Rear View Mirror #12 – By Ian McFarlane.
“I’m real mean and I ain’t got nothing to do!” – Rock & Roll Scars bristles with barely restrained rock tension
ARIEL – Rock & Roll Scars (EMI/Harvest, 1975) / Expanded Edition CD Reissue (Aztec, 2015)
The Ariel album Rock & Roll Scars came out in April 1975. It’s one of the great Aussie rock albums of the 1970s. Even before you get to the exceptional music featured on the record itself, the cover offers a scene of intriguing imagery and unexplained clues. That cover has always fascinated me. It’s such a simple premise and it manages to convey a lot while saying very little. There appears to be something going on here but it throws up more questions than there are answers given.
The four members of Ariel appear on the left-hand side of the cover, underneath the titling, with singer / song writer / guitarist Mike Rudd kneeling at the bottom. Then underneath his folded legs are the words “Before the Mutant”. A shadowy figure appears in profile on the right hand side, hand up to his chin as he stares directly at the band in a judgemental manner. The perspective seems to be distorted because the figure is incredibly tall in comparison to the band members which makes it appear that he’s looking down at them.
Although it’s hard to pick it, the guy is actually Mike Rudd and he’s looking down at himself. Yet why is he considering the band so intently and what is it about the situation that allows him to be so judgemental? And who or what is the “Mutant” and what happened after the fact?
It’s only when you understand the background to the making of the album that it all becomes clear.
In April 1974, the previous line-up of Ariel had broken up, leaving Rudd and his stalwart bass player Bill Putt to pick up the pieces. Rudd has gone on record as saying that the traumatic nature of the break-up at the time was such that he almost didn’t have the heart to continue. Nevertheless, with a period of quiet reflection Rudd gathered his senses and started to formulate and write the material that would end up becoming a sci-fi concept piece called The Jellabad Mutant.
“It was a shame that we couldn’t continue with that first band…” Rudd explained to me. “After the break-up I really wanted to write something different again from what the first Ariel had written. So I took a bit of time off and went down the coast and started this project which was based around an idea that had a narrative to it. Funnily enough the narrative developed along with the songs, so I rationalised it in that respect. Basically it was a rock opera for want of a better description.”
That July, Rudd and Putt took their new version of Ariel – with John Lee on drums and Harvey James on lead guitar – into the studio to record demos for the new album. Much to Rudd’s chagrin the powers that be at EMI (Australia) rejected the demos out of hand as being uncommercial. Or they simply didn’t “get” the concept itself.
The basic premise was an ambitious, sci-fi concept piece based around an insidious cosmic life form with the ability to emulate and eventually take over human beings. The concept drew many parallels with the likes of the story of Superman’s arrival on Earth, the sci-fi film The Thing From Another World (1951) which was based on John W. Campbell Jr’s source novel Who Goes There? and other such tales.
Rudd expanded on the basic concept further by explaining:
“This particular non-life form, a cosmic form, has no expression in time so it takes over or emulates human life to get a life experience. It’s kind of like a life projection. If people expect a certain person to fulfil that projection, so the mutant is able to take over various humans and experience life in different forms. And this particular mutant was quite manipulative, taking over several lives and finishing up as a rock star.”
It was a brilliantly conceived piece of progressive-psych rock and EMI’s reluctance to give the album the go ahead is all the more puzzling when you consider that two other sci-fi concept albums were released by Australian artists during 1974: Jim Keays’ The Boy From The Stars (ironically on EMI) and Mandu’s lyrical To The Shores Of His Heaven.
The rejection left Rudd in a curious holding pattern, floundering around for new material. Things had become urgent because EMI (UK) had already booked the band into Abbey Road Studios in London for new album sessions in December. EMI (UK) had issued the first album A Strange Fantastic Dream on the Harvest label and were keen for more product. Harvest was EMI’s progressive subsidiary label, launched in 1969 and had been home to the likes of Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Pretty Things, Roy Harper, Barclay James Harvest, Edgar Broughton Band, Kevin Ayers (and later The Saints) so Ariel was in fine company.
In recording the Rock & Roll Scars set, Rudd regarded it as retrogressive because it comprised re-recorded versions of Spectrum and Ariel material with only three all-new songs. Despite Rudd’s misgivings, the Rock & Roll Scars album stands up remarkably well as an effective slice of robust hard rock. This no-frills, guitar-driven four-piece version of Ariel was capable of taking the material on offer and working it for all its worth. Rudd’s irrepressible sense of humour, his idiosyncratic guitar style and those trademark wry, nasally vocals locked in well with Harvey’s biting yet fluid guitar leads and the agile swing of the rhythm section. The album bristles with barely restrained rock tension.
