Radio Birdman remain one of Australia’s most influential rock bands, a direct influence on a myriad of self-styled acts since they reared their heads in the music underground of the early 1970s. Ignored and reviled when they formed in Sydney in 1974, they went to work with a DIY attitude that embraced the yet-to-be-named punk ethic of a few years later, building a scene in the inner city identified by their distinctive logo and military-style stage attire. Radios Appear is now one of the most revered albums in Australian rock history and often credited as one of the more influential punk albums. As they prepare to play for Australian audiences once again, Loud caught up with founder and guitarist Deniz Tek about making their own way.
Thanks for your time today, Deniz. What was the reaction to Radio Birdman on your recent European tour?
It was good. We hadn’t been to Europe in about seven or eight years and so there was plenty of enthusiasm for it and everything worked out on that tour. No bad shows, the equipment held together, the band held together as far as a working team and I was very pleased that we could sustain the intensity over that four week period in Europe, so it was good!
It’s been 40 years since the first Ramones record and there’s been a lot of talk about how that kicked off the whole punk thing. It will also be 40 years next year since Radios Appear. What are your thoughts on that period?
Where did the time go? It does sound like a long time! A lot of thing have happened, there’s a lot of mileage in there. Those early Ramones records sound great still. I don’t classify them as punk. To me, the Ramones were more a rock n roll or a pop band than anything. They’re all very catchy tunes and melodies with the vocal and drums out front. The guitars were all the ways at the back on those mixes. I don’t classify us as punk either. We were doing what we were doing for years before the punk thing happened. Punk came along and we definitely benefited from the label. Before there was knowledge of punk, nobody knew what to call us! They couldn’t put us into an identifiable box. What we were doing just seemed kind of unacceptable for the establishment. After punk, everybody could read about punk in the Daily Mirror and see what the Sex Pistols were doing and suddenly Radio Birdman doesn’t seem so off-centre now. So we definitely benefited from that, even though we didn’t consider ourselves to be a punk rock act.
Radio Birdman was never a band that was particularly loved by the media.
That’s right. When we started in 74 we were roundly rejected by every aspect of the music establishment that we came in contact with. Just rejected like a dog would barf up poison bait! We never started out thinking that we were going to be revolutionary anarchists or that we were going to be outlaws, we just started out by doing what we wanted to do and we aren’t going to take orders from anybody. Then we got turned into outlaws by the reaction we got, and we went for a couple of years doing everything ourselves. We had to organise our own gigs underground and we had to organise our own recording and distribute them by mail order and out of the back of cars. So we became very comfortable with that outsider approach, but in Australia it wasn’t really done. There were no indie labels in Australia then. That became more common in the 80s.
Don’t you think there’s a certain level of irony in the fact that bands like Birdman, and bands that influenced you then like the Stooges and MC5, are revered so much more now than they were then, and often by the same people who had no time for them then?
Yes, it is ironic. I guess they just come around. Bands like that were not well accepted when they were first presented. When I was in high school, I used to go see the Stooges and most of my friends at high school – almost all of them – thought the Stooges were a joke! They didn’t think they could play, that it was just noise, weird performance art stuff and Iggy was considered a joke. He certainly has the last laugh on all those people!
What was it like bringing those influences to Australia?
It was like writing on a blank page. There was nothing going on. It was a musical desert, or a moonscape. There was great stuff happening in the 60s here, like The Loved Ones. But the early 70s it was boogie, blues, electric blues and boogie music, and this ersatz Celtic folk and country rock… things like that. Music to smoke pot and chill and not worry too much. Nothing exciting. It was all really boring. The other thing was, any band that came from overseas that played here, every band started covering all their songs. Like Deep Purple played here, and the next week everyone was playing ‘Smoke on the Water’. Led Zeppelin toured here, and the next week everybody’s doing ‘Black Dog’. For us, it was like, let’s get back to some rock n roll. Let’s put some energy into it.
It really struck a chord though. Not with the mainstream, obviously, but you were able to develop a following.
People started coming along and seeing us, and I think that was because we were a do-it-yourself thing at first. It had an aira of exclusivity about it. Not many people knew about it, so they got to feel like they were hip or cool and part of something that was going on that was different. That developed a level of magnetism. The people around us were just as influential as what we were because they were coming to these shows and creating a scene. They built their own scene. If they had their little Birdman symbol and ripped-up jeans, it was like being in the Mickey Mouse Club, like an exclusive little club. And then it picked up exponentially from there. Once punk music became newsworthy with the antics of the Sex Pistols being recorded and things like that, then we just took right off.
Do you still see the same people when you go out and play now? There are some bands and some genres where people just eventually walk away, but Birdman is one of those that people stick with for life.
Yeah, we’re still seeing those people from the old days at shows, and if we keep doing this much longer we’re going to need to get a bus to go around to all the nursing homes so people can come and watch us with their walking frames.
How much longer do you think you could keep doing it? Have you ever thought about how much longer you can keep it up?
Yeah, well, we’re all still pretty fit, none of us has any major medical problems at this point, so so far the quality is still there – maybe even better than the old days, as far as being able to play. The stamina is there and we’re doing it now. Whether we’re doing it in five years is an open question. There’s gotta be a point where we’re just not able to maintain it and the key is to recognise that point before it actually gets there. Quit before you’re forced to give it up.
3/6: Factory Theatre, Sydney NSW
4/6: The Triffid, Brisbane QLD
10/6: Brisbane Hotel, Hobart TAS
11/6: Max Watts, Melbourne VIC
12/6: The Gov, Adelaide SA