The Visitors were part of a unique time and place in Sydney rock and roll, the likes of which no-one will see again. Venues were opening to what would become a flood of raw and energetic music.

After splitting up in England, Radio Birdman’s surviving members individually drifted back to Sydney in mid to late 1978. Hundreds of punk and loud high energy rock bands had appeared on the scene, easily going through doors that had been kicked open two years earlier.

Many were copies of the style-obsessed English punk scene...

Others slavishly copied their (often narrow) perception of what they thought Birdman had been. Although many missed the point, some would recognize that the DIY ethos, not artistic genre, was Radio Birdman’s most lasting legacy. Radio Birdman was a much more musical entity than the razor blade vanguard of punk.

Visitors Lead Singer Mark Sisto

The band’s demise - and posthumous growth of its legend - left a vacuum in Sydney that demanded to be filled. In a sense, the Visitors did just that. The Visitors assembled in a rehearsal room in Sydney in early December 1978. They made their first public appearance at the Stagedoor Tavern two days after Christmas Day with the Lipstick Killers in support.

The Visitors:Miss You Too Much

Their arrival had been announced via a press conference the night before (no media showed up) and a radio interview on 2JJ. The Visitors drew a full house of 700, curiosity no doubt fueled by the presence in their ranks of three ex-Radio Birdman members - guitarist Deniz Tek, keyboard player Pip Hoyle and drummer Ron Keeley.

To continue the connection, Radio Birdman’s former Minister of Defense Mark Sisto (a Detroit expat) was on vocals. Teenager Steve Harris was on bass and was a busy bloke, concurrently playing keyboards for the Passengers, another formative band largely made up of Birdman friends and contemporaries. “Actually I was more of a keyboard player - I had just learned how to play bass. I didn’t even own a bass. Jim Dickson used to loan me his mostly (a Fender Precision), and so did Clyde Bramley (a Rickenbacker),” Steve says.

A former schoolmate of Chris Masuak, he was drawn, like him, to the Oxford Funhouse scene and rarely missed a show “except when I was grounded”. ”I remember Chris (Masuak) putting a bass guitar into my hands one day and telling me to listen to Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna) and to try to play like that! I had 10 days to learn it before my first gig.

That was for a different band (an early version of the Hitmen) but around the same time as the Visitors. I had already been friends with the Birdmen for a quite while and it was great to be given the opportunity to play music with people that I looked up to." In a sense there had been nowhere else for the three ex-Birdmen to go. The vague prospect of their former band reconvening had taken a dive when Chris Masuak founded a soon solidified Hitmen line-up.

Having agreed with Deniz that it was time to move on, Birdman vocalist Rob Younger worked up a band of his own, The Other Side featuring Charlie Georgees on guitar. They debuted with a support to The Visitors’ third gig, at the Civic Hotel on February 29, with a killer set heavy on ‘60s garage covers but sprinkled with promising originals. There was friendly competition between the former bandmates, with Deniz describing The Other Side as “an inspiration”.

The Stagedoor was meant to be a one-off. "Disenchanted Ron Keeley had only warily agreed to work up the set as long as he had a guarantee that the project was to self destruct after the first show. If he knew it was going to be a band he would never have joined" - Deniz Tek.
Although unaware of positive critical reactions until later, the gig was fun enough to prompt thoughts of another. Journalist Toby Creswell was effusive in Roadrunner magazine, comparing the band to “a tiger flexing muscles…and the chaos of an intellectual fire-fight”.

A second, self-promoted gig followed at Balmain Town Hall in February ’79. You could make a case that the Visitors’ beginnings sprang from a need for Deniz and Pip to have a creative outlet far removed from the onerous shifts they were working as hospital interns. “I was putting in anywhere from 90 to 110 hours a week as an intern,” Deniz remembers. “A lot of it (the music) came together when I'd socialize with Pip.

Deniz Tek - Guitar, backing vocals
Mark Sisto - lead vocals
Ron Keely - drums
Pip Hoyle - Keyboard
Steve Harris - Bass

The remastered Visitors CD is available at Citadel Records mail order click on mail order, then search the letter V for Visitors.

We'd have a night off, he'd sit at the piano and I'd grab a guitar. We would just jam something out. We were under extreme stress and we valued our time off so much, that we had to do something good with it.

When you're under pressure you come up with some interesting stuff. Busy people can always add something else in.” Mark Sisto seemed a natural person to involve. “He was around and he had the attitude, the creative spark,” Deniz says. “He was writing great lyrics and he was a good friend. Mark's very self-confident but it would have been tough for him to get up and front the band. You have to give him a lot of credit for being brave enough to do what he did.”

