Posted August 16, 2006

ROCK AND ROLL IN THE ERA OF DECADENCE

Sometime in 1981 I heard Radio Birdman on the radio and was hooked.  Fifteen year of gigs, parties, and records later, the night I’d never imagined, I’m at the Manning Bar, primed with anticipation.  I figured it’d be a gig worth remembering - I didn’t count on being overwhelmed.  Radio Birdman cruised on stage (“Been waiting long?”), I rocked back on my heels, screwed my eyes shut and let the electricity rush through my body, drawing me to Ground Point Zero at the edge of the stage, surfing on wave of raw sound, dancing like I’d hardly done in years.  Why aint it this good all the time?  Radio Birdman were hesitant, even nervous, at first, but as the room heated up, older embers sparked and flamed.  A high and pure moment of positive energy and it was well after dawn before I could go to bed.

 

In a lot of ways this was the best show of the tour.  Sure, they played better as the tour progressed, tighter and harder, but the scale of the venues made less allowances for the communication between audience and performers.  To be right there at the physical source of the music suddenly made listening to records seem like a ninth generation cassette dub being played down a phone line.  Simply, I Got It.  Someone once said “Radio Birdman were a blank screen onto which anyone could project anything” and now I knew what that meant.

 

So it made perfect sense to take the “Railway Bus” to Towradgi and book into the hotel behind the pub.  The manager had a sharp eye for Rock Pigs, putting us in one wing that gradually filled up with friends of ours.  Perfectly unplanned Party Time, we were ready.

 

Funny seeing Wayne Kramer onstage amid those red and black banners.  Yeah, the irony is manifest.  His band were pretty slick, low on songs but high on jamming and some godawful lyrics.  Still, every now and then Brother Wayne’d tear off a few bars of utterly head-ripping guitar, just to remind you where he’d been.  “High Time” is one of my alltime fave albums and “Poison” one of my top ten songs but I gotta concede that, like solo Beatles, Wayne Kramer illustrates the strengths of a band.  As do Radio Birdman.

 

If you trace the musical career paths of the various ex-Birdmen you pick up little details of what made Radio Birdman, but not the whole picture.  The New Race album, featuring fully half the band, exemplifies this – it just aint the same, like the Rolling Stones were never the same without Brian Jones.  And even if one individual writes most of the songs he can’t help but be influenced by the other members of the band, their atttitudes, opinions and tastes.  Collective inspiration – and Radio Birdman are so much a rock and roll band, such a definitive unit, that, if they weren’t such strong individuals, musically, it would be gratuitous to refer to the exploits of any one member.

 

At any rate, we were chanting “Do The Pop” and throwing beer around and laughing in this sort of club bar up the back when we heard the intro tape and the only dancing space up the front was right in front of the PA.  Well, that’s cool.  Radio Birdman were a lot more confident already, looser, more relaxed, the music tighter and harder (yeah, they were looser and the music tighter, and if you don’t understand what I’m saying here then you never will).  They played, we danced, and partied back at the hotel for hours, cranked up on adrenalin.  Next morning we piled into the V8 Brougham and motored into the ‘Gong for breakfast burgers before cruising home up the coast road, listening to sporadic bursts of “Back In The USA” on a faulty car stero.  And then we went to Selinas.

 

I know no-one who likes that place and plenty who detest it but, somehow, you can’t avoid going there.  So we did, and anyone who went to any kind of rock and roll gig in the last 18 years seemed to be there.  Bro’ Wayne played “Kick Out The Jams” and 2000 mostly shirtless punters needed no encouragement – time slowed down during the set break – the anticipation was thick enough to grab in your fist – the crowd surged forward, cheering, every time a roadie sauntered across the stage, every time the stage lights dimmed – fever-pitch restlessness – white light, six men walking onstage, WHAM BAM, like those drenching thunderstorms that burst open after hours of wind and electricity, Radio Birdman tapped into a current and, aiming sure and true, whipped up a frenzy.  I watched, fascinated, the tide of flesh seething and erupting in gravitational response to the music, the individual facets of the band glinting more distinctly.

 

The hesitancy and reticience of earlier shows was swept away.  Rob found his stage feet, moving, dancing, part James Brown, part pale dervish, singing, snarling, growling with a potent sense of command.  Ron and Warwick played smooth and dynamic, like a great soul rhythm section, with the subtlety and grace that sets Radio Birdman so far apart from every other band attempting to plunder the same seam of rock and roll – thanks to these two, Radio Birdman actually rock AND roll.  Chris cleaved chunks out of the hot damp air and Deniz sliced them into fantastic shapes while Pip’s klavier – audible at last – chimed in and across the guitars.  Throw in harmony vocals and you’re gonna be keeping the front of house guy real busy; the production rose to the occasion, this crew being as calmly efficient as any I’ve seen.

