Lost in the Aussie Funhouse: “Descent Into the Maelstrom: The Radio Birdman Story”

By on November 12, 2018

Now streaming on Night Flight Plus is filmmaker Jonathan Sequeira’s critically-acclaimed new documentary Descent into the Maelstrom: The Radio Birdman Story, the saga of Sydney, Australia‘s proto-punk rockers who — inspired by their raucous Motor City rock precursors, the Stooges and the MC5 — were founded in 1974 by guitarist Deniz Tek and lead vocalist Rob Younger.

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The one-hour and fifty-minute Descent features rare archival footage & photos, delightful storyboard-style drawings and reflective interviews with all surviving members of their early ’70s lineup: lead singer Rob Younger, guitarists Chris Masuak and Deniz Tek, bassist Warwick Gilbert, drummer Ron Keeley, and keyboardist Phillip “Pip” Hoyle.

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The soundtrack is chock full of great Radio Birdman songs like “Murder City Nights,” “What Gives,” “New Race,” and the tune providing the film’s title, “Descent into the Maelstrom,” the track inspired by Edgar Allan Poe‘s short story of the same name and linked to the use of the hallucinogenic drug Adrenochrome, which Tek says is supposed to feel “like being plugged into a million volt socket.”

Radio Birdman had a short, turbulent lifespan — burning brighter than white hot rocket exhaust before flaming out in the UK in 1978 — but in four brief years they they made a lasting impression and helped kickstart the punk movement.

Back home in Australia, they were hugely influential — along with the Saints, their rivals — on hundreds of bands that followed them, like Midnight Oil, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Lime Spiders, the Scientists, and many, many more.

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Descent was written, directed and co-produced by first-time feature documentary filmmaker Jonathan Sequeira.

His brother Mark — whose company, Matrix Vinyl, were releasing Birdman albums — connected him with John Needham, Radio Birdman’s manager, to do a small video job, but they eventually got around to discussing a documentary film, which Sequeira spent the next few years working on.

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Read more about Radio Birdman below.

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Deniz Tek and Chris Jones of T.V. Jones recording at Earth Media studios in Sydney circa 1973 (photo courtesy of Chris Jones)

Radio Birdman were formed in Sydney, Australia, in the fall of 1974 by guitarist Deniz Tek and fearless rock frontman Rob Younger, former lead singer of the Rats.

Originally inspired by the Rolling Stones, Tek — a typical music-obsessed Ann Arbor, Michigan teenager — picked up the guitar and formed some of his first bands (the Inducers, Suzy & the Pimps, the Bluefront Blues band).

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After visiting and loving life in Australia in 1967, Tek emigrated there five years later, joining the Screaming White Hot Razor Blades and the Cunning Stunts, later called T.V. Jones. His departure from the latter band led him to form a new band with the Rats singer Rob Younger.

They decided to call their new band Radio Birdman after a snatch of misheard Iggy Pop vocal from the Stooges’ Fun House anthem “1970” (the actual lyric is “radio burnin'”).

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Original bassist Carl Rorke was replaced by Warwick Gilbert, and that same year guitarist Chris Masuak joined when keyboardist Pip Hoyle took a sabbatical to concentrate on his medical studies.

Radio Birdman regularly gigged at venues in Sydney’s Darlinghurst/Surry Hills suburbs, but they weren’t always invited back to play, perhaps because they were very loud, with more than one bar manager pulling the plug on them mid-set.

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Many were also confused by their winks at Fascism — dressing head-to-toe in black  and wearing Nazi-styled regalia, including armbands with their customized radio dial insignia — but Tek has always been clear about their intentions, saying they simply wanted fans to become soldiers in their musical army.

They played a blitzkrieg of loud rock covers at first, but eventually Tek began writing original songs which were enhanced by blast furnace production.

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Eventually they assumed management of the Oxford Tavern, a tiny Darlinghurst pub in Sydney’s Taylor Square, re-naming it the Oxford Funhouse, or, simply, The Funhouse.

Their Trafalgar Records debut album, Radios Appear — its title comes from a Blue Öyster Cult song, “Dominance and Submission” — arrived in 1977, featuring a blistering cover of the Stooges’ “T.V. Eye” along with nine songs of Tek’s songs.

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Sire Records honcho Seymour Stein was so blown away that he signed Radio Birdman in 1978, releasing Radios Appear domestically in the U.S. with a slightly-altered track sequence.

In December of ’77, they’d played their last Australia gig at the Paddington Town Hall, but by then severe internal problems were already setting in.

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They were ensconced in Rockfield Studios in Wales — in the midst of recording their second album, Living Eyes — when it all went haywire, the band breaking up in June ’78. Living Eyes was released posthumously in Australia in 1981.

Tek and Younger then formed New Race (with the Stooges’ Ron Asheton and MC5’s Dennis Thompson), and then later Younger fronted the longer-lasting New Christs.

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Tek — who would eventually become a flight surgeon in the U.S. Navy — also produced four solo albums with his Deniz Tek Group, as well as recordings with Deep Reduction (also with Rob Younger) and Dodge Main (his collaboration with Wayne Kramer of the MC5).

Radio Birdman would re-form and play the Big Day Out festival, leading to ten gigs in January of 1996, and embarked on multiple successful European and North American tours, as well as regularly gigging in Australia.

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Radio Birdman on tour in 2017

Radio Birdman still continue to tour with founding members Tek, Younger and Hoyle, longtime bassist Jim Dickson and drummer Nik Rieth, and more recently-added guitarist Dave Kettley.

Watch the newly-released Descent into the Maelstrom: The Radio Birdman Story on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.