INTERVIEW: ROB YOUNGER, RADIO BIRDMAN
BY MATT REEKIE
July 2006, a reformed Radio Birdman were about to release Zeno Beach, their first album since 1980’s posthumously issued Living Eyes.
With a new recording came the fear that the reputation of arguably the most deeply mythologised band in Australian rock ’n’ roll could be tarnished. But maybe that was a fear for the crazy Birdman cultist rather than the band themselves. Singer Rob Younger certainly seemed unaffected as he and I downed a few one afternoon in a pub not too far from Birdman’s old stomping ground in Darlinghurst…
How hard is it to work on new material with the baggage of the Birdman “mythology” weighing on you?
It would be harder if I actually thought that much about it, like I expected a terrible lot, of myself especially. I don’t dwell on it and I therefore don’t feel overburdened. I’m aware there’s some expectation but you don’t think: ‘Oh shit, in thirty years all this has snowballed and suddenly we’ve got to reinvent the fucking wheel.’ It’s just a bunch of guys playing rock music, Christ! And for most of that time all of us kept playing in other groups. You don’t really forget how to play or anything like that. But just turning up on stage and doing the songs… I really don’t want to get into much sort of self-analysis or anything like that or to analyse our situation because it’s kind of pointless. It’s not going to make you feel stronger about what your doing. You’re just going to think: ‘Oh shit, now I’ve gotta worry.’ I don’t want to worry. This is the angle of questioning that you do get a lot about it because it’s inevitable, but a lot of people that probably buy the magazines these articles appear in actually weren’t around when we existed in the first place so they really have nothing to compare it to, bar stuff that’s written and a couple of records we made. So they are not coming from a knowledgeable viewpoint and we are coming from one that’s so personal and overindulgent, so racked with the possibility of insecurity and all the attendant baggage. All that stuff’s bullshit. You just tie yourself in knots. I wouldn’t want to be too concerned about it.
After thirty years do you have to deal with much personal baggage being in the band?
All bands have that shit. And the ability to push it aside is what often dictates their longevity. It’s hard to be in a band for any amount of time and there’s lots of reasons why bands can’t survive. A lot of them aren’t even really driven enough. A lot of young bands start out and if gigs aren’t thrown at them, people don’t blow a whole lot of smoke up their arse and tell them they’re magic, they get discouraged pretty quickly.
It seems some bands can build a following quite quickly now and have labels wanting them to sign them and people giving them clothes for free and all that shit.
Look, I know a lot of people that are in bands that take pretty strong anti-corporate stances, say a lot in their lyrics like, “Don’t fuck with me. Don’t tell me how to think. I don’t do this, I don’t do that…” yet they’re sponsored; for clothing or for whatever it might be. That’s OK if they can separate those things for whatever reason. I don’t get stuck into bands for fashion and stuff, though. I mean, how many hairstyles are there and what sort of clothes are you going to wear? What does a young band do to avoid being accused of aping another band that already existed in terms of their music or their clothes, their hairstyles or whatever else? I mean, that’s pretty hard just to do that, let alone play good music, so that’s why I don’t give a shit.
I think music has reached a stage where it is more about cross-pollination…
It always was anyway. The one style of music that always struck me that seems to be beyond criticism is when a band come up with fifties rocker hairdos and play rockabilly. No one ever says, “You’re cashing in.” Why don’t they ever get labelled with that shit? But if you go punk or mod or whatever it might be then you get slagged off. I mean, what’s so untouchable about that fifties rock shit? Anyway, I shouldn’t drink wine in the middle of the day; just cut out all the shit if I waffle on. You’ve gotta make me sound opinionated, not stupid.
What is your opinion on why Radio Birdman inspires such deep devotion in fans? Do you think part of it has to do with the strong imagery that the band projected – the Birdman symbol, the uniforms and the theatrical elements of it?
