Radio Birdman by Steve Gardner
Noise For Heroes #19 in the summer of 1990
"Any rude variants on this group's name (good contest idea?) wouldn't be unjust. Radio Birdman should be stripped of all their Stooges and MC5 records and forced to play disco in a singles bar."This is the sum total of all the words ever written about Radio Birdman in Trouser Press, my favorite US fanzine of the 70s. Not very encouraging, is it? Certainly not what you would expect to have been written given the near godhead attributed to this band today.
What's more, there's precious little else that was said outside of Australia about Radio Birdman while they were still flying. Looking through my piles of old fanzines, mostly Zig Zags and New York Rockers, the only other words I can find are in one Sire advertisement with the Radios Appear lp along with records by the Saints, Talking Heads and Dead Boys. That's it. Christ himself was better recognized in his day. Even in the mid 80s the best Ira Robbins in his Trouser's Press Record Guide could manage was a grudging concession that Radio Birdmanhad made "a small contribution".
But maybe the values of the times have to be taken into account to understand what happened a little better...Yes had gone from songs covering one whole side of an lp to songs covering three sides of a triple lp set; Emerson Lake and Palmer did a triple lp live set with songs that were basically classical music which they then gave themselves credit for writing. Radio was dominated by disco music or soft rock. So punk rock was the savior as far as the critics were concerned, and though it was pretty fuzzy in many quarters just exactly what punk rock WAS. At various times, I recall reading that Springsteen, the Bay City Rollers, Nils Lofgren and the Rolling Stones were punks, and it was unanimous that Blondie, the Talking Heads and Devo were, too.
Amidst all this confusion it's hard to understand how Radio Birdmancould have been thought to NOT be punk, but all I can think of is that the jazz flavored bits that showed up on Radios Appear struck people as a taste of progressive rock. Maybe the long hair? But the Ramones had long hair, too. Suffice to say that although Sire was my favorite label in those days (Ramones, Richard Hell, Dead Boys, Talking Heads, Rezillos, Saints, Plastic Bertrand, Undertones on one label! Holy cow!), the Trouser Press review made me wait to find Radio Birdmanin a used bin, which took over a year...I guess the people who went out and bought it when it first came out recognized a treasure better than the critics. And I have to admit that when I got it, I thought of it as a good lp, but not a great one...sort of like Eddie and the Hot Rods' Life On The Line or in that class.
So why has Radio Birdmanturned out to be such an important band? A whole legion of Australian bands look at Radio Birdmanas the band that taught them that they could make lasting music themselves...they look to Radio Birdmanfar more than to the Saints, whose lps were just as pioneering and exciting.
One of the constant themes of the 70s punk movement was that music had been taken out of the hands of the kids who were listening to it and was played by old farts with years of music school playing pseudo-classical music at a level of ability that a novice couldn't hope to match. Lyric topics were equally divorced from everyday reality. The industry end was controlled by rich insiders (nothing new there), but unlike today, there was no independent alternative at all. So a major punk credo was that anybody could be in a band and make good rock music for his mates.
But this idea got taken to extremes; the idea that anybody can be in a band is a good one. The idea that if his playing improves his music becomes less valid is a bad one, but often that concept dominated. The attitude should have been that any level of playing ability is valid as long as the end result is exciting and fresh and not pretentious; granted a hard mix to combine, yet there are bands doing it all over today. But most people who would make any worthwhile music to begin with would improve just by virtue of playing more and more, and besides that, one would hardly be human to not want to get better at something that he or she is fond of doing.
This was exactly the kind of record Radios Appear was...an lp by a band that played a whole lot better than most of their peers but was way too hard and heavy to have a prayer in the mainstream. Radio Birdmanwere naive...they didn't know what the rules were at the time, and if they had known they probably wouldn't have cared, so they fell in the cracks.
But by the mid 80s (earlier in Australia where preconceptions seem to have been less widely held) a lot of hardcore bands were starting to break the rules. Husker Du are probably the best example of a band that risked their entire "underground credibility" to break out of the straightjacket thinking of hardcore. But I think many of the others that have done so, and who have used Radio Birdmanas a jump off point, have done so because they recognize that here was a band that was able to combine energy with ability to make some really exciting music.
Radio Birdmanwere a lot more than just a Detroit metal band, though that's the way everybody tends to think of them. But there were also strong influences from jazz and surf music. Deniz Tek, the lead guitar player, claimed that the Rolling Stones were more influential for him personally than anyone else, and he was also a big fan of sixties soul like James Brown, Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding. As far as I know their history hasn't ever been told in a US mag, so I've borrowed Harry Butler's definitive story from DNA#49...which you might want to get from him since it has tons more history of related bands (write him at PO Box 602/North Adelaide 5006/South Australia)...and we'll let Harry take it from here.
