Fabulously Flamboyant Fridays: Birmingham

Greetings pop pickers and welcome to another Fabulously Flamboyant Friday – our fortnightly puddle-jumping jaunt in the perfumed garden of musical mastication. This week we’ll wipe down the balti bowl of bhangra with the garlic naan of glam, as we consider the trouser flapping explosion of musical magnificence that wafted fragrantly from the Midlands in the ’60s, ’70s and a bit of the ’80s.

And so, without further ado, laydees and gentlebodies, FFF proudly presents the bottom-bothering, balti capital of Britain – Birmingham (with a sumptuous selection of savoury side dishes from the West Midlands and the Black Country). Not ‘arf!

Mersey Beat, Madchester, Northern Soul – these are all terms that have entered the UK’s lexicon of musical history, but Birmingham, despite producing a wonderful string of hugely successful bands and artists, never really managed anything similar. Brum Beat, anyone?

Mersey Beat, of course, had a reasonably recognizable sound. This was courtesy of a range of very successful and highly talented Liverpudlian superstars such as Freddie & The Dreamers, Cilla Black, Frankie Vaughan, Gerry & The Pacemakers and so on. Northern Soul was a genre-based scene, so was even more identifiable, but in Birmingham no such musical coherence existed. This was largely because Birmingham was a genuine melting pot of diverse musical talent that, by the early 1960s, saw a huge number of groups and solo artists operating within the city. It was a musical scene easily comparable to (and quite possibly larger than) that of Liverpool. However, unlike Liverpool, Brum never really produced a standout and hugely influential musical giant, one that could capture and indeed define the musical zeitgeist of the time in the same way that Liverpool acts such as the aforementioned Freddie & The Dreamers so successfully managed to achieve. Instead, Birmingham’s artistic environment was characterised by a huge diversity of sounds and genuine musical eclecticism.

However, by the mid-60s, some high profile stars were beginning to emerge from Birmingham’s melting pot. First out of the traps were The Spencer Davis Group, an R&B band fronted by the astonishingly talented Steve Winwood. They signed to Island Records and were soon racking up top 10 hits on both sides of the Atlantic. They quickly built a substantial fanbase in America, one that massively exceeded their popularity in Europe, and Winwood would later front the hugely influential Traffic, the supergroup Blind Faith and would then of course go on to have a very successful international solo career.

Hot on the heels of The Spencer Davis Group were The Moody Blues. Originally a pretty straight forward R&B band, they secured a multi-million selling hit single on both sides of the Atlantic with Go Now, but quickly moved on from their R&B roots and soon began to show signs of the more musically sophisticated and experimental approach that would characterise the latter part of their career and get them credited as one of the key progenitors of the late-60s prog rock movement.

Birmingham also had a thriving folk scene. Fairport Convention, one of the UK’s most influential folk-rock bands, were originally a London outfit. However, by the end of the ’60s, the musical core of the band was Dave Swarbrick (a Surry lad, but raised in Birmingham and a battle-hardened veteran of the city’s dynamic folk scene) and Dave Pegg (from Aston). These two would form the core of Fairport Convention and would guide the band through the most successful and critically acclaimed period of the group’s career.

Singer-songwriter Joan Armatrading was another successful graduate of the Birmingham folk scene. Born on the Caribbean island of Saint Kitts, she was brought up in the inner-city Brookfields area of Birmingham from the age of 7. She immersed herself in the city’s folk and black music scenes and subsequently became the first black British woman to emerge from the UK’s folk circuit and have significant commercial success.

However, without the slightest scintilla of doubt, the greatest product of the West Midlands’ folk scene and the artist with the greatest long-term influence would be the hugely gifted and lavishly talented Nick Drake. Nick (brother of the very easy-on-the-eye Gabrielle Drake) was brought up in the leafy commuter village of Tanworth-in-Arden, just a few miles outside the city. Sadly, this hugely talented musician would record just three albums: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon – all of which were greeted with almost universal apathy by the music buying public. Sadly, in November 1974, Nick Drake died in his sleep from an overdose of antidepressants, and in all honesty the music industry barely noticed. Today, his all-to-brief canon of work is revered (appropriately, IMHO) as one of the greatest achievements of the British folk music scene.