Another factor in the record’s favour is the punchy production quality courtesy of the Abbey Road studios and aided by the studio engineer Tony Clark and mix engineer Geoff Emerick (famous for his work on the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s), all overseen by Aussie producer Peter Dawkins. The only other Australian records from around that time boasting the same depth of sound are the Master’s Apprentices Choice Cuts and A Toast To Panama Red which, of course, were also recorded at Abbey Road.
The album opens in fine style with the compelling ‘Keep On Dancing (With Me)’, a glorious song that benefits from the studio phasing / panning embellishment on the drums during the two dynamic instrumental bridges. Rudd begins ‘I’ll Be Gone’ with the wacky ‘I’ll Be Going’ prelude. As that fades, someone asks “do you need a count-in?” and Lee yells “No!”. He pumps out a forceful open drum break, Rudd weighs in with his iconic harmonica riff and ‘I’ll Be Gone’ roars into your ears and lodges itself firmly in the old grey matter. This arrangement differs in that the emphasis of the guitar chords on the off-beat provides an almost reggae lilt to the song, despite the fact that the beat remains resolute on the 4/4 pattern. Then the “living the life of luxury doesn’t seem to be for me” bit is almost Beatlesque with the whimsical “la-la-la” harmonies.
Rudd announced ‘Keep On Dancing (With Me)’ as the single to be lifted from the album, backed with ‘I’ll Be Gone’ but the release seems to have had no promotion whatsoever; indeed Ariel appeared on the ABC-TV pop show Countdown performing the rollicking title track instead. Interestingly enough, Harvest issued ‘I’ll Be Gone’ b/w ‘Rock And Roll Scars’ as a single for the UK market although it was unlikely ever to have been a hit there.
‘Real Meanie’ (originally from Spectrum’s Testimonial) and ‘Men In Grey Raincoats’ are muscular hard rockers, tough, fast and to the point, sporting agile riffs and slashing leads aplenty. They represent good examples of Rudd’s lyric concerns, the first focusing on a vindictive, manipulative swindler, the second rife with paranoid delusions and spurious cover ups. Of course, the lyrics bear no relation to Mike Rudd the man, being merely artistic conceits to present a particular viewpoint. Musically ‘Real Meanie’ breaks down about the two minute mark and slides into an unsettling, murky bridge before the harrowing backing vocals drag the song back up to speed.
The second side of the original vinyl programme kicks off with a powerful version of ‘Launching Place’, followed by the remarkable rendition of ‘We Are Indelible’ which is held together by one of Putt’s most precise, authoritative bass lines.
The more concise versions of ‘What The World Needs (Is A New Pair Of Sox)’ (from Spectrum’s Milesago) and ‘Some Good Advice’ (from the Indelible Murtceps’ Warts Up Your Nose) actually benefit from the briefness. Finally there’s the previously B-side only ‘Red Hot Momma’ and finishing with an inspired take of the melancholy ‘I Am The Laughing Man’.
So what of The Jellabad Mutant itself? Ariel continued to play much of the material live in concert, often condensed into a 10-minute ‘Mutant Medley’. The Jellabad Mutant remained unreleased until Rudd’s Rare Vision label issued it on CD in 2002. And now Aztec has included the demos as Disc Two on the recently issued, remastered and definitive 2-CD edition of Rock & Roll Scars.
The CD reissue has been dedicated to the memories of John Lee (who died in 1999), Harvey James (2011) and Bill Putt (2013).
Rock & Roll Scars (1975)
- Keep On Dancing (With Me)
2. a) I’ll Be Going b) I’ll Be Gone
3. Rock & Roll Scars
4. Real Meanie
5. Men In Grey Raincoats
6. Launching Place
7. We Are Indelible
8. What The World Needs (Is a New Pair of Sox)
9. Red Hot Momma
10. Some Good Advice
11. I Am The Laughing Man
All tracks written by Mike Rudd
MICHAEL RUDD – Vocals, rhythm guitar, lead guitar, harmonica
WILLIAM F. PUTT – Bass
HARVEY JAMES – Lead guitar, harmonies
JOHN LEE – Drums, harmonies