Birmingham’s music history, heritage & culture
From the early days of music hall through to the sounds of Grime, Birmingham has a long, rich, deep and uninterrupted history of producing and consuming popular music and culture. From Brumbeat, Metal and New Romantics to Reggae, Bhangra and Jazz, through to Indie, Electronica and House, the city and its musicians have helped shape, and sometimes lead, the development of popular music across the globe.
UB40 at Top Rank © BMA and Mick Geoghagen
Alongside the music are the places that music is bought, listened to and consumed. The sacred venues where crowds congregate to worship their heroes and heroines, the pub room where Black Sabbath played their first gigs, or the back room where Steel Pulse took the first steps that would eventually lead to the White House and Bill Clinton’s inauguration or the shops where hours are spent pouring over the weeks new releases.
A potted history
As with much of Britain popular music in Birmingham came into its own in the post-war years. Our story starts with the arrival of Jamaican musician Andy Hamilton in Birmingham in 1949, the Skittle craze kicked off by Lonnie Donegan and the vibrant Folk scene. Hamilton was a self taught Jazz saxophonist who was a friend of Errol Flynn and the resident musician at his hotel and on his yacht. Andy would gain critical acclaim with his band The Blue Notes much later in his life with the release of his album Silvershine at the age of 73! Andy will be remembered for his unremitting fight against the racism he encountered in the bars and clubs of Birmingham and as a mentor to an enormous amount of musicians who have emerged from the city. It is in these actions that Andy has left an indelible mark on the city and its music.
Andy Hamilton at The Porsche Club © BMA
Lonnie Donegan inspired hundreds of bands to form in the early fifties and musicians in Birmingham were no different. Whilst it would be Liverpool and the Beatles that would gain most prominence, it is estimated that there were some 500 Brumbeat bands active through the late 50s into the early- to mid-60s. Just some of the bands and musicians who would emerge from this era were John Bonham and Robert Plant (Led Zeppelin) The Move (first band ever to be played on Radio 1 & ft Roy Wood & Jeff Lynne), The Moody Blues, Chicken Shack (ft Christine McVie who left to join Fleetwood Mac), Polka Talk Blues Band/Earth (soon to become Black Sabbath) The Uglys (ft Steve Gibbons and future Jethro Tull and Fairport Convention bassist Dave Pegg), Denny Laine and the Diplomats (future Wings co-founder/writer), Young Blood (rock legend Cozy Powell’s first band) Carl Palmer (Crazy World of Arthur Brown and Emerson Lake and Palmer) and perhaps most famous of all, The Spencer Davis Group.
Inside the Crown Pub (stage that Black Sabbath played on) © BMA
While Brumbeat was the dominant sound in the pubs and clubs across the city, Folk and psychedelia were also flourishing. Led by Ian Campbell and his Folk Group (ft Britain’s greatest fiddle player Dave Swarbrick) The Jug O’Punch in Digbeth became the biggest folk club in the country playing host to up and coming artists such as Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell. The group also released the first ever live Folk album in 1962, Ceilidh at the Crown and were the first non American act to cover a Bob Dylan song as well as having their Sun is Burning covered by Simon & Garfunkel on their first album, the song becoming the anthem of the C.N.D. movement.
Psychedelia came out of the Brumbeat movement with bands such as The Move and the Moody Blues getting progressively more psychedelic. They were joined by bands such as Breakthru, Trapeze, Velvet Fog and Paint – bands that today are highly sought after and revered for being at the forefront of the psychedelic movement. It shouldn’t be forgotten that the band synonymous with psychedelia, Pink Floyd, had the Brummie Nick Mason as a founder member.
As the 60s gave way to the 70s the music got heavier. Taking a cue from the industrial sounds they found themselves surrounded by on a daily basis, four young lads from Aston started to reflect this in their music. Black Sabbath would become known throughout the world as the instigators of Heavy Metal. Sabbath would play early gigs at Henry’s Blues House at The Crown, Hill St and be joined by Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac and others. This venue is without doubt the cradle of Heavy Metal (Judas Priest would also appear here) and a home to the British Blues scene of the late 60s and early 70s.
The other legendary venue Sabbath would play was Mothers, a tiny club above a furniture shop in the suburb of Erdington. The resident DJ was John Peel and Billboard magazine voted it the best club in the world. The Who, Free, T-Rex, Elton John, Deep Purple, Fleetwood Mac and countless others all played in this tiny venue and it entered into Pink Floyd folklore as being the venue where Ummagumma was recorded. By this time, Stevie Winwood had left The Spencer Davies Group and formed Traffic, one of the first supergroups. Traffic would go on to huge critical success across the world.
And yet whilst Black Sabbath would create the dark sounds of Heavy Metal, their co-workers in the factories and foundries, drawn from the Caribbean and South Asia, were creating their own music; Ska, Bluebeat, Reggae and Bhangra.
Bhangra was the sound of traditional Punjabi folk tales fusing traditional Indian instrumentation with western sounds. Workers would often finish their shift at the foundries of Birmingham and head to the temples or back street bars of Handsworth, Sparkhill or Sparkbrook.
The same was happening with Afro-Caribbean workers, who were listening to imported music from Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago and beginning to create their own music.
