Tagged: Rob Tyner

Descent into the Maelstrom

The drama of the dysfunctional band has long been a staple of the rock documentary form. In a case of life imitating art imitating life, films from Some Kind Of Monster (which sat in on Metallica’s group therapy sessions) to End Of The Century (which chronicled the tragically bitter life and death of the Ramones) play like a reprise of the intra-band bickering so perfectly satirised in This Is Spinal Tap.

As the credits roll on Spinal Tap, Marty DiBergi, played by the director, Rob Reiner, asks bass player Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) whether playing rock & roll keeps you a child. I was reminded of this watching Descent Into The Maelstrom, the story of Radio Birdman, as this brilliant, influential and notoriously volatile band squabble over their history and their legacy.

For the uninitiated, a brief snapshot: formed in 1974, Sydney’s Radio Birdman were, alongside Brisbane’s Saints, Australia’s first and most lasting contribution to the punk movement. Like the Saints, they had a brief and extremely turbulent existence, breaking up in in the UK in 1978 while making just their second album. Their massive influence saw them reform for the first time in 1996, only to almost immediately break up again.

But, like Spinal Tap’s David St Hubbins and Nigel Tufnel, guitarist Deniz Tek and singer Rob Younger keep getting back together, because there will always be a baying audience somewhere for them to play to. Both are intense, serious men and aside from stalwart keyboard player Pip Hoyle, few have been able to stick with them. But that volatility was key to the original six-piece band’s combustible chemistry.

If you are already a Radio Birdman tragic – and tragics will be the first in line to see Descent Into The Maelstrom, directed by Jonathan Sequeira – you’re unlikely to find out anything new here. There’s no pre-1978 live footage you won’t have seen already, and the story is familiar. It’s held together over one hour and 50 minutes by interviews with the band and close associates; thankfully, no bigger stars are lined up to obediently sing their praises.

Don’t let this lack of new information put you off, though. What makes Descent Into The Maelstrom work is the brutal honesty of the band members as the wheels fall off their so-called “van of hate”, as the Kombi driving them around that ill-fated 1978 UK tour was dubbed. It wasn’t the usual combination of drugs and booze that did them in: it was poverty, depression and poisonous internal dynamics.

Visually, the lack of new footage is compensated for by hundreds of stills and delightful storyboard artwork by bass player Warwick Gilbert (of whom a gonzo reviewer once wrote “a Warwick is something you light if you want to start a war”). Given that Gilbert was the first to leave the band – twice! – his heavy involvement indicates that Birdman’s music remains bigger than the egos that made it.

Which brings us to the music itself. Deniz Tek was a native of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he brought his first-hand experience of the Stooges and MC5 to Australia in 1972 (there’s a photo of him as a teenager in aviator shades, right in front of the Five’s Rob Tyner). Radio Birdman were combative, confrontational, hated by the musical establishment, and changed the lives of thousands who saw them perform.

In their slipstream came hundreds of bands, dozens of whom became embedded in the Australian rock landscape: Midnight Oil, the Sunnyboys, the Hoodoo Gurus, the Lime Spiders, the Hard-Ons, Died Pretty, the Celibate Rifles, and on and on. Hoyle gets the last word, and it’s a killer: “I don’t think there’s an Australian sound to Radio Birdman. I think there’s a Radio Birdman sound to Australia.”

He’s right. And few of those bands, even on their best nights, could summon the heart-attack inducing excitement of Radio Birdman in full flight. (For proof, track down the double live album of the band at Paddington Town Hall in December 1977, their last performance in Australia before departing for England: it is, in this writer’s opinion, the best live recording released by an Australian band.)

As such, what started as a cult phenomenon has continued to attract generations of converts to the cause. Descent Into The Maelstrom won’t exactly be an eye-opener to the Birdman faithful but, along with the band’s reissued box set of recordings, it’s a documentary that will ensure their legacy remains: hewn in the living rock, as Nigel Tufnel once observed.

