Radio Birdman – “The Essential Radio Birman (1974-1978)” (2001)

Somehow I passed by writing about this record all these years, because I’ve had it since before I started Life in the Vinyl Lane. In fact it’s an album I like so much that when I found a used copy on CD I bought that too just so I could have it for my iPod without going through all the trouble of burning it from vinyl.

Founded in 1974, Radio Birdman was one of the very first punk bands in Australia. They’re widely cited as influences by punks and garage rockers worldwide, still getting frequent slots on Henry Rollins’ weekly KCRW radio shows. Their sound is much more on the garage rock side than punk, sort of quasi-lo-fi but with a lot of musicianship (just listen to the piano playing on “Love Kills” and hear for yourself) and Rob Younger’s vocals giving it all a bit of punk swagger. They probably have more in common with the underground rock coming out of Detroit in the mid-1970s than the punk taking off in the UK and New York – I’m thinking The Stooges, MC5, and even some guitar influences from Ted Nugent. (♠) To some extent it may be an example of what is defined as punk depending on time and place – maybe you didn’t have to be very extreme in 1970s Australia to raise an eyebrow.

Sub Pop put out this two record compilation in 2001 (<- buyer tip! This comes with a 7″ as well, and often used copies (like mine) won’t include the 7″… so make sure to check!) in a well-done gatefold with extensive liner notes by none other than Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke. It’s an interesting choice for the Seattle label, one I’m assuming resulted from the fact that a lot of the early Sub Pop bands can trace the roots of their sounds back to bands like Birdman, Regardless of the reasons why, I’m glad they put it out.

Arguably my favorite song is the side one, track one homage to the TV show Hawaii Five-O, “Aloha Steve & Danno,” a fast-paced romp through one of America’s most-watched and longest-running TV shows. I’m also a huge fan of “Hand of Law,” with it’s threatening refrain the hand of law is comin’ down and flat, Warsaw-esque vocal delivery. And what about “Burned My Eye ’78”? And the soul-funk groove of “Man With the Golden Helmet”? I mean, it’s just one solid rocker after another. There are elements of surf and even western in Radio Birdman’s music and definitely a lot of focus on the guitar work, including some very pronounced solos.

Normally when you get some kind of a greatest hits album you’re thinking, “ok, cool, this band put out six albums and these are their 12 best songs,” and chances are you like almost all of them. But in the case of The Essential Radio Birman (1974-1978) you’re getting basically the entire output of the original version of the band, which was defunct from 1978 to 1996 (release during this period were all recorded prior to the 1978 break-up). And it’s 22 songs (24 if you have the 7″). And every single one of them is solid. There honestly isn’t a single clunker on this thing, at least not to my ears. A worthwhile pickup on vinyl or CD.

(♠) No doubt because guitarist Deniz Tek grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan before moving to Australia in 1972.

International Party Mix

It’s that time of year again. Time for the 16th Annual Post-Holiday Holiday part at the Life in the Vinyl Lane house. We put on this shindig every January and invite our friends over to eat and drink their fill. And, as we’ve done for the last 10 or so years, we also made an official party CD as a give away for those who stop by. This year we’re going with a sort of travel theme to the festivities, so the 16 artists on the CD are all from different countries. Here’s what we put together:

1. “Pale Green Ghost” – John Grant (USA)
2. “Storm” – Django Django (Scotland)
3. “Iso Pasi” – Lama (Finland)
4. “Amidinine” – Bombino (Niger)
5. “Don’t Mess” – Juvelen (Sweden)
6. “Feel Like You Should” – Shiny Darkly (Denmark)
7. “Hand of Law” – Radio Birdman (Australia)
8. “Egu Szot Se Szoij” – Sarolta Zalatnay (Hungary)
9. “Gleipnir” – Skálmöld (Iceland)
10. “Dynamite” – Jamiroquai (England)
11. “Manhattan Skyline” – A-ha (Norway)
12. “Wenu Wenu” – Omar Souleyman (Syria)
13. “Top of the World” – Shonen Knife (Japan)
14. “Mission a Paris” – Gruppo Sportivo (Netherlands)
15. “O mundo é já aqui” – OVO (Portugal)
16. “Someone Says” – Casino Royale (Italy)

We think it’s a pretty cool mix, so we’re excited to hear what our guests think.

