There is a myth that no worthwhile progressive music came out of Australia during the 70s. This furphy needs addressing. There may not have been much ‘Prog’—in the sense of rock bands influenced by the Western Art (aka Classical) tradition—but there was an abundance of adventurous, innovative music.
I can think of no better place to begin than with the mighty Spectrum.
New Zealand born Mike Rudd moved to Melbourne with his band Chants R&B in 1966. Early on, he met up with Ross Hannaford and Ross Wilson, soon to form Daddy Cool. The innovation and confidence of the short-lived Party Machine encouraged Rudd to form his own band. Originally a trio with (bass player and long-term musical partner) Bill Putt and talented young drummer Mark Kennedy, the outfit came together when organist Lee Neale joined. This first version of Spectrum formed around the middle of 1969, playing the ‘head’ circuit of Melbourne’s lively underground scene. and toured when the opportunity arose. They cut a single, “I’ll Be Gone” b/w “Launching Place Part II”, released in January 1971, little knowing that it would become an all-time Aussie favourite and (according to Mike Rudd) an ever-popular choice at funerals. As Rudd joked during one of Spectrum’s 50th Anniversary concerts, “I’ve managed to build a half-century career around one song”.
Of course, hit-single immortality was not on the band’s mind when they recorded and released a debut album (sans single*) in March ‘71.
Opening cut “Make your stash” opens with a blast of Guru Guru style noise before the song bursts through. It’s a whimsical ditty about how to smuggle drugs past suspicious constabulary, and was written by the afore-mentioned Ross Wilson, with a little help from Gustav Holst (“Jupiter” from The Planets). From the outset, you are clear that this is not another blues-based pub band.
Many early Spectrum songs have a strong melodic core around which improvisations on guitar and organ circulate, spinning off into spacey jams before returning to base. “Fiddling Fool” is a great example of that, with a catchy organ line preceding the verse, laconically delivered in Mike Rudd’s unique drawl. Lee Neale solos, before another verse and the organ theme. Bill Putt’s bass lopes along, then Rudd takes a solo on guitar. It is laid-back and spacious and it’s easy to see why they were a popular band at the kind of venues where heavy smog was prevalent. Some tapping sticks add a hint of the outback as an organ rumble of thunder spins us into the Milky Way. Neale gets out-there sounds from his organ in much the same way as Tangerine Dream did in their early (pre-synth) music. Eventually the stringed instruments and Kennedy’s rapid-fire snare pull us back to earth for a delicate guitar doodle leading back to the organ theme then snap! it ends. At 12:30, “Fiddling Fool” is the longest song on Part One.
Side two opens with “Superbody”, one of my favourite Rudd compositions. Its’ wry lyric about the dubious pleasures of superhero narcissism kicks off a long instrumental break again featuring Lee Neale’s organ, this time with a more chordal jazz inflection. There’s a fabulous shift into a descending riff where Mark Kennedy lays neat fills over that rhythmic line. I guess it’s a drum almost-solo, but it’s so clever and brief the label doesn’t really apply. Then Rudd’s recorder enters, with reverb (and double-tracking) to add an other-worldly acoustic texture. It sounds like it’s played from a mountain cave-mouth, overlooking a red, sunset plain. We find our way back to the main tune and a final vocal. “You know I would love to fly”, Mike sings. The yearning and unresolved chord hang in the air.
“Drifting” jogs along with an energy at odds with the title. Harmonies on the vocals add depth and Neale’s solo is positively jaunty. The changes of pace—especially the contrast between the sung verses and the instrumental breaks—make this three-and-a-half-minute song a real ear-freshener. It’s both upbeat and wistful, a good trick if you can pull it off, as Spectrum do here.
The album closes with the pretty and slightly mournful “Mumbles I wonder why”, a co-write between Rudd and those Daddy Cool chaps. Neale’s break here is jaunty, almost Magical Mystery Tour-ish, but the cheeriness doesn’t rub off on the singer. There is a core of melancholy at the heart of almost all Mike Rudd’s songs. The plaintive recorder solo emphasises this; even when it dances, we know it won’t last. That sweet/sad/ironic/lonely cluster is probably why I love Mike Rudd’s work throughout his long career. I love this Spectrum debut also, and can imagine many others delighting in its early 70s freedoms.
Spectrum Part One was re-issued on CD by Aztec Music, adding the iconic single “I’ll Be Gone” and the fabulous “Launching Place” (both parts, the instrumental “Part I” and the grooving, psychedelic-tinged “Part II”). As the original vinyl has never been re-issued (other than an Irish pressing of dubious provenance in 2016), it will be easier to get the Aztec CD. This is a good thing, as you get “I’ll Be Gone”, one of the most iconic Australian singles ever. As for the album, it stands up to anything from the era in terms of playing, invention and feel. Vinyl Connection’s advice: Make your stash.
Archival photos accessed at the New Zealand web site Audioculture. Acknowledged with thanks.
I asked Mike Rudd about the single’s absence from the LP. His answer is instructive and interesting, and, with his kind indulgence, is reproduced below.
The debate about including the single is almost the talking point of the album, and I’m still equivocal about it. On one hand it seems like commercial suicide (to omit it), especially given the indulgence quotient of the other five tracks, but on the other hand justifiable for the very same reason. How many albums have you bought because you liked the single, only to find the single was the only track you liked?
Anyway, because there was a six month hiatus before the single was released due to the radio ban, Spectrum had developed the more expansive side of the repertoire at the expense of concise songs like “I’ll Be Gone”. Much more suitable for a Murtceps album, but The Indelible Murtceps weren’t even a gleam in my eye at that stage. The end result was most likely more modest sales for the Part One album than if the single had been on board, but a more harmonious / homogenous collection of songs aesthetically.
That I had the final word on the matter is a sign o’ the times. Record companies had yet to appreciate that they knew best about marketing.
– Mike Rudd, personal correspondence, 9 October 2020