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By Chase Kamp
It's a lovely Saturday afternoon in Tucson, and a casually dressed man in his late 40s is browsing a local record store's CD bins. Suddenly he does a double take at a disc; it's a live bootleg called Murder City Nights by legendary '70s Australian band Radio Birdman. Snatching up the disc, he heads to the check-out counter.
Just another wide-eyed record collector making a score, right? Not exactly. Dropping the CD on the counter in a low-key manner that doesn't fully mask his irritation, the man addresses a clerk, "This is by the band I was in, and it's an illegal recording." The clerk looks at the CD, blankly, then back at the man, unsure of how to reply. Nor does the name Radio Birdman register in the clerk's 20-year old, Playstation II-clogged brain.
Several months later I'm interviewing Deniz Tek and the incident comes up. Tek, you see, was the guitarist and principal songwriter for Radio Birdman. He was also the man mentioned above, in Tucson visiting his brother.
"Bootlegs are of such inferior quality," complains Tek. "A lot of Birdman tapes now in circulation are sonically bad. I don't have anything against fans and collectors keeping and trading any old live tapes for their own enjoyment, but I can't accept the idea of profiteers generating substantial income from material they have stolen from artists."
Fair enough. If any band ever deserved not to get exploited by bootleggers, it's Radio Birdman. The six-piece outfit -- Chris Masuak and the American-born Tek on guitars, Rob Younger on vocals, Pip Hoyle on keyboards, Warwick Gilbert on bass, Ron Keeley on drums -- may have enjoyed precious little in the way of financial remuneration during its four-year tenure, but the legend still flew high and long enough to transform "cult hero" into "seminal influence." With Sub Pop's recent release of the first legit Birdman artifact in nearly a quarter-century, The Essential Radio Birdman (1974 - 1978), that legend is set to soar again. Maybe even penetrate the consciousness of the punk 'n' roll youth of today.
To say that Radio Birdman was just another Aussie rock band would be akin to claiming that the Stooges were just another gang of Detroit hard rockers, or that Blue Oyster Cult was just another Long Island boogie outfit. (It's no coincidence that the band derived its name and the title of its first album from snatches of Stooges and BOC song lyrics, respectively.) While releasing only one album during its attenuated life span -- the group formed in late '74 from the ashes of Sydney garage bands TV Jones and The Rats, issuing Radios Appearin '77, then dissolving barely a year later (and three years before its second album, Living Eyes, would see posthumous release) -- Radio Birdman did fire one of those proverbial shots heard 'round the nascent punk world.
In particular, that salvo was heard in the band's native Oz. Musicians by the score were inspired by the Birdmen's fierce rock ethic; audiences would chant the signature Birdman tag line, "Yeah, hup!" (from the anthemic "New Race") en masse just as fervently as Americans shouted "Hey-ho, let's go!" at Ramones gigs. According to author Vivien Johnson, in the exhaustive 1990 bio/oral history Radio Birdman (Sheldon Booth Publishers, Australia), "Radio Birdman [was] not typical -- they were proto-typical. The energy of the response they generated in their audiences and their utterly uncompromising attitude towards any and every attempt to limit their music inspired in their wake an explosion of punk bands coming out of their old dancing grounds in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide."
"I never considered we would have a lasting influence -- no reason to," muses Rob Younger nowadays, who despite claiming to loathe the "legacy question," is reflective enough to suggest he's proud of Birdman's accomplishments. "I did feel, early on, that we were going to have an impact on the local rock scene because I just felt that our activities were intense and somehow had meaning beyond simply playing a gig. Quite early on we saw our work as being experimental. We thought of our shows as 'events.' I suppose I didn't recognize in other bands any attitude, or any contempt for the pandering bullshit that permeated the band scene, or the passion to match ours. A huge proportion of groups in those days were just cranking out solemn shit like Free covers, and lots of 12-bar blues stuff. The big bands of the day -- Sherbet and Skyhooks were the big socially relevant bands at the time we started out -- were tepid fucking affairs and people tend to appraise them now in nothing more than affectionately nostalgic terms. People apologize for having liked them. With us, people today get a tattoo done of our symbol [a stylized pterodactyl/airship zooming into crosshairs]."
In its day Birdman barely managed to tour outside Australia. Yet on a broader, international level, Radios Appearis now ranked alongside the likes of Raw Power, Horses, Kick Out the Jams, Rocket to Russia, etc. as one of those go-out-and-form-a-band classics. Pitched haphazardly to consumers by Sire Records in a tasty punk/new wave salad of debut albums from the Ramones, Talking Heads, Richard Hell & the Void Oids, Dead Boys and The Saints, Radios Appear has stood the test of time, its eclectic/brainy, muscular/aggro blend of garage, psych and surf clearly marking it as a proto-punk artifact par excellence. And its creators were the most charismatic, fuck-you band of rock 'n' roll thugs since the Pretty Things terrorized London a decade earlier; they beat the Sex Pistols to the term "outrage" by a year and a half.
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