Box Set – Radio Birdman (Citadel Records)
Reviewing the new Radio Birdman box set is an absolute poisoned chalice. You know I’m going to give it five bottles, right? It contains most of the great recordings by the greatest band to have sprung from these shores. Bar none.
I include everyone in that statement from the Easybeats through AC/DC and onto whatever crap that is currently passing itself off as popular music. Forget your Hoodoo Gurus and your Sunnyboys, your Birthday Party and your assorted Johnny Come Latelys. This band was Ground Zero and Year Zero. Accept no substitutes.
"Radio Birdman. Box Set. Seven CDs. One DVD. One hundred Aussie bucks. Five Bottles. Yay. It’s great."
And that has been the extent of the reviews of this thing. Nobody has wanted to prod it with a stick and turn it on its side. And with several good reasons. Radio Birdman have always put the fanatic into fans. No more surly beast has ever walked the earth than a Radio Birdman fan.
Except possibly the foundation members and ex-members who draw and redraw their internal battle lines with such vim and vigour as to require running commentary and a scorecard. If you can possibly help it, you really want to keep yourself out of their crossfire. I mean to say... “Comrades of War”? Most unlikely band name ever. If you say anything beyond: “it’s great”, you’re going to find yourself on somebody’s shit list.
The other problem is the whole thing is pretty damn hard to prod. Toby Creswell’s (edited and revised) liner notes reflect wonderfully on a time and a place but no-one seems to want to give up any clues about the discs themselves and especially the material on the three bonus discs. And that’s what most of the people who are reading this review want to know about. Hell. We’ve got the old records. We’ve got the CD reissues. We’ve got the bootlegs and the handbills, discarded plectra and handwritten set lists. You want us to fork out? Tell us what we’re getting.
Let’s start filling the gaps with some storytelling. Radio Birdman formed at the tail end of 1974, largely informed by the musical styles favoured by CREEM magazine. Chuck in some Stooges, some Dolls and some MC5. You know the rest. Sydney – or at least a small core of supporters – didn’t know what had hit ‘em. Back then, you could walk the strip and the bearded bands in the pubs all sounded like one never ending Status Quo riff. Fuck that leaden chug. Kids wanted to dance.
At the beginning there was Rob and Deniz. (Ron Keeley would like you to know he was right there at the beginning too – no matter what the book says). There was Pip and there was Carl who was soon replaced by Warwick. Initially, the band sounded like more of an up tempo version of future Tek band the Visitors.
There isn’t much recorded evidence of mark one Birdman. There’s a version of “Cold Turkey” that pops up on YouTube from time to time. It’s not included in this box set - but it should be. (The audio quality of that track is better than some on the included DVD). But, as I’ll discuss later, despite its wealth of goodies, this is not this collection does not present the complete picture it, perhaps, should have. Instead, like any good autohagiography, it is selective.
Soon after, Pip Hoyle left the band allegedly to concentrate on studies. Well, that’s the band’s official story to explain his storming off. Let’s just say that it had little to do with musical differences. Enter Chris Masuak on guitar and the coming of the twin guitar attack. A small core following became a much larger core following. I told you, the kids wanted to dance. And where Birdman went, the kids went too - and they danced. Birdman entered RAM magazine’s band contest and, with a growing army of rabid followers, the opposition didn’t stand much of a chance.
And now, as a prize, they could actually visit a real live recording studio and the promise of a single that never eventuated. Already, the myths were beginning to grow. RAM magazine reported the band played so loud at their session that they blew up the recording desk. A great story but - really – that’s not how a recording desk works.
Certainly, there were studio problems and the band ended up at Trafalgar. Charles Fisher, who would eventually produce “Radios Appear” took enough of a shine to the band to get them in and record during downtime (when no-one else was booked into the studio). A lot more stuff was recorded than was ever released and most of it just hung around on shelves to gather dust.
Then, a couple of years back, during a clean up these boxes of treasure were found. I’ve heard different reports of between 50 and a hundred songs. A box set was proposed. As it is, I’m gonna make some educated guesses about the bonus tracks on the two Radio Appears discs. Other than the tracks from the "Burn My Eye" EP, I have a sinking suspicion the band themselves don’t know what most of this stuff is. I know more tracks were recorded around the time of "Burn My Eye" so I’m guessing stuff like “Love Kills” (Acoustic Version) comes from that cache. “Insane Alive” sounds like it was recorded at the exact moment the band decided it was too close to Garland Jeffries “Wild in the Street” to keep it in the set and that fits the timeline. Some of the bonus stuff on the international version bonus disc sounds less developed and appears to be from the "Radios Appear" sessions. Not to put too fine a point on it, there’s a lot of stuff there that if you take one listen you automatically know why the tape was thrown in a shoebox and forgotten.