The eclectic nature of Birmingham’s folk scene also produced Dexy’s Midnight Runners – an odd mix of late-70’s folk, soul and R&B, with a little bit of punk attitude thrown in for good measure. My personal favourite Dexy’s moment is of course their 1982 Top of the Pops appearance, performing a pretty decent cover version of Van Morrison’s Jackie Wilson Said. Their performance would go down in TV folklore as one of the BBC’s greatest bloopers, because the grinning mugshot on their stage backdrop was not that of the great soul singer, Jackie Wilson, but one of Jocky Wilson – at that time a very famous darts player. Most assumed it was a monumental cock-up, courtesy of the clueless bright young things at the BBC. However, the subsequent snorts of derision, media glee and all-round epicaricacy delivered tremendous publicity for the band and provided a significant boost to their career. Frontman Kevin Rowland later admitted it wasn’t actually a BBC mistake at all, simply a jolly good wheeze cooked up by the band and the show’s producers for nothing more than a bit of light-hearted fun. They were of course delighted with the publicity it created and therefore saw no reason to correct the assumption to which most had incorrectly jumped.

But despite all this folky success, Birmingham is not famous for its folk music – Birmingham is famous for being the birthplace of that most maligned and mocked genre of rock music: heavy metal.

Back in the late 1960s, something dark and evil was a-brewing in the damp, dark and desolate back-alleys of the city. What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Birmingham to be born? In truth, Black Sabbath were more prone to drunken staggers than a beastly slouch, but they were about to burst out of Birmingham and produce an eponymous debut album of ear-shattering volume, doom-laden lyrics and demonic riffs that would make extensive use of The Devil’s Interval. It was an album that would codify the musical DNA of heavy metal and unleash a macabre musical monster upon an unsuspecting world – diabolus in musica, indeed…

Formed by guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward and legendary vocalist Ozzy Osborne, Black Sabbath’s debut album, released in 1970, was a thunderous revelation that shook the world of rock music to its very core. Their follow-up albums and their massive international success would dominate and define the genre, would solidify their status as heavy metal legends for decades to come and would inspire countless heavy metal bands (including fellow brummies, Judas Priest) who followed in their footsteps. And here’s a fun fact – it would seem guitarist Tony Iommi is somewhat light on the snowflake factor. Having managed to chop off the tips of his fingers in an industrial accident, he decided it would probably be advantageous for his career if he obtained some new ones. He therefore melted down some old washing-up liquid bottles, fashioned new fingertips, popped them on his stumps, and simply got on with the business of becoming an international superstar and a rock-guitar legend – why he’s never been asked to appear in a Fairy Liquid advert is beyond my comprehension.

Of course, Ozzy and the boys were not the only international rock superstars to emerge from the West Midlands, because their fellow Black Country rockers, Robert Plant and John Bonham, would make up 50% of quite possibly the greatest rock band of all time: Led Zeppelin.

In 1968, Jimmy Page was looking for a vocalist to finish off the live commitments of The Yardbirds – a band that had recently disintegrated, leaving Page holding the contractual baby. Page’s plan was to finish the band’s outstanding gigs and then move on to his next project – a project that would eventually be named Led Zeppelin. Page first approached Terry Reid, who surprisingly turned down the kind offer (oh, yeah – smart move, Tel…). Reid did however point Page at a local brummie band called Band of Joy, which happily for rock history featured none other than our two Black Country heroes, John Bonham and Robert Plant. Page was suitably impressed, offered them the gig and the rest, as they say, is history. Led Zep went on to shift well over three hundred million albums, Bonham (who sadly died at just 32) went on to become one of the most influential drummers in musical history, and Plant would win more polls and awards as the greatest rock singer, front man and musical icon than, quite frankly, you could possibly begin contemplate shaking a stick at.

