Interview: Rob Younger for Radio Birdman

Radio Birdman 2024 titleRob Younger – Radio Birdman


‘There's gonna be a new race

Kids are gonna start it up

We're all gonna mutate

Kids are saying yeah hup. Yeah hup.’


It is mostly an issue of time, is it not? 50 years may seem an eternity, or it may pass in what is merely part of a lifetime. For Rob Younger the fifty years since 1974 marks the time since he and Deniz Tek formed Radio Birdman, a band whose presence looms over Australian contemporary music like no other. One might ask Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to assess the importance of Radio Birdman to the Australian music scene, since he’s on the record as a fan, but Younger bats away a suggestion I make that the PM might be invited to attend one of their upcoming gigs, which features three original members; vocalist Younger, guitarist Tek and keyboard player Pip Hoyle. Other members are bassist Jim Dickson, drummer Nik Reith and Dave Kettley on guitar.


“There are no plans that I’m aware of,” he says, pausing, returning to the subject of the PM. “He came backstage at a gig in Sydney about five years ago… a very pleasant bloke,” and I suspect that is not quite the end of the story. After all, it is right that a music lover such as our Prime Minister should know of and revere a such a band.


Rob Younger, you see, is the quintessential Australian rock singer. Put him alongside Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett, Billy Thorpe, maybe Jimmy Barnes or Michael Hutchence and the idea still becomes a travesty; his name would be recognised by so very few in a list of those greats. Yet pretty much every Australia band since 1978 owes Younger’s band, Radio Birdman, an enormous debt of gratitude for its full-frontal assault upon the bastions of Aussie pub rock in the mid and late 1970s. It is, shockingly, 50 years ago that Radio Birdman was formed by Younger and guitarist Deniz Tek and began casting around for gigs to play in Sydney.


They took on the established music scene; the Sherbets, the Ferrets, the Selinas, ONJ, Sony Music, Young Talent Time and the shows which peddled a steady diet of such lightweight fare. Radio Birdman took a course in good old Aussie hypertension and added an American influence of The Stooges, MC5 and New York Dolls, courtesy of their guitarist Deniz Tek. Without them there would never have been Midnight Oil, The Saints, You Am I, Silverchair, nor Divinyls, Savage Garden, and hundreds more. They released an EP then their debut album, and by the end of 1977 were based in Europe, contemplating a US tour with The Ramones. It didn’t happen.


After less than four years together by June 1978 it was all over. Radio Birdman broke up. The second album was pretty much in the can, but they and a bunch of other bands had been dropped by the US label Sire Records when they switched distributors. Birdman were stuck in a dismal part of the world, far from home…


“You’re allowed to say ‘England’ aren’t you?” is Younger’s comment. Who could reasonably say they made a bad decision to spilt up the band?


“Uh, yeah, we were in Rockfield in Wales to record, and we were at each other’s throats, because we hadn’t been away for any protracted period prior to that… just forays to Melbourne or over to Adelaide, and always in a van. This sudden relentless close proximity had a lot to do with it. So, we broke up and went our separate ways. Of course, the record we recorded didn’t get released: Denis rescued that in about 1981; went over to Wales and got the tapes.” This became the album, ‘Living Eyes’.


Various members went off to sundry projects; one of the best was the short lived ‘New Race’ tour, which spawned an album and added lustre to the story, and then Younger went back to the band he’d formed, The New Christs.


At one point early on I ask whether it seems an impertinence to begin an interview asking about The New Christs, a band who came about after Birdman split and whose career seems to have atrophied as a result of the reformation and resurgent interest in Radio Birdman. It’s complicated, but as he was the link between those projects, he allowed the question about lyrics in his songs. “It’s always moaning about myself or my various alter-ego’s,” is the suggestion, and being more than familiar with songs such as Born Out Of Time, I Saw God and Headin’ South, I am quick to agree.


Radio Birdman 2024 Younger 3rd left

Radio Birdman 2024 - Rob Younger 3rd Left


I’d wanted to ask about the New Christs because they remain a seminal influence upon me. I had been too young by about three years to have seen Radio Birdman back in those far off crazy times. It may be that I am the only Adelaidean of a certain age to have never claimed to be in the audience one fateful 1977 night at the Marryatville Hotel when the ABC outside broadcast crew captured ‘Birdman in full flight. A room which could comfortably hold 400 people has swollen tenfold in the telling of the legend, or so it is said. In any event the footage remains one of the best and most visceral Australian music performances of all time.


“I know that film better than I remember the event," Deniz Tek told me when I interviewed him in 1996 when Birdman reformed for a run of Big Day Out dates, and nobody knew if there was more to it than that. Tek’s analysis from then remains on point: “"When there is film, it tends to supplant memory, because that becomes the memory.” We are told Radio Birdman are one of the seminal Australian bands and if we are told it often enough we unhesitatingly accept it as the verdict of history.


Rob Younger’s recollection?

