not grunge/garage sort of punk stuff and so we just let the album be what it turned out to be which is basically just a raw, honest rock and roll album.”
The songs were sourced by Ted Lethborg, who also produced the album. “When we first started, he said he wanted to do this project and at first I thought it was a bit of a crazy idea but I warmed to it after a while. I said ‘I haven’t done this stuff for over 40 years! I don’t really write songs like that’ and he said ’I’ll find the songs.’ All my career, I‘ve never done other people’s songs, I’ve always done songs that I’ve written myself or guys in the band have written but, after a while, he handed me this CD with about 25 songs on it that he’d dug up, all sorts of weird, obscure things and I listened to it and I thought ‘Hey! This is all right. I could do some of these. These are good.’ And that’s how the project started and it just grew from there.”
Most of the tracks are quite obscure, and not easily recognisable. That’s a big part of why this album works so well. “A lot of artists who do cover songs, they usually do songs that are known or songs that they like themselves. A lot of those albums don’t work out because people say the original’s better or you hear a famous song and someone’s covered it and it’s never as good as the original or very rarely anyway and because these are so obscure, no one knows what the original sounded like anyway so it almost sounds like they are my songs in a way. They do sound like original songs except for a couple. ‘Do Ya’ was popularised by ELO but originally it was a song by The Move and I loved The Move. Masters used to do a couple of Move songs in our set. So I chose that one but then I realised that ELO had done it too and most people hear that one and think ‘hang on, he’s done ELO and that’s out of context.’ ELO were in the late 70s so it’s not really 60s music but it is really because The Move’s version was done in about 1967 or something. And there are a few others. ’Mystic Eyes’ was done by Them and, well, it’s a bit obscure but it’s more well-known than the others and also ‘Midnight Bus’ was a big hit in the early 60s, for Betty McQuade who actually died in Brisbane recently. Most of the others, nobody would know them.”
After listening to the album a few times, I decided that ‘Midnight Bus’ was one of my favourite tracks. Apparently it almost didn’t make it on to the album at all. “That was actually the black sheep of the album. That was one that I thought, after we recorded it, ‘Yeah… I don’t know about that one.’ It doesn’t sort of fit in with the rest of the material. It’s a different genre altogether. It’s not garage, it’s almost country and western and I thought maybe it doesn’t suit. I was on the verge of dropping it from the album but quite a few people were saying ‘No! No! Leave it in, it’s good! It gives a bit of variety to the rest of the album,’ and I thought ‘OK, I’ll leave it.’ And it has become one of the most popular ones actually. And the other thing about it is that it’s ’female friendly’. A lot of the other songs are probably more suited to a male listener but I think ’Do Ya’ and ’Midnight Bus’ appeal more to the females and it’s good to have a bit of that in there because I didn’t want to alienate all the girls in the world, you know,” he laughs. “I didn’t want the album too be too ‘blokey’!”
So now that Jim has signed a deal with Shock Records, it looks like there will be more CDs in the future. And plans are already underway to find the right material. “Ted has just started to compile some songs for the next one,” he reveals. “There’s probably about four or five songs already that I’m thinking ’yeah that would be great. I’d like to do that.’ And also I might try to inject a couple of originals in there. There are no originals that I’ve written in the first album and I think it might be time to put some songs in the next album that are actually written by me.”
Although he hasn’t been writing lately, Jim tells me that there are a couple of songs that he had written a while back that might lend themselves to this sort of sound. “Once we start to get serious about the next album, I’ll start to get serious about writing a couple of songs. When you’re my age, it’s hard to write naïve, grungy sort of lyrics. Garage music or 60s music like that was very teen orientated. That opening track ‘125’, for instance, has lyrics like: ‘She was standing on the corner in a short skirt’. I don’t really write that sort of stuff anymore you know!” he laughs, “So it’s pretty hard to go back to writing those teen lyrics that are sort of a bit banal and a bit naïve. Hard to devolve if you know what I mean. You evolve and you like to think you get better at writing lyrics and more sophisticated and clever at being a wordsmith as you get older.” He uses carpentry as an analogy. “It’s like, if you were a carpenter, you start off knocking over a simple thing and by the time you’re older, you become a cabinet maker who makes beautiful furniture. And that’s the way life is but to actually go back to just a lump of wood and a hammer and nails and making a box, is hard. You’ve got to get yourself into that frame of mind to do something like that. The next album will be in the same vein. I’m not going to evolve, just stick with fun, honest, good rock. And something that’s not too overproduced. I don’t like when it’s produced beyond an inch of its life, when everything is too perfect. I just don’t like that. I like good, honest music, warts and all basically. If there’s a few glitches, a few rough notes here and there, I don’t care because that’s honest and that’s what I want. I think there’s a bit of a swing back to that now, good honest rock that’s not too overproduced.”
