Descent into the Maelstrom: The Untold Story of Radio Birdman (Umbrella)


“Out of my mind on Saturday night, 1970 rolling in sight, Radio Birdman up above, beautiful baby feed my love all night…”

These are the infamous Stooges lyrics from ‘1970’, off their second album Funhouse that it turns out spawned one of Australia’s greatest and most revered rock and roll bands.

This film details the rise, fall and rise again of Radio Birdman. It’s quite funny that in the film they don’t actually mention how the name came about. It begins with the back-stories of all band members, growing up in Sydney in the late 60’s and early 70’s. They all loved music and formed bands. Radio Birdman rose from the ashes of two bands, Tv Jones and the rats that refused to conform to the 70’s rock prevalent at the time and instead were more inspired by the sounds coming from Detroit (which was also the birthplace of Deniz Tek) The mighty MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges were high on the list of influences for the band with the Doors and Rolling Stones also on high rotation.

The band started out with single guitarist Deniz, keyboardist Pip Hoyle, drummer Ron Keeley, bassist Warwick Gilbert and the amazing Rob Younger on vocals. Deniz and Pip were both med students and preferred band rehearsal to golf with fellow students.
One of the beautiful things about the film is that you notice early on how well preserved the band look. They don’t look haggard or display any outward signs of a hedonistic lifestyle. Yet it doesn’t help them like each other.

Early word of the craziness of their live shows spread like wildfire and it’s from here that their cult following grew. Playing at ridiculously high volume, their shows at various pubs and clubs across Sydney could be heard from down the street. Publicans would cut their power, and they’d just get extension leads and plug back in.

When the 17-year-old Canadian Chris Masuak joined they became a twin guitar assault. A real force to be reckoned with, beefing up their sound for their debut album Radios Appear a gritty unsurpassed classic of sonic beauty. Around this time the film suggests they began a residency at what became know as the Oxford Funhouse. It was here they came into their own, some nights there would be fights, or blood on the walls but it was a place all of their own. And they played like their lives depended upon it. Their fan club would hand out badges and patches with the famous Warwick Gilbert designed Birdman symbol. Johnny Kannas, singer in Chris Masuak’s post Birdman band the Hitmen, who would often get up with the band and sing during this time suggests at one point that it was almost like the band were recruiting rock and roll soldiers, creating a new race.

The early footage, early interviews, photos, and information provided by the film is priceless. Little morsels even a mad fanatic like myself wasn’t even aware of. It’s clear they’ve done their research. Oddly enough there are also cartoon representations of some of the scenarios being described, which add a kind of mythical humour to proceedings.

As expected the soundtrack is killer. It’s easy to forget how many memorable songs Radio Birdman have, with songs like ‘Murder City Nights’, ‘What Gives’, ‘New Race’, ‘Smith and Wesson Blues’, ‘Anglo Girl Desire’, and the mighty mighty Aloha Steve and Danno’, their tribute to the 70’s cop show Hawaii Five-O, which all make an appearance.

By the time they toured the UK in support of their Living Eyes album the film suggests the cracks were starting to show. Whilst in the studio they would ignore each other, or remain in their rooms reading all day. Deniz Tek appointed himself producer and leader, and this didn’t sit well with others. Despite 6 months of tours booked with Iggy Pop and The Ramones the band imploded.

Being so Birdman focussed the film touches upon, but doesn’t go into enough detail about the groups that the band splintered into, the Hitmen (Masuak/Gilbert/ Kannas), The New Christs (Younger), whilst Deniz Tek went solo and returned to medicine. All of these groups were doing really interesting things, and a few more minutes addressing these acts would have been great.

In 1996, bizarrely enough Radio Birdman were offered The Big Day Out Festival. So they reformed, shredded, played a bunch of shows and were reportedly told to turn down by Rage Against The Machine who feared they were being overshadowed. Encouraged, they recorded a new album Zeno Beach, replacing You Am I’s Rusty Hopkinson with Ron Keeley. But interpersonal issues began to take hold. In fact the film highlights the animosity, with members putting each other down, like the new housewives of Australian garage rock. And whilst the band stayed afloat various members fells by the wayside. These days it’s three original members, with the remaining members coming from Rob Younger’s New Christs.

Whilst the internal politics are fascinating, it’s the music that you go back to, and this film, independently written, directed and co-produced by filmmaker Jonathan J Sequeira captures the intensity, genius and self-destructiveness of one of the most iconic bands Australia has ever produced.


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