It's okay if you haven't heard of Radio Birdman. Nobody will think less of you for admitting it, unless you're a self-described expert on the Australian punk scene of the late seventies. Though they beat The Saints to the punk-rock punch by something like a two-year margin, and are spoken of in hushed tones by the sort of people who speak in hushed tones about seventies garage-punk, Radio Birdman's modest output never found a big enough audience to earn them more than a glowing footnote in punk rock's history book. To a certain fairly rabid group of music fans they were, and are, highly regarded; to everyone else, they were, and are, an unknown quantity.
Enter the historians at Sub Pop, who have kindly squeezed the band's career high points onto this twenty-two track CD. You don't need to be a music historian to "get" Radio Birdman. They play (or rather, played) straightforward, Detroit-style rock and roll that sounds like it was written last week rather than twenty-plus years ago. If you like The Stooges and The MC5, you'll like Radio Birdman. A lot.
Founding member Deniz Tek grew up in Michigan, which explains the band's Motor City sound, but Radio Birdman aren't a Southern Hemisphere copy of Detroit's finest. Their music is a little less disaffected and a little more melodic than Stateside proto-punk, with surf rock's influence clearly audible in their thundering intros and drum fills. "Aloha Steve and Danno", which opens the disc, sets the scene with a blatant homage to/pisstake of the Hawaii Five-O theme, while "Descent Into the Maelstrom" thumbs its nose at "Wipeout". The classic "Burn My Eye '78", on the other hand, lands the band firmly in territory that would later be claimed by the Ramones.
"Hand of Law" is another high point, switching easily between flat verses, melodic choruses and choppy instrumental surf segments, while the radio-ready "Snake" adds a crystal-clear acoustic guitar to the mix, giving the tune a Stones-like bluesiness. "Man with Golden Helmet" even carries a Doors-y psychedelic vibe.
The three live tracks that close the record hint at the power of Radio Birdman's live performances. These guys weren't prone to the sloppy, borderline-incompetent gigs that characterized many of punk rock's forefathers; they sound like a tightly-knit ensemble, fully capable of bringing their pop-punk anthems to fiery life on stage. It's no surprise that after the band broke up in 1978, Radio Birdman's members found their way into many other successful Australian bands, as well as collaborating with members of the Stooges and the MC5.
Referring to The Essential Radio Birdman (1974-1978) as a "history lesson" suggests that the record is an interesting but ultimately dated artifact of a bygone era. Believe me, it isn't; the music remains rich and exciting, and demands to be played loud and often. In fact, you'll probably be able to convince your friends that this is brand new music. And to them, and you, it really is new music. Radio Birdman never really had a chance to make it big in the US...but now, more than twenty years after the fact, it looks like they're finally getting their shot. That, I assure you, is cause for excitement.