Bringing Detroit to Australia
Having completed the twenty date, four-week tour of Europe and Scandinavia, Radio Birdman co-founder Deniz Tek takes a week off to vacation in the French Alps before flying home to Australia. There just long enough to do laundry and pay some bills, he boards another flight for the twenty hour trip to Detroit to visit friends and family. From there he flies to Montana, where he’ll finish work on his next solo record. Also in the works is a documentary DVD on Radio Birdman by Australian filmmaker Jonathan Sequeira, which is expected to debut in early 2016. All in all, it’s a typical couple of months in the life of this 62-year-old proto-punk pioneer, ER physician and former U.S. Navy flight surgeon.
Asked about the rigors of the road, Tek replies, “Touring’s not difficult. When people talk about the hardship of the road, that’s a bunch of crap. Touring is spending all day getting to the next place and then having someone buy you dinner. Then you work for an hour and a half, and go to sleep. The next morning, you go to the next place. I mean, what could be easier than that? Touring is fine. The actual onstage part – we play pretty hard, it is physically demanding, but so far I’m still able to do it.”
If the recent tour is any indication, Radio Birdman– a band that formed in 1974 and whose first album Radios Appear came out in 1976– is having a resurgence. “The surprise of this tour was that the demographic has changed rather dramatically,” Tek comments. “Ten years ago, [our audience] were mostly middle-aged males. Now, some of the old fans still turn up, but we are seeing a new generation of 18 to 25-year-olds and a lot of females. That is a welcome development.” Sold-out shows, mosh pits and stage diving are the new normal, not bad for a band made up of guys in their late fifties and early-to-mid sixties.
Musically, Tek reports, “The band has never sounded better. The playing is integrated. The current lineup is more interested in playing the songs as they were originally imagined rather than heading off on their own trips. Scott Morgan [The Rationals] refers to this as ensemble playing: making room for each other without compromising on power.”
Power and high-energy are two of the more accurate descriptors of Radio Birdman and the music of Tek’s childhood in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “It was an amazing place to grow up. Talk about being spoiled! It’s 1968 – 1969, you know. I’m only sixteen-years-old and I can’t go to bars, but I could see all this great music in the parks. Free concerts every Sunday afternoon in the summer with great local bands like the MC5 and the Stooges. I remember back when they were called the Psychedelic Stooges and they were doing more performance art. They had what they called Energy Freakouts.”
“The annual Ann Arbor Blues Festival brought in Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Hound Dog Taylor… even Led Zeppelin played there. It was cool, Led Zeppelin got kind of a lukewarm response, then One String Sam came up and brought the place down. It was like One-String Sam blew Led Zeppelin off the stage. Everyone thought that was really cool.”
It was around this time when Deniz Tek got his first taste of living in Australia, a place he’s called home for over forty years. “I spent a year in Australia with my parents in 1967. My dad was a professor at the University of Michigan and he had a sabbatical year. Besides being an academic, he was also a tennis fanatic. Australia in the mid-60s was the mecca for international tennis, so that’s why we went, I guess. It’s the only reason I can think of. I made some friends there. I really loved the music I heard that year, bands like the Easybeats, the Masters Apprentices, the Loved Ones, Purple Hearts.”
“So by spending 1967 in Australia, I missed The Summer of Love and the Detroit Riots. When I got back in early 1968, everything was different. A big cultural shift had taken place during the year that I was gone. The Detroit riots had changed a lot of things. Vietnam protests were gearing up, teach-ins were being held on campus. It was quite different from 1966, which was sort of the end of the psychedelic/mod scene. As far as the music that white juvenile delinquent types wanted to make ––or middle class white kids from the suburbs wanted to make– that changed radically between 1966 -1968.”
In 1970, Tek finished high school, attended the University of Michigan for three semesters then worked at the local Chevy Nova assembly plant. Then it was time to move. Traveling around Europe and Africa, Tek landed in Australia in 1972 to study medicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and to play music. It was here he met future members of Radio Birdman, singer Rob Younger and drummer Ron Keeley. “[Rob and I] hit it off right away,” Tek recalls. “He’s the first person I met in Australia who actually even knew about the music scene in Detroit and Ann Arbor and he knew how wild it was. He was a very deep record collector and his taste in music, I would say, his line of thinking, was very similar to mine.”A couple years later, Tek and Younger found themselves without bands and formed Radio Birdman, adding Pip Hoyle on keyboard and Carl Rorke on bass. Their name came from a misheard Stooges’ lyric from the Fun House song “1970.” Like the Stooges, Radio Birdman embraced rock and roll’s wild, rebellious energy, and over the course of two short years, shook the Australian rock scene to its core.
