Don Waller on Radio Birdman

Last Wednesday, I cornered rock crit and bon vivant Don Waller in the lobby of the Wiltern Theater between the BellRays and Radio Birdman sets to get his thoughts on this historic event. Before I started the tape recorder, he told me I was wasting my time, since he had nothing much to say. I know Don well enough to know how absurd that statement was. Here’s the "Back Door Man" zine founder on the state of rock when Radio Birdman first came ’round, the underappreciated glories of the Australian scene, and his expectations for the evening…

Lost in the Grooves: Do you remember Radio Birdman from 1976, when the record came out in the US?

Don Waller: Yes.

LITG: And what was the scuttlebutt on the street?

DW: Well, the record came out, and it was like anything else on Sire—there was so little that was new at the time, that of course everybody was interested in it. I remember hearing it and not thinking all that much of it. "Oh yeah, it’s okay." It was just kinda dwarfed by, y’know, the Clash and the Pistols, the Talking Heads, the Pretenders, all the other stuff that came out. In retrospect, the record has aged well. The fact that they didn’t play here didn’t help ’em. They broke up before anybody really got a chance to know who they fucking were! So I’m looking forward to seeing them tonight. And I like the fact that they put out a new record along with the tour, because we’ve seen enough people get back together with no new product. And this is just as good as the other record, actually, it’s not that much different. And they have an idiosyncratic sound. The keyboard thing is a weird touch; I’m a big fan of double lead guitar bands or triple lead guitar bands. I like guitars! And the fact that they got 4/6 or 2/3 of the original band back to do this is fine. I’ve heard the New Race record that these guys did with Asheton and Thompson—it’s pretty decent. Again, it’s an artifact that’s aged well. All that shit on Dave Laing’s "Do the Pop" compilation is really good. Not all that much of it got heard here. Some of it’s on that "Nuggets 3" record, that "Children of Nuggets" record that came out a couple years ago.

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LITG: So you hadn’t heard any of that stuff before it got comped?

DW: No, I didn’t hear the Celibate Rifles or the Lime Spiders or the Eastern Dark’s "Johnny and Dee Dee"—an amazing song! "Slave Girl" is pretty great. All that stuff. But we never heard the Master’s Apprentices or the Black Diamonds or that sixties Australian/New Zealand shit, and that’s all really good too. It’s on the "Nuggets 2" box, and that stuff’s as good as anything that was cut anywhere. In Australia, it’s really hard to get to the other side of the world to here or to England. I mean, to be as good as the Easybeats or as good as AC/DC, or even the fucking Bee Gees if you wanna go that direction. I mean Jimmy Barnes is a real good singer, should have been bigger.

LITG: Who’s that?

DW: Jimmy Barnes, was in Cold Chisel and all that. He’s got kind of a Paul Rogers kind of voice, almost like a Frankie Miller kind of thing, but in that quality. He’s a draw in Australia. It’s just tough for them. But the good stuff is really good. And the thing about this is that it proves if you do something good and you really mean it, y’know, it’s like Zen parable of throwing a pebble into a pond, you don’t know where the ripples are gonna go. The good stuff gets discovered, t he good stuff gets word of mouth, the good stuff gets passed on down. Especially when things are bad, then people start rummaging through the bargain bins or the cut outs and the thrift stores and all that stuff—because that’s all bohos can afford anyway! Basically, in a fuckin’ Paris Hilton world…

LITG: End that statement, Don.

DW: Well, ellipses. It’s really nice to see Radio Birdman playing their first date in L.A.!

LITG: That was Don Waller, who told me he had nothing to say. Thank you, Don Waller. (laughter) What are your expectations for the show?

DW: I’m looking forward to it. I think they’ll be good. Based on the new record, I think they’ll be very powerful, very Detroit. That’s the thing, Deniz Tek, there’s something in the fucking water in Detroit. They still produce good bands, the Dirtbombs, the White Stripes, the Detroit Cobras, all that shit, they still keep turning out good bands. God bless ’em!

Radio Birdman at the Wiltern

above, Radio Birdman live at the Wiltern, pic: Kim Cooper 

Radio Birdman interviewed on the eve of their debut American tour

Radio Birdman interviewed 8/30/06 – Backstage at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles

Present: Kim Cooper (LITG), Chris Masuak (CM), Deniz Tek (DT), Rob Younger (RY)

Radio Birdman at the Wiltern

Last Wednesday afternoon I wound my way south through the secret north/south axis of the city’s center, on my way to a happening that might have sprung fully formed out of one of my more frisky juvenile fantasies: my all-time favorite rock and roll combo since 1983, the mighty Radio Birdman, were making their debut US appearance tonight in the grand art deco Wiltern Theater in my home town of Los Angeles.

