Updated: Mar 4
Stephen Pennell on his friendship with a doyen of Birmingham’s nightlife.
Paul Cook is a Mod, a Snobs legend, the founder of the Sunflower Lounge, a husband, a father and my mate. He was destined to be a DJ from a young age - his services were often in demand round our end when he was but fifteen years old and already claiming a leadership role in the local Mod squad. Darren Rigby was in charge of the European influence, I was the Modernist philosopher, and Phil and Jim McLaughlin provided the muscle - vital when one considers the hostility of local skinheads and the fact that the rest of our firm wore eye-liner and couldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding.
Cookie was unchallenged as Head of Music, joined at the hipsters* to his portable cassette player as we loitered without much intent on the streets of Birmingham. Whenever our parents went out, it was a case of Better Call Paul. “Our mom and dad’s goin’ the Labour club tonight, you wanna come round and do a Mod party?” There was a direct line to my big brother Dave at the pub in case any skinheads decided to gatecrash, and Cookie brought all the required records, which in truth was just The Jam’s singles and albums, ‘Small Faces - Big Hits’, 20 Mod Classics Volumes 1 & 2, the Quadrophenia soundtrack, Booker T’s Green Onions and the one I was most jealous of: Your Side of Heaven by Back To Zero on 7” vinyl. It was at my house where he first learned to read a room.**
Always immaculately suited-and-desert-booted, his sartorial elegance and the impeccable taste his record collection suggests made him an Ace Face Mod and a lovely kid too. I think in all the years I’ve known him we’ve only had one disagreement - when he said The Beatles were better than The Jam. Years later, I light-heartedly reminded him of this outrageous heresy and he denied saying it, so he couldn’t have really meant it. So yeah, we always knew he was destined to be a DJ, we just didn’t know he’d be such a great one.
If my memory serves me correctly (and apologies if it doesn’t), he first went behind the decks professionally for Mod nights at The Outrigger/Ship Ashore, before starting his own legendary Sunflower night at Snobs, and then opening The Sunflower Lounge in Smallbrook Queensway. With no-one else on the premises, he gave me the guided tour, proudly pointing out the images of our heroes Marriott and Weller adorning the walls of the downstairs room. Little did I know at the time, this room would eventually become the epicentre of the Birmingham independent music scene and be hailed as ‘the best club in Britain for aspiring rock and roll stars’ by none other than Noel Gallagher.
Paul went on to establish Temple Street Social and also put on some memorable nights at the Brown Lion in the Jewellery Quarter. One night he booked the great Sam Rogers of White Flag Dares for a solo gig, with a sandwich board to that effect advertising the gig outside the pub. Now, there are at least two talented Sam Rogers’ in Brum, probably more, but on this particular occasion the virtuoso saxophone-playing version walked past the Lion, saw the billboard and assumed he’d been booked to appear and had forgotten all about it. Luckily, he only lived round the corner and he hurried home to get his sax, only to find on his return that his namesake, the Britpop balladeer version, was ripping it up in the bar with an acoustic guitar and a set-list of scorching covers and originals. The two Sams ended up playing together and putting on a thrilling collaborative show. Only in Birmingham!
More recently, Cookie had residencies at The Junction in Harborne, The Sun On The Hill in town and the Night Owl, a venue that was made for him and where I enjoyed seeing him the most. The UK’s only bespoke Northern Soul club was one of his spiritual homes and years previously he had given Mazzy Snape - the Digbeth venue’s driving force - her first gig. She didn’t look back and she’s still filling dance floors - well, she will be when we’re allowed out. It was at the Owl where, after I hadn’t seen him for a few years, he told me all about his lovely wife Laura and the trials and eventual triumph that led to the birth of the couple’s beautiful daughter Amelie - it’s no wonder she’s so precious to them both.
Unlike many men of his vintage, Paul was not shy about telling me exactly how much his family mean to him. He was by now an accomplished furniture restorer, occasional DJ, and a stay-at-home dad, supporting Laura’s successful nursing career, and it was obvious from the omnipresence of his cheeky Steve Marriott-smile that he was absolutely loving life.
Then, a few weeks ago, he contracted COVID19, and an agonising vigil followed as his family and friends awaited daily updates via text messages from Laura, passed on to me by mutual friends Mark Eagles and the aforementioned Phil McLaughlin - thanks lads. It was a rollercoaster ride of emotions and there were tearful phone calls between those of us who were rooting for him from afar, unable to visit and tell him how much we cared. For a while, through medication, unconsciousness and confusion, he was beyond the reach of human contact, so there was little chance he knew how desperately his mates were hoping, in my case praying to entities I was struggling to believe in, given what my mate was going through.
The wonderful staff at the QE never gave up on him even when things appeared hopeless and, somewhat miraculously, prevented this evil illness taking away a wonderful, talented man from his beloved family and the many friends who love him almost as much. In normal times he would have had one-to-one care while so gravely ill, but during this crisis each nurse had responsibility for six of the poor stricken souls. Every last one of those angels is a hero in the truest sense of the word. My niece Samantha is currently working seven days a week vaccinating people and I make no apology for taking this chance to publicly express my gratitude.
A rocky road still lies ahead for Paul and it will no doubt be a while before he’s back doing what he does best - playing brilliant records and bringing joy to an audience. Bless you Cookie; love lies waiting for you within your beloved family, the Sunny, The Owl and in the hearts of all your friends. It may be a long way off but I can’t wait to start annoying you again with requests.
Get well soon old pal xx
*trousers favoured by Mods, not the beardy blokes at Digbeth Dining Club. **probably not true.