Radio Birdman flies again
by Nicholas Rothwell - The Australian newspaper, April 21, 1981
The rock group Radio Birdman, whose followers almost became a secret society, is soon to rise again as The New Race, a controversial title with disturbing overtones. Nicholas Rothwell examines the political, social and artistic implications.
Radio Birdman - an Australian rock group so long silent its members have been plunged into a legendary obscurity - is making a comeback under another name.
But as with every small grouping, every secret society, stresses were placed on the groups who braved the hazards of The Funhouse - and these destructive tensions can be felt in the music of Radio Birdman.
Followers of the group were given special "positions" close to the members, as tokens of their value, and even "portfolios" such as a "Ministry of Defence" were apportioned as measures to defend the group's members from hostile audiences.
Radio Birdman appear to stand in the centre of one tradition of American rock music. What makes them exceptional is that a nostalgic, self-conscious quality has been added to their music; it is exactly the quality all literature has which knows of its forebears. Admirers of the conventional arts may doubt that from the fashionable entertainments provided by popular music anything could rise that can be described seriously, but this would be to forget that the established arts themselves are born from questioning of the straightforward. Sceptics will soon be able to test their prejudices, for Radio Birdman is to rise again - in a group that promises to be even more extreme than the old one. Radio Birdman escaped the bonds of convention when the group was formed on the principle mass popularity could not be their objective. Their impenetrable world makes no concession to general tastes.
As at the opening of forbidden books when the narrator throws down the abusive challenge - "No good for the many to read these pages, destructive of the heart" - so Radio Birdman's impenetrable world makes no concession to general tastes. This stance was presented in the group's stage concerts, which the musicians would perform following the maxim that "it is the audience that is on trial".
The name "Radio Birdman" was chosen from a song that embodied the ideas of the group. They are the first to present their music in the light of earlier songs, to give themselves the literary air of referring to ideas and feelings captured in the music of others.
One key to Radio Birdman is the allusive, indirect style of their lyrics. Where rock groups sing about people, or lost objects, Radio Birdman sing of loss: Those stay most haunting that most soon deceive.
Symbols and ideas which act as touchstones for a whole range of associations are strewn through their songs, but this privacy does not act as a barrier - their songs are about a particular, nostalgic reaction between the ideas and the performers - about the spell held over the listener by music. This explains the tense, overloaded air of the group's songs. At the same time, they have their most simple, apparent meanings and a host of concepts which need only be hinted at to be conjured in the minds of the audience, and these "traditional" themes, with their soothing and ornate nature, are pulled apart by the background of Birdman songs.
But the strategy of singing about the effect of music is taken one stage further. Not only is the group itself, Radio Birdman, subject to the influence and spell of music - to the weight of the feelings of others - the audience as well. We who listen to their music, are similarly placed. Birdman present an imitation of the audience's response to themselves. This rigour is pursued in the name of consciousness, so we are made aware, even as we acquire it, of the desolate knowledge gained from art. This is the world where beauty and insight are dangerous - the cloying and dramatic world where excess and the urgency of desire are played out, the world where love kills. Everything here is staged and operatic, it is the domain of the performer.
The purest example of the alchemy by which what was popular entertainment has been transformed by Radio Birdman into a questioning of how we respond to art comes in one of their best-known songs, Aloha Steve and Danno. The music is identical to the theme tune of the American TV series, Hawaii Five-O, a tune which is played against an opening title and credits sequence of exemplary ambiguity, in which film techniques for winning the hearts and minds of the audience are dissected precisely. From our feelings, the song creates a new register, since we are shown our involvement, our capture by fiction, even as we are ensnared. What makes one pause at the choice of material is the irrational nature of the song. The song is chosen as a senseless tune, colour music, no more. On top of it, Radio Birdman have added simple lyrics, explaining the plot of one episode of the detective series, involving tired, conventional themes - high-level corruption, a manhunt, murders. All this is simple, though there is something troubling in a song which overlays two accounts of the same thing - music associated with these themes, and a narration of them - but the chorus finally subverts this appearance.
Hawaii Five-O's fictional super cop is Steve McGarrett - the very man whose identity we have seen both stamped and put into question by the series' title credits which tells us the actor Jack Lord "is" Steve McGarrett.
Aficionados of the TV series will tell you the song is quoting a character from the plot, but one thing is clear - whoever sings the chorus has destroyed forever, with his gentle and formulaic words, the entire fabric of distinctions between performance and viewer, fiction and reality, the world of drama and the desire to be deceived. But despite these schematic accounts of how we respond to popular art, Radio Birdman do not believe it is these devices which reach across the divide between stage performer and audience.
The leader of the group, Deniz Tek, writes the songs, but is a measure of the closeness of the group he does not sing his own words, entrusting them to the more flamboyant front singer. He writes songs he describes as ambiguous and allusive, specifically because what is precise ties down and limits a song's meaning.
Added to this, Birdman performed rarely so their concerts were never routine events or simple entertainments. The group performed intermittently from 1975 (sic) to 1978, when they split up after a tour of England. But the dead group lives on. Across Australia the news has spread that Radio Birdman will reform. More popular since their demise than in their lifetime, they will have the chance once more to gather a cult around them. With three original members of the group will be two additional musicians, from American bands of the 60s which themselves provided the inspiration for the formation of Radio Birdman - an overt act of homage, a proclamation of the group's tradition.
The new group will tour the country under the name The New Race.
This name points out the most worrying aspect of Radio Birdman for those who loved them - the short step between the idea of an elite group, appealing only to the few, and the notion of a super race. Symbols meant to draw the group together in the face of widespread public scorn also attracted fanatical adherents who wanted to be led. Radio Birdman always denied their music concealed any political stance, but allegations they were followed by extremists can only have made them feel the glamour attached to such flirtations. It makes more persuasive the analogy between this absolutist group and the music of another composer whose work became a rallying cry for debased movements - Wagner himself. Like Wagner, Radio Birdman drew heavily on traditions for their material. Like him, their art is rigid in its seriousness, austere in its demand for allegiance.
In both, the sweetest music is the most desperate and dangerous - what seems pure is what tempts, and desires become endless, until the centre of the art whispers its sensual secrets only to those who love the danger.