Radio Birdman take wing again

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For many years it seemed as though Australia’s Radio Birdman would be one of the few great influential bands that would never reunite. Following their breakup in 1978, Birdman’s reputation only grew in their homeland and in Europe. In 1996 the reunion happened, and their legend was not tarnished. They played sporadically over the next decade or so before calling time on the band for what seemed like the last time in 2008.
Last year, on the back of an exhaustive retrospective box set that brought together their entire studio output from their original incarnation, many previously unheard songs and outtakes as well as a definitive live recording from 1977, Birdman reformed to tour Australia. This summer they are touring Europe again – with one Norwegian date at John Dee on June 25 – and this time it really does have an air of finality about it.
The six-piece Birdman now has three original members left – guitarist/principal songwriter Deniz Tek, singer Rob Younger and keyboardist Pip Hoyle. Bassist Jim Dickson joined in 2002, drummer Nik Rieth in 2004 and Dave Kettley replaced guitarist Chris ‘Klondike’ Masuak when the band reformed last year. The three newer members have all played in Younger’s other (and now primary) band, The New Christs. Bad Sounds caught up with Deniz Tek as Birdman prepared to play two small-capacity warmup shows in Australia before hitting the road for Europe.
“He’s a great guitar player, and he plays the songs,” Tek says of the new face in the band, Dave Kettley. “I think he comes from a long line of quite excellent cover bands in his past, and he just has a way of playing the song the way it was meant to be presented when it was written. So I think with Dave, it actually sounds more like us than it has for some time. I think Chris Masuak had diverged quite a bit along a separate musical pathway – I’m not saying that what he was doing was bad or wrong, but it was different. I think where we are now with Dave is a little bit closer to how we probably sounded back in the Seventies.”
The issue of Masuak’s absence from the reformed Birdman was a controversial one for many fans last year. A lot of people thought the band wouldn’t be the same without Masuak, and plenty of keyboard warriors made their opinions known. However, the complaints seemed to disappear after people saw the shows.
“That’s right,” Tek says. “It all pretty much died down at that point. I understand that Chris has a core of people that really like his playing and are fans of him – those are probably people that are fans of The Hitmen and that style of playing. That’s fine, I don’t begrudge anybody the right to have that as their focus, but of course we also have the right to change things if we think it’s really necessary for the band’s direction, and that’s what happened. Like you say, I didn’t get any complaints after those shows. There wasn’t anybody that came up to me and said it would have been better with Chris or anything like that. They were saying the band sounds great.”
Radio Birdman 2014/2015 lineup - Jim Dickson (bass), Rob Younger (vocals), Nik Rieth (drums), Deniz Tek (guitar), Dave Kettley (guitar), Pip Hoyle (keyboards) - Photo by Anne Laurent

Radio Birdman 2014/2015 (left to right) Jim Dickson (bass), Rob Younger (vocals), Nik Rieth (drums), Deniz Tek (guitar), Dave Kettley (guitar), Pip Hoyle (keyboards) – Photo by Anne Laurent

In the 1970s Birdman had a reputation for delivering the goods live – for playing each show as if their lives depended on

it. Is that commitment still there?

“I think it is, yeah,” Tek says. “It certainly feels like that at the end of the show – I mean, you don’t have anything left. We’re still committed to making every show different. There are certain keystone moments in the set where it’s going to be the same, certain things are the foundations and they have to be there, but other than those checkpoints, the stuff in between changes all the time. We love to improvise and come up with new approaches to the material. Some of the songs have intervals or passages where it’s completely free game to do whatever you want to do, so we like to take it into different areas. If you’re going to improvise, it can work out really well – or it might not. But you put yourself out there and hope for the best – and play really hard. The band has always been into playing hard.”

The self-titled seven-CD, one-DVD box set released last year has almost sold out, so the European tour is not an exercise in merchandising.

