The legendary Australian progressive band Spectrum went into cryogenic storage in mid-1973. When you think of the departure of a band – especially a well-regarded one with a series of albums to its credit – you tend to think of record company neglect or audience indifference. That image doesn’t quite fit the last year in Spectrum’s life.
In early 1973 the album Warts up your Nose was released under the Indelible Murtceps band name. This incarnation was an attempt to broaden the audience base by writing shorter, more focussed songs that might appeal to a younger, less dope-misted audience. It was a thin disguise, the identity revealed by the simple act of spelling the name backwards. No, not ‘Indelible’, the other word.
Then there was a single, ‘Indelible Shuffle’, followed by an album to support it. Though the title – Testimonial – may have hinted at a farewell, it was nevertheless the second studio release for the year.
That was not all. Some months later a double live album appeared, recorded at the Melbourne home of Free Masonry, Dallas Brooks Hall. The hints contained in the previous album title became rather more concrete now; the album was called Terminal Buzz and had an image of a fly not, as fans might have expected, without its wings, but skewered beneath a pin. Pretty downbeat, especially for the fly, yet those four sprawling sides provide a fantastic document of the band, from the surging boogie of ‘We are Indelible’ to the meandering yet structured excursions beloved of audiences at the time.
Still, despite this veritable cascade of albums, Spectrum’s meandering days were over. As Mike Rudd summarises, “About three weeks after we finished Spectrum we began with Ariel, with a completely new line up and new material.”1
By the end of 1973 Ariel had toured with Gary Glitter and released the long player A Strange Fantastic Dream, something of a landmark album in Australian rock.
When, as a callow first year, I trotted off to see Ariel in Melbourne Uni’s Union Theatre in early 1974, I must confess that I was feeling just a bit resentful that my favourite Aussie progressive band seemed to have been replaced by this frivolous group wearing what Mike Rudd describes as ‘very odd clothes’.
But the concert was far from disappointing. In fact it was a revelation. The band, though new, was tight and seriously punchy in that small theatre. Sure, the new songs were shorter and rockier but the main consequence of that was an increase in energy. On top of a tight rhythm section (Bill Putt was always an extremely solid bass player) the inventive and muscular guitar playing of Gaze added intensity that contrasted brilliantly with the deadpan delivery of laconic front-man Mike Rudd. I staggered out of the Union building an hour or so later dazedly wondering if progress wasn’t such a bad thing after all.
It is a strange and diverse collection of songs on that first Ariel album. Opener ‘Jamaican Farewell’ has a catchy pop feel with its jaunty reggae-tinged melody rather undercut by the lyrical story of travelling to Jamaica to drown oneself. That this song was the first Ariel single says quite a lot about the band and, in particular, self-proclaimed pessimist Mike Rudd. Second course is ‘No Encores’, which could be a Spectrum song; it has that open, unfolding sort of feel.
Things really get strange, however, with third track ‘Confessions of a Psychopathic Cowpoke’. This song of murder and necrophilia still packs a punch, delivered in Rudd’s deadpan twang and containing a terrific Tim Gaze guitar solo that takes the country feel and twists it into something both recognisable and odd. As you might imagine, this song, along with explicit drug ditty ‘Chicken Shit’, produced something of negative reaction in conservative domains. Unfortunately one of the most conservative mediums of 1973 was radio.
“The whole album was taken to task by the self-governing body of commercial radio at that stage. ‘Confessions of a psychopathic cowpoke’ and ‘Chicken Shit’ were both brought up as examples of a warped and twisted mind, which in retrospect was fair enough. A result – which was catastrophic at the time – was that at a large Australasian live-to-air radio concert… we started playing the notorious Chicken one, got about five bars in and they took us off air, never to be heard of again. They pulled the plug on us without explanation.” [Mike Rudd, 1989]
Notwithstanding this, er, censorship, A Strange Fantastic Dream was well received in the alternative press and sold quite well, reaching a chart position of #12 in the summer of ’74.
Perhaps the variety appealed to listeners. That is certainly part of what makes the album so enjoyable to this day. The lurching blues of ‘And I’m Blue’ is followed by the progressive complexity of ‘Garden of the Frenzied Cortinas’, allegedly inspired by a cinema trip to see the 1970 Italian film The Garden of the Finzi Continis. The prog-head in me loves this piece [listen here]; Gaze’s guitar is goose-bumply; the shifting tempos and layered arrangement draw you in through whisps of squelchy synthesiser. Rudd is dreamy, pleading, mischievous…
I must leave before the end
I can’t hang around no more
Leave my Jaffas on the floor
Roll my Fanta bottle down the aisle
Side 2 opens with another drug song, Ariel’s rocky update on ‘Dr Robert’. In Tim Gaze’s ‘Miracle Man’ the ‘white coat man’ with the ‘black bag’ will help out with pain relief – maybe even offer credit – but the protagonist knows the score: ‘Come on Doctor, spill the beans – you don’t give a stuff ‘bout me’.
After the aforementioned and oft-banned ‘Chicken Shit’ (which is brilliant, having concise solos from John Mills synth and Gaze’s guitar), there’s the snide and self-pitying ‘Worm-turning Blues’.
I got the worm-turning blues
I got the blues down to my shoes
I got the worm-turning blues
But the blues ain’t as bad
As what I once had
Rarely has partner-dissing been such danceable fun.
After a strange little collage intro, ‘Harry V. Dirchy (God the Man)’ (say it out loud to get the Italianesque joke) tells a country-tinged tale of dubious evangelism. It’s slightly surprising that this is a Tim Gaze song as it was Mike Rudd who began his music life as a chorister. Whatever.
The album finishes with a love song. Following the death, drugs, confusion, and relationship misery that has gone before, it seems almost out-of-place. But it is not your average devotional tune. Starting reflectively over a John Mills’ organ line we suddenly break into jaunty middle section with pastiche rock ’n’ roll ‘ya ya’ backing, including the immortal lines,
And if it wasn’t for you
I would always feel blue
I wouldn’t change my clothes
And I would pick my nose
More often than I do
The album title appears in this song, offering a glimpse up the left nostril of intimacy.
That’s the record and Mike Rudd, really.
Artsy, angry, silly, serious, rocking, reflective.
It is a great 70s album on any continent.
- All Mike Rudd quotes are from a live interview between Mike and the writer on Melbourne public radio station 3PBS, 22 December 1989
Ariel – A Strange Fantastic Dream [EMI, 1973; Rarevision CD, 2002]
Art Direction / Cover Design / Art – Stephen Nelson
It’s criminal that SFD has not received a lavish 40th anniversary re-issue. Makes me think of doing despicable things with my neckerchief.