FLIGHT OF THE BIRDMAN
Author: Bruce Jenkins Date Posted:2 February 2024
When thinking of pivotal Australian punk bands, two shine brightly enough to burn your eye. Having some affinity with the vibrant UK scene, The Saints are perhaps better known internationally. Yet in terms of sheer power and energy Radio Birdman are certainly their equal.
Formed in Sydney by Rob Younger and US born Deniz Tek, Radio Birdman were dedicated and completely uncompromising. Their musical influences were Detroit rather than London: Iggy and the Stooges, the MC5. They were a garage band with thousand watt output; amphetamine noisemakers who also knew how to slow things down without losing intensity.
The early days of Birdman were characterised by a struggle to find gigs and the disinterest of record labels. So they found their own venues and put on their own shows, eventually taking over a Sydney club and re-naming it the Funhouse, a clear nod to The Stooges album Fun House.
As Sydney’s punk scene slowly emerged, so Radio Birdman gradually attracted a small but potent following. With the help of the editor of RAM (Rock Australia Magazine) they recorded an e.p. and soon after began work on their debut album, Radios Appear. Recording took place at Trafalgar Studios in Sydney, with the album being released in July 1977. Rolling Stone Australia were impressed, awarding the LP five stars. But this did not translate into either fame or fortune; the record was sold via mail order, in a handful of independent record stores, and at gigs. The band may have always objected to the 'punk' categorisation—preferring 'rock and roll' as their descriptor—yet you can’t get much more punk that this self-driven, hands on approach to getting your product out there.
Radios Appear lays out its schtick in the opening seconds. Younger’s anguished bellow introduces a tearing version of the Stooges "T.V. Eye" (from 1970’s aforementioned Fun House) that blasts away any doubt that this is MOR pop music. It’s an absolutely thrilling beginning that ends with a squeal of guitar feedback. "Murder City Nights" is pure Detroit rock with a driving beat and a catchy refrain. In fact, that is part of the garage genius of Radio Birdman, many of the songs have both infectiously driving rhythms and a vocal hook. It’s primal rock at its best, and third track "Anglo Girl Desire" exemplifies this. (Interestingly, this track appeared as the b-side of two different singles!)
Don’t run away with the idea that this is simply a slab of frantic Ramones-style two-minute rock. "Man With Golden Helmet" has a groove-driven Doors vibe that drips atmosphere and even includes a piano break, while the final track on side one, "Descent Into The Maelstrom", hits like a deranged surf-punk tidal wave.
This is such a strong LP that I’d happily go through the stunning second side as well, writing furiously while the songs shake my windows, but there’s more story to tell.
When the president of US label Sire Records visited Australia to sign The Saints, he caught a Birdman gig and immediately signed them. Smart guy. The result of this international connection was a new version of Radios Appear with some songs re-recorded, others re-mixed, and several new songs replacing those on the original LP. There are five additional songs, increasing the total track number by two with, naturally, some omissions. This results in the feel of the "international" version being so different that it seems like a different album. There’s a co-write with the Stooges Ron Ashton, a cover of the 13th Floor Elevators’ "You’re Gonna Miss Me" and the brilliantly catchy "Aloha Steve & Danno" (released as a single).
If it sounds like I’m advocating for both editions of Radios Appear, that is not so much a marketing ploy as a testament to how bloody brilliant it all is. Yeah hup, (it’s) Really gonna punch you out.*
* From "New Race", a song the Ramones might have written if they weren’t so nice.
© Bruce Jenkins—February 2024