The central core of Radio Birdmanwas the twin axis of singer Rob Younger and guitarist Deniz Tek. Tek had been born and brought up in Ann Arbor, Michigan (same town that the Stooges grew out of), and spent most of his early life in the USA, seeing bands like the MC5, the Rationals, and others.
After a brief visit down under in 1967, he moved out here in 1972 and shortly after commenced studying medicine (he'd previously studied chemical engineering in America). He'd started playing guitar at the age of 13, but it wasn't until he came out to Australia that he started playing seriously in bands. First up in 1972 he joined the Screaming White Hot Razor Blades, who played "fun" music ranging from the Rolling Stones to the Bonzo Dog Band. Various lineup changes saw the band evolve into the Cunning Stunts and eventually TV Jones by 1974.
One of Tek's medical student colleagues - Pip Hoyle - was an occasional member of TV Jones and the band played around Sydney quite a bit, doing some Stooges and MC5 stuff as well as Rolling Stones, J. Geils Band and Alice Cooper material. They also featured a number of originals, a couple of which were recorded for a prospective single on the Earth label in 1974. Unfortunately, the tape was accidentally erased and the band couldn't afford to redo it. By the latter part of the year the band had split with Tek being kicked out for allegedly generating a feeling of ill will on stage.
At roughly the same time another mob called the Rats had come into existence, this being comprised of Rob Younger and what became Radio Birdman's rhythm section amongst other people. They played an all covers set of stuff by the Stooges, MC5, Velvet Underground and New York Dolls - all very par for the course nowadays, but fairly bizarre by early 70's standards (especially in Australia). Not surprisingly when they and TV Jones became aware of each other, a rapport of sorts sprang up between some of the members, and once both bands had disintegrated in the spring of 1974 it seemed obvious that a new one would spring from the ashes - Radio Birdman.
Their initial set was based around the material they were already playing, with more originals. Various gigs were obtained in the first few months of their existence, but as the members' commitment to the music increased and the concept of the band developed (with a corresponding increase in their overall "power") things became more difficult. The original bass player was sacked for being a jerk and Rats' rhythm guitarist Warwick Gilbert came in as a replacement, bringing with him an array of graphic design skills. He was able to provide them with a defined visual image that complemented their music via some imaginative posters and an overall approach to the band's "visuals".
As 1975 wore on the band became more musically powerful and the problems with gigging intensified. They played with incredible amounts of intensity and conviction, refusing to ever compromise in the slightest, which naturally got them a small but rabid cult following and antagonized pub owners and promoters across Sydney. There were instances of the band having to arm themselves with microphone stands when loading out from gigs to protect themselves from bouncers, and fans and friends were harassed for dancing too vigorously. By the end of the year small mentions of the band had begun appearing in RAM magazine as some of the writers became die-hard fans, and they cleaned up by wining the "RAM/Levis Punk Band Thriller" in December.
They got around the worst of the gig problems by taking up a residency at the Oxford Tavern in Taylor Square in downtown Darlinghurst. This was a sweaty old rock and roll venue that had been a home for decent bands since the 1960s. As the months went by their gigs began packing out more and more people, but never were they very numerous. Tek and Hoyle (who'd left at this stage, but would later rejoin) were in the fifth year of their medical studies and consequently had greater restrictions on their time, so the band was forced to schedule its activities around their study. In a way this was sort of to their advantage - each gig was an event, although they would occasionally do short tours of four or five gigs at a time. Image wise they had adopted a theme of militarism with associated use of striking symbolism and members wearing virtual uniforms. The best example of the former was their "symbol" - described by some as "the badge of courage", but actually it was a representation of an eagles wings with a flying saucer coming through the middle. This gave them a strong sense of identity and helped maintain the group spirit. The use of this imagery led some people to accuse them of flirting with fascism/nazism, and there was a backlash against them from some of the trendier elements who were looking for a deeper meaning behind it all.
In March 1976 they did a live-to-air broadcast for 2JJ, with another in November that confirmed the impact they'd made on the Sydney music scene. Apart from the Oxford Tavern, they were still getting an assortment of other outside gigs coming in. One early in the year was at Armdale out in the country, only someone had boobed at the other end and in the booking they ended up playing to mostly over 50 year old members of the local Lions Club. After three songs they were begged to stop playing before too many of the old timers had coronaries.
In the middle of the year they made their first of several trips into Trafalgar Studios to record material. An initial release of the four track "Burn My Eye" ep in October of 1976, delayed for a time while test pressings of sufficient loudness were obtained (or so the legend goes), and was sold out as a mail order item via one ad in RAM. Needless to say it sold out very rapidly, had a second pressing, and was then deleted. Pirate pressings of it appeared in Europe a couple of years later and it has become one of the most wanted items in collector's circles in Australia. Perhaps Citadel Records could be persuaded to arrange the re-release of it, amongst their plans to make some other older material available.
