Radio Birdman in Adelaide
Ho to the Gov, where the food is great, the Coopers flows and Tuesday is legendary Ukelele night. I love the Gov. Great venue. And ho, back we go to the 1970s… hmm.
Does the spectacle always win in the end? Is the naming of the legend so important? You’d like to think not. You’d like to think that people wouldn’t be so fickle.
You’d be wrong, of course.
To paraphrase H.L. Mencken (I know you have all his books) ‘Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the people.’
A while back I wrote about The (British) Beat on this very stage. They played very well, worked hard. But long gone was the feral desperation of the Beat’s first releases - and they came across rather like a cabaret act. Good fun, certainly, but not essential, not inspiring. If you’d never heard of them before, and you were told afterwards how important the Beat had been at a time and a place … you probably wouldn’t have believed it.
Of course, the crowd thought this version of the Beat were wonderful. Because you can’t argue with a spectacle, and a band would have to be pretty dire to beat down expectation. The (British) Beat were fun. But you can’t go back. To a certain extent, they were kinda covering their own songs. The intention, the point, the urgency, the personality-driven chemistries had all faded.
So, first money shot tonight: were The Main Band any good?
Photos by Kyleigh Pitcher of Songbird Photography
The Gov, Adelaide, Sunday, November 9, 2014
with Bearded Clams and Pro-Tools
with Bearded Clams and Pro-Tools
They were good.
But listen up. And note this before I start: I do not feel good writing this. It’s painful. And it’s taken a lot to write.
A Sordid Interlude:
The Beat, the Stones, and Radio Birdman were all hugely significant to the people in and around their scenes. All these bands had the chance to transcend their beginnings and become bigger than imagination.
And it was sordid youth (sorry, that should be spelt with a sneer, ‘youf’) what put them into the public eye, got the attention of bigger companies who saw what the bands couldn’t, that they could Go On.
So, many years later, it seems The Beat are returning to the only thing they think they can do. The Stones are wheeling it out, probably for the last time, I don’t know, and while I think they could do a whole lot better, the crowd disagrees. The Main Band tonight haven’t been seen on a stage for eight years and they’ve put out a revamped tromp through their early years. All three bands are relying on The Legend to pull people in, not just the grey ponytails, but the kids who want to be old enough to ‘get it’.
* * *
Tonight I have a Secret Weapon. Although she’s a veteran of vast numbers of gigs, she’s never seen The Main Band, and although she’s my age she’d never even heard such bands as the MC5, the Stooges and Radio Birdman until a few years ago. Mind you, she instantly loved them when she did; ‘where have they been all my life? Why haven’t I heard of them before?’ Mainstream radio has a lot to answer for. However, she’s heard the hoo-ha about The Main Band, and a few songs, which she likes, and she even caught Chris Masuak when he toured a couple of years ago. Loved Masuak. Hell, loved the Stooges a couple years back too. So tonight will be interesting…
Apart from the Stones, then, The Main Band was the most anticipated gig of the year for many Adelaide people. The Stones have long left rock’n’roll behind for family entertainment; naturally the crowd was different.
The older people (over 40) mostly had an idea what they were in for, and anticipation drove the consumption of vast quantities of Coopers Pale (for the first time in years, the Gov ran out of this choice beverage) so by the time the main band went on They Could Do No Wrong.
There were also lot of young people there (I mean under 40), many of whom had never seen the band and, rather like the delusional characters who turned up at CBGBs in bondage trousers, dog collar, kilt and ‘Punk’s still not dead’ T-shirt and pogoes about ‘for old times’ sake’, don’t really know how to enjoy this sort of band.
Take the drunken wally who, within seconds of the main band coming on, was all over the front row, shoving everyone aside, trying to hop on stage (knocking out one of Tek’s leads) and waving his hands in that ‘devil’s horns’ thing which always makes me think they have cramp.
