1540 KHz on the AM band: that was the original broadcasting position of legendary Sydney radio station 2JJ (later 2JJJ, or “Triple J” when it crossed over into the FM market). From it’s inception it was a home for the experimental, the odd, and the alternative – stuff that wouldn’t get played on other Australian radio stations. The growth of Australian cool starts from it’s inception in 1975, when it was founded to be a government-funded radio station meant to appeal to the 18-25 demographic. Radio Birdman, a group of Aussie Stooges fans, were among the bands the station championed at the very beginning of the punk rock era.
Radio Birdman were unlike anything else that Australian radio was playing at the time; while it might be somewhat correct to call them “Australia’s Sex Pistols”, this does Radio Birdman a disservice. The band weren’t cobbled together, they could play their instruments, and they didn’t rely on cheap shock tactics to sell their records. In fact, Radio Birdman’s early success was as much a result of their hands-on work ethic as it was their killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes; their records were initially sold out of their trunks, before and after shows. The band provided the example, and from them the punk DIY ethic was born into Australia.
Those killer rock ‘n’ roll tunes, though: Radios Appear had them in spades. The band name and album title give key clues as to their influences. “Radio Birdman” came from a misheard lyric on The Stooge’s “1970”, and tracks like “T.V. Eye” and “Murder City Nights” bear the scars of a definite Stooge’s obsession. “Man With Golden Helmet”, however, shows another side of the band, one that is hinted at in the title of the album; “Radios appear” is a line from “Dominance And Submission” by Seventies hard rock icons Blue Oyster Cult. “Descent Into Maelstrom” and “Love Kills” combine the two, marrying a harrowing, relentless beat to a more free-wheeling and progressive melody and structure.
Radios Appear is both the debut and the highwater mark for the band. Their second LP, 1981’s Living Eyes, was released three years after the band broke up, and while the band reunited in 1996 and continues to tour intermittently, new music has been spotty at best. For a pure rock ‘n’ roll experience – filtered through Michigan proto-punk – however, Radios Appear is one of the finest efforts of that legendary year of 1977.
The death knell of traditional freewheeling rock ‘n’ roll – the last sound to really embrace it before it all shot off in the direction of punk and metal – was the sound of Foreigner. On paper it was one of those regrettable supergroups that pop up continuously in rock history, like Asia or Velvet Revolver or Divine Fits. Mick Jones, friend of the Beatles and guitarist for Spooky Tooth, got together with Ian McDonald (formerly of King Crimson) and Lou Gramm (from the largely unknown and by-then defunct Black Sheep) to play prog-tinged, flashy rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed, and continues to seem, crassly put together by label executives to sell records and get radio play, but it came out at just the right time to cash in before the revolution.
Boston came out in 1976, and it set the standard for slickly produced prog-pop. Foreigner was a sort of response to it, doubling down on the effort to get sticky melodies and traditionally hard guitar in the heads of radio listeners. Boston, Styx, Supertramp, Foreigner – all of those bands that Adam Sandler is always going on about – dominated rock radio by the end of 1977. It’s drivetime commute music, arena rock that lived up to it’s name. McDonald and Jones’ work did the job admirably, of course; Foreigner is one of those debuts that has a number of indelible singles attached to it that will live on until the youngest of the Boomers has passed on. “Feels Like The First Time” and “Cold As Ice” are anchors on classic rock radio, while “Starrider” and “Long, Long Way From Home” show a somewhat deeper side of the band. “Headknocker” showcases the real enduring problem with Foreigner – Lou Gramm. The songs are always well-written, airtight compositions of rock ‘n’ roll that morphs a little with the times in order to fit in on the radio. Gramm oversings them like he actually believes he’s a rock ‘n’ roll hero and not the singer for a radio friendly unit shifter. Consequently, a song like “Headknocker”, which could be a decently gritty rock tune, gets rendered a little ridiculous by Gramm’s hair-in-the-wind Jesus Christ pose. I’ve always wanted to hear Craig Finn’s take on the song, provided the idea didn’t make him a little queasy.
Change was just around the corner, and within three years you couldn’t sell an album like Foreigner if you tried. It encapsulates the final form of a certain sound that had been knocking around the rock milieu since 1969 and it nails it, more or less. First wave punk, New Wave, and the charge of the hair metal brigade would obliterate it in the end, forcing bands like Foreigner to trade in ever-slicker and desperately hedonistic songs before finally collapsing into Power Ballad Hell. The Eighties could be terribly unkind. Before that ignominy, however, Foreigner functions like an artillery blast in the night, showing that maybe the old guard wasn’t dying quite as quickly as anyone might have thought.