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The Birdmen fly again

by Simon McKenzie - Time Out, Jan 97


When Radio Birdman reformed to tour Australia at the beginning of last year, it marked one of rock's unlikeliest reunions. A bitter split in 1979 abruptly ended their remarkable career after only two groundbreaking albums, and the circumstances surrounding the breakup made any sort of reconciliation a remote possibility for a long, long time. Their European and British tour (following the recording of the Living Eyes LP) had degenerated into an atmosphere of resentment and mistrust between many of the members, and it wasn't until the early '90s that the broken friendships were rebuilt. Even when all six members were in contact in 1995 for the remixing and remastering of the two albums, the possibility of regrouping for a tour wasn't seriously entertained for some time.

But, with all their differences long since buried, Deniz Tek, Rob Younger, Ron Keeley, Warwick Gilbert, Chris Masuak and Pip Hoyle eventually decided that they would play again, and the resulting tour did nothing to tarnish their formidable reputation. Radio Birdman still rocked, mightily.

"I don't want to leave you with the impression that we brought all these angry, disturbed people back together, and said 'Okay, we're gonna do a reunion tour, so now we have to start getting along'," says guitarist and principal songwriter Deniz Tek. "We'd already resolved everything before we considered getting back together, just on a personal basis. Everybody that had had a conflict had already resolved it, in the last five years or so. So the stage was set to be able to do it."
One thing the six members were vehemently agreed upon was the fact that a reformed Radio Birdman wasn't going to be simply an exercise in nostalgia. They cooked up two new songs and committed themselves to picking up from where they had left off. It worked so well that they're touring Australia again this month, winding up in Byron Bay and Mooloolaba this weekend.

"I'm very happy to be in Radio Birdman again," Tek says. "I really enjoyed the first tour and I had a good time playing, and I think we pushed the band a little bit further than it had been pushed before. So that being the case, I think it was worthwhile, and probably worth going a little further, if we can.

I think the band felt a strong commitment to push the envelope a little bit further out, and not just rest on playing a bunch of old songs for nostalgia value, but to play 'em hard enough that it showed an actual progression. I think we were pretty committed to that, and worked hard enough to actually get it done."

Few people expected the tour to go well enough to warrant a second run. Many obviously expected some of the old animosity to rear its head.

"I think it's amazing that we got everybody together to even attempt it," Tek says. "In fact, when it was first suggested, I would have bet against it happening. It just goes to show that you can never say that something can't be done, because that's about the most unlikely thing I've run into that actually happened."
So was there much tension at those first rehearsals?

"It really wasn't tense. It's like there's a memory there that's in the cells, and once we were in there in the same room with instruments, and turning amplifiers on, and the drums were there, that cellular memory kicked in, and it was like all those years might just as well have not existed. It was like, 'Okay, here we are, this is what we would be doing one month or two months after the end of the last tour if we hadn't broken up - we'd be in some room rehearsing getting ready for the next thing'. It just felt totally natural and normal to be there doing it. So no, there wasn't any tension.

"Just all those elements coming together, the same thing came into being as we had before, more or less. It was kind of strange, and a little bit... I don't know, not to get too esoteric about it, but it just seems like there's a definite chemistry there. All the things that have been written about that, the things that I've said about it, after a while you wonder if it's really true or if it's just making up a story. But it proved to be really true for me, because I could definitely feel that when you put all those elements together, it creates a new thing, a new entity which is greater than the sum of the parts.

"I guess that's the hallmark of a good band, one of the ways you could measure the greatness of a band."

The British tour that ended up being Birdman's last in the '70s was nothing less than a personal and financial disaster. Promised tour support money by their record company, the band wound up high and dry after a takeover and change of management and policy at the label. Under such conditions, any personal problems in the band were bound to be exacerbated.

"Yeah, it was very hard, because record company support was withdrawn at the very beginning of the tour, and yet we wanted to pursue it," explains Tek. "We thought we had a commitment to continue with it, and it was subsistence-level, there were bad personal problems within the band that got worse and worse as it went along - including psychosis among some members, and failure of systems just crashing and burning. If it was a computer, you'd say that it crashed. That's what happened to that band, it just crashed.

"The gigs were still good, even the very last gig at Oxford University was a great gig, but in the end, that's all that there was, what was happening on stage. And in between, getting to the next gig was... unbearable.

"Even with all that, we always thought - Rob and I and Chris Masuak - thought that we'd get a new rhythm section and continue when we got back home. Of course, Chris opted out of that arrangement, and me and Rob weren't enough critical mass to think about keeping it together. We acknowledged that it was finished.