Worse, take the salad-dodging lass who, astutely noticing the throng heaving and thrashing about, and clearly fancying the chap in the leather jacket in front of me, did assorted stupid things to get his attention, including putting her hands on either side of his head and wiggling her fingers at Tek (blocking the poor bloke’s vision), verbally abusing him, and shoving him so hard he went flying into the rather low stage and knocking several folks over - she did this more than twice, and after the third time she was finally met with the same angry reaction from both her intended, assorted visitors to the sticky floor, and myself. It took her a long, long time to realise that she wasn’t wanted, but eventually she buggered off, possibly to take refuge in a pie cart.
You will have noticed from the above that there was no crash barrier (they’re not very helpful) and, astonishingly, there were no bouncers (at a gig which probably would’ve required them). First time I’ve really wished for a handy bouncer in (mumble) decades of going to gigs. This was one of those gigs where the usual suspects hoisted themselves upon the heads of their new-found mates and tossed about like it was the Red Hot Chilli Peppers or Pink or something. Assorted items of clothing fell upon the stage, including a top which made repeated visits as Younger kept chucking it back into the crowd. You could have had several nice jackets, assorted sneakers and T-shirts (including a newish Harley Davidson) and a rather expensive looking leather jacket, if you’d been sober after the show. I mentioned they ran out of Coopers Pale, didn’t I?
Aha, yes. The Gig:
So events were well underway towards empty kegs when the Pro-Tools took to the stage. Now, I hadn’t seen them for a while, so was agreeably impressed to see their repertoire has expanded, and Pete ‘the Human Billboard’ Howlett deciding to enjoy himself. He pulled out every stop he could, as often as he could; biting the guitar strings, behind back, between legs, up in the air. He’s perfect for this kind of gig as he’s a dreadful show-off, knows it, and his self-deprecatory attitude makes you smile.
The energy coming off Pro-Tools was inspiring, and they were a lot of fun. Factor in that this is a cover band - and you know they’re not essential in these days of downloads which last six months. Also factor in the fact that I often give a support act two songs to get my attention - if they can’t, I have better things to do. So, second money shot - out of 100, what would I give them? Ooh, say 65, maybe 70.
My Secret Weapon said:
‘They were fun, but entertaining only to their audience. Too much flash, bang, thrash, crunch, there was little music in it. They won’t be getting any new fans.’
Mind you, Pro-Tools would have sounded a lot better if they sounded about twice as loud, if not more. I expect it’s such an old trick it predates rock’n’roll, but I still find that keeping the support band’s volume down is a bit like saying, ‘Yeah, well. We don’t want any competition.’ The Stones do this, by the way. When the Boys Next Door were around, they didn’t do this. They deliberately got support acts they liked or respected, and gave them the chance to blow the headliners offstage. The first gig the Birthday Party played in Australia after their 1981 overseas tour they’d heard glowing things about that night’s support act, Hunters and Collectors. But they needn’t have worried, Hunnas didn’t have enough light, shade and definition; they weren’t as powerful. Hunnas had the same chance the headline did.
So the crowd swell and move about, and hairy men with very blurred sleeve tattoos heave into view, as well as old punkers who never really looked like punkers all that time ago and still don’t, and the plastic cups pile up, and the anticipation builds for The Legends.
Photo by Kyleigh Pitcher/Songbird Photography
As I listen to those early demos of X over the P.A. I realise that the main band really have set themselves a difficult task. X sound great, they really do. So powerful. I remember … no, stop that.
What does the Secret Weapon say of X, who she’s never heard? ‘I liked them (except for Dipstick), I wondered who they were, really interesting. Didn’t seem to fit the environment I was in, it had a lot of class.’
Then the next support band comes on (to the same muted volume as the Pro-Tools) and … you know that dread you feel when a band has a name which is so damn lame you have avoided them for years, figuring that if that’s the best they can come up with as a band name their music must be correspondingly awful? Yes, I dreaded this moment.
All to no avail. Despite the lack of reasonable volume, the lead singer wearing short shorts and growing out an ill-advised mohawk, and the band being called The Bearded Clams (see what I mean?), they were damn good. Bass player and drummer gritted their teeth and kept their heads down, little communication which meant lots of practice. The drummer showed flair, light, shade and colour. They were damn good and I’ll be going to see them again.