We didn’t wear uniforms all the time; I just need to clarify that. We only did that to be arch in a way. We decided to pitch the people who went to see us a bit of a curveball by actually getting into something that was regimented and formal to create an impression, to give the people who went to see us something else to think about. It was taken to be actually a bit of a slap in the face by some, but more by a few journalists I think. Over the years I think we have been ascribed all this sort of credibility mainly due to not being around. We haven’t shat on our own doorstep, as they say, and it just kind of snowballed. We’ve survived, and therefore have some sort of career at the moment by not having done anything. There’s no calculation. Maybe it’s really a truism that absence makes the heart grow fonder, I don’t bloody know. We had our detractors back then and all through, but basically we haven’t done anything that compromised what we already had. But maybe that determined that sort of cult thing; that status that people ascribe to various groups, and stuff like that really sticks. Some people define cult bands as loser bands that never had a big audience in the first place and a lot of people like to latch on because they weren’t that popular, therefore there is an element of elitism about that. So they dump on all these other bands, some of which are fantastic, merely because they are popular. I don’t understand this cult thing and I can’t really explain why we have anything still stuck to us and we’re able to have people who are even vaguely interested in interviewing us or listening to our records at this stage.
Aside from the diehard fans that Radio Birdman have always had, is it interesting that it’s gotten to the point where mainstream music press is quite agreeable when it’s fair to say they were not supportive back in the day?
We got a negative review for our first album [Radios Appear] out of Rolling Stone. Actually, this guy came around and spoke to us we got along great and he enjoyed some gig he went to, or maybe more than one. His name was Wayne Elmer. I believe this is the one that went into Rolling Stone. When the album came out, for whatever reason, he must have expressed it in the review that he was disappointed with the record. I don’t quite recall. The only comment that I remember him making, apart from the general tenor, which was negative, was that the expression on my face on the record cover was about as natural as the queen mother standing astride a Harley-Davidson. I think I must have looked like I had some sort of fabricated pouty little expression on my face to try and look cute…
Fake attitude or something?
Well I did. I’m only human. If someone is doing a photograph you try to make yourself look cute. Maybe I had an unnatural expression on my dial, I don’t fucking know. So anyway, most of the reviews for the record were dead positive. Anthony O’Grady who edited RAM magazine was really pushing the group, and in fact he took us around to studios and tried to do an entrepreneur and sort of trying to drum up some interest and get us into the recording studio. He did a lot of legwork on our behalf; he was a nice guy. Anthony went out of his way to help us out and introduced us to Charles Fisher at Trafalgar, and that actually got the ball rolling a little bit. So he was a supporter of our band and I thank him for that.
You were probably lucky to have met Charles since opportunities were so limited.
We had a shitfight with Chares in the studio. I don’t remember all the details because it was so long ago, this was the day we sort of met them. We were probably just talking about musical taste or something. We had a bit of a disagreement about something and I know we sort of stood up to walk out and Charles said, “Now hang on a sec, you’ve got all your gear here, why don’t you play something.” So we must have set up and gone to all that trouble. So we played some songs and I guess maybe he thought: ‘I don’t like it but it’s different, maybe it’s worth a go?’ Whatever, he saw enough to say, “Stick around and play,” so yeah, Charles is a really nice character. I’ve always really liked him. He helped us out greatly.
Who else would have given you a go, because it seemed like the industry was like a closed shop?
It was really hard. If we hadn’t been running our own venue and all of that we would have just been getting slung out of various places all the time because prior to that… because the band engendered a groundswell of popularity based on nothing actually.
Wasn’t there a lot of punk-starved kids who were reading about punk here and living vicariously through magazines and needed a local champion?
Well, hell, OK, that’s very academic, but that’s probably right. The last year before we went overseas we became popular. We were able to fill places like Paddington Town Hall, but before that we were still getting slung out of joints and that’s why we had our own gig at The Oxford. We could control things and all the rest of that. Otherwise it was just turning up to places, being insulted by the people than ran the joint, having a certain number of people walking out, getting slagged off or telling them to get stuffed from the stage, all this sort of thing. Mind you, we enjoyed that confrontation. It actually polarised things and that’s how we got our reputation – these guys are uncooperative, they don’t give a shit what anyone thinks, which we actually didn’t. The press made something of that and it probably relates to the first things you were asking about in terms of credibility snowballing and all that stuff. I mean, it’s all got to relate to something, hasn’t it? I loved getting slung out of places. I really thought that was getting somewhere. ’Cos it never felt like we’d never get another gig again. It wasn’t like that. It was just like, “This is great, people are going to hear about this,” and we were completely aware of that. We weren’t defeated by that. But in those days you could think that way. We were dragged along to the Premier Agency in Melbourne, or whatever they are called down there, and I think it was Mike Gudinski or some sod was giving us a lecture about how to behave, like, “You guys were really rude to these people at this place on this day…” We said, “Well, we don’t give a shit. I mean, a guy in the crowd heckled us and we told him to fuck off, so what?” Apparently that was distinctly unprofessional. Do me a favour! These are people that are complete and utter fucking squares signing some of the shittiest bands you could imagine – bands that would do whatever these guys told them to do, obedient, for godssake! – and they’re telling us how to present ourselves. That just wasn’t on. No way. They’re rich but a lot of the bands that recorded for these people came and went, they got ploughed under, they were the fodder. These guys have still got careers and keep doling out all this invaluable information. These bands that listened to them got ploughed under just like the ones that didn’t. They’re just so much shit under their shoes. These guys, they’re not about music.
Do you think it’s the same now?
I don’t have to deal with them because I’m pretty much insulated from them. We have a manager [John Needham] that’s been a friend of ours for years and years, he went to England with us just as a friend, you know. We don’t have to deal with these tossers that run the business. I’m not saying that we are fiercely independent, of all this. We do a pretty formal mainstream kind of thing – we’re doing this interview, it’s been set up. We release records in the usual way, we go play all the regular venues and all that – so I’m not saying anything about us being outsiders of the industry or any of that sort of shit. I’m just saying that over the years it’s been run by a bunch of wankers and for a long time there we were, and we still are, resistant to dealing with fools or arseholes that talk down to you. We just do a gig very similar to how we always did a gig. Why have you got to listen to these turds? They’ve got no taste. You can tell that from the people that they sign, the people that they still think were magic; Barnsie and all this crap. I’m not here to slag off individuals, actually, I’m not here to mention people by name. We played with Cold Chisel once in Manly, but they were supporting us! I remember turning to Deniz [Tek], ’cos they were doing like a Deep Purple routine, I said, “This is fucking terrible, these guys will never get anywhere.” And of course, about a year and a half later they went through the roof and we didn’t even exist. A lot of those bands that went on to be very big, like The Angels and all that, we never played with. We didn’t see or hear them, we didn’t play dates with them or have any social interaction with them.
Was setting up The Oxford as your own venue a hard thing to do?
I don’t remember it was a particularly difficult thing. I had played there with my previous band, The Rats. The first time Radio Birdman played there was when Lou Reed came out to Australia. Deniz and a friend of his went out to Sydney airport; I wasn’t there, I was down the coast with my girlfriend at the time. Anyway, they went out to Sydney airport to meet Lou Reed and he got off the plane and from what Deniz was telling me Lou Reed was assailed by a group of journalists and so forth and then he must’ve broken free and Deniz went up and presented him with a Radio Birdman T-shirt and said, “I’m a fan, this is our T-shirt,” and invited him along to a gig, even though we didn’t have a gig. So Lou Reed said something about “I used to be in a local band once”, and he said he may or may not come along to the gig. He didn’t promise or anything, but on the basis of that we went to the proprietor of The Oxford and said, “Look, if you give us a gig here this guy might come along and we think a lot of people will come along.” So they gave us the gig, we played, Lou Reed didn’t come along, but we established something. From that I guess a residency ensued. We redesigned the sign above the front door to reflect The Funhouse, it was in that Stooges sort of lettering like on the cover of that album. Me and our manager, George Kringis, booked the bands that played there, which is an interesting experience in a way. To actually have people come along and play you a tape and ask you whether they can be suitable to play your venue – that’s when you’re tested out as a certain type of person.