The band's music was developing, in spite of the limitations on the time of some members, with both originals and choice of covers churning along on its own path without being dictated by any fashion (although their choice of music has become a very stereo-typed fashion). The whole thing - music, image and energy - coalesced in one song written in the latter part of 1976 - "New Race". Written semi-intentionally as an anthem of sorts, it perfectly encapsulated the band and remains a classic. The gigs were becoming ever more frenetic and they'd obtained the "services" of two back-up singers cum masters of ceremonies - Mark Sisto and Johnny Kannis - with Kannis becoming legendary for his over-the-top showmanship.
There's a promotional film-clip for "New Race" with the band performing live which has Kannis intro-ing it in, what was for him, a fairly mild performance, really whooping the crowd up with a kind of Nuremberg rally type intensity. The chanting that accompanies "New Race" ("yeah hup") along with the clenched fist "salute" served as yet more "evidence" for those who wanted to "detect" fascist implications in Birdman's approach. A "Blitzkrieg" tour of Sydney at the end of 1976 had the critics in raptures and the audiences in spasms. Tek then went to the USA for a 3 month holiday and the band rested.
Their fave venue, the Oxford Tavern, was threatened with demolition in early 1977, but they took it over and got a stay of execution, renamed it the Oxford Funhouse (another Stooges connection), and began evolving a whole new scene. Bands like the Hellcats and Psychosurgeons began gigging with them, playing similar music, but they also encouraged other groups with a similar strong commitment (bit not necessarily the same style) to their music to gig with them, and had links with the embryonic punk scene. They ran ads like the one whose text is reprinted in the insert in RAM and during the course of the year pioneered a whole alternative circuit of bands and venues. This not only involved the Oxford Funhouse and a few other venues, but also led to them regularly hiring halls and putting on their own shows. Nothing strange about that now, but it was a whole new thing in 1977.
The Funhouse is Sydney's only genuine rock'n'roll venue. We are having trouble finding good bands to book. To us a good band is energetic, exciting, innovative (or unashamedly derivative) playing rock'n'roll with real manic fervor.
For booking and enquiries ring 922 2275, ask for George, and cut loose.
The Funhouse draws crowds from about 130 to 300 people (standing room only). The band is paid from the door money, a dollar a head minus 10% booking fee, Chris the ticket girl's money and posters.
The following bands who play regularly at the Funhouse can be booked directly by phoning 922 2275.
Soon after Tek got back from the States they made their first visit to Melbourne (March 1977) and although mostly promoted on just a word-of-mouth basis the gigs were packed out and they got a rabid response from the masses. The press coverage intensified and they spent more time recording. Alongside the usual scattered Sydney performances they also did a short tour of southern New South Wales and Canberra with the Hellcats.
A second Victorian expedition took place a couple of months after the first, and although they got larger crowds there were also more problems. Aside from the usual hassle of gigs being hastily canceled or re-arranged due to promoters getting shitty with them, planned appearances on TV went wrong as well. They were due to appear on "Nightmoves" just after a gig, but got fucked around in the TV studios and it didn't happen, and they were badmouthed for refusing to appear on some other moron's show at ridiculously short notice. At one hastily re-arranged gig they did a support spot for the Ted Mulry Gang, who at that time were one of the country's leading teeny-bopper bands.
In June 1977 they finally released an album - Radios Appear - and two tracks off that as a single ("New Race" and their version of the Stooges "TV Eye"). The album title came from a Blue Oyster Cult song "Dominance and Submission" (and incidentally, the band name came from the Stooges song "1970").
In their own inimitable way they virtually stopped gigging for a couple of months when the album came out. The one notable exception was a performance for the ABC for their "Real Thing" TV show, when the band trundled into a downtown Sydney TV studio and blasted out to a live audience under the watchful eye of the cameras. The Saints did a set for the show as well, and these two bands plus other more mainstream acts like Renee Geyer had excerpts of their performances broadcast in early 1978.
By early 1977 "punk" had erupted around the world and had become known even in far-off Australia. Radio Birdmanbecame linked with it via their high energy music, no compromise approach and their basic musical roots (the Stooges and MC5 were becoming "hip"). Soon after things began going a bit sour between them and RAM, although the preceding year had seen a good relationship built up.
Time went by and live work resumed. Having broken their way into the hearts and minds of Melbourne people, the next town to be attacked was Adelaide, and in September 1977 the "Aural Rape" tour was conducted with predictable success. Thence more recording.
