Australia’s proto-punk pioneers formed in 1974, were signed by Seymour Stein in 1977, and influenced a generation of Oz rockers by leading a DIY revolution in Sydney. Their story is recounted with gusto in a new documentary film. Amanda Sheppard talks with director Jonathan Sequeira.
In 1974, when bands in Australia were still wearing jumpsuits and faux glam rockers Skyhooks were all the rage, proto-punk pioneers Radio Birdman blew the doors off Sydney’s post-hippie music scene. With the Stooges-soaked riffs of guitarist Deniz Tek, the pounding surf rock drums of Ron Keeley, classical piano finesse and Pip Hoyle, and frontman Rob Younger’s utter fearlessness, Radio Birdman packed tiny clubs through word-of-mouth and pissed off neighboring establishments for being “too loud” during “dinner service.” After bar managers pulled the plug on the band one too many times, the unstoppable Radio Birdman led a rock ’n’ roll DIY revolution by renting their venues and even re-christening hotel pub Oxford Tavern in Sydney as their very own showcase, The Funhouse.
Branded as “tasteless and loud”, Radio Birdman doubled down on their rock ’n’ roll rebellion in the face of their critics with new bassist Warwick Gilbert and the addition of 17-year-old guitar wiz, Chris Masuak and sold their independent releases directly to their growing fan club. Before long, Radio Birdman’s powerful rock ’n’ roll blitzkrieg became as ubiquitous as the band’s radio dial emblem, reaching beyond Sydney and even beyond Australia with their debut LP Radios Appear in 1976—its title taken from a Blue Oyster Cult song.
Sire Records’ Seymour Stein was so impressed with the band that he signed them on the spot while in Australia in 1977 to seal the deal with their rivals, The Saints, from Brisbane. Amid the in-fighting, personnel changes, the band’s breakup and triumphant return nearly 20 years later, Radio Birdman dared to be themselves and paved the way for future generations of Oz rock acts from The Scientists and Hoodoo Gurus to Lime Spiders and Midnight Oil, to name a few.
Filmmaker Jonathan Sequeira takes us on a trip through Radio Birdman’s epic, often humorous, and at times, contentious history with his documentary feature, Descent Into The Maelstrom: The Radio Birdman Story. We follow Deniz Tek from his youth in Ann Arbor to his serendipitous $6 a week “cupboard under the stairs” housing arrangement with future Birdman drummer Ron Keeley to front row at The Funhouse to relive some of the bands early stage show experiments (smashed TVs, a room-clearing attempt at eating animal brains from a model skull) before piling into the “van of hate” for Birdman’s demoralizing UK tour. We hear from all surviving members as well as early Birdman manager and Phantom Records founder Jules Normington, along with friends and notable figures who were on the scene. The film also is jampacked with archival images and early Birdman performances up to the present day and boasts a killer soundtrack of Birdman favorites and other choice cuts from The Funhouse jukebox including songs from pre-Birdman bands The Rats (Rob Younger, Ron Keeley, and Warwick Gilbert) and TV Jones (Deniz Tek).
PKM: How did you get involved with Radio Birdman and making the Descent Into The Maelstromn documentary?
Jonathan Sequeira: My brother and co-producer Mark Sequeira’s company, Matrix Vinyl, was doing Birdman LPs and he put me on to Radio Birdman’s manager who needed a small video job. I asked him, John Needham, about the possibility of doing a documentary. He said people had asked, but nobody ever does anything, so I should put a proposal together. He put that to the band, and they said yes, so I just went and did it. So really it got done because I was the only person who followed through.
PKM: Can you give me a little background on the making of Descent Into The Maelstrom: The Radio Birdman Story?
Jonathan Sequeira: It took me a couple of years to finish. I just did it in my downtime, editing from home, shooting an interview here or there. I did as much as I could myself out of necessity and to save money. I was lucky that everyone was so generous with their time and stories. A big part of it was doing the right thing, earning trust. All the people involved put a lot of trust in me, so it was important to honor that. About a year in, I edited a rough promo trailer and sent it to the band. I got word from Deniz that “you really ‘get’ the band,” which was encouraging. I think everyone understood that it was a serious effort, and not just ticking off a list of events.
But it is amazing how many people who packed into that tiny room of The Funhouse to see Radio Birdman went on to form their own bands, start independent record labels, start record stores, do art, photography.
PKM: Getting Deniz Tek’s seal of approval had to be a massive high, especially with how uncompromising he is with Radio Birdman’s vision.
Jonathan Sequeira: I was very fortunate that everyone in the band trusted me, they didn’t see the film before its Sydney premiere! That was nerve-wracking! But when quality people like that put their trust in you, it just means you work extra hard to deliver and do the right thing. I’d already sent out a rough trailer to everyone and it was great when word came back from Deniz that he said I really ‘get the band’, so I knew I was on the right track. But still, after the premiere, on the big screen, where everything seems even MORE intense than when I was cutting it, was an experience, and afterwards everyone in the band gave it the thumbs up, including Deniz. Although that was what I expected, because I had faith in the film, it was still a huge relief and, to me, the highest praise.
PKM: So, he (Deniz Tek) and Pip Hoyle are both practicing doctors, wow, how did you manage to get them to sit still long enough for an interview?