When asked what was happening in music in Australia at the time, Tek replied, “This was what I would call the ‘Post-Hippie Malaise’ period, 1973-75, before punk hit. The airwaves were full of post-hippie blues and weird Celtic music. Not only was our sound different, we looked and dressed differently. We used to wear pretty scuffed-up leather motorcycle jackets and our jeans had more holes in them than fabric. Hippies didn’t dress like that. When a police car would be going by in our neighborhood on Oxford Street in Darlinghurst, they’d often say, ‘Come over here… get in the car’ and would start asking questions. And usually when I’d pull out an American passport, it was enough to get me out of there. I’d say, `I’m just visiting, leave me alone.’”
Early Radio Birdman Shows
Radio Birdman took a no-holds-barred approach to their music and their performances. Their early shows were loud, raucous, even shambolic. As Tek puts it, “We envisioned a band that would break rules and have no regard for the status quo of the rock business. We had a confrontational approach to gigs. It evolved that way… because it was imposed on us, by getting thrown out of places and threatened by security thugs. We got treated like outlaws so we adopted that stance. I think having that stance helped the group be cohesive. Those first few years were `us against them’ so we stuck together.”
The crowd at the band’s early shows consisted of their friends– a dozen people if they were lucky. Then those dozen friends told their friends about the band and the crowds at their shows grew organically. “We were doing what we do,” said Tek. “If you could dig it and enjoy it, you came along and had fun with us. I think it was different enough from what was happening and people would say, `You gotta see these guys, you’ve never seen anything like it,’ which was true at the time.”
And yet, trouble seemed to follow Radio Birdman. Brawls were commonplace. Bouncers would ask the band to turn down the volume during their early set. “Dinner is being served next door…” or some other reason. “We’d look at each other,” Tek remembers, “and then look back at the club owner and say, `You knew what we were like when you booked us, we don’t tone it down in the early sets.’ They’d say, `I know you’ll do the right thing when the time comes.’ The time comes and we do what we do,” said Tek. “Next thing we know, the power’s getting pulled and you’re being ordered out of the place. It wasn’t so much our music, but our attitude and not being willing to compromise what we saw as our art or what we wanted to do. In those early days, if they pulled the power on us, we’d start yelling out Beat poetry really loud, or reciting lyrics from The Last Poets or LeRoi Jones and people like that. Sometimes we’d be busting up TVs and radios on stage.”
After one too many times of having the plug pulled in the middle of their set, Radio Birdman adopted a DIY attitude. “We’d been kicked out of every place we wanted to play in Sydney. The shows were out of control from the venue’s perspective,” Tek recalls. “We realized that if we wanted to do anything, we had to do it ourselves; rent our own venues. We’d rent garages, church halls, things like that. We’d put our own shows on, make our own posters, get somebody to collect a dollar at the door to pay for the posters and then put the show on ourselves.”
Then, as Tek puts it, Radio Birdman “gained control” of the Oxford Tavern, a pub in a hotel and worked out a deal to organize the music. The hotel’s owner wasn’t interested in dealing with bands, but would take care of selling alcohol. He left the booking of bands in the hands of Radio Birdman. “We jumped on that. We played there a lot ourselves and then we also booked other bands in. We’d book bands that couldn’t get any traction with the mainstream music industry, guys that were like us, that were getting kicked out of places. If the band was commercially viable, we wouldn’t let them play there. It evolved into a real hip scene. People thought it was hip and cool and it probably had a little bit of snobbery attached to it, like `This is so hip, nobody else knows about it…’ That really grew into a scene and was really a launching point for Radio Birdman to go to the next level. And that coincided with the appearance of punk music around the world.”
Around this time, the band noticed a teenager who was a regular at their gigs at the Oxford. Chris Masuak would often stop by the Radio Birdman house after gigs with his guitar, picking up on their songs. A high school student originally from Canada, Chris was given the nickname, “Klondike,” and after keyboardist Pip Hoyle left the band, Masuak joined, giving Radio Birdman an aggressive, two guitar front. Tek describes Masuak as “one of those genius …Brian Jones-ish type musicians who could pick up and play anything.” Indeed, he also plays piano on songs “Snake” and “Descent Into The Maelstrom.”