"Then for the next ten years, there were accusations, slander, all kinds of untruths being spoken, and the negativity and the evil vibes just kept going. It took a fair amount of effort to turn that around and get people on good terms again. But it happened."

Reunion or no reunion, it must have been good to be friends again with these people you'd been through so much with.

"Yeah. Even before the reunion was contemplated, it was great to have those things resolved and to be able to be friends again. I actually had done some productive work with Chris Masuak in the early part of the '90s. I worked on a Hitmen album and he worked on the Take It To The Vertical album for me, and the big tour... so things were real good between me and him.

"I never had a falling out with Rob throughout any of this, so that wasn't a problem. Ron had been in The Visitors and then moved over to England, and then it was just Warwick and I had to resolve some things. We did that, not because there was any hope of getting the band back together, but just so we could - like you say - be together and get something out of having all this shared past experience."

Looking over the history of Radio Birdman, it's evident that they had few contemporaries on the Australian scene in the '70s. There were a couple of gigs with the Saints, but it's hard to think of too many other bands who would have generated those levels of energy and excitement at that time. It must have been fun bulldozing through the mediocrity of the late '70s.

"Yeah," Tek grins. "The highs of it were really high and the lows of it were really low. It was an extreme time - and a unique time, I think. I don't think we'll ever see a time like that again."
Radio Birdman certainly left a formidable legacy behind. The immediacy of their two albums, Radios Appear and Living Eyes, is still something to behold - music as energetic and powerful as anything recorded before or since. It was an incredibly focussed creative vision they brought to bear, and their reputation grew to almost mythic proportions after their breakup. Tek speculates that the initial refusal of many of the members to talk about the Birdman days only fed the fire of their legend, but the albums still sell, and still impress. And the famous logo can still be seen on cars, shirts and surfboards all over this country.

That must make all of you very proud that the legacy has remained...

"Yeah," Tek says. "I'm humbled by it, I just feel fortunate to be able to have been a part of something that had such a long-lasting effect and influenced other bands to pursue their own energy. So yeah, I'm not so much proud - because I don't like to take personal credit for it - but just to have been part of it, to have some of that happen via me or through me or happen to me, and have those memories, it's a great thing."
There are no concrete plans for Radio Birdman after this tour. Drummer Ron Keeley lives in England, guitarist Chris Masuak is studying in the U.S. and Tek is a surgeon in Montana - which makes it hard to say whether there will be time to tour again in the near future. A live album, recorded in front of a small audience last year, has just been released, and there is some talk of a new studio album at some point - but it's a remote possibility. For the moment, this tour is the one sure thing. That's appropriate, because Radio Birdman always were a live band.

"It was always better live than on record, always," Tek says. "That's why I'm glad that a live album is finally coming out, because I think it's better than the studio albums. I think if the band had ever had a really good producer, it might have been able to make a really great studio album that would have the same energy as the live shows, but we never had that."
Radios Appear had a hell of a lot of energy, though...

"The interesting thing about that was that it took about a year to record it, because we were only allowed to go into the studio when there weren't any paying customers. You'd get a weekend, and it takes a whole day to set the drums up anyway, So you'd spend a whole weekend setting up the drums and trying to get a guitar sound, and then run through a few takes of something and it'd be Sunday evening already. You'd be out, because there's some paying band coming in on Monday morning, and it's be two weeks or three weeks before you can get back in there again. So it's surprising that it came out as good as it did, given that it had to be recorded that way."
So did some of the live shows on the '96 tour hit the highs they did in the '70s?

"Yeah. Some of them did. The Brisbane one I thought was excellent, and up to that point in time on the tour, that was the first time I thought we really started hitting our stride, when we got to the Roxy. Wayne [Kramer] played a great set and inspired everybody, and then we went out there... I thought we did pretty well. Probably the two high points were the Melbourne show at the Palace, and the second Sydney show at the Metro. To me, those were right up there with anything in the '70s."
Can you tell from on stage?

"Yeah. I can tell from our perspective. Of course, the band's perspective isn't always the same as the audience perspective. A lot of times you think you played a fantastic gig, and everybody's going, 'So what?' At other times you want to go in the back and disembowel yourself with a sword because you played so bad and the band sucked so horribly, and everybody's banging on the door trying to get in, going 'That was the greatest thing I've ever seen, this was a transcendental show'. So there's often an incongruity between the audience perception and the band's. I'm not too sure why that is.

"When they both hit together, I guess that's when you can count on it. That's the show. That's the show of a lifetime, when the audience and the band hit the high point at the same moment."

Radio Birdman play The Epicentre in Byron Bay this Saturday (December 11) and Stewarts Alexandra Headlands on Sunday (January 12).

SIMON McKENZIE

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