Two decades’ journalistic celebration of Birdmen and its offshoots have earned me the friendship of the band’s leaders, so it was with knowledge that a backstage pass awaited that I parked around the corner from the venue, just up the block from L. Ron Hubbard’s first Scientology offices. What a kick to see the letters RADIO BIRDMAN on that lovely green marquee.

I first buzzed and gained access to the front door, only to be directed round the back, where sound check was just finishing. As the door closed behind me, a couple of lithe young ladies made a dash for it, just catching the wood before it slammed. I mentioned this to guitarist Deniz Tek a few minutes later, when he expressed concern that the group might not be able to fill such a huge hall, noting that when teenage girls are sneaking in, you don’t have much to worry about. "Teenage girls…?" he mused, "We never had teenage girl fans—except you, of course!" These are different, and better times, it seems. So a few hours before the band defeated a criminally unskilled sound man with a career-spanning performance packed with poetry and raw power, I sat down with three of the original Birdmen for a brief chat about the state of the band in 2006, and their expectations for the tour to come.

Lost in the Grooves: Is "Zeno Beach" the record you would have done after "Living Eyes," or is this a building on what you’ve all done individually and together?

Deniz Tek: No, we couldn’t have made it after "Living Eyes." It’s the result of all those years of individual experience and collective Radio Birdman experience.

Rob Younger: Yeah, it is, I think.

LITG: So you think it’s just a merging of all of your influences and everything that’s come before?

DT: It’s actually the next New Christs record.

LITG: I thought so! It sounds a lot like the New Christs.

DT: A lot of people have said that to me.

RY: That’s bollocks, that’s just bollocks.

LITG: It’s overdue.

DT: But I think so.

LITG: Who do you think is coming to see Radio Birdman in America?

DT: Well, Kim Cooper for one.

RY: There were a lot of names on that guest list I recognized. (laughter) Radio Birdman at the Wiltern - Rob Younger with Carmen Hillebrew

above: Carmen Hillebrew with Jack Lord and Rob Younger, after the show

DT: I suppose it would be a mixture of musicians, record collectors, people who sort of go into music, rock and roll history a little bit more deeply than average. Otherwise how would they know about it? Or maybe a few people who have come on board with the Sub Pop compilation, because I think there was some word of mouth about the band before that—bands would talk about who they liked, and a lot of bands like our band, whereas not very many people in the general population would know about it, but bands know about it. And they’d talk about it—people couldn’t find the records in America, it would be difficult, until the Sub Pop thing.

Chris Masuak: There are some guys from San Diego coming up who were involved with fanzines. Kenzo—I can’t remember his fanzine, but he used to have a fanzine about the Tribesmen, New Christs.

DT: It’s definitely kind of a small following—hoping to become bigger. Radio Birdman at the Wiltern - Deniz Tek with Art & Steve Godoy

above: Art & Steve Godoy with occasional bandmate Deniz Tek, after the show

RY: Yeah, my friend James said people really only know our first album here, don’t even know the second one, let alone had a chance to worry about the third one.

LITG: That’s true. I had to go to England to get the second one.

RY: But there’s stuff from "Living Eyes" on "The Essential" [Sub Pop comp], that’s what he was saying, cos it was released here, that first one, "Radios Appear."

LITG: How did it come about, you coming to America?

DT: There were a couple of stabs at it over the last five years or so, but none of it panned out because we couldn’t afford to come. And I guess finally with the new album, it gave us enough momentum to get enough good gigs to make it possible.

LITG: You released it independently in Australia, right?

DT: Yeah.

LITG: So how’s Yep Roc been for you? They treating you well?

DT: Yeah, they seem to be. They’ve done a good job so far with setting up interviews and promotion and stuff like that, and they’ve been really pleasant and easy to work with. I think—I was talking to Rob about this—they’re small enough that it’s that middle layer of record companies. We wouldn’t get anywhere at all with a big label, we’d just be put on the back shelf or under the rug and no one would ever hear of us again and nothing would happen, whereas with that middle layer, it’s big enough to get distributed around, but not so big that we get lost, cos you’re not, y’know, a big earner.

RY: They remember your first name. Radio Birdman at the Wiltern

LITG: Is there someone at the label who is a long time fan?

RY: Not that I know of.

CM: I think that there label’s devoted to stuff that they consider to be almost eclectic or artistic.

DT: Artistic and underappreciated, maybe.

CM: Yeah, that seems to be their reason.

LITG: So it’s sort of a boutique—everything in it’s worth looking at, cos it’s been curated.

CM: I’d rather be curated than be in a boutique, though! (laughter) You don’t want to get too precious.

DT: If you’re curated, that means you’ve been put in a museum.

LITG: Under glass, or in a gallery, maybe.

CM: I don’t want that, either.

