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 Appear in '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 Appear is 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.
"We had a mutual interest -- maybe a craving even -- for the upheaval that comes with willful, uncooperative behavior," continues Younger. "I remember deriving a lot of satisfaction from us being made pariahs. When we played we put on a show, and that show wasn't choreographed to the hilt, and we didn't ever consciously use the same set list twice. If I spat sheep's brains at the audience, it was intended just that once -- we didn't plan it to happen in the same chorus of the same song every time. We got banned from venues left, right and center for being ourselves, which says a lot, because these days anything obnoxious is simply co-opted by the record companies, a marketing angle is contrived to accommodate the so-called outrage. After punk hit, it was expected of bands to be obnoxious, profane, whatever. . . . In the studio, too, we'd have minor shitfights with the producers about whether we could be told how to sound, matters of 'direction,' et cetera. We were so unbending on everything. We probably looked like trouble -- I hope so!"
Sadly, the band split up on the eve of what would have been its first American tour, supporting the Ramones in the summer of '78. Having decamped that April to the UK to record Living Eyes and begun a tour with labelmates the Flamin' Groovies, the quintet suddenly got the word it had been dropped by Sire. Disillusioned, disorganized and more than a little bit disheartened by a less-than-warm embrace from the trend-obsessed London punk contingent, the Birdmen called it a day.
Recalls Tek, "I've always thought the band might have done okay in America, where perhaps the fashion side of punk wasn't quite so important. But it would have been impossible to do the American tour without label support. As it turned out, the band died a natural death anyway. On the skids both financially and emotionally, sick, exhausted, broke, no label and no support, there wasn't enough critical mass of motivation to try to get it revved up again. We had no management or advanced leadership skills that might have allowed it to continue. People moved on."
Legends being what they are, of course, the Birdmen had their Phoenix moments. In '81, Tek, Younger and Gilbert formed the short-lived New Race with Ron Asheton (Stooges) and Dennis Thompson (MC5). Years later, in January '95, a full-fledged Birdman reunion tour was mounted to celebrate the Australian remastered CD reissues of the two albums. No mere nostalgia cash-ins, both Tek and Younger agree the gigs, featuring ex-MC5 Wayne Kramer as support act, rivaled those from the old days. A superb official live CD, Ritualism, was released in commemoration.
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Over the years Younger and Tek have remained the most musically active, the former producing scores of Aussie bands and fronting the New Christs, the latter returning to the States and currently working with both the Deniz Tek Group and Deep Reduction. (The New Christs and Deep Reduction both have new American albums imminent, on Mans Ruin and Get Hip, respectively. Also worth noting: Tek teamed up with Wayne Kramer and Scott Morgan in '96 to record an album as Dodge Main.) Of the other ex-Birdmen, Hoyle plays in the Tek Group; Masuak formed the Screaming Tribesmen and, more recently, both Klondike Solution and The Raouls, the latter featuring Gilbert in the lineup; and Keeley, now in England, is in The Suspects.
Choice cuts included on The Essential range from Radios Appear's Dick Dale-meets-Blue Oyster Cult "Hand of Law" and dance anthem/Iggy tribute "Do The Pop" to Living Eyes' throbbing psychedelic travelogue "I-94" and skree-garage cruncher "Burn My Eye '78," plus a handful of tracks from a pair of now-rare EPs, Burn My Eye and the live More Fun. Tek and Younger had previously remastered Radios Appear -- and in the case of Living Eyes, completely remixed it -- for the '95 Australia reissues, so all that remained for the Sub Pop anthology was to whittle it down to the 22 most crucial tracks. Tek acknowledges that there were some studio outtakes in the archives, "mostly covers and at least one original that I know of, from the Radios Appear sessions, that have never seen the light of day -- for fair reasons. Even the bootleggers don't have those! But you don't have to release the last dregs, even though many bands do. So there won't be any more studio rarities coming out."
A live archival release is not out of the question, however, as the band also has some 16-track tapes recorded in Sydney in '77. Says Younger, "I think the sound and atmosphere on 'Dark Surprise' and 'More Fun' -- both live recordings [from Sydney '77] included on this new release -- are way superior to anything else we did. Seymour Stein of Sire Records, apart from peripheral reasons too delicate to recount in detail here, wanted to sign us on the basis of 'More Fun,' which he heard us play live once or twice."
Beat the boots, then gentlemen. Oh, about that unauthorized disc Tek found in the record store. Guys, copies of Murder City Nights are in the mail. CD-R copies, that is, gladly dubbed at home for you by a longtime Birdman fan. Guarantee: No artists were ripped off during the making of this article. Yeah, hup!