BILL PUTT R.I.P.
By Ian McFarlane
The Australian music world has been rocked to the core with the death of bass player Bill Putt. The news broke this week that on Tuesday 6th August Bill had died as a result of a heart attack while chopping wood on his neighbour’s property near his home in Strathewen, Victoria. Apparently, there had been a family history of heart problems but for such a fit bloke as Bill he has been taken too soon.
Bill was a warm-hearted, generous man, one of life’s true gentlemen. Anyone who knew Bill or even those who merely met him in passing at a gig will know that he would always greet you warmly and stop for a chat. Who could forget that tall frame looming into view, the long hair and headband and the large, beaming smile beneath that even larger walrus moustache? The ‘tache was just as iconic as his indelible bass playing and it was his authoritative presence and style that served Spectrum for 44 years.
His musical partner in Spectrum, and indeed Ariel, the Heaters, W.H.Y etc, guitarist Mike Rudd has been hardest hit by Bill’s passing. The two have been virtually inseparable since 1969.
Mike paid tribute to Bill on the website the two musicians shared (www.mikeruddbillputt.com)
“Yesterday I learned of the death of my long-time best friend and musical companion, Bill Putt. In as much as one ever thinks of these things, I never imagined Bill would be the first to go. Apparently he had a heart attack while chain-sawing wood over the valley from his and Rosemary’s home in Strathewen just after midday yesterday (Wednesday). He was by all reports happy and doing something he loved, but I know this isn’t what he’d have wanted. Bill has been a rock to me ever since I’ve known him and his love and generosity of spirit touched everybody he met. His unassuming and gentle nature will be sorely missed, especially by children whom he adored.
“I am beyond devastated. Bill was an exemplar of the understated bass-man and his recent songwriting reflected his love of the people and the world around him
“I’ve been inundated with messages of support from friends, fellow musicians and people whose lives he’s touched. I shall let everybody know of arrangements as they come to hand.
“Robbo and Lisa, Daryl and Deb and Maria and I extend our love and sincerest condolences to Rosemary and her family.
“Vale Bill, my old friend.”
Mike’s words reflect the true bond they shared and anything I write further in an attempt to capture the essence of that musical bond or even Bill’s generous heart may well be hollow. So I’ll concentrate on a brief overview of Bill’s musical career.
Bill began that career in 1964 as a guitarist with Melbourne band The Mystics. In 1965 he joined R&B combo The Lost Souls and a year later they won the 3AK Star Seeker contest and recorded one single for the Sunshine label, ‘This Life of Mine’. That atmospheric, moody slice of garage-punk boasting Bill’s slicing guitar motif later appeared on numerous compilations of choice 1960s garage-punk material, including Ugly Things Vol. 3 (1987), the Nuggets II box set (2001), Hot Generation (2002) and the more recent Down Under Nuggets (2012).
By 1968, Bill had switched to bass and was playing in Gallery which also featured an extraordinary teenage drummer by the name of Mark Kennedy. Bill joined Mike’s new band Spectrum in April 1969, with the line-up completed by Kennedy and Lee Neale on organ. Bill’s naturally melodic style suited Mike’s songs perfectly and Spectrum went on to forge a reputation as one of the most original bands on the early 1970s Australian progressive scene. Still and all, during those early days regular gigs were hard to find but Spectrum’s fortunes took an upturn when EMI issued the band’s classic debut single ‘I’ll be Gone’ in January 1971. It became a national #1 hit and suddenly the band was in big demand.
‘I’ll be Gone’ has since gone on to be celebrated as one of Australia’s most recognisable rock songs and inevitably Mike and Bill were never allowed to leave the stage until they had delivered the song to the masses. Mike’s hypnotic harmonica lick and signature lyrics make the song but it’s certainly Bill’s laconic bass playing and Kennedy’s shuffling beat that anchor the whole thing in the groove. In May 2001 the Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA), as part of its 75th Anniversary celebrations, named ‘I’ll Be Gone’ as one of the Top 30 Australian songs of all time.