I didn’t recognise a single song. The interplay between the two guitarists was great fun, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Fairly sure most of the set was original, and had lots of depth and variety. So, third money shot - out of 100? 70, if not 75.
Interesting to see that the merch stall had Bearded Clams skateboards easily the equal in quality to the Birdman skateboards of many years ago. This is what the Secret Weapon had to say:
'They belonged on the beach, because of their offputting presentation. I was too busy looking at how bad they looked to hear them. It was distracting, and lowered the quality of their music. It would’ve been better at the beach.’
Birdman’s rep comes from legendary live gigs at a time and place where these gigs were seriously extraordinary, threatening, exhilarating. The place was Sydney; a much rougher, nastier Sydney; a place where brawls involving dozens of drunken men were commonplace. Small wonder that Birdman also became legendary in jails around the country. Birdman’s power and resonance comes from them being against the flow.
Although Birdman’s records were secondary to their impact, the Burn My Eye ep was a clarion call, and Radios Appear was equally impressive; think MC5, Stooges, Doors, surf songs and a touch of Blue Oyster Cult. Back in the day, Radios Appear was a rampaging, dancing monster among fauns. Their second lp, released after Birdman had broken up, arguably could have taken their turf into much broader terrain. The USA would have been their natural home and, at a time when there were simply no bands doing what Birdman were doing, perhaps they could have made a quantum leap.
Woulda coulda shoulda. No use, we can’t go back. So the legend continued.
So, no, it ain’t those horrible '70s, but now we live in an age where it’s easier to pigeonhole than be threatened. Easier to play the crowd. Journos rely on media releases. And the Birdman isn’t the same band that underbelly Australia fell for. I lost count of the number of younger knobs wearing earplugs, and those who hurried away when jostled slightly. Must be hard being a born-again hipster, nobody understands. Maybe Emo will come back.
Warwick Gilbert (bassist and graphic designer) left Birdman, followed a couple of years later by drummer Ron Keeley. Both were replaced by tough, able long-term musicians; Jim Dickson and Nik Reith, both of whom should be familiar to you.
Dave Kettley has been in many bands, only a handful familiar to me, and is a competent guitarist. But it’s a strange, lopsided main band which take to the stage (on time) and Kettley’s bald head is so reminiscent of Masuak’s that I heard several people refer to him as ‘the faux Masuak’ and the like. Bit unfair, I thought.
So, the volatile mixture of personalities which made up the revolution is no longer there, nor is the chemistry.
So, like the Beat (above), are we in for cabaret?
No. However, the music … well. Let’s just say they were as good as they could be, given their self-imposed limitations.
Easily twice as loud if not louder than the support bands, the mix from where we were was peculiar, if not lopsided. We heard the support bands’ guitars perfectly. Not here. Mostly Tek. And not all of Tek’s guitar seemed to be played ‘right’. Was he improvising? Buggered if I know, but it looked a bit like he was finding some of the solos either difficult or too long.
A long-time fan recently said that he was in front of Tek, whose guitar was so loud it pretty much drowned out everything and it was cool. Which is just … stupid, really. The gig was about Tek being loud. Not about the band’s songs. I might add though, that Tek’s guitar tech (Brent, I think) was bloody brilliant, always attentive and precise.
Dixon and Reith were good, powerful. But they don’t carry the band. Pip, I’m afraid, seemed a bit distant (the only one wearing a tie) and, when we could hear him, didn’t seem to be matching velocity.
Speaking of which, Radio Birdman’s songs are far more delicately balanced than you’d realise; they could easily descend into thrash or speedmetal, those rather one-dimensional genres. The reason they usually didn’t was because someone kept the pace balanced. I don’t know if that someone was Masuak; clearly Kettley’s job was to keep things humming in the background, which he did, but at no point did the songs soar into a stratosphere I know them capable of (and I do put that down to the lack of Masuak). One wonders briefly about how his guitar parts were described. Anyway, there was often a sort of blurred focus, melody lines squiggling and vanishing. There was nothing in the way of tension teetering on critical mass.
