ON RECORD - A SONIC LOVE LETTER TO BIRMINGHAM
Stephen Pennell ©
The city of Birmingham has had an incredible impact on popular music that goes back further than you might think. Albert Ketélby, born in Aston in 1875, was a classically-trained composer whose short orchestral pieces, a pre-cursor of the modern-day single, made him the UK’s first music millionaire, and it was the innovatory shape of things to come. In the sixties, Ian Campbell, father of Robin, Duncan and Ali of UB40, made the first live folk album ever released, recorded at The Crown in Station Street, the same world-famous pub where Black Sabbath invented Heavy Metal and shared a stage with future Led Zeppers Robert Plant and John Bonham and their Band of Joy. Also hanging around Alex’s Pie Stall on the Crown’s car park were people who would shape Rock music for decades to come as members of The Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, The Move, ELO, Wizzard, Fleetwood Mac and The Moody Blues. All this while, as legendary music writer Nick Kent would put it, “Manchester had Herman’s Hermits and Freddie and the f****** Dreamers”. Fast forward a few years, and the cultural melting pot that is Birmingham gave us three of the biggest reggae acts in the world; Duran Duran, the biggest pop band in the world - point blank period - and a record label in Aston with a shop on the A45 that was responsible for 90% of the world’s Bhangra. Speaking of the A45, just a few miles along it The Specials alerted the world to the plight of Nelson Mandela and the joys of two-tone - life imitating mod fashion, or the other way round? As The Specials said, it’s up to you. Ghost Town reflected Thatcher’s Britain and Stand Down Margaret by The Beat rejected it. Steel Pulse predicted the riots with Handsworth Revolution while Dexy’s searched for young soul rebels. Napalm Death invented Grindcore upstairs at the Mermaid in Sparkhill and The Wonder Stuff, Pop Will Eat Itself and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin gave us Grebo. Joan Armatrading and Jaki Graham became the first black British women to achieve international music success, blazing a trail for Ruby Turner, Jamelia, Beverly Knight, Lady Leshurr, Laura Mvula, Jorja Smith, Stefflon Don and Mahalia to follow. But as the city’s revolutionary political past and history of cultural and industrial innovation prove, looking back is not something that Birmingham really goes in for. As the the novelist Catherine O'Flynn once said, the city has a “complicated relationship with its past, where it's always trying to burn photos of itself.” Not for nothing is ‘Forward’ our motto. So it’s fitting that On Record, specially commissioned to celebrate Birmingham’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games this summer. goes for a more future-facing representation of its talent and diversity. One can imagine that a similar offering from many U.K. cities would boast an artist roster whiter than a Brexit rally, but that certainly wouldn’t do the job of repping the second city. The collection is curated by the indefatigable Jez Collins, who as well as giving me the title for this piece, is also the world’s leading authority on Birmingham music. He puts his unrivalled knowledge to good use on this compilation. It’s A Brum Ting by Friendly Fire Band kicks things off in celebratory style with a vibrant sunsplash of pure reggae fun that will soundtrack the sporting summer. On Midlands Child, the authoritative voice of Sanity is backed by the heavenly tones of Black Voices and a guitar solo that summons up a summer breeze. Between them they tell the compelling story of the Erdington MC’s upbringing, and I’m not saying I’m biased, but if there was no place for Sanity on this record I’d have renounced my Brummie citizenship by now. More subtly hinted at than explicitly expressed in the lyrics, the message I get from Midlands Child is that if we do what we can to support our city, that in turn supports our children and their future. Like all Sanity’s messages, it makes hella sense. Next up are Lekan Babalola and Kate Loxmoor with Willmore Road, a location in Handsworth that my internal Birmingham A to Z is not immediately familiar with. If the street’s soundtrack is as vibrant and life-affirming as this brass-driven banger, it’s somewhere I need to visit. I Don’t Wanna Go Home by Cherry Pickles reps a Birmingham psyche tradition that goes all the way back to 60s freakbeat combo The Craig, while the exquisite contributions of Elle Chante (Dynasty) and Bambi Bains (My City) illustrate why Birmingham women of colour have been so prominent since Joan Armatrading, Jaki Graham and Ruby Turner laid the foundations for the ongoing and incredible success of this particular demographic. Born and Raised by Dapz on the Map takes us on a poetic yet light-hearted guided tour of his hometown and his passion and regard for the place is articulately explained over a bouncy, bass-driven instrumental. On Hangin’ With Mr Hamilton, the Xhosa Cole Quartet and Soweto Kinch pay tribute to the late, great Andy Hamilton. Birmingham has produced a plethora of legendary saxophonists over the years - two of them on this record, plus UB40’s Brian Travers and Saxa from The Beat - but few would deny Hamilton’s status as the Godfather. This vibrant and joyful track is a worthy celebration of his legacy, with a rap insert from Kinch that shows why, along with his other talents, he is one of the UK’s best battle rappers. Midnight in Sparkhill by TJ Rehmi is the sets’ highlight for me. It sounds like a mad, transcendental mash-up of Bollywood, Augustus Pablo, Birmingham stalwarts Pram, and Paul Weller’s psychedelic guitar run-off grooves from Stanley Road (all recorded on the Stratford Road obvs), and serves as a perfect bridge between the quirky, charming Eel Song by We Are Muffy and B-town behemoths UB40 and their anthemic closer, Champion, on which they demonstrate their seemingly eternal knack of summing up a feeling in a few lines and a message in a couple of well-toasted slices of lyrical prowess by Gilly G. It would have been easy to compile a kind of Now That’s What I Call Birmingham collection of greatest hits - God knows there have been enough. Far better (in my opinion) is to reflect the city that New York urbanist Jane Jacobs described as a ‘great, confused laboratory of ideas… a muddle of oddments… that grew through constant diversification’. As far back as 1782 historian William Hutton, noting the diversity of Birmingham's culture, remarked that ‘the wonder consists in finding such agreement in such variety". Over two centuries later, in 2008, the philosopher Sadie Plant described "the city's unique, almost declassé mixture of individualism and co-operation’. This fine record is 2022’s affirmation of that continuing tradition. It’s everything I hoped it would be.