When Deniz Tek, medical student, audiophile and guitarist met Rob Younger in the early 1970s amidst the satin flares and platform boots that then graced Sydney’s pub stages the two students could see and hear that energy, rebellion, intelligence and true social comment were sorely missing. Tek, a native of Michigan, had come to Australia armed with the vinyl records and cultural knowledge of the Detroit rock n roll sound epitomised by MC5 and Iggy Pop and The Stooges. Younger, who was singer of the band The Rats at the time, broke that band up, and contacted his likeminded friend Tek, who had just been kicked out of the band TV Jones. Rob consoled Deniz, saying “Ah, don’t worry – it’ll be all right. We’ll get our own band. Screw all those other people. If they don’t like us we’ll get our own band, and we won’t care if anybody likes us. Do what we want. Take our football home. Yeah”. This statement was Radio Birdman’s mission statement.
A band which did not place music industry success as their primary objective – and to maintain that stance, or lack of stance – was a novel thing in 1975. Tek and Younger wrote songs which had catchy, interesting hooks, but not at the expense of raw volume and energy. A Birdman show was not passive for their audience either. It was completely void of the pantomime of glam rock – which was being transmitted out every Sunday night via the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s music show Countdown. At a Radio Birdman show, the audience exerted the same level of energy as the band. Deniz Tek’s energy feedback principal – where the audience and band’s energy is fed back and forth creating a feedback loop – had young women biting the stage, and one fan even dancing the night away on a broken thigh bone.
Radio Birdman gigs were not for every pub. In fact they found themselves with nowhere to play just six months in. After hearing that Lou Reed would like to see a Birdman show when he was on tour in Australia, the manager of the Oxford Tavern in Sydney’s Darlinghurst offered them a gig. This turned into a legendary residency for the band and their fans. The Oxford Funhouse as it became known was the venue in Sydney for raw, brash, and rebellious music. It has been called the beginning of the Sydney punk scene, though Birdman have always distanced themselves from this pigeon-holing.
To achieve the guitar sound Deniz Tek used, his equipment had to be particular. Particularly hardy, as well as set up in a particular way. His Epiphone 1965 Crestwood Deluxe guitar was actually owned by Fred Smith from the MC5. Tek bought it after seeing an ad in a drugstore while back in Ann Arbor visiting his family. This Epiphone features three Gibson mini-humbucker pickups with a three-way selector switch – enabling a certain thick, powerful sound. For amps, Tek needed the power of vacuum tube amplifier heads. His stage gear also needed to be resilient – both physically and in terms of constant use at high volume and with unreliable current. The Australian designed and made Wasp amplifier cabinet was ideal. Wasp amps were designed for the Australian rock n roll industry, and based on the template of British amplifiers and cabinets – particularly Bletchley Park-made Marshall Amplifiers. Tough, and made for Australian mains voltage, and less expensive than imported amps, Wasp were often preferred by Sydney bands.
The guitar amplifier is as much to blame for rock n roll as the electric guitar. Early amplifiers were small, rudimentary appliances adapted from phonograph and radio technology. In the 1950s Fender in the USA began making amplifiers more tailored for guitar players, and the Fender Bassman, although designed for bass guitar, was used by guitarists as well as bass players as it was powerful enough to be heard clearly through a rock ensemble. In the early 1960s Jim Marshall, an English cabinet maker and musician, got hold of a Fender Bassman, took it apart, and with the help of an electrical engineer, copied the circuitry, but made the output much louder, and much dirtier. The British-made Marshall valve amplifier enabled rock n roll musicians to set themselves apart from other genres of music.
Deniz Tek needed tube amplifiers and, equally essential to the vacuum tube amplifier is the speaker cabinet. Under-powering or mismatching an amplifier head and speaker box will cause burned speaker coils, or destroy them completely. Moreover, to obtain the right sound, speakers need to be matched to the type of amplifier head for the desired sound. The Wasp speaker cabinet used by Tek was ideal for both his sound, and the very rough treatment the band’s gear received. It was also quite affordable, particularly compared to an English made cabinet of the same type.
Wasp amplifiers were designed and made by Ian Johnstone. The author has interviewed a contemporary of Ian Johnstone from the rock music equipment industry in Sydney in the 1970s and 1980s, Chris Brockbank. Brockbank ran a company – Phantom Audio Australia, Later PMTe when the company began selling products overseas – which designed and manufactured several innovative public address (PA) components, and hired-out and ran PAs for rock bands. Including Radio Birdman when they performed their residency at the Oxford Hotel. Brockbank owned several Wasp amplifiers, and had Johnstone make custom guitar and bass cabinets for him.
Australia in the 1970s was quite isolated geographically. From the rest of the world, where most of the rock n roll music was happening, but also between the states due to the vast distances. The purchase expense and maintenance of British made amplifiers was prohibitive. So local engineers and tradespeople used the templates of Marshall, Laney, Hiwatt and Orange amplifiers and designed their own high-gain valve amplifiers. In Sydney it was Wasp. In Brisbane it was Vase. In Melbourne is was Eminar. Strauss was another company – who specialised in monster amps – but they were expensive and break-down prone. There was a healthy industry of quality locally made amplifiers and sound-on-stage equipment.
According to Chris Brockbank, Ian Johnstone, like Jim Marshall, was a cabinet maker. A New Zealander, Johnstone come out to Australia as a roadie and, having had a connection with the maker of Holden amplifiers in New Zealand, started making and selling Holden amps out here. Brockbank assumes Johnstone changed the name to Holden Wasp amplifiers, or just Wasp amplifiers to side-step any confusion or litigation with General Motors Holden – the Australian motor vehicle manufacturer. Wasp amplifiers were made for Australian electrical mains voltage, were tough, reliable, and sounded like a Marshall. But much cheaper. And the guy who made them would fix them if they broke-down. Johnstone had a workshop in Alexandria in inner-western Sydney.
Brockbank says that bands in the 1970s would often have a relationship with a local sound gear manufacturer. Billy Thorpe always had a giant Strauss amplifier on stage, boldly displaying the brand. Doug Parkinson and the Questions used all Lenard gear . Brockbank’s company, Phantom Audio Australia, bought the sound system used by the 1972 – 1973 Sydney production of Jesus Christ Superstar, a Cord system – and many Sydney bands played in front of the Cord logo. Ted Mulry Gang and, in their early days, AC/DC used Wasps on stage. Radio Birdman did not have any such relationship with a local sound company, and photographs attest that their stage gear was always quite a mix-and-match set-up. Asked what Birdman were like as clients of his PA hire company – Brockbank said they would always damage something, but also always pay for it without any dramas!
The author asked Chris Brockbank what he knows of what happened to the Wasp amplifier company. Although he said he does not know specifically, he can attest that the local industry changed in the 1980s. In the 1970s, international touring artists would come to Australia and use whatever sound gear was available. There is photographic evidence of Black Sabbath using Cord gear while here; and Deep Purple, Manfred Mann Band and Free using Lenard gear. However, big touring bands began demanding specific equipment, all of which was manufactured overseas. As with the tariffs on guitars, tariffs of amplifiers were also removed, and local bands began moving to British and American made amplifiers. There was work around for electrical and audio engineers, and staging professionals, but it was more corporate, and small manufacturing of sound gear could not compete. Brockbank sold his PA business and took on consulting roles for the New South Wales Government and universities. The founder of Lenard was on the committee which set up radio station 2JJ for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Tony Troughton of Vase amplifiers in Brisbane simply retired; and, Ian Johnstone went to work for Robert Bosch GmbH.
Tek’s Wasp amplifier cabinet, along with a significant Radio Birdman archive, is part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection.