Brum. CITY OF 1000 TRADES, AND JUST AS MANY SOUNDS. Side B: The City & The Scene. WITH THE HELP OF JEZ COLLINS, we are steeped in Birmingham’s scene right now, but dip back into the classics. It’s not black & white, but neither is Birmingham. So be it.
Jez Collins writes:
Merseybeat, Madchester, Harlem Jazz, Chicago Blues…some cities become defined by their musical output and the connection between place and sound. Birmingham has never been afforded this respect, despite legitimate claims to be the birthplace of Metal and Bhangra, to name but two.
Known as the City of 1000 Trades, Birmingham is also the city of a 1000 voices, sounds and cultures. For some this is a perceived weakness that has hindered attempts to understand – or to badge - the city’s musical output. Too often we want an easy soundbite (pun intended!) in which to package something that is more complex, more nuanced and way more interesting than a single descriptor.
For me, Brums musical past, present and future is absolutely a reflection of this messy, complicated and beautiful city. There is no one sound of Birmingham, but a multitude of sounds, styles and scenes and the music in our playlist celebrates this. In my opinion no other city’s communities are so embedded and entwined with each other. No other city’s music is so cross-pollinated, inspired and influenced by the cultures that we live, work and play amongst. And no other city has such strong music lineage - stretching back to the 1950s - informing the future.
There are some well-known names on our list. Black Sabbath, Electric Light Orchestra, Duran Duran, UB40, The Streets and Joan Armatrading to mention but a few. And there are great songs by relatively unknown musicians. The 1970 jazz-funk-prog of Galliard, white funk boys Muscles and the first rate disco of J.A.L.N. And, of course, there are the bands who never reached the level of success they deserved, I’m looking at you Delta and The Bureau.
But I don’t want to wallow in some misguided nostalgia here. Music wasn’t better when I was younger, it was just different. Like I was. In the here and now we have incredible music pumping out of the city which reflects Birmingham still, as being one of the most diverse and youngest cities in Europe. Jaykae, Lady Leshurr, T.Roadz (14 yrs old for goodness sake), Kofi Stone, Lady Sanity, The Cosmics, Lycio the names go on and on. So please, indulge yourself and let the sounds of Birmingham, past and present, introduce you to this oft maligned and misunderstood city. A city of a 1000 musical voices.
I spent three years of my life in Birmingham – a chapter that is supposedly among one’s best – ‘the university years’. I only went there because I’d missed one UCAS point and failed to get into UMIST, in Manchester. At the time Brum and Manchester were rivals, and Birmingham’s motto was ‘Britain’s Second City’. Not great branding by any standards.
I had been only once before – to see Ozzy Osbourne play live. Otherwise I knew nothing about the place and got on the National Express from Hull with my backpack not knowing what to expect. Four hours later I was pounding the pavement along New Street towards the Aston University campus. That was the beginning of an adventure in which Brum provided a setting I wouldn’t change for anywhere. Mostly the music was consumed as a backdrop to the booze – in clubs such as The Dome, Powerhouse, Institute and Bobby Browns, the latter being the territory of the sophisticates with loafers and blazers. Surprised they let me through the door.
Earlier ties with Birmingham though, were all through music. When I was a kid, it was Electric Light Orchestra my dad would blast out of the stereo ‘music centre’. When I was on the cusp of being a teen, I listened to little else other than UB40, specifically their second L.P. Present Arms. I had a T-shirt of the album motif with a full band shot underneath which I wore solidly day-in-day-out for at least one week. It was bright white when I put it on and a dirty grey when I begrudgingly gave it up to the wash basket.
Then there was Duran Duran – a band I’d dismissed up to the release of the Reflex, which I reluctantly admitted was ‘quite innovative’. But on release of Notorious I became a fan, which meant being a very uncool student, since no one was going to host a Duran Duran party in the same way they did for The Smiths, say. I reviewed The Duran album Big Thing for Aston’s student paper – favourably – and received hate mail for a short time afterward. Not forgetting either Birmingham’s music son, Stephen Duffy, introduced to me by my friend Col (who saw Duffy as a window into things more sophisticated and intellectual than we could get in Hull). So, ELO, Ozzy, UB40, Duran, Stephen Duffy – all consumed from the considerable distance of Hull many years before Birmingham became destiny calling. You’ll find tracks from them on this playlist as well as Pete’s ‘A Midland Educational’.
I’ve enjoyed this project enormously. Put together partly to soundtrack the Pivotal music conference in Brum (27 October 2019), the event proved to be the best excuse to take a trip down memory lane but also discover (thanks to Pete and Jez) a far richer catalogue and vibrant modern Brum scene than I’d ever appreciated. Just like when I first took the bus there in the depth of last century, when the Bull Ring was a hideous monstrosity and nothing like the shining mecca it is today. Nice then, to represent the city now with the excellence of youth, from Riscas, Old Soul, JAWS (our cover band!), Swim Deep et. al. Birmingham’s music. Still sweetly calling.
Jez Collins is Founder of the incredible Birmingham Music Archive and Keith is the Founder of The Song Sommelier!