The 1996 Big Day Out appearance of Radio Birdman made audiences recall what an influence the early Sydney punk band had on the scene. Yet as Jonathan Sequeira’s DESCENT INTO THE MAELSTROM points out, the gig revived a myriad of fractures and tensions that were at the heart of the band’s history. This warts and all examination of their history lets the band speak for themselves.
Along with The Saints, Radio Birdman was one of the first Australian bands to push the protopunk genre of music. Formed by Deniz Tek and Rob Younger in Sydney in 1974, the documentary paints a portrait of a band that wore their non-conformity on their sleeves. At least when they wore shirts, that is.
The doco traces Radio Birdman’s career from their early performances and their struggles to find a right fit in a recording environment, through to their break ups and reunions. For a band that saw their formative years in the pubs and clubs around Sydney’s Oxford Street and Taylor Square, there’s understandably only a handful of videos of these early performances, so much of this period is covered by talking heads.
Sequeira has managed to get access to virtually all of the surviving members, friends, and several fans of the band. They don’t pull any punches either, with Tek, Younger, Chris Masuak, Jim Dickson and ‘Pip’ Doyle happily airing all their dirty laundry for the public. You Am I’s Rusty Hopkinson, who was briefly the drummer for the band, isn’t interviewed on camera, but his own dissatisfaction with the period is certainly expressed by other interviewees. When the music does cut loose, including a handful of live appearances, we can now retrospectively hear all of the alternating joy and frustration in every note.
Longevity is a rarity in the music industry, and even rarer on the Australian scene where international success is elusive. Radio Birdman may not have got the kudos their deserved in their day, and this film proves that they may not have even been craving it in the 1970s. Yet their legacy of influence continues to this day. Indeed, at the time of writing, Radio Birdman have just completed a tour with Died Pretty, showing that even this most fractious of bands outlasted the Big Day Out on the Australian scene.