LITG: It’s not waxworks, it’s rock and roll. Favorite song on the record?

DT: "Locked Up." That’s my favorite one today, cos I just heard it.

RY: I like "Remorseless," probably cos we haven’t been playing it for a while.

DT: Yeah, we should put that back in the set. It’s not in tonight’s, but we’ll do it tomorrow night.

LITG: Any surprise cover versions for the tour?

DT: Oh, there might be a cover version, but it won’t be a surprise to anyone. (laughter)

LITG: Does it start with a T and end with an E? [e.g. "T.V. Eye"]

DT: Nope.

LITG: Is it a really long word? ["Transmaniacon MC"]

RY: Same band. [it turned out to be "Search and Destroy," and it was a knockout]

LITG: Ohhh, okay. I think those are all the questions I want to pester you with. Thank you gentlemen!

Radio Birdman at the Wiltern

Watch this space for more Radio Birdman coverage, including rock critic Don Waller’s no holds barred take on the band’s place in the pop pantheon circa 1976 and today.

Radio Birdman debut US show

Truly great, career-spanning performance from the Birdmen at L.A.’s
Wiltern last night, despite an unsympathetic soundman and some
equipment snaufus. They are entirely as fierce and poetic as a fan
could want, and this is not one of those regrettable reunion shows
that breaks hearts. I’ll post a proper report at LITG once I get back
from SF over the weekend (they’re at Great American Music Hall
tonight)… but if you’re debating seeing them in SF, Seattle or
beyond, the answer is emphatically: “yeah hup!”


Radio Birdman – “Zeno Beach” CD (Yep Roc)

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In their first release since the desolate and stunning Living Eyes (1981), Radio Birdman incorporates broad swaths of vocalist Rob Younger’s solo sound, that anxious, angry garage rock that used to come stamped with the New Christs logo. Mix that with the natural ebullience of a consortium of musical brothers delighted to have found their shared rhythm anew, and you’ve got an original, enticing return to form. Songwriting duties are now shared, with strong offerings throughout. High points include Deniz Tek’s "Die Like April," a haunted, psychedelic reel, Tek/Younger’s aggressive "We’ve Come So Far" and Pip Hoyle’s self-mythologizing "The Brotherhood of Al Wazah" and canivalesque title track. It sounds nothing like what they’ve done before, and yet it feels absolutely like Radio Birdman, with all the intelligence, passion and faith in the transcendent power of rock and roll that implies. Their debut American tour launches at the end of August in Los Angeles; watch this space for a full report.

Radios Appear on Wilshire Boulevard

Tickets are on sale now for the debut U.S. date for Radio Birdman, August 30. I never dared expect that my favorite band, and subject of the first music feature I ever wrote, would be kicking off their American tour at the art deco Wiltern in my home town of L.A., but it’s true. Tix are $25, and the BellRays open. See you there?


The Lipstick Killers’ Mesmerizer is a Lost in the Grooves exclusive. Click to sample the music or purchase.

The Lipstick Killers Mesmerizer (Citadel, Australia, 1984)

On the strength of a Deniz Tek-produced 45 issued by Bomp subsidiary Voxx in 1979, Sydney’s Lipstick Killers decamped for Los Angeles and dreams of Northern hemisphere success. They lasted a year in the cozy grime of the Tropicana Motel and a bug-infested Silverlake apartment, playing about a dozen gigs, including a Brian Jones memorial at the Whisky and at Madame Wong’s with the Plimsouls. Mesmerizer is the document of one of these shows, recorded on cassette by Flesh Eater Chris D., cleaned up nicely and released posthumously on Radio Birdman crony “Brother” John Needham’s Citadel imprint. In the absence of an official studio album, this high energy set stands as slightly sloppy but irresistible evidence of the band’s magic. Over twelve songs, including terrific covers of the Chocolate Watchband’s “Let’s Talk About Girls” and the Elevators’ “I’ve Got Levitation,” the Lipstick Killers swagger like the Hindu gods of their signature song, all power chords, tribal drums and perfectly controlled frenzy. The band’s originals come across like unknown frat rock standards gene-spliced with a finely honed blend of psychedelia and DIY punk energy. Insinuation was their strong suit: “Dying Boy’s Crawl” and “Strange Flash” get right under your skin and pull you bodily towards the music. Maybe a band this tight and moody was nothing special on the Sydney scene, but they must have blown their L.A. competition sideways. Unfortunately, the usual band problems intruded–mental illness, money, the singer getting a day job to pay rent on the communal flat–and the Killers called it quits. The members eventually wound their way back to Australia, where they still occasionally play as the Lipstick Killers. When I saw them open for Radio Birdman in 2002 they fulfilled every promise of Mesmerizer and more. (Kim Cooper, from the book Lost in the Grooves)