“There’s not going to be any more people buying the box set because we’re out there playing in Europe, so it’s just for us to go there and have a good time playing and present the music to the people again,” Tek explains. “That’s the main idea. We’re not going to get rich off it either – it’s really expensive to take a six-piece band on the road… we’re going to feel we did great if we break even. So it’s all about the music, that’s all.”

The highlight of the box set is the official version of the band’s oft-bootlegged last concert in Australia at Sydney’s Paddington Town Hall in 1977. Also available on vinyl on its own, it’s one of the great live albums of all time. As well as an incredible set from a band at the peak of their powers, it was a riotous occasion that left the band – who set up and promoted the show themselves – with a hefty damage bill.

“With Radio Birdman one of the regrets is that – in my opinion – we were never able to capture the energy of the band on a studio recording,” Tek says. “I think the studio recordings are okay for what they are, but it didn’t really tell you what the band was like to go see. This Paddington Town Hall LP release sort of does give you an idea of that, so it fills in a gap in the band’s history that needed to be out there.

“It was a crazy evening. We weren’t even aware of how crazy it was until after it was over. It turned into a riot at the end. I remember one side of the PA column had been torn down, there was a lot of blood on the walls in the place. The concert venue was on the second floor, and it had a row of these great big tall windows down one side. Those were smashed, and people had thrown these big wine flagon bottles out through those windows and smashed a whole row of cars that were parked on the street. It was just amazing – we had no idea that was going on while we were playing. In those days you didn’t have security, and you didn’t have insurance, you didn’t have any of this liability protection or any of this stuff that they have today. It was just, go out there, hire a venue, hold an event and see what happens. It seems pretty innocent when you look back on it, but it was an eye-opener for us. Things were a little bit out of control, and we were kind of glad that that was the last show we did in Australia – we had no idea what was going to happen, maybe somebody would get killed at the next one. Certainly we were afraid of that possibility after we saw what had happened, and we were glad to get out of the country and go somewhere else where things weren’t quite so weird.”

At one point on the record, after a blistering version of Crying Sun, Younger remarks to the audience that they are “getting yourselves worked up into a right state” – which is putting it mildly.

“Yeah, there’s some pretty interesting exchanges between Rob and myself and the crowd that’s on the tape that didn’t get put on the album. It was kind of adversarial. At one point Rob jumped off the stage and got into a fight with somebody down at the front, and I jumped in to help him. That was just this melee, with stuff being thrown at the stage. Something hit the bass amplifier and took it out, so there’s this long delay while we’re putting a new bass head up – people screaming and us telling them to settle down and that we’re not going to be able to play if it goes on like that. All that was on the tape, and it was really interesting to listen to – maybe sometime we’ll put some of that out just so people can be entertained by it. It was mostly quite positive, the response to that show. People were into it, they liked it. But some of it was reminiscent of Metallic K.O. [the legendary live recording of The Stooges‘ chaotic last gig in 1974] – stuff hitting the stage and bottles flying, all that kind of thing.”

Rob Younger and Deniz Tek - Photo by Anne Laurent

Rob Younger and Deniz Tek in Australia in 2014 – Photo by Anne Laurent

Tek grew up in the US, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and saw The Stooges and The MC5 as a youngster before his family moved to Sydney. He had a direct link to that Detroit scene, but Australia in the mid-70s was a long way from the Motor City or anything else interesting happening in the music world. Birdman and their contemporaries were forced to evolve in isolation.”It certainly gave us a blank page to work on,” Tek says. “There was nothing going on that was remotely similar, so there was nothing to compare it to. I think that gives you a certain amount of freedom if you’re willing to just go do something completely different. We didn’t really welcome the isolation when the negative aspects of it manifested in the form of being banned from places, or not being understood or accepted by the established music business, we sort of took it on board and said, ‘Okay, if you’re going to treat us like outlaws, we’ll be outlaws’. It increased the anarchy factor of it a little bit I think, and made us – I wouldn’t say belligerent, but certainly made us even more independent and willing to go outside the norm.