Soon after it was announced that Iggy Pop was going to do an Australian tour and the tour organizers immediately contacted Radio Birdmanwith the aim of getting them as support for the great Pop. This approach was not only made because of the musical compatibility between the two, but also in the hope that Birdman's presence would help fill the gigs. In the end though it never happened as the Ig canceled out, but Birdman did a quick tour anyway through Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney in November. As further confirmation of their status one of the Adelaide gigs was filmed by the ABC's "Rockturnal" show, and the resulting piece has been broadcast several times since then. One of the Victorian shows was bootlegged and actually pressed up as an album (never done before or since to an Australian band in the home country). The vinyl in question was originally titled "Eureka Birdman!", but a later pressing overseas was retitled "Where The Action Is". Sound quality is pretty dodgy, and the band was intensely pissed off (to put it mildly) when this item emerged in mid 1979.
By this stage interest in the band was coming from overseas, the main contender being Sire Records, who'd successfully courted the Saints and had the Ramones and a number of other worthwhile bands signed up. Sire took up with the band eventually and it was decided that the first international release would be a reworked edition of their first album, Radios Appear, with a few new songs and a new sleeve. In the latter part of 1977 they recorded a bunch of new tunes and redid some of the ones from the first album for this project. Of the older songs, some like "New Race" and "Love Kills" were completely re-recorded, while others like "Do The Pop" and "Descent Into The Maelstrom" merely got new vocal tracks, or just had piano bits added like "Murder City Nights". The Australian release of this disc had a big sticker on the front pointing out that a lot of it was material that was already available...that kind of honesty is still very rarely seen.
With all of this overseas interest it was only natural that thought would be given to heading out of country, and they did. After a final volley of gigs around Sydney in December (the very last one was a live-to-air broadcast on 2JJ) they headed off to England in late February 1978. After a couple of weeks settling in and arranging things they commenced the "Anglo Strike" and began gigging around London. The big thing at the time was short-haired punk bands who "fitted" into the English scene. Birdman had long hair, a total disdain for a lot of the bullshit that went on there, and played music that was too full on for a lot of people to comprehend at first. They basically got a pretty bad response, although a few die hard fans took up with them, and this lack of acceptance was a big surprise to them. It also became apparent that they weren't going to get an overwhelming amount of support from their record company either. It was kind of back to square one for them.
After the initial round of London gigs they trekked out to the Welsh countryside to record a new album at Dave Edmunds' Rockfield Studios. Eighteen tracks were put down, including re-workings of three of the songs on the "Burn My Eye" ep. Plans were laid for this to be released later in the year, and there was talk of them getting over to the US for a short tour as well.
In the more immediate future there was another round of shows in London again and then a tour with the Flaming Groovies. This seminal American band (who'd inspired millions but never actually achieved a great deal of success, being a hyper fave cult band) was also on Sire Records, and the two groups did a quickie European tour of 6 dates through France, Belgium and Holland, although the last two shows were canceled when the Groovies' guitarist slashed up his arm when he fell on a champagne bottle he was drinking from.
The end was in sight for the band by this time, though. Tek and Hoyle had to be back in Australia by the middle of the year to commence internships as the next step in their medical careers, and the band's legendary group spirit was splintering. For the first time they were forced to spend a lot of time in each other's company while in England, which grated a bit, and they found themselves virtually having to start all over again, which was (obviously) very frustrating. This was some years before Australian bands were even tolerated, let alone regarded as "hip" (like they are today) by the critics and audiences over there. By the time of their Groovies support stint relationships had gotten very bad, and their European tour vehicle had the oh so appropriate "van of hate" scrawled on the side by someone.
They had a week's break after Europe and then commenced the "Groovin' On The Road" tour with the Flaming Groovies around the UK, just as the international version of Radios Appear was released in England. But the combination of internal tension, external apathy on the part of English fans and a total lack of record company support led the whole band to cease to exist after a final gig at Oxford on the 10th of June 1978. Over the ensuing few months the band and tour party gradually made their way back to Australia and got new bands going. But that wasn't quite the end.
There was still the third album that they'd recorded in Wales. Somehow a cassette of the whole thing got back to Australia and copies of it began doing the rounds. The band had taken great pains to prevent exactly this from occurring, to the point of having huge arguments about who could have a copy, all to no avail. As the years went by Deniz Tek made a number of abortive attempts to recover the master tapes and get it released in Australia at least (the band had retained rights to their own distribution and pressing in the Australian-New Zealand region when they signed with Sire), but was repeatedly fobbed off with promises of "next week" or "next month". Then after a time he stopped getting answers at all. However, unbeknownst to anyone, he'd made a copy of the actual master tape at the time of recording and hidden it away for safe keeping. As it turned out this was of good enough quality to use for pressing up the album, and 13 tracks were selected for inclusion on the Living Eyes album which was finally released in early 1981. Another track turned up the following year as the b-side to a Deniz Tek solo single on Citadel Records. Whether any of the remaining songs ever see the light of day officially remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, the legend of Radio Birdmanlives on, and there's probably more Birdman fans around now than there was back in the 70's when they actually existed. In mid 1979 an un-named promoter offered each member $3000 to reform and perform three gigs - one each in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. They turned it down.
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