Every group has its codes. There’s the gay hanky thing, and the Masons’ “secret” handshake. Then there’s the Clan of the WBWD (white boys with dreadlocks), a badge of sorts that seems to celebrate the String Cheese Incident.
For the Bay Area punk/hipster set, there are certain semaphores meant to separate the “real” punks from the poseurs. Wearing a Hellacopters or Nashville Pussy T-shirt after 1997? Congratulations, you’re a poseur. You like the White Stripes? Can you name anyone else on their label, or even the enigmatic founder of said label? Poseur. And you certainly can’t trust anyone in a Stooges, Ramones, or — heaven forbid — Sex Pistols T-shirt. You might as well be wearing something that says “Frankie Say Relax.”
But in this world of punk rock one-upmanship there is still one foolproof passcode, the one band that the wankers drop to separate themselves from the NOFX crowd: Radio Birdman. The band has all the perfect factors going for it: highly influential yet completely obscure (it gained most of its fame in Australia), no domestic output for a quarter of a century, named after a flubbed line in a Stooges song, and a cool insignia. You’ve probably seen the name in record reviews in the back of Punk Planet or Hit List (“Think Radio Birdman meets the Zeros at Wattie’s house…“).
It was, in fact, a fucking cool band. So it’s with great excitement that Planet Clair announces Radio Birdman’s first domestic release in 23 years — a greatest-hits release on Sub Pop, no less, the total “sell-out” label to most PC punks. Time to find a new passcode, fellas.
Radio Birdman was around from the early ’70s to the end of the decade, creating loud rock ‘n’ roll that would later be dubbed punk rock. The band members wore matching outfits at one point, tight-fitted trousers and button-up shirts with armbands so they could play up the “fascist” label the press had given them. Totally cool. They were punk and disorderly, banned from most clubs, and handsome in that post-’60s I-ain’t-no-fuckin’-hippie kinda way.
With the release of The Essential Radio Birdman this week, Planet Clair got on the phone to guitarist and principal songwriter Deniz Tek, now a doctor in Montana. Talking about the good old days was really just an attempt to get the band to play out here.
“Do you realize the Radio Birdman is the last cool punk band?” I asked.
This shameless flattery was met with a laugh. “Obscurity has its benefits,” Tek said. “At the time we didn’t even know we were ‘punk.’ We only knew that word from things Lester Bangs was saying at the time.”
Hailing from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Tek was the only American in the group; he grew up around the MC5 and the Stooges. “[The Stooges] were almost performance art, not music; they beat on oil drums with lead pipes, put microphones in blenders. The MC5 were playing high-energy but well choreographed stuff. They saw themselves as showmen. The Stooges were in another world.”
When Tek moved to Australia for med school, he formed the band. Birdman members saw themselves as enemies of the music establishment, and the press had a field day with the band’s “fascist” tendencies. “[That was] more for shock value than anything else. It certainly did piss people off; we had people frantic, ripping down our flag and spitting on it. Actually, we were completely apolitical. But we certainly didn’t like authority — we didn’t want government and business to be colluding, which is my definition of fascism.”
The band’s only contemporary in Australia was that other revered “authentic” punk band, the Saints. The two bands didn’t exactly hit it off, though.
“We thought, wow, there’s a band in Brisbane that’s actually playing real rock ‘n’ roll music,” says Tek. “They came to Sydney, and we wanted to be friends. We gave them access to our practice room and got them some gigs at the Oxford Funhouse. But they were not compatible personally. The singer was a drunken Irishman and wanted to fight people. The guitar player was a brooding, morose character who wouldn’t say anything. I get along fine with Ed Cooper now, he’s a great songwriter. But I’ve never been able to tolerate Chris Bailey.”
But the fighting wasn’t just with the Saints. In-fighting among the Birdmen was a problem, and still is. That’s why getting them to do a reunion tour may be impossible.
“There’s a remote possibility,” said Tek. “I loved being in Radio Birdman, I’ll never say a bad thing about it. [Rob] Younger hates it, he thinks it detracts from the attention he thinks he should get in the New Christs. But [if we tour] people should be able to do just about anything for two weeks, right? We know it still works, and it’s always going to work. There’s not a lot of risk about that. The only risk is whether we’d kill each other or personally implode.”