There were a couple of different Spectrum line-ups between 1970 and 1973, with drummer Ray Arnott taking over from Kennedy and John Mills replacing Neale. Spectrum recorded five brilliant albums – Spectrum Part One (1971), Milesago (1972), Warts up Your Nose (as alter-ego band Indelible Murtceps, 1972), Testimonial (as Spectrum / Indelible Murtceps, 1973) and Terminal Buzz (as Spectrum / Murtceps, 1973) – before calling it a day in April 1973. Mike and Bill moved quickly onto Ariel with Mills, Tim Gaze (guitar) and Nigel Macara (drums).
Once again there were several different Ariel line-ups, later line-ups most notably featuring guitarists (the late) Harvey James and Glyn Mason. Ariel scored minor hit singles with ‘Jamaican Farewell’, ‘I Can do Anything’ and ‘Disco Dilemma’ and recorded five albums – A Strange Fantastic Dream (1973), Rock & Roll Scars (1975), Goodnight Fiona (1976), Aloha Ariel (1977) and Ariel Alive!! More From Before (1978) – and split up in August 1977.
I think the Rock & Roll Scars album is particularly significant in Bill’s work because in my opinion the track ‘We are Indelible’ boasts one of the most perfect bass lines in all Australian rock music. A big call, but it’s just the way I see and hear it.
Mike and Bill continued with Instant Replay, Mike Rudd & the Heaters, the experimental W.H.Y., Number 9 and the Burwood Blues Band into the 1980s. Bill was also part of the 1978 Air Supply touring band. Mike and Bill reformed Spectrum in March 1984 for a tour, following the release of the EMI compilation album Red Orange Yellow Green Blue Indigo Violet. It was clear there was still a demand for the group’s live prowess and by 1989 the reunion had become a permanent venture. The 1991 line-up was billed as Spectrum Plays the Blues. Sometimes Mike and Bill featured Spectrum as an acoustic duo with various auxiliary members including singer Enza Pantano.
Since then Spectrum has toured regularly, not only as an electric trio featuring Mike, Bill and drummer Peter “Robbo” Robertson but also as a four-piece with the addition of Daryl Roberts on keyboards. The Spectrum trio played at the book launch for my Encyclopedia of Australian Rock & Pop in May 1999. Their album recordings included Living on a Volcano (as Mike Rudd and Bill Putt, 1996), Spectrum Plays the Blues: Spill (1999), No Thinking (2004) plus a series of three EPs, Breathing Space, Breathing Space Too and Breathing Space As Well (2009).
In February 2009, Bill and his wife Rosemary were caught up in the devastating Black Saturday bushfires and Bill lost much of his musical equipment. Although Spectrum’s gigging schedule had dropped off in recent years, Mike and Bill were continuing to record periodically. In recent years Bill had also started to write his own songs and record demos which may now never see the light of day.
Finally, on a personal note I’d like to share a couple of my memories of Bill (and most people who ever met Bill will have fond memories of the man). After having seen him play in Spectrum, Ariel and The Heaters over the years, I first met Bill at a barbeque in the early 1980s. He was playing in a make-shift band set up in the backyard for a relaxed afternoon’s entertainment. I’d just started to play drums (badly, I should add) and a mate of mine mentioned this to Bill and his eyes lit up immediately and he said ‘C’mon mate, jump on the kit and I’ll play with ya!’ I was panic stricken and meekly declined his offer (much to my subsequent dismay!).
Then, as I got to know Mike and Bill better over the years, having interviewed them a number of times and written various articles about their music, you could always rely on a friendly hello when you met them at gigs. Both these tall guys would greet you with a grin, a look in the eye, a handshake and then a big bear-hug. Me being a little bloke, I’d be pressed up against Bill’s sternum with that enormous walrus ‘tache hanging over my head like dangling palm fronds. Hah! Rest in peace, sweet Bill.