The West Midlands also had its fair share of success in the pop music scene. One of the most successful brummie bands of the 60s’ were The Move, fronted by the multi-instrumentalist Roy Wood. The band evolved from various mid-1960s Birmingham-based groups and scored nine top 20 UK singles in just over five years. Roy Wood was the band’s driving force for most of their career: he wrote the hits, played most of the instruments and sang most of the vocals. Their song, I Can Hear The Grass Grow, is considered one of the key musical foundations of the UK’s late 60s psychedelia scene; and Flowers in the Rain (as any fule kno) has the distinction of being the first record to be played on the BBC’s spankingly new poptastic Radio 1 station when it first launched in 1967.

Actually, although the popular Flowers in the Rain story is broadly true, it isn’t perhaps entirely accurate. It was indeed the very first record played by the very first DJ (Tony Blackburn) on the very first show of the station’s very first day; but the very first thing listeners actually heard when tuning in for Radio 1’s launch was George Martin’s Theme One. This track was played as the new Radio 1 theme tune and went out just before Blackburn went live on air.

For a short but musically tantalising period towards the end of the band’s existence, The Move were fronted by the twin talents of Roy Wood and Jeff Lynne. This lavishly talented line-up would quickly morph into another superstar brummie band – The Electric Light Orchestra (ELO) – but sadly Roy Wood jumped ship and formed Wizzard. I say sadly, because as much as I enjoyed Wizzard, the material being produced by the twin talents of Lynne and Wood during the latter stages of The Move’s existence was evolving rapidly, and I would have enjoyed seeing how their ELO concept would have developed with these two very substantial compositional and instrumental talents at the helm. However, it was not to be and both ELO and Wizzard went on to tremendous success in the ’70s: ELO with their unique brand of lavish symphonic rock and Wizzard with their light-hearted but very high quality pop music.

And we can’t move on from the poptastic history of the West Midlands without a consideration of Wolverhampton’s finest export – the mighty Slade. The band formed in 1966 and originally styled themselves as a bunch of skinheads. In the early ’70s they wisely ditched the football hooligan look and jumped on the brand new glam rock bandwagon. Here they found almost instant success, but when compared with artists such as Marc Bolan, Slade were never the most convincing looking stars of the glam rock period – Don Powell and Noddy Holder, in particular, always looked like brickies’ hod carriers. Nevertheless, they rose to prominence in the early 1970s, achieving six number one singles, 17 consecutive top 20 hits, and (in terms of singles) became the most successful British group of the 1970s. Despite never really cracking the lucrative US market, the band went on to sell well over 50 million records worldwide.

Sadly, I never got to see Slade play in their heyday, but I was lucky enough (and consider myself deeply privileged) to see them play at the 1980 Reading Rock Festival. Slade were not actually booked to play at the festival, but Ozzy Osbourne (by now out of Black Sabbath and settling into a very successful solo career) cancelled his appearance at very short notice. A by then almost completely moribund Slade got the call (almost as a desperate last throw of the dice by the festival’s promoters) and came off the bench to startle everyone by delivering a truly magnificent performance that completely stole the show. The audience howled their approval, sang along to all the hits and bayed for more, once the band’s all-too-brief performance slot was over. From being on the brink of breaking up due to almost complete public apathy (the band had been reduced to the scampi-in-a-basket circuit), Slade suddenly found themselves being eagerly adopted by the rapidly growing UK metal scene. Before long they were picking up awards and pocketing gold albums, and quickly found themselves treading the boards in a series of prestigious performance slots at a string of high profile rock and metal festivals – including the massive 1981 Monsters of Rock festival at Donnington – playing to the largest crowds of their entire career.

