The words “proto punk” arouse recollections of furiously strummed guitars and amps cranked to 10. For many, its sound and aggression were embodied by Iggy and the Stooges. But when Stooges guitarist James Williamson recently collaborated with renowned Radio Birdman axe-wielder Deniz Tek, each reached for an acoustic.
Williamson replaced Ron Asheton in the Stooges in time for the band’s 1973 classic, Raw Power, which included the in-your-face anthems “Search and Destroy” and the title track.
Raw Power was not a quick commercial success, and its failure led to the band’s split. But Williamson and singer Iggy Pop stuck together to record songs issued in ’77 as Kill City. Williamson retired from the music biz in the early ’80s and became a successful electronics engineer. In 2009, the Stooges gathered for their induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The event spurred the band to record 2013’s Ready to Die.
Like the Stooges, Tek hails from Ann Arbor, Michigan, but by the early ’70s was living in Australia. Inspired by the Stooges, he formed Radio Birdman, an influential band that offered the classic Radios Appear in 1977, and split shortly after sessions for its second album in ’78; that disc was issued three years later as Living Eyes.
Tek later played with Ron Asheton in a band called New Race, and reunited with Radio Birdman. In ’07, the latter was inducted into the Australian Music Hall of Fame.
With a title modeled after the Stooges’s lo-fi 1976 live album Metallic K.O., Acoustic K.O. is a stripped-down affair highlighted by readings of two tunes from Raw Power (“I Need Somebody” and “Penetration”) and two from Kill City (“Night Theme” and “No Sense of Crime”).
We recently spoke to Williamson and Tek to get the story on their past, and their new collaboration, Acoustic K.O.
How did the collaboration happen?
James Williamson: This all came about after Deniz and I met when we did the Ron Asheton tribute show in Ann Arbor, in 2011. Though he had grown up there and there were many parallels to our careers, we’d never met. But we finally did in 2011 and continued to occasionally touch base like when the Stooges would play Australia. But I came to find out that he visited Hawaii frequently with his wife, Anne, so we became friends outside of music. And it so happened that during one of our get-togethers, we were chuckling about doing a lounge act, which germinated into the idea of, “Well, why don’t we do some acoustic songs?” He suggested some of my old catalog, and coincidentally, a super-fan had suggested the EP title some time ago, as well as the idea of orchestrating “Night Theme.” So, this was a vehicle for me to realize both.
Deniz Tek: In all the years James wasn’t playing high-energy rock and roll, he was learning slack-key and Hawaiian-style acoustic playing. So, he’s really into acoustic. We thought, “Maybe we should work up an acoustic set and play in some of the bars.” Nothing really serious. But then we got the idea of doing some of his old material, but acoustic. I thought it was a great idea.
Deniz, did you grow up with anybody who ended up in the Stooges?
DT: Growing up, I knew about the guys, but didn’t know them personally. I went to the same school as Iggy and the Asheton brothers, Ron and Scott; I think Ron and Iggy were five years ahead, Scott three years. But I ended up going to college in Australia.
How influential was the Stooges’ music on Radio Birdman?
DT: Oh, very influential. There was a lot of good music happening in Ann Arbor in the ’60s. We had local greats – the Rationals, MC5, the Stooges – and the music scene was happening enough that big, international bands would come through, also. We didn’t know how lucky we were to have access to so much great music. But when I came to Australia in ’72, there wasn’t great music going on. There’d been a great scene there in the ’60s, but not in the ’70s. So, I took the Stooges’ vibe – we didn’t try to copy them, but wanted to cop their attitude. Australia was perfect because it was virgin territory in that regard.
When you arrived in Australia, did anyone know who the Stooges were?
DT: The Stooges and Funhouse had been released here, but hadn’t gotten any airplay. You could find used copies all the time for 50 cents. I used to buy them all; I’d go into the city and buy these records then pass them out to people and say, “You need to listen to this.”
When you began working together, did you click right away?
JW: Yes. I thoroughly like Deniz as a person as well as a musician. He’s very easy to work with – a very intelligent, skilled guy.
DT: We click as friends. He’s a great producer – knows what he wants, but he’s not a dictator. He’ll take input from anybody. He’s one of these guys who’s willing to try anything, but knows the destination, and knows it when he hears it. He was helping me get the vocals, and I really wanted to do well on the songs that Iggy sang on. You can’t top that. Can’t even get close. So, we did it in a different way and he was willing to take suggestions to get where we wanted to go.
What went through each of your minds while re-working songs originally sung by Iggy?
DT: Having grown up with them, everything I’ve ever done in music since probably 1973 has been influenced in some way by Raw Power. I know those songs intimately and have always loved that material, so getting to sing them was a great opportunity. It was a challenge also, because I wanted to do them justice.
JW: I liked Deniz’s vocals and I liked Iggy’s vocals. Iggy is sort of a husky baritone and Deniz sings slightly higher, but both have a good feel.
Were you together for the recording of Acoustic K.O.?
DT: I did guitar parts via file swapping, but the singing we did while in the same room.
James, were the overall sessions a polar opposite from those for Raw Power?
JW: Yes and no. In the sense that some of those for Raw Power, like “I Need Somebody,” were originally acoustic and electric. So, there were some similarities, but that’s probably where it ends. Essentially, I was in my 20s then, and my 60s for these sessions, so quite a gap there in terms of tastes and the things we did. Raw Power was my first album, and this one is my umpteenth. So, it’s different in that way.
