Planet of Sound: Radio Birdman and the ANU Bar Finale

Despite the ‘controversy’ surrounding the line-up for the final ANU Bar show on Saturday June 17, I attended anyway and soaked up the grungy vibe for one last time. This was accentuated when I entered the toilets and noticed a puddle of brown water on the floor, and remembered how my knees once got wet from something similar while my head was in the bowl from too many beers the night before a major exam – so many memories.

The music was okay and it was fitting that a few bands acknowledged all the people who over the years worked tirelessly to put on shows at the ANU including promoter Pete Spicer and bar manager Tony Kirk – these dudes presided over a golden age when a mouth-watering array of bands hit the ANU stage on a regular basis. The standout act at this show was hip-hop artist Citizen Kay who integrated colourful wordplay with well-placed funk samples and live drums – a reminder that good quality local talent is out there and worthy of recognition, particularly as we are talking about small Canberra fish in a big cultural sea. Citizen Kay performed a great set that made for one of my rare encounters with hip-hop at the ANU. Another of note being the fantastic line-up of Public Enemy and Ice-T when all punters were waved through with metal detectors as if to enforce concerns that a gang war could break out on the muddy shores of Sullivans Creek at any moment.

“How fantastic it would have been if Radio Birdman or New Christs had headlined the final ANU show if only because Birdman and co had inspired so many acts gracing the ANU stage over the years.”

The fact that I was still fired up from having seen Australian punk rock originators Radio Birdman perform a highly energised set at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney the night before, drove the need to consume ever more of the One Fifty Lashes pale ale on offer at the ANU while I also recalled having seen Birdman perform twice before in Canberra. On both occasions the band let loose with hardwired rock ‘n’ roll that was a joy to behold. The band’s second visit was timed to promote the criminally underrated 2006 ‘comeback’ album Zeno Beach that got the juices flowing just like those early days at the Oxford Funhouse when Birdman’s mission was to introduce combustible Detroit styled hard rock into a music scene more interested in Olivia Newton John and Daryl Braithwaite’s chest hair.

A few years after that second Birdman show at the ANU vocalist Rob Younger returned and turned out a highly charged performance with side project New Christs to a miserable turnout of about 20 people. When I interviewed Younger shortly after he mentioned that it was unlikely he would return to Canberra because the audience size was pitiful and I agreed with him. But when I learnt New Christs would be touring in support of the first rate 2014 album Incantations I hoped Younger’s disdain had lessened and contacted both his management and the Transit Bar in the hope of facilitating a Canberra show, but little came of it. On reflection, how fantastic it would have been if Radio Birdman or New Christs had headlined the final ANU show if only because Birdman and co had inspired so many acts gracing the ANU stage over the years and they would have seen this prestigious venue out in style.

But knowing this would never happen I instead travelled to Sydney and witnessed Radio Birdman play a blistering set at the Enmore Theatre with fellow long road travellers Died Pretty and Kim Salmon as supports. There has been a renewal of interest in Birdman in recent years and the band can now quite easily fill the Enmore. The audience was a mix of old timers adorned in t-shirts first worn at the Oxford Funhouse in 1977 and curious younger fans wanting to see what all the fuss is about – and those of us somewhere in between. Some felt the need to record the show on mobile phones including one seemingly enthused fan near the front who was positioned quite close to me and kept blocking my view with her phone. I forgave her though because she kept turning to look at me with a flick of her hair that smelt of coconut oil and moved in synch with me and the sound to suggest she found the whole thing as interesting as I did. The band opened with a heated cover of the 13th Floor Elevators classic ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me,’ and once that essential link with first rate 60s garage rock had been established, Birdman ripped through a stack of nuggets from the early years, played hard and fast. The few tunes from ‘comeback’ album Zeno Beach were bafflingly less well received as these songs were as good as anything else the band had recorded and the girl with the coconut scented hair by now leaning quite heavily into me didn’t complain when I yelled out for more from that superb album. This show was the white heat of the greatest punk rock and I’ve now got the t-shirt to prove it. Birdman could have seen the ANU Bar out on a high – maybe next time.

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