But for now, I have to get back to some serious party prep.

The Visitors – “The Visitors” (1985)

If you ever wondered what The Doors would have sounded like had they moved towards punk instead of blues, you need wonder no longer. Just listen to The Visitors.

The Visitors emerged from the ashes of Australian punk scene legends Radio Birdman following that band’s demise after a disastrous UK tour. Singer/guitarist Deniz Tek, drummer Ron Keeley, and keyboardist Pip Hoyle formed a new band, with Tek handing over singing duties to band friend Mark Sisto. Active from 1978 to 1984, their output was limited to an EP and and their self-tilted LP The Visitors.

There is certainly a Radio Birdman vibe to The Vistors, which makes sense given that the three members were also part of the original band and Tek was the primary songwriter for both. I’ve often thought that if the original TV series Hawaii Five-0 had a punk soundtrack, it would have been by Radio Birdman. They had a bit of that surf guitar sound, which carried over to The Visitors and is particularly noticeable on side A of The Visitors. But there’s also that Doors vibe that pervades the entire record due to the eerie similarity between Sisto’s voice and that of Morrison, as well as the strong presence and influence of the piano-like keyboards of Pip Hoyle that are reminiscent of Ran Manzarek. It’s basically Radio Birdman meets The Doors.

The Visitors is a solid album. Most of it is classic early punk, though they slow it down a bit in a few areas and even get weird (again… very much like The Doors…) on “Disperse,” which is almost some type of proto-spoken-word piece. The album closes with a couple of live covers of The Lipstick Killers, most impressively “Shakedown U.S.A.” which leaves me feeling like these guys probably kicked ass live.

So in summary… if the idea of a surf punkish version of The Doors appeals to you (and it absolutely does to me), get your hands on a copy of The Visitors and you won’t be disappointed.

Radio Birdman – “Zeno Beach” (2006)

I discovered Australia’s Radio Birdman by accident at Jive Time Records in the lovely (but odd) Fremont section of Seattle. Fremont is know for lots of things, most notably the troll statue under the bridge and the annual parade that includes nude bicyclists (who are not the kind of people you want to see nude, nor do they look like the type of people who bicycle regularly). It’s also the home of Seattle’s best burger joint (Uneeda Burger) and a great used record store in Jive Time.

So… flipping through the new arrivals I found a compilation of Radio Birdman put out by the local Sub Pop label. It seemed worth a listen, and the guy at the counter seemed pleased I was buying it, so that was a good sign. Turned out it was a great collection of songs by what was arguably Australia’s first punk band. Score.

I ran across Zeno Beach a few months later and figured it too was worth a shot. I mean, what would Birdman sound like in 2006 compared to their early stuff? It turns out they still sounded pretty good… though certainly not punk. I’d be hard pressed to describe the style. A few songs were solid rock, and a few others were very new wavish. Some of it sounds more “alternative”, meaning what “alternative” sounded like when it was new and I was in college in the early 1990s and trying to figure out what the hell had happened to my beloved grunge. I had some sweet long hair I hadn’t cut in two years and a closet full of flannel, and my genre had already moved mainstream and jumped the shark. Fortunately graduation and a haircut helped me break out of that mold.

The dozen songs on Zeno Beach are pretty good, but there isn’t really anything that will grab your attention. It’s kind of vanilla rock. I mean, I like vanilla. But you usually need to add some other flavor to it to make it really stand out (peanuts, chocolate sauce, rye whiskey…), and I feel like Birdman overlooked that missing ingredient somewhere. It’s fine, but unlike the Sub Pop compilation (which I HIGHLY recommend) there aren’t any tracks that really reach out and grab me.

If you want to understand the roots of punk, you have to listen to Radio Birdman. But stick with the earlier stuff to really get the feel for the band’s power.