Clip: Radio Birdman rises up like a phoenix
Radio Birdman rises up like a phoenix
By Greg Kot
Tribune music critic
Published September 1, 2006
Radio Birdman, one of Australia's first and best punk bands, broke up
in 1978 before they ever got a chance to tour America.
Now, the reconstituted Birdman--with four original members, a retooled
rhythm section, and a hard-hitting new album that picks up where they
left off 28 years ago--is finally getting that chance. The first
American tour brings them to the Double Door Saturday.
"We never got the invitation the first time," says Rob Younger, the
band's singer. Which, given the sextet's status as the pariahs of the
Aussie pub scene, was only fitting.
In the early '70s, when Younger and his future Radio Birdman sidekick
Deniz Tek began playing in bands, the clubs were teeming with rock 'n'
roll steeped in '50s and '60s nostalgia. Younger set out to be
different. He was an avid reader of Creem and other U.S. underground
music magazines, where he discovered bands such as the Velvet
Underground, Stooges, MC5 and New York Dolls.
He formed his first band, the Rats, with a fellow Dolls fanatic, and
they specialized in playing songs written by their cult heroes from
overseas. Tek, a Detroit native who had traveled to Australia to
pursue a medical degree, was in another punk-influenced band, TV
Jones. "It galled me that someone else was on to the same thing as
us," Younger says with a chuckle. "That's how I became aware of Deniz.
He was the guitar player, the songwriter, basically the most talented
guy in the band. And then they kicked him out because he didn't smile
enough, wasn't commercial enough for them. I couldn't believe it!
Right away, I knew we'd hit it off."
Tek joined forces with Younger, who took care of singing Tek's songs
and provoking the crowd at concerts. The band showed up at clubs where
they were instantly despised by management, who felt they'd been
misled. "These proprietors would think we'd lied to them calling
ourselves a rock 'n' roll band," Younger says. "To them, rock 'n' roll
was ['50s Australian star] Johnny O'Keefe."
On the way out of shows, the band would often have to fight off drunk,
rowdy fans ticked off by Younger's antics during the show. "We loved
it," Younger says. "We figured to get that kind of reaction, we must
be doing something right."
But within Sydney, the band started attracting a loyal following. The
music echoed the alienation of the Stooges and the MC5, and demanded
action. "There's gonna be a new race/ Kids are gonna start it up,"
Younger sang in Tek's "New Race," a song about seizing control of
one's destiny. The band dressed in matching dark-gray combat shirts
and wore arm patches bearing the band's red-and-black logo. The
hardcore fans followed suit, which caused at least one prominent
Australian music columnist to describe the band as fascist.
"People saw the word `race' in the song and over-reacted," Younger
says. "The song says nothing about militarism or facism, it says `kids
are gonna start it up.' It was written as a youth anthem at the
suggestion of our producer at the time. And the matching shirts looked
smart. I like it that we looked like we belonged in a band together.
We caught a lot of [expletive] because of it, but we couldn't have
cared less. It was a way of pushing buttons, of separating ourselves
from the people who didn't get it or us."
By 1977, the band's brand of flamethrower punk was gaining a larger
following, and a deal was struck with a U.S. label, Sire Records, home
to the Ramones, Talking Heads and another newly signed Australian punk
band, the Saints. Radio Birdman's sole U.S. release, "Radios Appear,"
contained "New Race" and is now regarded as a minor punk classic. But
back then, it barely registered outside of Australia, exacerbated by
the band's lack of touring. On a hellish tour of the United Kingdom in
1978, Radio Birdman was dropped by Sire and broke up. Another album,
"Living Eyes," came out, but by then it was too late.
"We disintegrated socially and economically," Younger says. "I was
angry at my bandmates for what I considered their appalling behavior,
even though I was just as much to blame. None of us were experienced
or mature enough to see the bigger picture."
Eventually, the squabbles subsided enough for the band members to
consider a reunion. They began playing together sporadically in 1996,
and got a shot of late-arriving recognition when Sub Pop Records
released "The Essential Radio Birdman: 1974-1978" in 2001, marking the
first time much of the band's best material had been issued
With original members Younger, Tek, keyboardist Pip Hoyle and
guitarist Chris Masuak in the fold, Radio Birdman recently released a
long-overdue third album, "Zeno Beach" (Yep Rock), to pave the way for
the first North American tour. The music does the legacy proud, with
Tek's venomous guitar leaping out of the mixes like a cobra.
"We didn't want to come over to America as a nostalgia act," Younger says.
He's still getting used to the idea of playing in front of audiences
that actually want to enjoy the band rather than fight it. "Acceptance
is a two-edged sword, and I lament it," he says. "We used to be
different from everyone else. But there have been so many outrageous
groups since we first started, far more extreme than we ever were. So
how do we stand out? There's no contrivance about what we do. We just
have to put whatever we got into the gig, and hope people get off on
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee Ave.
Price: $18-$20; 773-489-3160