Which guitars did you use?
JW: On “Night Theme,” I used a Greenfield G2. Michael Greenfield is a luthier in Canada and makes exceptional guitars. I’d been trying to find a purpose for it, and this turned out to be perfect. I also used a ’67 Martin, including for Nashville tuning for some of the higher-pitched stuff, where you hear what sounds like a 12-string. For “Penetration” and “Night Theme,” I used a Weissenborn lap-steel made by Tony Francis. It had a big role.
DT: On the EP, I used a Takamine Legacy series EF-341 dreadnought. I also had a Regal resonator I got maybe 30 years ago. It doesn’t have a serial number, but I think it’s an RD-40. I used it to play slide.
Did you use any amps?
JW: No. The rules were “entirely acoustic.” So, nothing is electric except for a pump organ. Otherwise, it’s acoustic guitars, Bob Glaub’s ’60s Kay f-hole bass, and a 1920s drum kit. Bob’s bass sounded perfect in the tracks.
James, what gear do you remember using for the Raw Power sessions?
JW: I was pretty sparse back in those days, but it was my ’70 cherryburst Les Paul Custom I call Leopard Lady, which I used on every record I’ve ever made up until the single (“Sickkk”) I cut last year with a singer named Maia. I donated that guitar and my Gibson B-25 to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum. I used the B-25 to write all of Raw Power and the Les Paul with a Vox AC30 because we recorded [at CBS Studios] in London. That was pretty much it. I did use an occasional Marshall for solos, but no pedals or effects. I occasionally had to bring in something that would sustain well in the studio, but mostly it was the AC30. For acoustic parts, I borrowed a Martin D-28; the ’67 Martin on the new EP was also a D-28.
And what did you use for the Kill City sessions?
JW: I don’t remember the amp because I had to borrow it from somebody! It might have been a Traynor, but whatever it was sounded good. But it was the same guitar, and I used that B-25 for the acoustic parts.
Deniz, which guitars did you use with Radio Birdman in the ’70s?
DT: I used the first guitar I got, when I was about 12; it was a Harmony Bobkat. I later had a Danelectro, then an early-’60s National Val-Trol Baron. I sold that guitar to Keith Richards; if you see Keith’s recent documentary [Under the Influence], Pierre de Beauport holds it up and says, “This is an one of the guitars Keith wants me to fix.” It blew my mind. Later, I had the good fortune to get a ’65 Epiphone Crestwood Deluxe that had been owned by Fred Smith in the MC5. I was back visiting my parents in Ann Arbor, and bought it through a third party. Those are really rare, with three mini-humbuckers and the factory-installed Bigsby that replaced the Epiphone vibrato. And they put the “Custom Made” plate on them to cover the other two screw holes. It’s a rare and fantastic guitar, and was my main instrument in Radio Birdman for all those years.
The only other guitar that I played much in Birdman was a Rickenbacker 460 with Gibson “toaster top” humbuckers. I got that guitar off of Ben Miller, in Ann Arbor.
And which amplifiers did you use with Radio Birdman?
DT: I had a couple of Phoenix amps, made in Sydney. I don’t think they’re known outside of Australia, but it was basically a Fender Bassman circuit. I had a couple of those and a 100-watt solidstate Phoenix that sounded fantastic. I used it on the early recordings, but switched over to Marshalls when we started playing bigger places; I had a 100-watt JMP and a 50-watt MKII. The 50-watt didn’t have a Master Volume and was louder than the JMP by far. Anything with the Volume knob past 4 was lethal. I used Marshalls from then on.
Did you use any stompboxes?
DT: All I had in Birdman was an MXR Dyna Comp and a Cry Baby.
James, every few years, there seems to be a new appreciation of the Stooges. The most recent wave included the release of a coffee-table book, Total Chaos, and the documentary Gimme Danger.
JW: Yes, and I’m astonished, to be quite frank. I came back for the reunion after Ron died in 2009, and within a year we were in the Hall of Fame, then getting platinum albums. Quite a bit of momentum had gathered, really, when you consider these records were made 40-odd years ago. I’m in awe, frankly.
Did it serve as validation all these years later?
JW: Yeah, no doubt about it. I think all of us were pretty happy to get the industry recognition. It was kind of bittersweet, but still. And I don’t care what anybody says – you want to have it when you’re doing it. So, it was nice. Especially satisfying was the generational recognition. We literally became like the old blues guys, where people say, “Hey, those are the real guys” and then go see them.
Deniz, for people just discovering Radio Birdman, what’s a good starting point?
DT: I would say get the compilation on Sub Pop, The Essential Radio Birdman (1974-1978). It’s well-mastered, you can hear everything, and it’s got the best of the different albums.
Any plans for you two to work together again?
JW: I think “plan” is a strong word (laughs), but we remain good friends and enjoyed working with each other, so it certainly isn’t out of the question. I’m writing new material and we’ll just have to see what comes of it.
DT: We work really well together, so anything is possible.
James, would you ever work with Iggy again?
JW: I think that train is parked at the station permanently at this point. I never say never, but he doesn’t make records anymore, and that’s all I do anymore. I don’t play live, really, except for the occasional set where I sit in. We had about five years in our 20s, another five for the reunion, and that ought to do it.
This article originally appeared in VG May 2018 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.