Given the choices made, I’m guessing that Deniz Tek did most of the choosing with little involvement from other band members. Quite a few have what are essentially guide vocals veering towards disinterest over the top. Ron Keeley’s drums noticeably speeds up in a couple of tracks including the often talked about piano intro version of “Love Kills”. “More Fun” has no backing vocals at all. “Aloha Steve and Danno” is barely a sketch of what it would become. Some songs have Pip Hoyle and others don’t.
On the sleeve, it says these tracks were mixed from original masters by Tek and Wayne Connolly which doesn’t quite ring true to me. The technology of the time meant you mixed from multi-tracks and not masters and there doesn’t sound like there was a tremendous amount of mixing going on with these recordings. Levels of individual instruments sound all over the place. There doesn’t seem to be any effects on individual instruments. Tellingly, the keyboards on “Shaking Street” are absurdly loud and not always played in the same key and tempo as everyone else. It would have been the first thing anyone would have wound back five notches in a mix.
I’m guessing the masters are quarter inch tapes bounced down as rough mixes from two inch multi-tracks at the end of the day. There remains a lot of clicks and chatter before takes that would have been eliminated in any serious multi-track mixing. Additionally, I was told by a band associate that many of the tracks had been rejected because of poor backing vocals. If you had the multi tracks, that wouldn’t have been too much of a problem to solve. Let’s face it. “The First and the Last” set a precedent for post recording adjustments.
So I’m saying mastered from original tapes with a bit of EQ adjustment. Anyone from the band can and should feel free to correct this assumption.
And, just so you know, this actually isn’t criticism of the recordings. As a band, Birdman fiercely strove towards perfection. A bad take would not have fitted the band’s aesthetic. So, it is interesting and worthwhile hearing what didn’t actually make the grade. Very few band’s best days approach Birdman’s worst. It does however provide interesting insights into the band’s working methods.
Listening to these recordings, it’s fairly obvious the band liked to record as a band and they liked to get it right. They didn’t overdub and build layers. They did a take. If it was no good, it was dropped. And that was already becoming rare in the '70s. Studio hacks would tell you they’d fix shit in the mix. They never did. So Birdman’s tenacity to get the perfect take was one of their greatest strengths. After all, this was the band who refused to Countdown unless they could do it live.
As to the original albums themselves, these are remasters and not remixes. A good job has been done with the domestic “Trafalgar” album sounding less muddy and the international “Sire” album sounding less tinny. Fairly much that’s a win-win but I’ll probably keep listening to Rob Younger’s late nineties Red Eye remaster that bought the domestic and international discs into a tidy single disc. It is, however, nice to one again listen to the Trafalgar album and have the opportunity to hear the original “New Race” as well as Chris Masuak’s excellent piano on “Maelstrom” which kind of drowned in the International mix.
Enough has been written of these original albums for me not to say too much. Yes, the twin guitar attack is still there. One guitar in each speaker with all guitars equal but with one more equal than the other. Same as it always was.
For me, the Trafalgar album is the better of the two discs featuring the Funhouse dance machine version of the band. When Pip Hoyle returned the sound became more cluttered. Deniz Tek’s public image is The Iceman. Cool, collected and in control. His playing, however, is far more chaotic, demanding inspirational flights of distortion. Pip Hoyle shares a similar sensibility and his return forced the engine of the band into a more rigid shape to compensate.
Almost immediately, fracture lines began to form in the previously tight knit unit. Suddenly there were enough people in the band to take sides. The band adopted an even greater military pose. But whilst gems like “Hit them again”, “More Fun” and “Aloha Steve and Danno” seemed to give the impression of forward momentum, the fractures grew to cracks.
Both versions of the albums remain absolute classics. Obviously, any collection containing these discs rates its five bottles. This is historically essential material but surely everyone has worn the grooves off of several copies by now. But I should also mention that the arrival of the “International” album was – at the time – not greeted with universal love and adoration. It didn’t sit well with everyone having to buy the album again for a couple of extra tracks. Yet, here we are again...
