Brum. the Heart of England. We salute you and your music. Side A: Pete Paphides prESENTS ‘A Midland Educational’. Pete’s collection delves back deep into Brum’s recesses but comes through to now. THE MOST FUN COUPLE OF HOURS OF MIDLAND EDUCATION YOU’LL FIND ANYWHERE!
Words and curation by Pete Paphides. Illustration by Mick Clarke.
I’m not sure how location can determine the way notes and chords sit on a page, but it’s incontrovertibly clear that they do. One of my earliest recollections of being absolutely enveloped by a piece of music involves a weekend-long school trip to Atherstone Youth Hostel which began after school on a Friday in January 1980 – up to 20 of us in a minibus, seated on wooden benches facing each other, the floor between us taken up by rucksacks and holdalls. I was 11. From the front of the bus, UB40’s Food For Thought came on the radio, and through the rain beating down on the windscreen, it seemed to rise up and disperse like a vapour that shrouded the world outside: the Chrysler Factory glistening in the rain on Coventry Road; the sulphurous yellow light of the subways underneath the Bull Ring. So, this was what happened to reggae when you deprived it of sunlight. It sounded damp and subterranean.
Other reggae songs on this playlist sound similarly bereft of Vitamin D. Musical Youth’s maiden release Political has an emotional weight that’s probably connected to the fact that (at that point) the line-up that was an inter-generational affair comprising Jamaican emigrés and their children. Steel Pulse’s Handsworth Revolution and Groundation’s Fa-Ward evoke the changing demographic make-up of the red-brick suburbs between Birmingham and West Bromwich. Explosions of colour and sound on previously eventless high streets were thrilling from the vantage point of the back seat of my dad’s car, as he drove us to his chip shop and back, over the summer holidays.
Bhangra didn’t make it into the music papers I was reading, but on the streets of Sparkhill and Small Heath it acted as the soundtrack to a hundred thousand courtship rituals played out in repurposed dancehalls on Saturday afternoons. This was the wellspring of ground-breaking early releases by Bally Sagoo and Apache Indian – crediting your sources while reflecting an environment being shaped in real-time by the young people living here. If you walk fifteen minutes from the Balti Quarter through Balsall Heath and into Moseley, you’re into the epicentre of the Moseley Scene that has paid host to dozens of recording artists, inspiring each other in the shared red-brick digs that extend all the way through the centre of Moseley and well into the neighbouring district of Kings Heath. These are the streets where imperishable indie classics by The Sea Urchins (Pristine Christine) and Mighty Mighty (Is There Anyone Out There?) came to life.
Moseley is also the locale that spawned leftfield masterpieces by a community of kindred spirits in the 1990s and 2000s – thriftstore arthouse cineastes and analogue expeditionary types such as Broadcast, Pram, Plone, Novak, Magnetophone and L’Augmentation. These bands were made up of librarians, video rental store assistants and hermits who spent their downtime in each other’s kitchens trying to outdo each other with their latest charity shop purchases. Pram’s early releases are some of the most gloriously evocative outsider-art you’ll ever hear. Britpop acted as the perfect distraction. While everyone else’s gaze was on Camden, this loose agglomeration of erudite oddballs could incubate, create and thrive in relative peace, right there in Brum.
Nearby, Simon Fowler was also incubating in solitude at the beginning of the 1990s when his band Ocean Colour Scene found themselves without a deal. Moseley Shoals is an album of remorseful requiems to outcomes that never happened. The irony, of course, is that in writing it, he resuscitated one of those outcomes. The Day We Caught The Train sat in the top ten for much of the summer of 1996 and helped propel its parent album Moseley Shoals to platinum sales. It pulled off the same illusion that Come On Eileen and Our House managed in the previous decade (for Dexys and Madness), creating a vicarious longing for the events it was describing.
But then, Birmingham songwriters seem to do longing especially well. On the face of it, there’s little to unite Swell Maps with globe-straddling pop monoliths Duran Duran. But both groups emerged from the scene that coalesced around Birmingham punk venue Barbarellas. Swell Maps featured two brothers in their ranks, Nikki Sudden and Epic Soundracks, who mined a rich seam of romantic yearning to produce their best work in the wake of the group’s dissolution. Duran Duran seized their opportunity for global superstardom early on, but the facility for a soaring melody never abandoned them. It’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Messrs Sudden or Soundtracks having brought their careworn tones to a song like Ordinary World.
The other thing that unites almost all the music from Birmingham that I love is that very little of it has been created by musicians who appeared remotely preoccupied by the idea of seeming cool. Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra seemed to create some of their best music when lagging slightly behind popular trends. Don’t Bring Me Down and Last Train To London emerged at the tail-end of disco, but it didn’t matter when you had a master assimilator like Jeff Lynne writing hooks of such magnitude. Look where not being cool took ELO. Into eternity.
Though written by Lynsey De Paul, The Fortunes’ Storm In A Teacup is possessed of a similar sort of selflessness. “Sure, things aren’t great right now?” it seems to say, “But why not turn the telescope around for a second and look at your situation in a broader context?” The same sentiment applied when I saw Lady Leshurr at Glastonbury - she displayed a grounded attitude to her best-known moment. Far from taking her mega-hit Queen’s Speech 4 too seriously, during the songs “Brush your teeth” hook, she distributed hundreds of toothbrushes out to the audience. You can’t do anything but commend such a down-to-earth approach. Practical too, for the festival crowd.
But perhaps more than any other artist, the songwriter whose work I most closely associate with the city where I grew up, is Stephen Duffy. I’ve chosen two of his songs for this playlist: Wednesday Jones (Dixie), with its evocation of teenage trysts on petrol station forecourts and sheltered shopping centres, and ‘Streetcorner', the b-side he released shortly after forming his group The Lilac Time. Perhaps the reason I love the latter song is that it perfectly encapsulates what it was like to grow up in the West Midlands in the 70s; and, actually, I think there’s enough here convey a sense of what most of our early years were really like. The houses stay largely the same; the road signs rarely change from one decade to the next. Amid this scenery, unique stories take shape. First drink. First cigarette. First love. “Old street lamps/Shine through seasons/Made us brighter/The world around seem darker” When he sings about “the old parklands, where our swans sang”, the sky-wide ochres and pinks smoulder up above. Industrial sunsets with colours you only seem to get in the West Midlands. Impossible to miss. Impossible to reach. You can take this man out of Birmingham, but try and detach me from the songs on this playlist and you may be some time.
Pete Paphides is a journalist and author. He also presents on Soho Radio, for all you discerning listeners out there.
Side B - The City & The Scene: Birmingham, is coming soon.