First published in The Guardian, 10 June 2017

Without Malcolm Young, AC have lost their DC

Years ago, a journalist asked the late Bon Scott whether he was the AC (alternate current) or DC (direct current) in his band. Scott’s response was as quick-witted and accurate as any of his best double entendres. “Neither,” he grinned. “I’m the lightning flash in the middle.”

Many thought Scott, who died in 1980 just as the band was reaching its peak, was irreplaceable. But AC/DC were unstoppable. Substituting their lightning flash for a forward slash named Brian Johnson, they ploughed on and made Back In Black. It was the biggest album of their career, vindicating the band’s resolve.

So it would be a foolish writer indeed who ever wrote off AC/DC. They remain unimpeachable as a live act, even if their recordings post-Back In Black have never matched the brilliance of their early years (for proof, their give-the-punters-what-they-want shows lean heavily on the roll-call of classics from their first six albums).

Be that as it may, I can’t bring myself to see them on their Rock Or Bust tour, which kicks off in Sydney this week. For without Malcolm Young, AC have, in effect, lost their DC – the man that made them a true rock & roll, as distinct from a mere rock band. (They’ve also lost drummer Phil Rudd, who brings more nuance and swing to the 4/4 meter than most, but it’s hard to argue with the reasons behind his exclusion.)

There is nothing consistent about my stance. I have seen the MC5, with Deniz Tek (brilliantly) filling in for Fred “Sonic” Smith on guitar and Evan Dando (lamentably) replacing Rob Tyner on vocals. I have also seen the New York Dolls, with David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain the sole surviving members. Both were enjoyable.

And AC/DC have kept it in the family: Angus and Malcolm’s nephew Stevie will hold down rhythm guitar on the tour (he also played on Rock Or Bust). He played in the band briefly in the late 1980s, when Malcolm was drying out. Live, when AC/DC are coming at you at 130 decibels, it’s unlikely anyone will notice any difference.

So is it plain irrational sentiment that stops me from countenancing the band without their indomitable rhythm guitarist? Yes, Angus is still there (indeed, he is the sole remaining original member). To most, he is the star of the band and always was, even when Scott stood alongside him. The perpetual schoolboy defines AC/DC’s image.

But it was Malcolm who defined AC/DC’s sound. The band is, first and foremost, a rhythm machine: Malcolm’s distinctive chop is inextricable to their identity. While Angus is a thrilling soloist (at least on those early records, where his breaks are mostly short, sharp and shocking), Malcolm was all accent, drive, and reinforcement.

Most of all, he knew when not to play, as this isolated track of Let There Be Rock demonstrates. Silence – those gaps punctuating the riffs – was as vital a component of the AC/DC sound as ear-splitting volume. As Angus and Malcolm’s uncle George, the band’s co-producer (and ex-Easybeat) once put it, “It’s the stops what rocks.”

Think of the long list of AC/DC riffs which made use of those stops: Highway To Hell. Whole Lotta Rosie. You Shook Me All Night Long. It’s A Long Way To The Top. Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Jailbreak. These are the songs that have made them a juggernaut for over 30 years (their Black Ice tour grossed $441 million).

It is sad beyond words that Malcolm Young, who is suffering from dementia, is no longer able to remember the riffs that made his band immortal. It is frankly unbelievable – and heroic beyond measure – that on his last tour with the band, before every show, he had to teach himself each song again before taking the stage.

No one else who cares will ever forget those songs. And there is no right or wrong way for AC/DC, or their fans, to honour the legacy of their fallen comrades. As Rock Or Bust suggests, it’s not AC/DC’s way to admit defeat, ever. The show will go on, maybe for the last time, to pay tribute to the man that made them what they are.

But while I don’t begrudge them for an second, neither do I want to see AC/DC reduced to a tribute to themselves. For those about to rock, I salute you. But on the night they come to my town, I’ll stay home, crank Let There Be Rock up to 11, and have a drink to Malcolm – the greatest rhythm guitarist of them all.

First published in The Guardian, 2 November 2015