Although no stranger to the stage as one of their back-up singers, Mark was acutely aware of the shadow of Birdman in which The Visitors played. “I personally felt the challenge of all these folks who never got to see the old Birdman had heard about it and now wanted a dose of what all the fuss was about. And of course there were those that did see Birdman and wanted their dose too.”

Ron Keeley, for one, feels Mark was perfectly suited to the songs. “Brother John Needham says that if Radio Birdman hadn't broken up, those songs would have been on the next album,” he remembers. “Perhaps he's right, but Mark Sisto’s voice was perfect for the material and Rob would not have done them as well.” That's a problematically biased opinion at best, but Rob Younger himself, ever self deprecating, agrees with the assessment. The temptation to mythologize the band, and its antecedents, proved too much for some. ”Some got very precious about it, and made an idol out of what it was,” Mark says. “There was the factionalism that extended out of Radio Birdman’s members into the audience, so not just for us but in some other minds, there was very big competitiveness between the Visitors, the Hitmen and the Other Side.

I remember the first show. The anticipation was dreadfully scary. I wasn't tamed; it was exhilaratingly scary, like being on the high wire. The first time! Oh my, it was downright mystical, kind of beginner’s luck. Like when Wyle E. Coyote walks on air and keeps going because he didn't look down.

There was a ONE MIND experience with the crowd in a fleeting moment. Quite extraordinary (and) perhaps an extreme feeling that only happens in losing your virginity? Hmmmm, at least in part.” The first time must have been good for Mark, because more shows followed. "We were there for a limited time,” Mark says. “It was like…the last few minutes of the big game, and the coach says: ‘Can you get us to the primary??!!!’ ‘Yee haaa!!!’

It was important to be worthy but mostly it was adventure, I was after. I wanted Valhalla, for godsakes!” Visitors’ sets included a mix of Radio Birdman songs (“Anglo Girl Desire”, “Descent into the Maelstrom”, “Do the Moving Change”,”Alone in the Endzone”) and covers like “Sweet Soul Music” (Arthur Conley), “Hyacinth House” (The Doors), “Skimp The Pimp” (TV Jones) and a growing stable of originals.

Some, like “Haunted Road” and “Sad TV”, would reach a much wider audience in subsequent years, most notably via the one-off New Race project that Deniz led through an Australian tour in 1981, spawning the live album “The First and the Last”. Most of the Visitors originals were Tek compositions, with lyrical contributions by Mark, the exceptions being "Euro Girls" and "Disperse", penned by Pip and Mark. Deniz acknowledges that input and the immediacy of the band’s output. “These weren't songs I'd saved up. They were written for the project.

I think Mark may have had some of the lyrics when he showed up, but I put the music together for that project.” Tunes like “Brother John” are superb. It’s a completely mythical tale Deniz wrote inspired by friend John Needham’s overland trip home to Australia from the Birdman European tour, a journey on which “he killed a shark/and ate it with his bleeding hands” and is taken onboard a UFO to have his removed brain become a component of the ship's control systems.

It’s lyrically and musically a world removed from two-chord punk. So too “Journey By Sledge”, a musically intense, hard-driving trip inspired by the book “SS General”, a very readable autobiographical memoir by virulently anti-Nazi Dutch author Sven Hassell about German troops on the Eastern Front. “My idea was a tale of going to war with idealism and the song inferred, at the last minute, finding terrible futility in it,”

Mark recalls. And then there was “Disperse”, a melodramatic sci-fi tale of evacuating the planet that goes horribly wrong. “Pip wrote it (the music)...it's based on some Beethoven thing,” Deniz recalls. “We envisioned it as a performance art piece, where there was chaos happening. Mark especially was influenced by the Doors - Pip too - but we saw that as more of an early Pink Floyd thing.” Mark adds that “it’s obviously a little movie...a catastrophe that was trying to be managed, but, sadly went into an unmanageable state, even for the emergency crew.

The band composed an appropriate score, but, yes, it was a freak-out, as you say.” A surviving audience tape (thought to be from the July 28 show at the Stagedoor) shows there was a lot of strength to what the band did live, with more room in the song structure for interplay between Pip’s keys and Deniz’s guitar than had been the case with Birdman’s later period twin guitar attack.