“We really liked The Saints‘ record when it came out, and when they came down from Brisbane we thought ‘Here’s another band that’s actually doing something different’. By then the punk thing had started, and I think we had heard The Ramones‘ first album, and maybe a couple of things from the UK, so we felt like we’d have some allies when The Saints came down to Sydney. We helped them out by giving them a rehearsal space to use, loaning them equipment and helping them to get gigs, stuff like that. But it didn’t actually work out, their singer Chris Bailey didn’t like us and was… let’s just say less than friendly. So we didn’t get the alliance with The Saints that we had hoped for originally.”

Growing up in Michigan, Tek took guitar lessons from Dan Erlewine, who had been in a band with his brother Michael (who later founded and a guy called James Osterberg, later to be known as Iggy Pop.

“They were in The Prime Movers, it was sort of a blues-jazz-fusion thing, and Iggy was the drummer. Dan Erlewine was my first – and only – guitar teacher. I took guitar lessons from him for about three months when I first started playing, I was about 12 or 13 years old. Later on Dan became a famous guitar builder and luthier and repair man, and he wrote a column in Guitar Player Magazine for how to do guitar maintenance and repairs. When the neck broke off my Crestwood he was the guy that did the repair on it, so I maintained contact with him for a long time.”

The Crestwood Tek refers to is a 1966 Epiphone Crestwood Deluxe, as seen on the cover of Birdman’s debut album Radios Appear. It had a previous owner – Fred ‘Sonic’ Smith of the MC5. (Guitar freaks can read its story here.) Although Tek didn’t buy the guitar directly from Smith, he did strike up a friendship with him and often joined Sonic’s Rendezvous Band on stage when he visited the US.

“They were fantastic. A pity that they didn’t actually leave us with a studio album – band politics didn’t work out. The demise of Sonic’s Rendezvous Band was caused by Iggy taking most of the guys – Fred, Gary Rasmussen and Scott Asheton – on tour with him in Europe. So Sonic’s Rendezvous Band had to take a break from playing for a couple of months in 1978. We actually ran into those guys over there and saw one of the shows [Birdman were touring Europe at the time – it was an ill-fated tour that led to the breakup of the band]. It was a great lineup for Iggy, but the break from playing led Scott Morgan, who was left behind, to get involved with some other people. He was bored, he didn’t have anything to do, so he started doing some demos with some other people, and when they got back Fred saw that as a betrayal of sorts and it led to a split. That’s why we never got a Sonic’s Rendezvous Band album.”Frequently I played with them, just on the one song, City Slang. Fred always wanted to have more guitars on that song. He told me that on the recorded version there’s 12 guitar tracks. So he wanted to have as many guitars as possible on that song when they played it live, and he would always ask me to bring my guitar and play on City Slang if I was in town when they were playing – which was really fun, I had great evenings doing that.”

Back to Birdman, what does the future hold after this tour?

“I really have no idea. If I could be the dictator of the band and tell everybody what to do, we’d probably make another album. I’m not really interested in touring forever as a nostalgia act and just doing old stuff, for me it would have to be an actual living band. To me being in a living band means you’re working on new material, doing new stuff. So if I had my choice on that, that’s what I would do. But I don’t know if that’s going to happen. I don’t know if the commitment is there from everybody to do that, to take it to that level. I know that Rob is still very committed to The New Christs, and he would probably prioritise that above anything else if it was a time issue. So I’ll take what I can get at this point.”

Radio Birdman play one show in Norway – at John Dee in Oslo on June 25. Tickets

Radio Birdman’s full European tour dates
Fans of Deniz Tek can also check out Bad Sounds’ interview with him for his 2014 solo tour here.

All photos by Anne Laurent. Used by permission


One Response to Radio Birdman take wing again

  1. Mike says:

    I loved the Sydney shows but I missed Chris.

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