This period of the early- to mid-70s was arguably the most fertile period in Birmingham’s music history. Jeff Lynne had moved on to form The Electric Light Orchestra, selling millions of records and producing spectacular live sets, Roy Wood had formed Wizzard, crafting beautiful songs before penning the perennial Christmas hit I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.
Alongside Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin ruling the world with Heavy Metal, Joan Armatrading was becoming one of the best songwriters around and Steel Pulse and UB40 were bringing Reggae to the masses whilst the city was awash with other reggae bands; Beshara, Nattress, Benjamin Zephaniah, Eclipse, Unity, Black Symbol, African Star whilst Quaker City, Mafiatone, Studio City, Wassifa, Jungleman, Duke Alloy, Luv Injection and King Earthquake were taking their soundsystems to clashes all over the UK.
Sex Pistols at Bogarts, New Street © BMA Paul Apperley
This activity was replicated in Asian and devotional music when Abdul Ghani, Abdul Mohsin Mian and Muhammad Ayub set up Oriental Star Agencies in Balsall Heath. They began by importing popular film soundtracks before launching the careers of, amongst others, Anari Sangeet Party, Bhujangy Party, Nusret Fateh Ali Khan before turning to Bhangra music with Malkit Singh and Bally Sagoo. OSA is now one of the most important and biggest distributors of Bhangra music in the world. This was matched with Multitone Records which was founded by Pranil Gohil in 1978 and grew to be the largest Asian record label in the world, launching the careers of Alaap, Achanak, Apna Sangeet and the Sahota’s amongst others.
Dexy's Midnight Runners at Top Rank © BMA and Mick Geoghagen
As punk hit the UK in 76/77 a few Birmingham bands emerged. The Swell Maps, Spizz Energi, TV-EYE (ft Andy Wicketts founder member of Duran Duran and writer of This is Planet Earth) The Prefects, The Killjoys, G.B.H., Suburban Studs, Toyah Wilcox and The Denizens. Home was Barbarella’s, a revered club that saw The Clash, Blondie, The Jam, Talking Heads, The Ramones and countless others on its tiny stage.
Musical Youth at Top Rank © BMA and Mick Geoghagen
As punk dissipated and morphed into Post Punk and indie, bands such as Fashion, The Au Pairs, The Beat (more closely aligned with the 2-Tone scene), Terry & Gerry, Felt, Fine Young Cannibals and Dexy's Midnight Runners emerged into the national consciousness and bands such as Ausgang, The Nightingales, The Noseflutes and Fuzzbox were regular John Peel guests and regularly hit the Indie charts.
The Beat at Top Rank © BMA and Mick Geoghagen
But one scene would dominate Birmingham in the early 80s and one band would go on to conquer the world.
The Rum Runner was situated on Broad Street and was modeled on the famous Studio 54 club in New York. Originally opened in the 60s it became the home to Duran Duran and the extravagantly dressed crowd that followed them and lit up Birmingham. Duran Duran would go on to become global megastars, still recording and performing today.
Duran Duran inside The Rum Runner © BMA
The late 80s and 90s would see the emergence of bands such as Napalm Death and the Grindcore scene, Stephen ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy and his exquisite pop music, Apache Indian with his global Bhangramuffin sound, Musical Youth, the Grebo sound of The Wonderstuff and Pop Will Eat Itself, Big Beat with Bentley Rhythm Ace, the hugely influential Moseley Experimental Electronic scene of Broadcast, Plone and Pram and the indie sounds of Delta, Dodgy and Denim (see Peace, Jaws and Swim Deep for current day equivalents) and of course the House and Rave scene spearheaded by labels such as Network Records, clubs and promoters like Jim ‘Shaft’ Ryan and his Miss Moneypenny’s and Chuff Chuff events, Godskitchens, Wobble and Bonds and DJs such as Steve Lawler and Tony De Vit and the legendary nights held at The Hummingbird. To this day, Birmingham remains an eclectic and vibrant hub of house, techno and EDM activity.
The Clash at Top Rank © BMA and Mick Geoghagen
During this period and into the 2000s, musicians of black origin would continue to create music on a global scale. Goldie would team up with DJ Kemistry for the seminal Metalheadz album and club night, Jamelia would take her sassy brand of RnB across the globe, Ruby Turner would be recognized as one of the UK’s great Soul and Gospel singers and Black Voices would tour the world. Soweto Kinch would emerge at the head of a new Jazz scene and hip hop artists such as Juice Aleem, DJ Sparra, Moorish Delta 7 and Lady Leshurr would spearhead a uniquely British Hip-Hop and Grime sound. Laura Mvula has become one of the most talked about and interesting artists to emerge in years and watch out for Trope and Call Me Unique!
We’ve merely scratched the surface in this potted history of Birmingham’s music culture.
The simple fact is that we’ve never stopped making music in Birmingham and we never will. On any given night in the city you can go and watch international stars, local legends and emerging musicians in arenas, venues and pubs playing any type of music you could wish to hear. Come and find out for yourself!
Special thanks to Jez Collins from the Centre for Media and Cultural research at Birmingham City University. Visit the Birmingham Music Archive website for many more stories and images from Birmingham's rich musical heritage.
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