It must have been a small gene pool to choose from back then.
There wasn’t a lot, actually, and we did book a few bands that we’d never ever entertain going and seeing ourselves. We were banned from playing this gig just down the road called French’s, which was a wine bar that had been going a long time. We had been banned from it because there was a fight after we played, which we didn’t really incite – I don’t know if we engendered a certain vibe that created it, I have no idea – but the manager got his nose broken. But anyway, he came up to The Funhouse with a tape of a band he was managing asking for a gig. I said, “Look, we aren’t even allowed to play at your place. This tape doesn’t sound all that bad but you can’t have the gig because we can’t play in your room. You understand don’t you?” And he said, “Yeah yeah yeah.” I think he still had the piece of tape on his nose. I’m not sure about that; maybe I just think that’s true.
How clouded is your memory of actually playing The Funhouse?
We did it twice. We did it upstairs before they had a downstairs, where they just set up on the floor at the street level in the days when Richard Clapton wasn’t yet famous. And that went all right. Then downstairs they had a stage. Yeah, I do remember playing, I remember that we were between bassplayers, Carl [Rorke] had left and we hadn’t actually got Warwick so the guitar player from Deniz’s previous band, TV Jones, played the bass, a guy name Chris Jones. He did a really great job because he only had one, maybe two rehearsals and he never played bass, either. But he filled in and we went really well, I think. In those days a lot of the shows we used to play were like two or three sets, so you used to have to draw on basically all your own songs and a bunch of covers.
Obviously it’s the recordings that we have now to gauge the band; how do they shape up compared to your memory of the live shows?
With the recordings we paid a lot of lip service to really getting stuck in and being really energetic. We always talked about energy and all this sort of stuff. To really get that down on a recording requires not just you to play in that way but also to have the people around you that can help capture that. That can be really difficult. In those days we had this particular manifesto or whatever you want to call it, which was difficult to achieve in the face of the musical trends of the time, which were actually pretty tame. And indeed, Trafalgar Studios was designed on specifications that were sort of more in the style of the West Coast LA kind of studios, that sort of soft rock Eagles shit that was going around at the time. It was done to those specifications and I don’t think that was really conducive to actually having a really hard sort of sound. That’s why we had strips of corrugated iron between amps as baffles and stuff like that to get some reflection.
So what do you think of Radios Appear when you listen back to it? Is it hard to be objective about your performance at least?
I’m a better singer now but that doesn’t mean everything, in fact, it may not mean anything at all. What you project to people through your records is complicated sometimes; it’s not easy to objectify to what degree or in what way you are making contact with the listener. I’m insecure about the way I sound so, really, I’ve always had a hard time listening to my own records, now and then. I find it hard to answer questions about all that stuff.
Radio Birdman has always been closely associated with Stooges but there were many more influences that went into it than just them.
In my first band, The Rats, and then in Radio Birdman, a lot of our clothing had a lot more to do with New York Dolls and early Alice Cooper than it did with punk for instance, because it hadn’t come in. There was a heavy identification with Iggy and the Stooges because I thought that he was great and I’d have done anything to be as cool as all of that and to be able to pull off those moves. But the first song I ever sang was “Bad Girl” by the New York Dolls and it was the ’Dolls and the Stooges and the MC5 together that really made me interested in being in a band. So it wasn’t all down to just the Stooges thing all the time. We paid them so much lip service and actually dedicated our first album to them, so I understand where it comes from, but I was a huge ’Dolls fan
There are other influences as well, like the surf music of The Ventures or even The Doors.
That’s right, and all these bands… Warwick [Gilbert] and I, for instance, we were friends at school and we used to buy The Who, The Stones, The Kinks, all that sort of stuff, and later on it was Cream, Hendrix and that. Warwick was always really big on the Yardbirds, and he was also the first person I ever knew who was really interested in Pink Floyd, you know the first Pink Floyd album, not the later stuff necessarily.