Mark has great vocal presence and a rich tone that recalls an early Jim Morrison. Many contend that Ron Keeley had never drummed better, and his warm feels seem ideally suited to the newer material. Steve Harris fills out the bottom end with fluency and melodic lines that belie his being new to the instrument. Deniz remembers Steve as “a real natural” who went on to play in other Sydney bands but, sadly, was left unable to play bass in more recent years after a power tool accident to a hand. The Lipstick Killers, who grew out of the Oxford Funhouse scene that Radio Birdman propagated, fast became firm favourites and played supports to half the Visitors shows.

“We liked the Lipstick Killers,” Mark says. “If they didn't play with us, they might have played somewhere else and we would have missed them, wouldn't we? They were bent and theatrical and rocked! We were almost too serious, so they helped balance the evening. Coincidentally they had a practice room, a manager (Murray White), a sound and equipment guy (Tim Greig) and a guy (John Foy) that printed posters for free.”

Deniz fondly remembers their singer Peter Tillman’s all-or-nothing showing on June 2nd at the Civic Hotel on Goulburn Street. “Pete Tillman spent his energy to the point of collapse and had to be carried off the stage. The way he looked, I thought there was a real chance of him dying. It was one of the most inspiring things I've seen in rock ‘n’ roll. It was like James Brown’s ‘Please Please Please’, but for real...”

Three weeks later, the Lipstick Killers and the Other Side joined the Visitors for a gig at an old movie theatre, Manly Flicks, on Sydney’s northern beaches. Future Sunnboys' bassist Peter Oxley remembers it as an inspirational line-up. Mark rates it as “a biggie…in front of 1200 people”. Deniz recalls it for other reasons. ”I got in a fight with some yobbos who were hassling me and Angie outside the front of the place before we went on. I hurt my hand, but we ended up playing well.

The energy and angst was redirected in a positive way.” There’s another vivid recollection for Mark: “Deniz was still dizzy from getting punched by the bouncer or somebody, His spirit was OK he got the better of whatever happened when we played. All was going well thanks to, everything - the songs, band, and the generous audience. But the microphone had this foam, spongy ball covering it, I inhaled strong and sharp, and with that I sucked in the most dreadful mouthful of fermented saliva from previous singers.

The next phrase was needed in the next instant...I made it in the end but it was horrible, just horrible.” In a way, Visitors shows became “events”, as indeed earlier Birdman and later New Race appearances were. The Tek-Sisto axis had been at the core of many of the early Radio Birdman creative concepts and their partnership was important for the Visitors. “Mark came up with a lot of the ideas and slogans that we used.

He was very integral to the more bent and humorous ideas behind that band (Birdman),” Deniz says. As had been the case with Radio Birdman, imagery was also important to the Visitors, with posters and Ron’s drumhead depicting a Deniz-designed “eagle of doom” motif that suited the dramatic nature of the music to a tee. Live, Mark injected a sense of performance art and humour into his presentation.

For one show at the Stagedoor, late in the Visitors’ life, he wore a shark’s fin on his back. Asked why, he mumbles incoherently. “For another, I didn’t shower for a week and rubbed fish and chips in my hair, didn’t shave and wore this grubby, long leather coat. People did recoil and did not get as close to the stage as they always did.

I scared them more than I thought, but that was a hoot! At the Governor Bourke show, I had this matte black body-paint, black Speedos and sunglasses. I covered every square inch of myself - it looked like a black leotard, but up close you could see body hair. People looked at me like there was a blacked-out portion of the screen, like I wasn’t there. I could see them but they couldn’t see me. That was fun - and weird.”

Dadaist artwork and surrealist concepts apart, all members contend the band was very much about the music. The single-guitar-and-keyboards configuration reflected the original make-up of Radio Birdman. “It was the same line-up, except for the bass player and the singer, so I was very comfortable with that,” Deniz says.

Mark adds that there was a conscious approach to be different from the prevailing wind of punk: “The less dense and furious approach was deliberate. So many were doing screaming thrash.” Deniz recalls the first pairing with the Hitmen (April 21 at the Stagedoor) as a competitive one and an indicating his band was still developing: “We had a rivalry with the Hitmen. They won this one.

Coach made us watch the tapes. We practiced harder and came up with some new moves.” The Visitors went into Palm Studios at Paddington on July 7 and 8 to record their originals plus “Skimp the Pimp”, a leftover from Deniz’s days in TV Jones that Mark used to introduce the band members (with tongue wedged in cheek). Trafalgar Records, who had a vague idea of releasing something, paid for the session. Palms’ resident Alistair McFarlane engineered and Deniz did a rough mix, four songs of which (“Life Spill”, “Brother John”, “Journey By Sledge” and “Hell Yes”) had backing vocals overdubbed and mixed at Trafalgar Studios, and were issued as an eponymous EP on Phantom in 1980.

