‘UN-SCENE! POST PUNK BIRMINGHAM 1978-1982’ VARIOUS ARTISTS
Austin Kendrick ©
Birmingham has traditionally been overlooked – derided even – when it comes to documenting the multitude of music scenes that exist within the city. Until the dedicated hard work of experimental arts collective Supersonic and the Home of Metal project in recent years, it was not much more than a footnote in the history of heavy metal. Black Sabbath came from here and invented the genre for chrissakes! The Birmingham Music Awards fly the flag for the whole scene with their networking events, a stellar team of ambassadors and a glittering award ceremony, taking place this year at the iconic Town Hall in September.
Near-namesake the Birmingham Music Archive also continues striving to place the city squarely on the musical and cultural map, co-ordinating a number of exhibitions focussing on the divergent branches that have thrived and continue to do so. Their campaigns have included gaining wider recognition of key Brummie locations such as the musically historic and currently disused Crown Hotel at the back of New Street train station. It has argued for years that visitors world-wide should be aware of the significance of the venue. Sabbath played their earliest gigs there (when they were still called Earth) and it was also host to countless shows by future global superstars (Thin Lizzy, UB40, Led Zep et al). Brum has always seemed content with hiding it’s light under a bushel, which doesn’t make a Whole Lotta Sense. But conversely, it’s a very Brummie thing to do! Can you imagine your Liverpools or your Manchesters downplaying their respective legacies?
‘UnScene’ is the brainchild of Moseley-born drummer Dave Twist who features on a number of the tracks here. When one thinks of Brum, the term post-punk doesn’t always figure. And yet this gem of a collection unveils a hitherto largely ignored and forgotten plethora of rhythmically ambitious players, vocalists exuding a snarling passion and a bunch of names that could easily have been consigned to the dustbin of history.
Most of the selections will be largely UnHeard of, if you will. Apart from the Nightingales, and maybe Nikki Sudden, there’s few acts present that are likely to be familiar to the populous in general, so the curious punter may be forgiven for overlooking this compilation. I’ll attempt to rectify this with a review of what I can promise has some lost gems that are likely to have flown under your radar. Certainly, I had limited awareness of over half of the bands represented here.
The record kicks off with New Wave also-ran’s FASHION. With what could be their calling card “We’re The Fashion”, one can imagine a young Brett Anderson being fascinated by this curio. With an ad-lib vocal melody, it feels as though this group were cruelly overlooked when record labels were cottoning onto the emergent New Wave movement that blusher-brushed aside the nihilist short, sharp kick in the balls that was the preceding punk explosion.
SWELL MAPS suffered a similar fate as an oft-overlooked outfit, although were less obviously designed to become a bigger known name. Formed in 1972 by the Godfrey brothers, better known as Nikki Sudden and rock’s greatest named drummer Epic Soundtracks, “Vertical Slum” doesn’t hang around for too long. It’s a spiky post-punk heat rash of a song that’s burned itself out pretty much as soon as you’ve read this description. The punk spirit was kicking and scratching when this track was committed to tape.
Things get a little more strange, with the aptly named DADA. Featuring the aforementioned Mr Twist, their “Birmingham UK” sounds like proto-industrial punk that’s been recorded on a dictaphone in a claustrophobic cellar. It’s driven by a clattering beat, nagging guitar swoops courtesy of a pre-Duran Duran John Taylor and a howling vocal being fed through what sounds like a traffic cone. Apparently recorded at the aforementioned Crown, this oddity is one of the more experimental cuts you’ll find on this collection.
THE PREFECTS were reputedly Brum’s first punk band. They are most famous for including future Nightingales Robert Lloyd, Eamonn Duffy and brothers Alan and Paul Apperley. In true punk spirit, they’d imploded before any of their music was released but posthumous releases went on to cement the bands’ cult status. “The Bristol Road Leads To Dachau” is a fairly lo-fi affair, with urgent thumping drums and bootleg quality guitar. A harmonica blown with gusto pierces through the frantic maelstrom of noise although this version breaks the punk rock rule by clocking in at just under ten minutes.
TV EYE are another of the acts featuring drummer Dave Twist. I can’t be sure that the band took it’s name from the Stooges song but on “Stevie’s Radio Station” vocalist Andy Wickett has the hint of an Iggy-esque snarl. The music is less filthy than the Stooges, with Dave Kusworth’s jangling guitar helping the tune blossom in to a bright, pre-new wave sound with a see-sawing psych-garage keyboard.
DENIZENS “Ammonia Subway” starts off with a riff as though it could be Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” but evolves into a spiky Wire-ish rattle, actually sounding a little like Andy Summer’s raggedly angular guitar work on those early Police records. It clocks in at a very un-punk five minutes, and is one of the numerous occasions this LP screams out ‘lost classic’.