Jonathan Sequeira: Everyone was very generous with their time, and Deniz’s interview was probably the longest, as I knew he was best with the details. Deniz was only practicing part time at that stage, so it was just a matter of pinning him down when he was in Australia. He’s currently farming coffee in Hawaii (!) between music tours for Radio Birdman and his solo stuff.
Pip is Director of Medicine at a major hospital, and was really busy, but I finally got a free Saturday morning with him. By that time, I’d interviewed everyone else, so it was much quicker as I knew what to ask. Also, his answers were always sharp and to the point, so we seemed to knock that one over really quickly. Others were more like a casual chat on screen. Lots of laughs with everyone though, which was nice, and I think that translated to the screen, that despite the conflict it’s quite a funny story.
The independently filmed, produced, and financed documentary feature also marks Jonathan Sequeira’s filmmaking debut and that of his production company, Living Eyes.
Jonathan Sequeira: When you’re making a film, a record, an artwork, anything, you go through stages thinking it’s great, then it’s rubbish, wondering why you are doing it. I was lucky that the people on the screen had an attitude of uncompromising quality – not just do-it-yourself, but do it as well as you can. That feeds into what you’re doing, so even though I’m like that anyway, it keeps you going with the ‘good enough is not good enough’ attitude. I made a lot of mistakes, even shooting an interview completely out of focus and having to do it again (not one of the guys in the band, thankfully!).
I went to Europe with 40kg of luggage and interviewed Ron Keeley and Chris Masuak, locking the camera off on the tripod because I was by myself! That was a lot of work, but was great because I spent a few days with them. It’s a good thing to start out thinking it’s easy, because if you knew how difficult it is, you wouldn’t take it on.
One of the things I’m proudest of is that there are no guest musicians telling you why they like Radio Birdman. No Dave Grohl or Bono. The music speaks for itself, if you don’t get it, then someone telling you it’s good won’t help. I was lucky to have people like Alley Brereton and Jules Normington talking about what Radio Birdman meant. They were there at the time, and those people in the film are what gives it heart. I’m sure it would have been easier to sell with ‘stars’ but I think it’s unique without them.
PKM: Ha! Yes, thank you for sparing us the jarring, mandatory Dave Grohl and Bono endorsements! It had to be exciting getting to hear about Radio Birdman’s days at The Funhouse from people who were actually part of the scene. Would it be fair to say that The Funhouse was like the nexus of the future of Oz punk?
Jonathan Sequeira: The Funhouse was the nexus, but it was more than punk, it was the beginning of the entire Sydney scene. Brisbane and Melbourne had their own, but they are a good 800 miles away from Sydney, and Birdman’s reach extended there as well. But it is amazing how many people who packed into that tiny room of The Funhouse to see Radio Birdman went on to form their own bands, start independent record labels, start record stores, do art, photography. The Sydney scene was very eclectic, and Radio Birdman inspired people not just to copy them, but to do their own thing.
Australia is an isolated paradise, and the Funhouse jukebox was hugely influential in bringing bands like The Ramones, Sex Pistols, Stooges and obscure ‘60s garage stuff to that crowd. None of that music was easily available in Australia except through one or two specialty stores. And, of course, they gave other bands a chance. It was a place to belong. In the DVD extras, Paul Gearside of the Psycho Surgeons tells the story of being asked to join a band by people he’d never met because they just liked the way he jumped around!
Radio Birdman’s rock ’n’ roll blitzkrieg, however, was not impervious to backbiting from visiting Melbourne acts who envied the band’s musicianship and following and derided the band’s lack of junky chic.
Chris Bailey Calls The Saints “The Local Chapter of The Hitler Youth”
PKM: Any comment from Nick Cave or Chris Bailey from The Saints since the film’s release?
Jonathan Sequeira: Nothing from either Nick Cave or Chris Bailey. But the drummer from The Boys Next Door has posted on social media about how he wished there were photos of Nick Cave and the rest of the band, jumping around dancing up the front when Birdman came to Melbourne. Again, despite the different style of music, Radio Birdman influenced everyone in Australia, whether they knew it or not.
Descent Into The Maelstrom: The Radio Birdman Story is scheduled for Stateside DVD and digital release November 9 (MVD Entertainment Group) and features an hour of bonus interviews and live Birdman footage. Descent Into The Maelstrom: Funhouse Jukebox Soundtrack is also available for purchase on CD and digital download. And if you’re a big spender (with a Region 4 DVD player) you can also purchase the limited edition Descent Into The Maelstrom – Exclusive Director’s Box which also includes the Funhouse Jukebox Soundtrack on both vinyl and CD, a turntable slipmat, a download code for an additional 30 minutes of bonus director’s cut features, and other cool Birdman sundries.
Jonathan Sequeira is currently touring Descent Into The Maelstrom across the globe with screenings in Europe (Spain, Italy, and Germany) and multiple upcoming U.S. dates.
11/09: Seattle, WA @ SIFF Film Center at 7:30 PM
Presented by RP Presents and KEXP’s Sonic Reducer (DJ Brian Foss will emcee and moderate a Q&A with Jonathan Sequeira) DJ Thirst ’n’ Howl will spin records after the Q&A.
11/11: Portland, OR @ Clinton Street Theater at 7:30 PM
Descent Into The Maelstrom: The Radio Birdman Story DVDs will be available for purchase at both events. Sub Pop has donated a CD compilation to be given away at each screening. Sub Pop Records.
More US screenings to come, follow Descent Into The Maelstrom: The Radio Birdman Story on Facebook!