 

After a show like that, I figured, it can only get better.  Especially in Newcastle.  Radio Birdman came on like goddamn gangbusters, red hot screaming rock and roll, a red hot screaming crowd, tonight’s the one… all a kinda blur, like so much of this tour… odd details and sensastions resonate… something magic happened at the Palais that night, a perfect interaction between artist and audience, energy feedback principle in action.  Radio Birdman put up a challenge to the audience – an inherent aspect of all their best shows – the punters accepted the challenge and met it on their own terms – we dunno ‘bout art but we know what we like – the band and the crowd lifted each other to heights unimaginable, to heights unequalled by any one of the thousands of gigs I’ve witnessed.  Amid a storm of thundering drums and howling guitar feedback I threw my arms in the air, hands spread wide, to catch every last drop of the pure, beautiful energy filling the room – BHP could’ve run for a months, if only they knew how to tap that blast – the Palais show was everything promsed at Selinas and whole lot more.  Rock and roll primacy, physically, emotionally, intellectually, hitting the same flashpoint lit by the Who in ’64, the MC5 in ’68, that night that slams into you and lays bare the whole history of this misunderstood phenomenon… words fail, I’ve never been this straight and sober at a show since I dunno when, yet I’ve never felt so high, I’ve never felt that rare alchemy of a band and a crowd in such perfect synch, one constantly pushing the other…

 

I’ve seen and heard near every hip and hot local act and rockin’ legend that’s trod the boards in NSW since 1983 and not a single one of ‘em’s come near to weaving the kind of spell Radio Birdman cast that night at the Palais – maybe Lord Byron or someone could articulate this unique truth – it was That Good.

 

My clothes were wringing wet, two hours of wild dancing, surrounded by crazed kids, 16 year old girls Doin’ The Pop, who’da thunk it?  I slid behind the wheel, slammed the “Radios On” cassette into the stereo and pushed it hard, 90mph on the old highway, unstoppable, catseyes and highway patrol flashing by, tonight is ours and there is no universe beyond the road, the car, the music… nothing will stop us, we will simply prevail…

 

Canberra, the black hole of life, wit and humour.  Nothing less than Radio Birdman could have got us there, no greater challenge could have been mounted, but in the end – “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.”  Shit, what a downer.  Tension, bad vibes, taut nerves rubbed raw – and too much booze, but in Canberra you don’t make a choice about these sort of things, not unless you want to wake up screaming, wondering if you really were running naked down Northbourne Ave hurling Molotov cocktails left and right.

 

We took Charger Power to the nation’s capital, sorted out a loungeroom floor to sleep on, bought food and beer, got to the gig at the ANU bar – uh oh – Radio Birdman stumped on stage, Deniz changed guitars before anyone struck a note – maybe it was just that Canberra vibe, maybe they’d had a bad ride down in the Tarago, maybe, ultimately, it was the dickheads yelling “Play some Doctor Hook/Hush/Ted Mulry Gang”, whatever, it just didn’t take off.  A city built for the exclusive use of politicians and their servants is not the place for edge of the switchblade rock and roll.  We oughta nuke the place, lease it to the French or something.

 

We figured the itinerary just a bit too late to catch the cheap fares to the Gold Coast and Melbourne and no band on earth deserves to be judged on the basis of their performance in the accoustic joke that is the Showground’s Govt (those bastards again) Pavilion.  So we hung on for the Metro shows, our last chance to dance, the end of rock and roll.  Near the end of this tour, for sure, and the edgy excitement of the early shows, when band and crew struggled desperately to keep up with their own momentum, had been streamrollered by the grind of twelve shows in 20 days.  Tuesday’s Metro show was some kinda disappointment, if only by the standards Radio Bridman had set themselves, standards unapproachable by most, if not all, of the idiot-dipshit-pseudo-rock groups that infest our lives (an eveing in no way imnproved by the bouncer who picked up a punter tumbling over the crowd barrier and hurled him at my girlfriend’s head – thanks for the concussion, moron).

 

But Wednesday, the last day of that magnificent January, ahh, paid in full, a packed house, moving, shaking, dancing, Radio Birdman’s last show for the hometown crowd, another high and beautiful energy drive.  We congregated in the bar afterwards, unwilling to leave it all behind, swapping tales, analyses, criticisms, people who’d been to 5, 6, 7 shows and more.  On any given night we heard most  of “Radios Appear” and about half of “Living Eyes”, the Masters’ Apprentices’ Undecided and whatever ended up in the extended workout on TV Eye, snatches of anything from Paperback Writer to LA Woman.  Yeah – Descent Into The Maelstrom, Dark Surprise, Hand of Law, Smith and Wesson Blues, all great stuff, a shining beacon in these dark times.  “Rock and roll won’t eliminate your problems.  But it will let you sort of dance all over them” – Pete Townshend, who oughta know.

 

January ’96 – rock and roll – if the published accounts are to be believed, then this month was an encapsulation of the Radio Birdman flightpath, from inception to self-destruction.  If you missed it, tough – you aint gonna see it again –but if you were there, if you understood, if you Got It – well, you don’t need me to explain.  So what if it weren’t perfect? – almost by definition, rock and roll shouldn’t be – that aint the point.  At the very least, they served notice to all the young punks that they’d better tighten up their collective act – the standard has been set.  At their sheer, freaking greatest, Radio Birdman outplayed, outperformed, outwrote, hell, even out-conceptualised any rock and roll group that’s ever dared take the stage in this country.  It takes a rare, special talent to achieve that symbiosis of performer and audience – this was no reformation - this was the living, breathing here and now.  Great works of art live in a simultaneity, a continual present, and Radio Birdman were utterly, perfectly timeless.  Thanks, guys.

 

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