THE HAWKS “Big Store” is perhaps one of the most musically accomplished offerings thus far. One can imagine that if Morrissey and Marr had met each other a few years earlier, this may have been what they came up with. Amusingly, the lyric proclaims that the singer IS going out tonight and includes the motif “I’m just fun-time Stevie/I’m no fun at all.” The Stevie in question is a pre-‘Tin Tin’ Stephen Duffy and he’s joined by Dave’s Kusworth and Twist. The Hawks were pretty much unheard of until the release of the “Obviously 5 Believers” in 2021, some 40 years after it was recorded and therefore dispelling any notion that the ‘big store’ in question is about Europe’s biggest Primark.
THE NERVOUS KIND’s “Five To Monday” rides on a funky rhythm section with a 60’s Brit-beat vibe and is less abrasive than the preceding cuts from this record as is THE BIBLE BELT’s “A Fistful Of Seeds”. A wistful, mournful affair with a captivating if slightly off key lead vocal, it’s another one that’s over just as you’re getting into the narrative. Could easily have appeared on a Subway Organisation ‘shambling’ compilation circa 1986.
THE NIGHTINGALES originally existed between 1979 and 1986, were championed by John Peel before they disbanded and remained inactive for nearly two decades. The second coming in 2004 saw original members Robert Lloyd and Eamonn Duffy reignite the name with a renewed hunger for unstraightforward indie pop. Duffy departed soon after. Today, Lloyd is enjoying an extended purple patch together with the current line up. They’ve gained a reputation as a formidable live outfit, worthy of the excellent Michael Cumming documentary “King Rocker.” Here, 1981 debut single “Idiot Strength” pre-dates that film by thirty-odd years, showcasing the dogged approach of a band who wilfully shunned any possibility of commercial success. It’s a speed-fuelled affair with clipped drums and opens up the second disc of this double vinyl set.
LOWDOWN INTERNATIONAL are not a well know name. Their 1980 recording “Batteries Not Included” took place at Bournville Post Office and featured future broadcaster and journalist Adrian Goldberg on vocals. He sounds like a young Marc Almond at his most pleading and tortured. There’s an almost Banshees-esque guitar tick-tocking away, punctuated by bursts of punk abandon, nicely capturing a real slice of Brummie oddity.
JOE CROW’s “The Final Touch” sees the one-time Nightingale exploring pre-goth territory, reminiscent of Joy Division’s opening few seconds of “She’s Lost Control” or something pre-historic by the Cure. This disintegrates with the arrival of a cheap sounding stylophone, creating an earworm which embeds itself throughout the track.
We’re back with NIKKI SUDDEN for the adrenalin-fuelled “Channel Steamer”, sounding as though it wouldn’t be out of place on a Buzzcocks rarities and outtakes compilation, except for a house party saxophone blasting away and a chorus of female backing singers. This could’ve been a song that indie-hoaxers the Pooh Sticks might’ve included on their inaugural “Orgasm” album.
CULT FIGURES “I Remember” sees more of an American East-Coast no wave vibe employed from the recently reactivated band. Again, Jonathan Richman comes to mind, along with the almost grown up execution of Television. I have very little knowledge of this band but as they have reconvened, I’m keen to try and be a late attendant to the party.
The remainder of the record reveals some absolute treasure and my personal favourites on here. Be aware that if streaming this record (certainly on Spotify or YouTube anyway), for some inexplicable reason, AU PAIRS “Love Song” is omitted but on the vinyl version, it closes side C. (I’ve posted a different link to it above for your listening pleasure). Surely the acknowledgement of this group’s influence is long overdue. Just feel the sweaty tension created by the tight rhythms and taut cheesewire guitarwork. Lesley Woods’ vocal finally representing a female presence on what is undeniably a great but so far male-dominated compilation.
FAST RELIEF’s “What A Waste” is not the Blockheads classic of the same name but a funky affair reminiscent of Au Pairs and a tale of unrealised potential and self-actualisation. The singer sounds a little like Poly Styrene in parts, particularly when recounting the early life of the song’s protagonist. Some great Wilko Johnson-esque influenced guitar moving things along at a brisk pace and a sax reminiscent of the early ska revivalists involved in the local 2 Tone scene.
VISION COLLISION’s “Cuba” ventures into more 2 Tone territory, calling to mind the urgency of the Selecter and a vocalist that does at times border on a dancehall DJ hollering over a pre-digital reggae skank.
DANCE were an early project of Birmingham doyen Matthew Edwards, sounding here as though they have a wide range of influences fighting to be heard. “Revolve Around You” sounds a bit like Terry Hall’s holler and is joined by a female vocal. It’s a sort of glammy, proto-goth post-punk mash up, that melts into a glorious dubbed-up affair with a healthy application of echo chamber effects.
And the final cut is from THE PINKIES with “Open Commune”. The funky theme continues with more female vocals. It reminds me of fellow Brummies Toxic Shock, with more insistent sax and ACR-style bass foundations. The track fades out, maybe paving the way for a second volume.
I don’t know Dave Twist personally but he currently plays in Black Bombers. Next time I see them, I will ensure that his hand is heartily shaken and whatever his choice of drink is, it’s on me. You owe it to yourself to have this record nestling amongst your own collection. An absolute beaut, bab.