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Older Soldiers Still Rock: Radio Birdman, The Hitmen and Hoodoo Gurus

Some of this country’s most influential bands have been touring lately. First, Radio Birdman and The Hitmen announced tours in June and July, then, Hoodoo Gurus a run of shows in July. This was the trifecta. These iconic Australian bands not only share similar influences, like Blue Oyster Cult, The Sonics, and proto-punk bands like The Stooges; some of whom would later become collaborators with these bands, but they’ve also shared some personnel over the years. Chris Masuak, Ron Keeley, Warwick Gilbert were all once Birdmen and Hitmen, and former Hitmen, Brad Shepherd and Mark Kingsmill later became Gurus.

The fact that they are all touring at the same time is not exactly an aligning of the stars, because these bands still tour pretty regularly. But they do trace a pretty interesting period in Australian music history. So how do these bands compare today? And what makes these bands so enduring?

Radio Birdman. The Tivoli. Brisbane 

Radio Birdman was formed in Sydney in 1974, by Rob Younger, Deniz Tek, Rusty Hopkinson and Steve Kambly. Radio Birdman is easily one of the most influential bands Australia has produced. In July 1977 they released their first studio album, Radios Appear A large crowd had shuffled into The Tivoli to see their hard rock heroes, whether that was Radio Birdman or Died Pretty. It was a co-headline event with special guest Mick Medew and The Mesmerisers, whose set included an impressive cover of Flaming Groovies’ track Shake Some Action.

Radio Birdman storm the stage. A clear view of Rob Younger is only slightly intruded on by the spokes of a thinning mohawk. They ease into their set. Rapid fire keyboard cuts through the metallic buzz and Younger’s belts out We’ve Come So Far (to be here today), proving his delivery retains that guttural punch. Younger grooves and pouts at the crowd and at the end of each track he acknowledges the crowd (sometimes with a curtsy). His stage presence is full of cheek and it winds up the crowd.

When they start Man with The Golden Helmet the mosh mobilises and the shoving starts. A bloke tries to surf the crowd briefly. Cups of beer are tossed about. When they return for encore we know what’s coming — Aloha Steve and Danno. They deliver. The backing vocals are as clear as ever. This is the kind of psycho surfie rock that defined Radio Birdman’s sound, and it hasn’t paled. Radio Birdman is legendary, not just for what they achieved as a band, but also what they did for the scene. They were a kind of prime mover for a string of bands that followed, including The Hitmen.

The Hitmen. The Zoo. Brisbane 

The Hitmen formed in 1977 with Johnny Kannis, Charlie Georgees, and Radio Birdman members Ron Keeley, Warwick Gilbert and Chris Masuak. In their formative years their line-up changed frequently, but their wild cocksure style cemented their place in Sydney’s punk scene. It was to be a blistering live show. After short but electric sets from Brisbane band’s Punktilious, Goldstool and The Manarays, and Adelaide-natives The Pro-tools (Ex Exploding White Mice) the crowd warms up. It was time for The Hitmen.

They open strong with Pay Up. Throbbing guitars swallow up the room and everyone moves to the front of the stage. The current line up is Kannis, Tony Robertson on bass, Tony Jukic and Vince Cuscuna on guitars and Murray Shepherd on drums. While introducing Bwana Devil, Kannis refers to the band as ‘soldiers’, and says, “This one was written by Brad Shepherd. His (Murray Shepherd’s) brother. But he’s off fighting in another war”.

They perform their cover of Flaming Groovies’ Shake Some Action and, as expected, it rivals the original. They smash out I Don’t mind and immediately its iconic film clip springs to mind — mainly that burger made of Iced VoVos, ham steaks with pineapple and a whole fish. Do we have The Hitmen to blame for hype-food?

Tony “The Kid” Robertson makes dense and intricate bass work look effortless. He and Vince Cuscuna shred; guitars facing; brothers in arms. Distracted by them, I didn’t notice Kannis leave the stage.  He was missing from view, but we could still hear him singing — the Cheshire Cat had vanished, but his grin remained.  He’d jumped off the stage and was weaving his way through the crowd. Throughout the set he would climb the walls, taunt the audience, bottle a speaker, wrap his mic cord around his neck. He exudes the kind of recklessness and playfulness that music is short of today. After an hour set and two encores, the show’s over.

“That’s it. We gotta go”.

“Thank you”.

“We love you Brisbane”.

Hoodoo Gurus. The Crossing Theatre. Narrabri

After a year as lead guitarist in The Hitmen, Brad Shepherd joined Hoodoo Gurus in 1982.

Then in 1984, former Hitmen drummer Mark Kingsmill, joined,  It was now the ’80s and it was time to wrangle the thrash and produce more restrained rock arrangements. Hoodoo Gurus led the way with hits Leilani, My Girl and Come Anytime. 

Narrabri was the opening show for their current tour with You Am I throughout regional New South Wales. Shepherd, Kingsmill, Richard Grossman and Dave Faulkner make up the current line-up, and in their trademark lairy shirts they take to the stage.  They play all the familiar classics; Bittersweet, Death defying, Miss Freelove 69 and 1000 miles away, but also disperse their set with heavier more obnoxious songs, like Arthur; the sort they used to refer to as “punishment” songs; lest the audience get too comfortable.

Kamikaze Pilot is a highlight and it closes their set. As it winds down their intensity builds, furious and sweating, particularly Kingsmill who drums with such speed and intensity I thought he would generate enough friction that his sticks would turn into hot ember. After a well deserved break, they return for encore with Be my Guru, What’s My scene? and finally Like Wow – Wipeout!.

What’s My Scene? is one of the most perceptive songs that came out of Australia in the ‘80s.

As soon as we hear those opening guitar chords, our minds cast back to when we were young and still figuring it out. We looked for meaning in subcultures and it wasn’t until we got older that we realised how vain it all was. This feeling was never articulated so well than by the Gurus’ in this song. Maybe if they had been around to play at Briton Beach that day, it might have been a less bloody affair for the Mods and the Rockers.

The connections between these three bands are more complex and far-reaching than just between the bands themselves. The Screaming Tribesman, New Christs and The Angie Pepper Band presented other opportunities for collaboration between members of Radio Birdman and Hitmen, and eventually Hoodoo Gurus. But although these three bands don’t present the whole history, they’re the cornerstones of a unique timeline in Australian music and the timing of these tours was a cool coincidence.

The Hitmen were always known for referring to themselves and fellow bands as ‘ole soldiers and this thing they all did as a ‘war’. Now older and more grizzled, they are received that way. Veterans at their own game; touring regularly in familiar venues; still serving the scene they helped forge.

Main image: Johnny Kannis (lead vocalist for The Hitmen). Photo by Madison Mamczur

2 responses to “Older Soldiers Still Rock: Radio Birdman, The Hitmen and Hoodoo Gurus

  1. Birdman’s ‘Man with Golden Helmet’ is an amazing song, doesn’t belong in any particular music category, just out of its time.

    Still sounds fantastic today. I was a teenager when they were in their prime, but never saw them live. Got into them a few years after ‘Radios Appear.

    Really were ground breaking.

    He’s the top man, in the language, departmentttttttttt!

  2. Fantastic reviews. Thanks, Madison. Wished I could catch any of the bands live. Time to find some Birdmen and Hitmen on YouTube.

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