First published in Munster 21
Radio Birdman never had a hit record, and never got past cult status in their original run from 1974-1978. Hated by the masses, gigs hard to come by, and when they did manage to score a show they were usually never asked to come back, thats even if they got to finish the set. Lead singer Rob Younger mentions it wasn/t until their first reformation at the 1996 Big Day Out the band made big money. Despite that, you can/t tell the story of Australian rock n Roll without the Radio Birdman story. And no history lesion on punk is complete without these rock n roll n warriors. Oh and two of the members went on to become doctors and one was referenced in Top Gun. I swear you couldn/t make this up. And despite the hurdles they had to overcome just to get a gig, you can never deny that Birdman did it their way, and never compromised their DIY beliefs.
A select few were lucky to see the Birdman doco prior to the general release, and were further treated to a Q and A with Director Jonathan J Sequeira and guitarist Deniz Tek, conducted by our great friend Marty Bolton. Marty started the session by saying it’s a great story, and like all great story/s it has many different versions. When asked if it was the definitive Birdman Story Dr Tek said it doesn/t even starch the surface but it was a fair scratch.
Director Jonathan J Sequeiras incredible telling of the Birdman story Descent Into The Maelstrom is up there with the best music documentary/s ever made. The dedication to the story of the iconic Sydney band is told by all the members plus a few who were either there, or had a part in the Birdman story. So no Bono im sad to say. Its made with a fans eye, and while certain parts of the story hardcore fans will know inside out and heard before, the delivery and pacing of the film makes it fresh. While some may know the facts and timeline, its done in a manner that is lively and with six members theres no shortage of different perceptive.
As mentioned, no story of Oz rock is complete without the Birdman story, and to think it may not have happened had Ron Keeley not given Deniz Tek a cupboard in his flat to live in, which is where the story kicks off. Its pretty common knowledge Dr Tek came from Detroit and grew up on the MC5 and the Stooges, which would stay with him when he arrived in Sydney, but every band member is given equal time to talk briefly about their early years, which is a nice touch as Teks story is well known while the others not so much. In and Q and A after Deniz discussed coming from the home of Motown and seeing the Stooges and MC5, asked why he would ever leave, he said he thought everywhere was the same.
The back story of pre Birdman groups the Rats and TV Jones is discussed, which even included audio of the Rats doing the New York Dolls Personality Crisis, and TV Jones doing the original recording of Monday Morning Gunk. The late Carl Rorke of The Rats and an original member of Radio Birdman is put over for his small yet important part in the bands history. Deniz Tek is said to ave left TV Jones over not wanted to compromise the bands sound and alsp he refused to wear a leotard. I/ll leave you with that image, yet it comes clear from the beginning Tek knew what he wanted and wasn/t going to comprise for anyone his vision.
Every Birdman has an interesting personality and it makes the interviews a joy to watch as no one member has the same take or story telling approach. Rob Younger was Best on ground for me. He was curt and to the point. He might not have said a lot at times yet you feel he doesn/t need to say more.
RAM editor Anthony O’Grady and Trafalgar Studios studio owner Charles Fisher are given due respect for their hands in getting Birdman in the studio to record their first release, the EP Burn my Eyes and their first LP Radios Appear. Tensions in the camp surfaced when several members turned the LP over to see the name TEK over and over in the song writing credits. In fact the only name. Much like Johnny Ramone, Tek, a medical student, had a vision and was hell bent on getting there. It comes across as his band. Everyone has a role, but he/s the leader. Simple. Surprisingly, something brought up in the Q and A, Deniz never had a long term vision for the band. If one gig was on the horizon, thats all he had on his mind on. He also has an interesting take on the Melbourne scene of the time, and tells a humorous story about Nick Cave
A lot of the footage is stuff that diehard Birdman fans would have seen many times over, but considering this was before every person had a camera on standby, I doubt there would be very little live footage of their work so its hardly a fault on the filmmakers part. But the use of photos is extremely well done. As they say a picture tells a thousand words. Plus Warwick Gilbert does some amazing cartoons to make the visuals for several story/s, such as the night the band were never asked to returned to Freenches and when a pigs head became a prop.
Birmans ill-fated European tour of 1978 is covered extensively. Before the trip the band was divided into two camps, the UK press were against them from the outset, and the group where stuck in a studio for two weeks recording their second LP Living Eyes. It seemed doomed from the start. I doubt the song More Fun was written about that tour. No wonder their van was christened the Van of Hate. Warwick Gilbert in the past has spoken about his fall out with the group regarding the recording. To this day he hates Living Eyes, in particular the track Crying Sun (this reviewers favourite Birdman track).Relations seemed strained before they landed in Europe yet the recording was the straw that broke the group. They were barely on speaking terms. Tek states he was too busy with his head down mixing the record to care whatever BS was happening, while Rob Younger bluntly states some people simply couldn/t be bothered to show up to have their say about the mixing, tough luck.
The post Birdman spins off band are mentioned with a brief scene which has each member and a file of what bands they were involved in, including a photo of Dr Tek in his Navy days . Since this is the Birman story and not the story of those other bands I had no issue with this. Birdman disciples Mark Sisto (Birdman MC and the Visitors) and Johnny Kannis (the Hitmen) keep their reflections strictly on Birdman
Sadly there is little footage of the 1996 Big Day Out tour. Rob Younger mentions that it was their first major payday. It was also the final straw for Warwick Gilbert, who left the bands, and never returned. Birdman didn/t play again until 2002. It seemed Birdman was always meant to crash and burn. While they did rise from the ashes it was shoot down immediately.
Even the ARIA Hall of Fame, the last time several members where in the same room was not a happy affair. Its funny seeing Keeley put his arm round Younger and Younger looking like he/d rather be anywhere else. The band had no support from the music establishment back in the day, so did a trophy from an organization that refused to knowledge them at the time mean anything to them? For Younger it meant very little. Despite the dropping off of members and the infighting, the band always killed it live. The footage of their most recent shows overseas used in the doco shows they are still at the top of their game. As Ron Keeley said striving up to battle where gonna kill em, it still rings true to this day.
The dismissals of Keeley and Masuak are the bluntest scenes of the film. Keeley was released after two bad gigs back to back. Tek claims he walked, Younger says he was fired. Thanks for coming, no room for those that can/t keep up. Masuak reads his notice word for word from his laptop. Keeley gets the last word. its sad relations between several members has come to this. For a band that Masuak described as a family, the fighting –like most families some petty, some understandable – it seems the damage has been done and the full family may never reunite. The members don/t hold back on their opinions of their colleagues which is one of their strengths of the doco. No one will walk out saying anyone of the members, past and present sat on the fence. It’s a great credit to Sequeira that the band is willing to spill their guts in an open and frank matter. No regular interviewer would get this down on tape.
The film does end on a positive note with the group getting a few seconds to show where they are in life. While Gilbert, Masuak and Keeley may never break bread with the remaining Birdmen, they at least appear to have moved on and proud of their legacy
Descent Into The Maelstrom is made with a fans eye and while some aspects of the story some people may know back to front, its a history lesson of the highest order. Every period of the bands history is discussed in detail, and in instances footage can/t be found pictures and cartons fill the gap, along with every band member aving something interesting to say. While they may not ave gotten the respect they deserved at the time, Descent into the Maelstrom does justice to showing just how important Birdman are to Australia music. A big Yes.