Longtime cult darlings well on their way to becoming one of Australian rock’s most enduring legends, Sydney’s Radio Birdman sprang from a primordial stew comprised of the Doors, Stooges, MC5 and Blue öyster Cult. The sextet’s 7-inch Burn My Eye melded bits from each of those bands and, in so doing, became a durable archetype for the musical explosion that was about to occur. With twangy, reverberated guitar fleshed out by a barrelhouse piano, Rob Younger’s commanding vocals and guitarist Deniz Tek’s wandering leads, the EP’s “Burn My Eye,” “Smith and Wesson Blues” and “I-94” are positively revered by fans of the Aussie underground; the fourth (“Snake”) is merely terrific.
Like many primal punks in ’77 and ’78, Radio Birdman was quick to acknowledge and indulge its stylistic ancestry; Radios Appear opens with a rendition of the Stooges’ “TV Eye.” (Born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Tek played a crucial role in bringing the radical fruits of the American Midwest to Australia when he emigrated there in the early ’70s.) While “Anglo Girl Desire” and the raucous Detroit tribute “Do the Pop” flirt with the punk upsurge occurring half a world away, the lengthy “Man with the Golden Helmet” sounds genuinely like 1970 vintage, finding the conceptual spot where the Doors and the Stooges intersected. “Descent into the Maelstrom” incorporates a bit of surf music, “Love Kills” is distressingly dreamy and “New Race,” Birdman’s rallying cry (dig those “Yeh-Hup!” chants), closes the album.
The Saints opened the world’s eyes to Australian punk in late ’76, and that group’s American label went looking in Sydney and Melbourne to see if there were any more like them back home. Sire wound up issuing an overhauled version of Radios Appear with a totally different cover. The international edition retained some of the original’s songs — some intact and some re-recorded — and added a chunk of new material, including the phenomenal “Aloha Steve & Danno” (an unapologetic Hawaii Five-O swipe coupled with a go-nowhere-life-in-front-of-the-TV narrative by Younger), as well as a hot cover of the 13th Floor Elevators’ “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Hit Them Again,” a track co-written by Tek and Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton. The revised edition is a bit more aggressive than the original, but retains the same musical sensibilities.
Hard on the heels of its first (and only) worldwide release, Radio Birdman holed up in a Welsh studio and concocted a fine sounding stack of tracks, Living Eyes. Australian fans got to sample the band’s clearest recording yet — three years after it was finished. Birdman had broken up one tour after the LP’s completion, scattering its members around Australia to go forth and multiply (band-wise), bolstering the country’s already thriving underground with numerous new groups. (Canadian-born guitarist Chris Masuak went on to the Screaming Tribesmen. Bassist Warwick Gilbert joined the Lime Spiders.)
Living Eyes is a bit more somber and pensive than its predecessor. Tek coaxes some thoroughly frightening notes from his guitar, and Younger’s lyrics conjure up clammy, sweat-soaked images of a world in flames. There’s a flipside, however, on the beachy bubblegum pop of “More Fun” and “Do the Movin’ Change.” (The LP also contains credible re-recordings of three Burn My Eye tracks.) Radio Birdman breathed its last with “Hanging On,” three-and-a-half minutes of dense rock’n’roll history.
In 1981, Tek, Younger and Gilbert reunited to form the short-lived (one Australian tour) New Race with Ron Asheton and former MC5 drummer Dennis Thompson. The First and the Last is an impressive live record that includes searing renditions of the 5’s “Looking at You,” several Birdman tracks (including “Love Kills” and “Breaks My Heart”) and some new originals. The crisp live mix and some deft studio tinkering make this a walloping good platter.
Younger went on to form the New Christs; Tek was part of the Visitors and had a brief solo career before becoming a flight surgeon in the US Navy. The Visitors, a short-lived project that also included Birdman drummer Ron Keeley, released an album in ’82 (previewed on a four-song EP) of semi-memorable tracks (like “Euro Girls”) that departs from the pair’s past work to focus on an overtly ’60s-style Lyres sound that relies heavily on Farfisa-style organ and B-movie kitsch.
Collected from a number of studio sessions, Orphan Tracks, Tek’s solo LP, largely resembles Birdman’s output, minus the intensity and keyboards. On many of the cuts, Tek’s vocals are nearly identical to Younger’s.
Although it contains only four songs (two drawn from Living Eyes), the extremely belated More Fun! is the definitive live Birdman record (there are scads of bootlegs as well). Under the Ashes is a boxed set (available on vinyl or double-CD) of the band’s entire legit catalogue: both editions of Radios Appear, Living Eyes, Burn My Eye (here a 12-inch), More Fun, a remix of the 1978 “Aloha Steve & Danno” single and the New Race album, The First and the Last.
Rob Younger is probably more responsible than anyone (aside, perhaps, from Iggy himself) for promulgating the aggro-heavy Stoogian feel that imbues so many Down Underground bands. With the Sydney-based New Christs, Younger continued to serve notice as to who, exactly, are the punks and who is the godfather.
Detritus culls four tracks from the band’s second and third singles. (The first, a 1981 threat entitled “Face a New God,” remains uncompiled.) Considering the lack of lineup consistency (no fewer than three axemen — Screaming Tribesman Chris Mazuak [sic], Celibate Rifle Kent Steedman and Lime Spider Richard Jakimyszyn — take turns cranking it to eleven), there’s a magnificently undiluted attitude in both the Dee-troit non-stops (“No Next Time,” “Sun God”) and the less mannered brooders (“Born Out of Time”). Divine Rites, also assembled from 7-inch tracks, boasts a solidified cast, including the underrated ex-Barracudas bassist Jim Dickson, and an exponentially less derivative palette. While there are some lighter moments (the mutant surf ditty “You’ll Never Catch My Wave” isn’t all that far from the Hoodoo Gurus), Younger’s developing a bitter, morbid vision not unlike Fear-era John Cale. The triad of “Dropping Like Flies,” “Addiction” and “Dead Girl” makes for a particularly harrowing close.
The sudden mid-screech start of “No Way on Earth” sets the dark, brooding tone for Distemper, and the apocalyptic tone carries through the crashing “There’s No Time,” the piano-drizzled “Burning of Rome” and the discordant fairground wheeze “Circus of Sour” — making the disc nothing short of a 40-minute call to emotional jihad.
Recorded live in Germany, the four-song Rob and the Rifles EP sees both Younger and the (Celibate) Rifles in peak form, with Steedman wrenching some lovingly crazed leads from the bones of such chestnuts as “She’s So Fine” and “Shakin’ All Over.” The fi is surprisingly hi, considering the dubious origins; Younger’s limber yowl is far looser than the studio environment had previously allowed. Rockin’!