Piper At The Gates Of Dawn.
Yes, it was a wonderful record and he was really into that and no one else I knew was into that shit. He was into The Pretty Things before anyone had fucking heard of them that I knew of.
So you were the nerd record collectors.
This wasn’t an academic like collecting-records-to-have-the-records thing. This was like you had to have the records because you liked them. But the sad downside of that was that there was so many good records, this was before pop music, which is what I’m talking about, because really, rock, pop music, whatever you want to call it, was driven underground. These were things that actually existed in the mainstream, big labels, in the Top 40, and you could always make a case for owning a lot of the Top 40. You can’t say that about the Top 40 even since probably 1972 or ’73. Even though there were some good records still around in the Top 40, like T-Rex and Slade and some David Bowie, it all got driven away. The Top 40 was actually a thing to behold in the sixties, you could have fantastic records on it. So this wasn’t an underground leftfield appreciation of anything, this was as plain as the nose on your face. We weren’t digging that deep, this was shit they were playing on the radio. But the records that just snuck into the bottom reaches that disappeared at number 39 or 40 and then you didn’t hear them ever again were some of these records like “96 Tears” [? and the Mysterians]. They just made the margins of the Top 40 but didn’t sell well enough and then were out the back door. We were hip to those ones. And this bordered on a scene that then became hip a lot later on when they were popularised by guys like Lenny Kaye with the original Nuggets compilations. Because you see on the fringes of that, there are exceptions, but the fringes of it, like Blues Magoos, things like that were on the margins of interest to Warwick and me at that point, this is where we were coming from. There are a couple of exceptions; “Lies” by The Knickerbockers was actually a huge hit around the world.
I remember you saying that even meeting Deniz came about because of the records that you knew about and the records that he knew about, because few other people in Australia knew about The Stooges and the like.
It was a funny thing. One day, after existing for about almost a year as The Rats, which had Warwick in it, this guy Mick Lyne, Carl Walker on bass and Ron Keeley on drums. Ron said to me one day, because I had moved into a place in Paddington that he had moved out of and he moved into a house in Kensington with people I didn’t know, which turned out to be John Needham, our current manager, and Deniz, and another guy he was playing with in a group. So after we had been going all this time Ron says to me he knows some people that are playing this same sort of stuff. I said, “Bullshit!” I was quite offended because I thought what we had going was actually original because we were playing covers but people didn’t know they were covers. I thought only I knew about all this Stooges and ’Dolls and shit. Anyway, Ron said, “I know these people, I live with them,” and I go, “This is bullshit, no one knows about this stuff.” He said, “No, they play this stuff in a band, get it right.” So we got introduced, me and some guys from the band went over to his place and there was a bit of snobby confrontation. I was really quite offended by all of this because I really thought that I had an idea about all this hip shit that no one else actually did. I was quite miffed. That was the night I first heard anything much of Alice Cooper, for instance, and we met these guys and ended up playing some gigs together with Deniz’s band, TV Jones.
There was a Birdman art exhibition. Not many bands have art exhibitions dedicated to them.
I should have gone along but I never got the chance. I was working at the time, well, certainly on the night of the opening. It’s been described to me and I autographed all the posters dutifully while we were doing our mixes, so I can’t comment that much on it, except that it’s a novel idea in a sense.
My favourite piece there was Warwick’s painting ‘Van Of Hate’, I don’t know if you’ve seen that?