“We played a warm-up show in Sydney and I remember thinking ‘Oh Gawd, I hope we’re good enough. But we rose to the occasion.’


Somehow, and at some point, the decision was taken to see how far the reunion could be taken. Was it obvious? Did the band sound excellent? Fresh as a daisy?


“I thought we sounded fine, the shows were enjoyable and all of that,” he confirms. “They were throwing a lot of money at us,” he changes tack. “When you play Big Day Outs you have the ability to earn quite a lot of bread, and there’s an incentive to stay together because we’re suddenly making money, which we never did previously.” It sounds plausible, this mention of the power of cash, but I suspect he’s underplaying his hand again when he adds “So I wouldn’t rule that out as one of the motives for sticking together.”


It is entirely the point for Younger and I sense he is not completely comfortable talking about it. It strikes me that Rob Younger remains one of the most elusive of figures, so very little is known about him. As we talk, and I’m reminded I’ve never before interviewed him, I get the feeling he slides off point almost as a protective device. I need to point out it’s an observation, not criticism. A case in point: I’d read somewhere he has a daughter but I know nothing of his private life. “Oh yeah, a son and a daughter,” he confirms easily. “They both live in Melbourne.” And that’s it. You get no more.


“Sometimes the idea of demystifying, of finding out about people might not work. It might be better to keep people in the dark, so they make up their own wonderful stories,” he offers. “It’s more entertaining than really life anyway.” It’s a valid point: the cult of anti-fame works exceptionally well in the realm of pop music, and it is much better, perhaps, to know next to nothing about Lady Gaga, Trent Reznor, or for that matter, Rob Younger.


Does Younger feel more comfortable being known through his music? Up to a point I guess is the right answer. Famously the band refused an offer of induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame feeling they would not accept handouts from the industry who had tried to shut them out so completely. It eventually happened in 2007 when Silverchair’s Daniel Johns announced their induction, and the band then performed the obligatory couple of songs.


As we discuss recognition and the public persona, and whilst he’s comfortable with that he pushes back when I suggest he is ‘famous’. He’s reluctant to assume that mantle; much more a background figure when not front and centre onstage. For many years he was a record producer for literally scores of Australian bands as well as working on his own band’s projects. If you listened to Australian bands through the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s you’ve heard Younger’s work. It’s quixotic. When questioned he admits he doesn’t have a favourite but evinces pride in his role in a number of Died Pretty recording sessions, making sure I understand he’s not claiming credit where it was not due.


Died Pretty were fellow Sydneysiders, fellow Citadel Records labelmates, and a number of whom were members on and off also of Younger’s band The New Christs. What a heady vibrant time it was to have been a fan of Australian music. He mentions in passing just how much work there was; how many bands recording and needing production help in the studio. Mostly he was in either EMI’s recording studio or Trafalgar Studios in Annandale. In the event, the rise of home recording and laptop computer-based software put paid to much of that, and the contraction of record companies and the recorded music market meant there was less money around to pay for it in any case. “I thought this is a great life, but then,” he draws a deep breath and offers what I have come to recognise as a classic piece of Rob Younger understatement, “the scene changed.”


By then Radio Birdman had released their third studio album, ‘Zeno Beach’ and the band was performing well and doing plenty of touring.


“I keep hearing things about what I did years and years ago and I just don’t remember any of it. I was reading something the other day about something I was supposed to have done at a gig - it was quite violent – I don’t remember it at all, but the person who reported it I’d trust with my life so it must have happened. But that’s not characteristic of me.”


He expands on the point. “There are people who have experienced formative parts of their lives through things you’ve done and you don’t know who they are and have no control over that experience anyway. You can imagine what it’s like for someone - everyone the world over knows their face. It must be an absolute bloody nightmare.”


I realise I must ask Younger about the ‘Five-O Tour’, such it is named. I had believed it might be the final tour for the band, and start asking him about favourite songs and what we might expect to hear...


“I’ve always liked Anglo Girl Desire,” he says. “If it’s not in the set I have a quiet moan about it because I always enjoy singing it. But most of the early stuff is Deniz’ work and I mean, I wouldn’t play anything I don’t like.”


Ah, well clearly we’re going to hear TV Eye then, a crowd favourite which cannot be overlooked. I recalled seeing them at The Gov a few years ago when Younger seemed disenchanted with the idea of playing that song, one of a handful their audience expects to hear. “I like playing that song. It’s a good song,” is his comment, “maybe I wasn’t in the mood that night, but they should probably expect to hear it this time around, too.”


We laugh, it’s as much an expected part of the ceremony as any other; the chopping staccato guitars, the silence and the anticipation of the crashing drums bringing the song back to life. The fist pumps and the chants of ‘Yeah Hup!’ Long may it continue.


Alex WheatonRadio Birdman 2024 title


Radio Birdman perform at The Gov on Sunday 23 June, with support Cull the Band. Tickets from OzTix.


When: 23 Jun

Where: The Gov