(Chris later went on to form The Hitmen and The Screaming Tribesmen. While he played with Radio Birdman through their world tour of 2007, he was not included in their most recent tour of Europe, causing much consternation among fans on social media.) A great record of Chris’s work with Niagara & The Hitmen can be found here.
In 1977, Radio Birdman released their first album, Radios Appear. “There are two versions of that record. The Australian version was a cooperative effort with from Trafalgar Studio, who allowed Birdman to record and managed the release. “With the help of Michael McMartin and Charles Fisher from Trafalgar, we recorded it ourselves, set up our own mail order and distributed it ourselves,” Tek recalls. “In 1977, Seymour Stein was in Australia to sign the Saints to a contract. He saw us play and signed us as well. He wanted to release Radios Appear in the States. At that point, it had been out in Australia for nine months. We had new songs we wanted to record, so we said we’ll give you an updated version of it. So Sire Records got an updated version of the album. The Sire album had a different cover and about half the songs on it were different. That version was for world release. Really two versions––it’s a little confusing. In retrospect, if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t do it that way.”
Radios Appear garnered some good reviews in the U.S., but as luck would have it, Sire was going through financial difficulties. About six months after signing Radio Birdman, the record label filed for bankruptcy, letting go of their entire catalogue and stable of bands except for the Ramones, Talking Heads, Renaissance and Focus.
“These two European prog rock bands (Renaissance and Focus) were paying the bills for all the punk stuff that Seymour was putting out, which wasn’t making any money yet. This happened at the worst time for us. The record had just been shipped to warehouses and then we’re dropped from the label. It never even got shipped to stores and no one wanted to push it to radio. We were in the UK on tour with the Flamin’ Groovies, who were dropped from the label as well. After that, we were slated to be on a huge six month tour of North America opening for the Ramones. If the album would have been out and pushed, followed up with a tour of America with the Ramones, it might have gotten traction, but who knows. As it was, it just died.”
At the end of the relationship with Sire, Radio Birdman recorded a second album called Living Eyes that wasn’t released until 1981. Tek decided to put together a tour behind the album, but not as Radio Birdman. He pulled together Dennis Thompson (ex-MC5) on drums, Ron Asheton (ex-Stooges) on guitar, and the band was called New Race.
As Tek writes on his website, “I was living in Detroit at the end of 1980 when the New Race concept came up… This was in the early post-Birdman… days, I was looking around for something to do… The idea being to get some guys in it who we considered to be part of our ‘roots’ so to speak. We wanted to give the Detroit musicians some live exposure in Australia, to honor their legacy. It would be an important step along our own path of development. It would also give us the chance to go wild and behave irresponsibly and kick some serious ass.”
“The gigs were pretty good. The chaos factor was up there. New Race was the hammering out of yet another link in the chain. It served the purpose, albeit unconsciously, of connecting past to future within the context of our limited artistic traditions and humble aspirations. It was better than sitting around watching TV.”
The 1980s were a fairly quiet time for Tek, with Radio Birdman for all intents and purposes, broken up. In the early 80s Deniz moved back to America and became a licensed doctor, specializing in emergency and aerospace medicine. He worked for a time as a Navy flight surgeon and aviator. When asked about his dual identity, Tek responds, “I live in two separate worlds, though I don’t make a conscious decision to keep them separate. They have interfaced a few times… but when I’m at work at the hospital, I try to focus on that. It’s intense enough that I don’t need the distraction.”
Once his two worlds collided in magnificent fashion, with Ron Asheton and Niagara from Destroy All Monsters invading Tek’s airspace.
“I did military service for a number of years in the ‘80s as a flight surgeon. Though I was technically in the Navy, I did most of my time in support of the Marine Corps. As a flight surgeon, I was aircrew also, so I flew mostly in the backseat of Phantoms, as the squadron doctor. That was kind of great; it was like being in a band on tour. Everyone’s got a call sign. You just travel from place to place around the planet and do fun, cool stuff. Fortunately, I was never involved in any combat operations, directly.”
“My squadron was based in Hawaii and Ron Asheton and Niagara came to visit me and my family. Ron really liked that stuff, military stuff. I had him down at the squadron. He would just get so involved. They have––in the ‘ready room’––there’s a radio and one of the pilots is always on duty on that radio talking to the airplanes that are out doing training exercises over the ocean. Ron got on that radio and he was sort of running the place. The skipper came in–-it was so classic-–the skipper had a half-smoked cigar in his mouth and sees Ron on the radio! ‘ASHETON! GET YOUR ASS IN MY OFFICE, RIGHT NOW!’ The colonel, who was sort of laughing, but trying make an impression on Ron, said ‘You’re just not supposed to be doing this stuff. Stay away from the airplanes. You can visit, but you have to tone it down.’”