Jim says that he has been quite surprised by the reaction to this album from both the public and the media. “I’m very proud of the album and proud of the boys who played on it,” he tells me. “That was a big part of it too. I wanted young players. I thought that brought the naivety to it that I wanted. I’ve got all these friends who are seasoned musicians and all really good but I didn’t want ’good’, I wanted ‘bad’!”
“Funnily enough, I bumped into (Midnight Oil drummer) Rob Hirst in Queensland, great drummer. And I told him I was doing this album and he said ’Oh great! Can I play on it?’ and I said ‘NO!’, and he said ‘What?! What do you mean?’ and I said ’Because you’re too good! I don’t want good, I want bad!’ ‘Óh ,I can play bad really good!’ he said.” Jim laughs. “I told him that I was just getting some young guys to play on it. They bring to it an enthusiasm that older guys haven’t quite got because they’ve been around too long to have that. The guys I used, they were right into the project, they were enthusiastic. They had that youthful exuberance about them that I remember having back in the old days. That was important to me that they could bring that sort of vibe to it. And it shines through. Davey Lane, the guitarist, just loves that sort of stuff and you could tell in the studio he was just having a ball doing it and that’s what I wanted. I didn’t want somebody who was a virtuoso who would just play every note perfectly and who would sit there for hours working out the solo and all that sort of thing. I just wanted ‘rough and ready’. Good as well, of course, but good in that sort of…” He tries to find the right words… “Bad way?” I finish for him. “Yes,” he laughs, “Good in a bad way!”
Well, they must have been good… bad way or not. Jim is adamant he will use the same musicians on his next album. “Definitely,” he assures me, ‘’because I know that they’ve got the right attitude towards it. They’ve had that right from the start. I was talking to Wolfie, the drummer. He’s going away to Europe, touring with his band and I called him to wish him well and he said to me ‘If you’re doing another album, I’d love to be a part of it. I was honoured to be a part of this.’ Well, I loved playing on it so people with that sort of attitude towards it, there’s no way I’d say ‘I’m sorry, I’m using somebody else.’ My motto is: When it’s not broken, don’t fix it!”
But Jim has a lot more going on right now than just his new CD. Apart from the new solo album, he is also performing with the Masters Apprentices who have reformed especially for the Go!! Show Gold Reunion tour. “The Go!! Show was a television show in the sixties,” he explains. “and they’ve got a whole lot of artists together, who rocked the Go!! Show, to do this tour. The show has already had a sell-outperformance in Melbourne. Glen Wheatley played the bass with us so that was fun and we had a ball.The show is along the lines of what Cotton Keays and Morris is. The songs were all hits by those people and the audience all lived those songs when they were young and it’s what the audience wanted. We have a few more shows to go. We’re doing Adelaide on 1st April and then we do Sydney on 4th May and they’re locking in a Brisbane date as well.”
And then, of course, there’s Cotton Keays and Morris. “They’re an ongoing thing; my bread and butter,really and I love doing that too,” Jim tells me. “I’ve always loved doing that. It appeals to the baby boomer market who grew up with those songs. They were part of their youth and when we do those sort of shows, most of the time they’re sell outs and those people just love hearing those songs that they grew up with. It takes them back to when they were 18 again and the joy that it brings to them is great and knowing that it brings joy to people, makes it a joy to do. People say to me ‘but you’ve played ‘Turn Up Your Radio’ a million times! Aren’t you sick of it? Well, no, I’m not. Knowing what joy it brings to those people, who remember the first time they heard it when they were 18, down at the beach, and it takes them back. I know I do the same thing. I hear a song on the radio or somewhere and it transports me right back to when I first heard it years ago. I’ll never think that those songs don’t matter anymore because they do. They were a soundtrack to people’s lives back then. People come up to me and they say ‘We played ‘Because I Love You’ at my friend’s funeral or we played it at our wedding. It’s a big part of some people’s lives. I love doing the Cotton Keays and Morris thing because it brings a lot of joy to people and it brings joy to us too. And we have a lot of fun up there. We’re good mates, we have a fun banter in between the songs and we tell some stories and it’s just great, I really love it. Actually, we are also getting a lot of younger people along to the shows too. Their parents played those songs to them and they remember them and so there is a younger audience. I suppose maybe at the Cotton, Keays and Morris gigs, 30% of them are younger. Many of them weren’t even born when those songs came out!”