“Living Eyes” was essentially the album that tore the band apart but, oddly enough, it’s hard to hear that on the disc. A wider song writing base is clearly being established. Arrangements become more complex in an attempt to marry and balance the opposing demands for space of each player. Listening to the album, it sounds like viable decisions are being made. From a musical point of the view, the band seem to be growing and embracing change. It’s hard to fathom why the end was so near.
The first disc also includes the “More Fun” EP, which seems a little unnecessary as that originally included three songs from the same show as the “Live at Paddington Town Hall” CD which is also included in the box set. When I queried this with an ex band member and asked whether the EP had included some additional re-recording after the event, I was told “probably.”
The second disc is essentially the Red Eye remix from 1997. It is, however, particularly nice to finally include Masuak’s “Death by the Gun”. That was always a live favourite and it’s nearly impossible to imagine the band leaving it off the album in the first place whilst including re-runs of tracks from the “Burn my Eye” EP that, in hind sight, did nothing to enhance the originals besides playing them too damn fast. Clearly, internal band tensions must have been... pretty similar to what they’ve been ever since.
The live recording of the Paddington Town Hall gig is a nice addition to the package but it was hardly Birdman’s best gig of that year. I actually recall it as their second worst! (The worst was Springwood when, out of the blue, Rob and Deniz announced Pip was rejoining the band. Masuak – imagining he was being replaced - got so drunk that he fell off stage. It made for great photos to include in the inner sleeve of the International version of Radios Appear.)
After the Paddington Town Hall gig, I was helping manager George Kringas fold the flag. He asked me what I thought of the show. I told him I thought it was a little darker than I was used to and that I missed the “fun” covers. Up to that point, Birdman had thrown piles of covers into their set. It basically followed a pattern. Two originals then a cover.
George said they were just getting ready for Europe how they did things over there. They were working towards single forty minute sets of mostly originals. Clearly, 35-odd years later, it’s hard to spot the changes that were going on. At the time, they seemed huge. At the time this gig really sounded like a goodbye to the old.
Listening now, it sounds like a great gig by the world’s greatest rock and roll band. But you know how it is. It took me 25 years to realise “Adventure” really did sound like a normal and worthwhile progression from “Marquee Moon”.
The DVD is largely a disappointment. Originally, it was planned to include the live at the ABC footage shot at Gore Hill but that was priced too high to secure the rights. Essentially, we’re left with what should have been the out-takes of that.
In summary, everything here deserves its place. If there is any problem with this release it is in what hasn’t made the cut. “New Race” live from the first Paddington Town Hall gig was released as part of the “Babylon’s Burning” CD box set. Firstly, it’s hard to understand why that isn’t included and even more unlikely that that was the only song recorded on the night. Tracks from the Saints have emerged from that show so one can only imagine some kind of recordings were made.
The first Double J live at the Radio set is also missing – and that has appeared on numerous bootlegs. If you really want to get a sense of what Birdman sounded like at the Funhouse, you just have to listen to them roar through “Route 66” and a version of “Surf City” that (not so) quietly mutates into “Pretty Face is going to Hell”. If this was really going to be the definitive reading of the band, a disc of that stuff would be a better choice than the 35-minute bonus disc.
I suspect a wider involvement by other members and ex-members would have improved song choices enormously. Birdman was always something greater than the sum of its parts and there seems to be a certain revisionism in this set’s design. Packaging is pretty good and bears the normal high standard of visual design. The inward opening CD sleeves, however, are an absolute bitch to get the discs out of. Expect torn sleeves and finger prints on discs.
I had a discussion with my friend Robert Brokenmouth about why I was still giving this five bottles despite my repeatedly pointing out its failings. That’s simple. Everything in this set is great. This is the soundtrack of my life. This is the soundtrack of the lives of about half the people I know. This music is the reason why there is an I-94 Bar to write for. This music is probably the reason I found the courage and ability to write and play music.
I bought it. I’m happy I bought it. It was worth every cent. If I accidentally dropped a wardrobe on it, I’d rush out and buy another. But Yeah. It should have been better. I should be shouting from the roof top about how fantastic this disc is. I should be demanding the Barman allow a special one of a kind Ten Green Bottle award. Instead, I’m quietly hoping someone outside the band has been passed the rest of the goodies and has been told to do something with them. Maybe Citadel could sell it in a little album replica package that could slip into the box with the other discs.