“We had a squadron party that Ron and Niagara came to and of course the pilots were falling over themselves to get close to Niagara. A lot of those guys had never seen anything like her before. It was just fantastic.” [Read the whole story on Deniz Tek web site]
Tek didn’t completely walk away from music during this period as is often thought. “I’ve read articles that `Deniz disappeared in the Navy, didn’t play guitar for a decade, then came back,’ but actually I was playing all the time and writing songs, especially on the ship. There’s not a heck of a lot else to do in your off time. When we’d pull into a port, like into the Philippines, the ship would pull into the port for maintenance and we’d be there for six weeks with not a lot to do. We’d get together with other pilots who played and go down to the clubs and play gigs. That’s what we did––our band was called Dust and the Rotorheads.
In the 1990s, Tek put out a number of solo releases, eventually hooking up famed skateboarding champions, tattoo artists and twin brothers, Art and Steve Godoy, who were also purveyors of punk rock. Initially Deniz Tek Group, then Golden Breed, the band now goes by Deniz Tek and the Bad Men.
Tek kept busy with several one-off projects throughout the decade, the best in my mind being Dodge Main. Named after Detroit’s famed auto assembly plant, the band brought back that Motor City sound with Tek teaming up with ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, his old Ann Arbor friend from the Rationals and Sonic’s Rendezvous Band, Scott Morgan. The subsequent album consists of originals, along with gems from Radio Birdman, MC5 and Sonics Rendezvous, along with a blazing cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come.”
In 1996, Radio Birdman reformed with all its original members and did lengthy tours of Australia. In 2006, the band released Zeno Beach, a record of all new material that was well-received by critics and fans. In 2006 and 2007, they embarked on a world tour with shows in Australia, Europe and North America. Then they disbanded again after the tour.
This brings about the question of reunion tours and the struggles of playing old material again and again. Tek and I spoke about the Replacements recent regrouping and their struggle to figure out if they have another album in them. Tek noted, “Pre-internet, the best thing you could do to become a legend is to disappear for about fifteen years and then come back and it’s ‘instant legend.’ We split in 1978 and came back in 1996 and reformed, with the exact same line-up. It was like we picked up where we left off. We were able to do pretty decent shows and get some money, in Australia anyway. Then we started touring Europe regularly.”
Contemplating what’s next, Tek says, “As a band, you don’t just want to be a nostalgia act and go out there and play the same stuff. That was one of my conditions for continuing in the band, that we had to write new material and come out with a new album or I wouldn’t do it, which resulted in the album Zeno Beach in 2006. And I think we’re at that same stage again. We have to decide whether we want to just hang it up or commit to doing another album. Committing to doing a new album after so long is difficult, like with the Replacements, I mean everyone’s different by now. You’re different people, you’re gonna write different stuff and its not gonna be the same as it was before. And it shouldn’t be. Why do the same thing twice? But some fans don’t like that. They want the same band, they don’t want it to sound different.
Tek’s dilemma about Radio Birdman’s future may be on his mind, but it hasn’t stopped him and Rob Younger from working on new tracks. “Rob has agreed to co-write some stuff, and we’ve started the demo process, but we can’t commit to a release yet. The quality of the songs will have to be at least as good as the back catalogue and whether that is possible at this point remains to be seen.”
Until that time, Tek released a great solo album in 2012, simply named Detroit. With an aggressive, stripped-down sound, it maps the decay and decline of the city. When asked about the theme of the record, Tek said, “It didn’t start off as a Detroit album. I was having a difficult time in my life. I was depressed about a few things that were going on with me personally. The songs tended to reflect a dark side and be about loss and death and destruction. The cover photo, the title, and the content of the songs all came together at one moment and I realized it really is a Detroit album.”
Tek has added painting to his artistic repertoire and is taking a different approach to writing. “As you get older and learn more stuff, you write differently. For me, these days, the lyrics have to have meaning. In the early days when I was in my teens and 20s, I could write a song that was totally meaningless and be fine with it. I don’t do that now because I think you’re just wasting people’s time if you do that.”
Tek will release his next solo album in 2016 and until there’s more new Radio Birdman, take a listen to some of the songs that took Australia, Europe and their now young new fan base by storm.
Todd McGovern is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.