And that has as much to do with Younger as anything. The man was happy - I can’t recall him ever being so consistently happy during a gig before. Is that bad? No, of course not, but Younger’s power onstage has always relied on his authority and presence; tonight he didn’t seem in such powerful voice (though he gave it everything) and his frequent smiles and laughter to me detracted from the point of the songs, part of the reason they were written, part of the reason the band became legendary. They were young and were a force against the old. That is, pretty much anyone in their thirties.
On the other hand, since reliable old Wikipedia states that Masuak was not included in this tour due to ‘differences with Younger’, one rather wonders … what if Masuak had never been in the band? Would they have still galvanised the Australian scene? Sure they had a scene at the time, but Tek’s songs, Gilbert’s input, Younger’s stagecraft … all thrown into a massive swirling maelstrom by Hoyle and Masuak and a crushing rhythm section..? Take out Masuak and without that personality clash… well, if Birdman were all happy campers, where’s the threat? Where’s the dynamic? What’s the point?
That said, did I mention the crowd went wild? The main band were faster than I remembered, were worshipped by an uncritical, expectant crowd as they hammered through the old favourites (only a few from Zeno Beach). At the time, my Secret Weapon commented that the crowd would’ve loved it if they’d have done a dump on stage.
Here’s the setlist (as used by Tek);
Smith/ Do the Pop/ Anglo Girl Desire/ Descent into the Maelstrom/ Love Kills/ We've Come So Far/ All Alone In the Endzone/ Subterfuge/ Non Stop Girls/ Zeno Beach/ I-94/ Hand of Law/ Man With Golden Helmet/ More Fun/ Murder City Nights/ Burn My Eye/ Aloha Steve and Danno
Encores: Alien Skies-Dark Surrise/ What Gives?/New Race/ You're Gonna Miss Me
Encores: Alien Skies-Dark Surrise/ What Gives?/New Race/ You're Gonna Miss Me
That last was the most rubbish version of "You’re Gonna Miss Me" I’ve ever heard. Bloody terrible. The crowd loved it.
Deja vu? You can’t go back. To a certain extent, they were kinda covering their own songs. The intention, the point, the urgency, the personality-driven chemistries have all faded, left or been excised.
So, last money shot. After all that, what would I give the main band (I really am sorry, but I cannot call it Radio Birdman), out of 100?
55. If that.
And the Secret Weapon?
‘With all the hype I’ve heard, I was very disappointed. What I kept thinking was, it was good that Masuak wasn’t there because the music wasn’t good enough for him to be there. I’ve seen Chris Masuak play on his own, with a three piece, was far superior, much better sound, and you could understand the songs. Here was a bunch of guys who might have been great at one time, but they, like the audience, were revelling in the past. I couldn’t see what part Chris could bring to the band, they played with their past into their present, rather than their present into the future. They can’t go anywhere else. The only thing I could hear was Tek’s guitar and the drums, everything else was muffled. Tek’s guitar looked sexy, but that was all I could hear. The lead singer I couldn’t hear at all, and his voice was weak, he didn’t have the energy. He looks ill, or worn-out from living. If this was what Birdman were like 30 years ago, they wouldn’t have the reputation they have now.’
In a distinct minority, then, a few of us left the pub wondering at many things; why the hell Birdman hadn’t either continued in 1978 (there’s a phrase crops up on the internet which probably explains it; The Van of Hate), or why the hell they hadn’t just let it go after Warwick left. The chemistry made the band. What I saw was a halfway good rock’n’roll band which really needed serious balance, no more and no less; either that or … how a record shop chap once described their 1977 gigs to me; ‘they were just a thrash band, mate’. I always thought there was more. Apparently they don’t want that.
Gents, I’m glad you’re happy. I really am.
But when Radio Birdman’s trademark song, New Race, speaks of ‘the kids are gonna punch you out’.
The ‘you’ is the boring old guard.
I can’t believe any kids were inspired by the main band tonight, an old guard. They used to promise so much.
How I wish the kids would punch us out.
We fancied a pint of Coopers Pale, but the kegs were all empty. We fancied a pie floater, but then we realised, it was probably empty as well.