Well, I’ve ridden in it! We dubbed our touring van in the UK the “Van Of Hate”, it was written in finger lettering on the dust on the side of the van. I think it was at Guildford, I remember Deniz or someone saying, “Don’t look in the van,” so of course I go and have a look and there was a drum head there where Warwick had done this drawing, sillouettes of the band members lined up, one stabbing the other in the back and so forth. And on that particular day that certainly was well outside the bounds of at least my sense of humour. I was really quite annoyed by it. Socially we were already dysfunctional and at each other’s throats. I think perhaps Warwick was given the credit of artistically expressing what was on his mind, and that’s fine, but everyone was anonymous, so whether he was including himself in the picture or not I have no idea. But I was resentful of it at the time. Maybe I should have just taken the humour for what it was and given it some credit as an original portrayal of an actual true feeling. I remember being really offended, and probably not talking to anyone for ages. I used to get on my high horse about fucking things, we all did at the time, or most of us did. We didn’t get along in those days. That tour fucked the band.
We don’t need to dwell on it too much, though. But socially we wound up by being in each other’s pockets for a protracted period of time, rather than the occasional incursion down in Melbourne, which didn’t take much out of us. Being together all the time just screwed the band up; that’s my view.
Why did the band feel like it needed to go to England, because going to England seemed like the idea for a lot of Australian bands around that time?
Yeah, but that wasn’t why it seemed interesting to us. We got an offer because we signed to Sire Records. This guy, Seymour Stein, came out to Australia to sign The Saints, apparently someone said, “Check these guys out.” He came to The Funhouse one night, and someone said he’d been dancing on a table, which is funny if he did ’cos they were really precarious sort of brown tables and not very stable. I know because I jumped on a few of them myself. He also went to an ABC studio’s gig during the week for a TV show they had called The Real Thing, compared by Ron E. Sparks.
Yeah, I know that guy, a wanker with a radio voice.
Well you said it, not me. But anyway, Seymour came to this thing and he must have liked us and we had a meeting with him at Trafalgar Studios and he said, “How would you like to go to England and do a tour with the Ramones?” We said, “That’d be great.” But for some reason the Ramones pulled out of that part of the tour so he hooked us up with the Flaming Groovies, so we went to England and did that. I think America was part of that tour but somehow I think by the end of the UK tour he had already dropped a stack of bands from his label, a change of distributor or something, and we wound up not going to America at all, rather, we broke up. That’s pretty much the last six months of the band’s history in a nutshell right there.
So you weren’t planning to base yourselves over there; it was just like a tour?
We did base ourselves there. We lived in London for about four months at least. We lived in a shitty place called Drayton Park.
The Easybeats did the same thing.
Yeah, but they had a hit record, and they had hit records before they left and they had a virtual world number one [“Friday On My Mind”] while they were there. And any of the records that they followed that with could have been number one records. I don’t know what happened to them, I really don’t.
They got talked into going psychedelic.
That was a fucking great phase for them musically in my view, I loved all that stuff. I reckon they had as many good records after “Friday On My Mind”, like singles, as they did before it. And I can name them all, too. In those days being with a label – and a label had to be big, there was no such thing as an indie, certainly not in that era – you had to have measurable recognisable royal obvious apparent fucking success, in public terms. It wasn’t a question of being on a shit label with no distribution but a bunch of critics giving you a good review; that stuff didn’t exist in those days. So they fell foul with that perhaps. Or maybe they are just idiots, I don’t know, whatever, I was a big fan of them and thought their music was fantastic. I’m just saying, how could you be so great and fuck it up? That’s my question?
What about Radio Birdman?
I told you why we broke up, social disintegration. I think that was decided around about when we were recording [Living Eyes] at Rockfield, but I can’t give you days and dates about that. I do know that we knew Oxford University was the last show because I remember saying that I was going to leave at some point, but I think that was because someone else said they were going to leave and I don’t know who the first was. But I did hear since that Ron said he was going to leave before the tour, so he beat us all to the punch. And if I had known that I would have said, “Well fuck off, don’t do the tour,” and got someone else. And I think, fair enough too, actually. I’m just always surprised hearing other people’s various anecdotes about that tour because they say things that I have absolutely no recollection of at all. So I wouldn’t be surprised by what anyone said about what really happened to us. I really wouldn’t, because I’ve been staggered by certain revelations since the band broke up, thinking: ‘Is that really true?’