Sire Records cofounder Seymour Stein entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the strength of big discoveries like Talking Heads and Madonna, but buried in his resume was a lesser-known find called Radio Birdman. In relative isolation in Australia this sextet’s proto-punk was a true DIY effort, although slack management and sales thwarted them in the mid-1970s. Well-received one-off reunions and a 2001 Sub Pop compilation helped a new generation discover them, yet after a 25-year layoff their new Zeno Beach album could have been anything from a textbook case of striking hot iron to a fantastic and abominable sellout.Radio Birdman’s biggest failure on Zeno Beach is serpentine musicality in the vein of the New York Dolls and Iggy Pop. It’s most evident in the loping vocals of Rob Younger and the piano of Pip Hoyle. If you’re a fan of this drawn-out, more-than-just-three-chords style of punk strutting then things aren’t so bad. Nevertheless, going from yesteryear’s 90-second rebel yells to occasionally meandering feel-good songs (“We’ve Come So Far (To Be Here Today),” “The Brotherhood of Al Wazah”) shows that Radio Birdman, unlike fellow hiatus-rockers the Buzzcocks, may have lost a few steps.
Far from an instant classic, Zeno Beach overall is still a shockingly solid piece of music for an act separated so long. That speaks volumes about the talent at the band members’ disposal, kept fresh through their individual projects and the guiding songwriting and guitar snarl of Michigan native Deniz Tek. The power pop of “Die Like April” and the surf punk of “Locked Up” leave one to wonder what might have been had Radio Birdman forged a career long and steady like the Ramones, not go-and-stop like the Sex Pistols.