Icons in flight

July 6, 2007


As students of rock history know, punk didn't spontaneously explode in New York and London in 1976. Through the dire days of the early '70s, when arena rockers and folkie crooners ruled, underappreciated beacons of hope shone in isolated pockets around the world, and one of the brightest was Australia's Radio Birdman.

Led by guitarist Deniz Tek and vocalist Rob Younger, the sextet formed in Sydney in 1974, took its name from a misheard lyric in the Stooges' "1970" and built a sound based on metal solos, surf riffs and revved-up garage-rock rhythms on several albums, including the 1977 classic "Radios Appear," before splitting in the early '80s.

In 1996, with a legion of grunge and alternative-rock bands citing them as heroes, the original members of Radio Birdman reformed to play Australia's Big Day Out Festival. They continued gigging sporadically over the next few years; reshuffled the lineup to include guitarist Chris Masuak, bassist Jim Dickson, keyboard Phillip "Pip" Hoyle and drummer Russell Hopkinson, and recorded a strong new album, "Zeno Beach," released on the adventurous American indie Yep Roc last year.

I spoke to Dickson at the start of the current U.S. tour.

Q. What was it like coming to America for the first time in 2006?

A. When we did that kind of exploratory tour last year, after so many years of people waiting and expecting this, we found out that the response was quite positive. When we played in Los Angeles last September, it was the first time the band had set foot on American soil, and there was a heavy air of expectation. All those people who came to see us weren't quite sure what was going to happen, but they were relieved to see that the band was still playing at its maximum best and with total commitment all the time.

Q. How did the group first come back together for Big Day Out?

A. What happened was the promoters said they wanted to get the original band back together. I'd been playing with Deniz in the Deniz Tek Band, and then he said, "Birdman is getting back together." It sort of went on and off with that lineup for another six years or so, until the bass player left and they asked me to come on board at the end of 2003. Then we got a new drummer in 2004, so we made the new album with the new rhythm section.

Q. What was the goal in making "Zeno Beach"?

A. The thing is that all of us had gone our separate ways and done different projects since the time when those early Birdman records were originally being made, and of course, when they were originally being made, there was hardly anybody listening to them at all! We had e-mails coming into us while we were making the album saying, "Are you going to make the album just like the album you made back in 1976?" But you can't make an album like you made then, because you're not the same person. All you can do is trust in your own intuition and your sense of musicality and the way that has evolved and developed.

You present that to people and just hope that the lineage that you come from can present the music in a very similar way, except it's gonna be 25 years on. It would have been a farce to even begin to think about recycling anything at all. We had to move on, and we figured that if you want to listen to "Radios Appear," there it is. If you want to "Radios Appear, Parts 2, 3, 4, 5, etc.," we're not interested. People level criticism at bands nowadays for not being adventurous enough and sounding too much the same. Well, if the Beatles had done that, we'd have had no "Sgt. Pepper's" or "Abbey Road." It was important that we get at the essence of the band, but the music had to go on.


'Essential' album for Birdman basics

While some devotees swear by "Radios Appear," the best primer for discovering the music of what many critics call Australia's best-ever rock band is the 22-track compilation "The Essential Radio Birdman (1974-1978)," issued in 2001 by Seattle's Sub Pop Records, a label that has released dozens of group inspired by Deniz Tek, Rob Younger and their mates, from the grunge era of the early '90s through the present.

Drawing from "Radios Appear," the follow-up album "Living Eyes" (1981) and the live "More Fun" EP (1988), the best-of charts the evolution of the band's musical obsessions -- Detroit rock circa the Stooges and the MC5; the American surf and garage rock of the mid-'60s, and the energy of British punk in the mid-'70s -- via anthemic rockers such as "Aloha Steve and Danno," "Murder City Nights" and "Hand of Law."

Few of the pioneering punk bands achieved the platinum success and worldwide fame groups such as Green Day and Good Charlotte now enjoy today, but Radio Birdman faced even greater handicaps, since Australia was so far off the radar, and the press there had wrongly branded the musicians as pseudo-fascists. (In fact, the paramilitary imagery they employed made the exact opposite point, celebrating freedom and thinking for oneself). But simply put, no self-respecting punk-rock record collection today is complete without some of their music.


 9 p.m. Monday
 Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee
 Tickets, $20
 (773) 489-3160