Jim is also hoping that his CD, ‘Dirty Dirty’ will appeal to a wider audience and that he might gain a few more younger fans but the lack of airplay on Australian radio for new material from ‘older’ artists is definitely a barrier. “Radio won’t play my stuff because I’m not in the demographic audience but I think they would probably find that if they did play my stuff, people wouldn’t care who it was. They just know if they like the song. They don’t care if the guy singing is 18 or 80! It’s about the music. It shouldn’t be about the age. An 18 yr. old kid might like the song but he’ll never get to hear it because radio won’t play it. But I think they would find that, if they did play it, there would be an audience out there for it.” However, most radio stations in this country are not prepared to take that risk. “No, they’re not,” he agrees, “and that makes them ageist in my mind. Unfortunately, in radio, it’s not about the music. It’s about the advertising dollar. If a certain sponsor advertises on that radio station, they pretty much get to dictate what music they play… if they want the radio station to appeal to a 15 year old then that’s the kind of music they will play. It comes down to the dollar and that’s not fair but… it’s the way of the world these days.” he sighs.
“It’s different in America,” he explains. “There are so many radio stations that there are niche markets for everybody but in Australia there’s not as many radio stations so there’s nowhere for my music to fit in. They’ll play Masters Apprentices songs on Gold FM but they won’t play Jim Keays’ album on Gold FM even though it’s the same thing. Like I say, it’s just ageist.” But Keays is still hopeful that things will change some day. “I guess it’s a matter of finding people who are willing to put their money into sponsoring radio to play new music by older artists. Yet in America, Heritage Rock is actually bigger than any other genre. A lot of artists in their 50s and 60s are still doing great stuff. And the baby boomer market is spending money. They don’t download albums; they actually go out and buy them. And there is a big market there. But in Australia they just don’t seem to realise that. In Australia, they don’t seem to honour their past greats. Older artists get overlooked in favour of the latest X Factor winner for instance but older artists are still making good music while there is not a lot of longevity in the new breed of artists.”
“Nobody my age gets a record deal,” he says, matter-of-factly, “even people like James Reyne or Daryl Braithwaite or Richard Clapton because a record company isn’t going to sign somebody who won’t get airplay and it’s sad really because those people are making good music. All they can do is sell albums that they can sell at gigs, so it was a great honour to get a record deal. When I got the deal, I fell over backwards!”
Jim is convinced that the reason he was given the deal was the simple fact that the record companyweren’t told in advance whose CD it was. “They thought it sounded like some young band. Then Ted told them: ‘Actually, it’s Jim Keays.’ That was one of the things I said right from the start though. I’m not going to do this album if it sounds like some old guy trying to do garage rock. I’ll make myself into a laughing stock. If it doesn’t sound youthful, I’m not doing it. And luckily, it does sound youthful.”
Jim is excited to have so much happening in his life these days but remains mindful of his health. In 2007, Jim was diagnosed with myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow which caused his kidneys to fail. The drugs he is currently taking to ‘keep the cancer down’ as he puts it, are ‘like poison’ he says. But he tells me that, right now, he is ‘feeling pretty good.’ He maintains a positive attitude and continues to work whenever he can. “There’s a lot happening and I just hope my health holds up. I’m feeling pretty good at the moment but we’ll see. There are days when it’s not as good as other days but most of the time I’m pretty good and I get through the gigs ok,” he declares, “and long may that last.”
Amen to that Jim…
by Sharyn Hamey
Copyright © 2012 Sharyn Hamey All Rights Reserved.