Stephen Pennell ©
Birmingham is often named in a run-down of run-down cities, but rarely in a calendar of cool ones. That can only be because the people who compile such lists wouldn’t know cool if they were lost and naked at the North Pole. London, Liverpool and Manchester get a better press than Brum for sure, but I’ve been to Carnaby Street, The Cavern and The Hacienda and I don’t believe the hype. Maybe that’s because the city I grew up in was always monumentally sassy and achingly cool.- and still is. Here are some examples: Tiswas, - Today Is Saturday, Watch And Smile - made in Birmingham and the greatest kids’ TV show ever. Paul Weller donning a boiler suit to avoid damaging his threads as The Jam foolishly took on the Phantom Flan Flinger. The nation’s crush Sally James asking Dexy’s Midnight Runners where their name came from, live on national TV at ten o’clock in the morning. If you know, you know. The serial domination of the Best Female award at the MOBOs by Laura Mvula, Lady Leshurr, Stefflon Don and Mahalia, while Jorja Smith slayed it at the Brits. Andy Gray winning the PFA Player and Young Player of the Year awards in the same season (1976/77) and not being allowed by his manager Ron Saunders to collect his prizes in person. The next player to claim both awards in the same season was Christiano Ronaldo, but he didn’t do anything so cool as to open a celebrity hang-out night-club called the Holy City Zoo in the Jewellery Quarter. We also had the first million pound footballer in Trevor Francis and the Three Degrees (Cunningham, Regis and Batson just over the border in Smethwick, where Malcolm X made his last overseas visit. Jaykae, Jorja Smith and Jacob Banks featuring on the soundtrack of Power, one of the coolest and most successful TV shows of the millennium. Duran Duran shaping the decadent New Romantic movement at the Rum Runner club, wearing clothes bought from Khan & Bell in Hurst Street, as working-class heroes The Beat, UB40 and Dexy’s Midnight Runners were on Top Of The Pops in either Fred Perry or watch caps and donkey jackets. Seeing international superstars UB40, who learned to play reggae in the cellar of a Hell’s Angel’s house in Trafalgar Road, Moseley, playing pool in the Oddfellows Arms in Sherlock Street (after which the great detective was named), and having a curry at the Gaylord Indian restaurant at the top of New Street. And their video for Dream A Lie, made to ridicule some racist who complained that their multi-racial line-up made them look like the Black & White Minstrels.
Martha Reeves and The Vandellas playing the Rialto on Soho Road in the immediate aftermath of the Handsworth Riots. The show must go on of course, but they were never in danger. The Twang signing a million pound record deal and celebrating by moving all the way from Quinton to the Jewellery Quarter. Having the first two truly multi-racial football firms in the country, the C-Crew (Villa) and the Zulus (Blues) at a time when the National Front was having some success recruiting football hooligans. Having the first black video ever played on MTV - Musical Youth’s Pass The Dutchie. Credit often mistakenly goes to Michael Jackson for this, when in fact his was the first African-American video shown.. Musical Youth were black Brummies, and they beat him to it. Steel Pulse appearing on the BBC to perform their hit Ku-Klux Klan wearing the appropriate headgear, fresh from playing to 80,000 in London at a Rock Against Racism gig. Tony Iommi of Black Sabbath cutting the ends off two of his fingers at work, and instead of giving up like a cockney would, making a couple of thimbles so he could not only continue to play guitar, but also invent a new musical genre while he was at it. Boy George working in a shoe-shop in Oasis Market, looking confused as the Sauce Force (Birmingham City-supporting Mod firm) trooped in one-by-one at two minute intervals to ask him if he sold ironing boards. The Birmingham punk scene - The Prefects, Au Pairs, Nightingales - fermenting at the Star Club, a little room above the Communist book shop. Where else? And Charged GBH coming up with a seminal hardcore Punk album with a great title - City Baby Attacked By Rats. The Spencer Davis Group playing in their pyjamas in musical comedy film The Ghost Goes Gear, with a teenage Stevie Winwood singing like he’d been possessed in his sleep by the spirit of Ray Charles. There’s a few more than fifteen reasons there if you tally them all up, but here’s the main one. Scousers, Mancs and Cockneys will tell anyone who’ll listen that their city is the coolest. Brummies (yours truly excepted of course) never do. And that’s the clincher.