In the mid-80s, Birmingham became the central hub of the UK’s bhangra scene. The roots of bhangra date back to the original Sikh community in the Punjab. But by the 1960s it had travelled, adapted and thrived pretty much wherever Sikh communities had settled. In Birmingham it mixed traditional forms with western pop and dance music to create Birmingham’s unique bhangra sound. This new sub-genre was so successful it even began to affect school truancy rates. In the 1980s, British Sikhs were a fairly conservative diaspora, but their kids were not. Parents would have looked on with disapproval if their teenage children were going out in the evenings and stumbling back from nightclubs in the early hours of the morning, so wily bhangra promoters began organising dance events during the afternoon. It was a huge success and these “daytimers”, as they were called, spread out from Birmingham to become a national phenomenon. School kids and college students would bunk off from lessons to party at these events, before heading home without their parents having the faintest idea about where their little cherubs had spent the day. Moving from the traditional folk music of the Punjab to becoming a youth phenomenon triggered a golden age of bhangra in several parts of the world, and many will point to the legendary Birmingham daytimers and say, that was the trigger.

The multi-cultural nature of Birmingham was also reflected in the city’s vibrant reggae scene. Some pretty decent music came out of this scene in the 1980s, with UB40 being one of the most popular acts to emerge. Shrewdly clothing themselves in the anti-Thatcher sentiment of the day, they took their name from a piece of Ministry of Employment documentation, made all the correct lefty noises and quickly became the darlings of the BBC. Success followed quickly and (despite the 6th form political posturing) their first three albums contained some pretty decent pop-reggae. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. For their fourth album, the band recorded Money For Old Rope Vol.1 – my apologies, that was of course supposed to read Labour of Love Vol.1. This was a cheesy album of cheesy covers, performed in a cheesy reggae style. It was perfect pap for the yuppie dinner parties of middle class lefties who wished to signal their virtue and claim affinity with the poor downtrodden heroes of the working class, who were of course being brutally oppressed by the evil Facher regime. It was reggae for people who didn’t like reggae and so, inevitably, it sold by the absolute truckload. Unfortunately, it seemed to finish the band in terms of creativity. They still had their moments, but from that point on it felt like they were coasting. Over the course of their career, the band would return frequently to mine their very lucrative Labour Of Love seam.

And while we’re on the subject of the 1980s, we mustn’t forget the mighty Duran Duran. Formed in Birmingham in the late ’70s, they rose to fame with the emerging popularity of the UK’s new romantic scene. The were never my cup of tea but – oh boy – did the girlies love them. The teen scream volume at some of their mid-80s gigs was simply staggering – possibly the loudest since early ’70s Rollermania! They were certainly good looking lads and, to be fair, Nick Rhodes and the two Taylors were pretty talented musicians. However, my favourite Duran Duran moment came in 1985, during their performance at the tedious Bob Geldof’s transatlantic Live Aid shin-dig, when poor old Simon Le Bon hit his infamous “bum note that rang out around the world”. It was indeed a most chucklesome incident.

One peculiar thing to note about Birmingham’s musical heritage is that for a long time the city didn’t seem to be all that bothered about it. If you visit Merseyside, you can’t escape the history of Mersey Beat and the constant crowing about their “unique musical heritage”; if you cross the River Mersey on a ferry, be prepared to have your ears bombarded by a continuous assault of Gerry & The Pacemakers; but in Birmingham, in very sharp contrast, they always seemed to be surprisingly unconcerned about their unique (and very eclectic) musical heritage. Happily, all that began to change in 2007 when the city inaugurated their very own Hollywood-style Walk of Fame. It’s located in Broad Street and is actually called “The Walk of Stars”. Appropriately, Ozzy Osborne was the very first artist to get the star treatment, and since then many musicians and local celebrities (including Murray Walker, Chris Tarrant and Nigel Mansell) have all been suitably honoured. Accordingly, it is only fitting that we round off this evening’s frolicking festivities with a splendid performance from one of these wonderful Black Country inductees. I was of course tempted to go with Jasper Carrott performing his magnificent Funky Moped, but in the end I thought, nah…

Anyway, that’s your lot for this week’s Fabulously Flamboyant Friday.  TTFN, Pop Puffins. Not ‘arf!

Featured Image: Church of St Martin & the Bull Ring by N Chadwick, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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