Birdman archivist Vivian Johnston says the first takes were used in most instances, with minimal overdubs. Steve Harris doesn’t remember much of the sessions. “The results were pretty good though. It was a lot harder to make a good sounding recording back then because of the technological limitations in the recording studio.”

The curtain came down at a Stagedoor gig billed as “The Death of the Visitors Party”. The Hitmen opened the night and an aggregation named Comrades of War closed it .The Visitors played the middle bracket, with Lipstick Killers singer Peter Tillman guesting on “Let’s Have Some Fun”. Deniz and Mark flew to the USA (via R&R in Samoa) the next day.

Comrades of War (the band name another nod to Sven Hassell) were a near reconstitution of Radio Birdman. It was meant to be a surprise reunion show, but Rob Younger bailed out at the last moment ... the band had already convened at the venue. His place was filled on the spot, without the benefit of rehearsals, by Mark Sisto and Hitman Johnny Kannis. To an outsider, it was an unlikely coming together of the band that had ended in such loathing - and one that was not to be realised for another 17 years.

Mark says it seemed like a good idea at the time. “The very angry vibes between Birdman members had subsided a bit and Deniz was leaving Australia right after, so playing as Comrades of War was a last chance for everyone in Birdman to get together for an unknown but long time. Everyone said ‘Yeah’ except Rob, but we wanted to do it anyway.”

This is a Visitors retrospective but Mark’s typically colourful recollection of singing with the Comrades of War is worth recounting anyway. “Good God!!! It reminded me of when I got on this 900cc Kawasaki after riding my brother’s 650 Triumph. I thought, ‘Yeah, I can handle this’. It was a surprise!! Big adrenaline, the screaming skull!! As the G force almost throws you off, you end up pulling more back on the throttle by trying to hold on.” A subsequent magazine review panned the entire show - and to the chagrin of many involved, it was re-printed in a book of cut-and-pasted ‘zine articles. No matter.

Contrary opinion abounds that the Visitors’ showing was one of their best, and a fitting send-off. Ron Keeley, on the other hand, recalls very little of the Comrades of War bracket, having over-indulged between sets. “The Visitors won this one against the Hitmen,” Deniz says of the final round of renewed competition between the two bands. “That was important.

End of season, you know! After that, Mark and I took off for some rest and recreation in Samoa.” “I remember the band’s first and last shows as being the best,” says Mark. “The last was a packed house. The crowd wanted blood! They were very loud for the Visitors, but when Comrades of War came on it got stronger it got into VERY big roaring.

The encore roar and stomp was total and at maximum volume. If some left the gig because it wasn’t the full Birdman headlining, it wasn’t at all noticeable. It was packed and very well received.” Steve Harris looks back fondly on his experience in the band with general impressions rather than specifics. “I remember being blown away that I was just a kid of 18 or 19 and here I was playing in a band with my heroes.

All the gigs were a lot of fun and the level of musicianship and cohesion within the band was amazing. It was great to be a part of it.” He went on to play with many other Sydney luminaries (Angie Pepper Band, Flaming Hands, Johnny Kannis) before crossing over into African and world beat music and becoming an in-demand session musician.

Ron Keeley is overwhelmingly positive about the band’s lifespan. “If I have one regret about the Visitors (well, the second, because the first is that, like Birdman, we had no future), it's this: one night at the Civic, Mark wanted to bring a couple of empty 44-gallon drums on stage to use as tympanies in ‘Hell Yes’. I dumped on the idea and it never happened ... but we should have done it. Hell yes.

The Visitors were the best band I've ever played with and, until the Crown Joules (my current band in the UK), the most fun. Everyone knew what was going on and everyone had a role to play, so we just got on with it and the pared-down line-up gave everybody space to shine. In fact I think I did my best work in the Visitors ... I listen to the CD now and wonder how I did it!!”

Thanks to this re-issue, the Visitors live on in the recorded sense. A band, or some manifestation of it, may one day play again. It’s not been ruled out. Mark Sisto, for one, is moved by the level of interest the band still prompts. “It surprises me and it’s touching that there’s been as much positive feedback from it as it has gotten older. Why? Perhaps it’s because people were so young then, I suppose. Perhaps for many that it was a significant first for them - like your early teenage love that you don't forget? READ MORE ON I 94 BARMAN

Vivien Johnson Article on The Visitors

1 comment:

Dave said...

Great article! Thanks for the link to my blog.

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