Growing up through the 1970s, there was Motown, and Hendrix. Then ‘Paranoid’ and then Slade. There was my older sister’s love for Rod Stewart & the Faces. There was ‘Top of the Pops’, then ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’. By January 1978 my life was revolving round NME and John Peel. That month I turned sixteen, obsessed with music.
Four weeks later, I took the bus into town from my home on Moseley, to see Blondie at Barbarella’s on Cumberland Street. It was a venue I would return to again and again.
There was a kind of romance to the ritual of walking across town from the 35 bus and on to Barbarella’s, through the concrete underpasses, and unlit streets, passing an occasional late-night café, turning off Broad Street surrounded by boarded-up workshops and factories, and along Cumberland Street. You’d see a clutch of unfriendly doormen, and then finally you’d be through the doors and arrive into a different world. Loud music, adventure.
The boarded-up old industrial buildings around Broad Street have long gone, replaced by hotels, restaurants, a conference centre, and a Bannatyne gym, and, around Brindley Square and behind the Symphony Hall and elsewhere, blocks of apartments.
I’d heard Blondie’s ‘Rip Her to Shreds’ single, and seen the photos, read the reviews and become fascinated by Debbie Harry. The band were from New York which connected with what I already knew about the Ramones but then some further digging led me to the scene at CBGBs - Television, Patti Smith, Talking Heads - and then the roots of that American alternative rock scene; the Velvet Undergound and Iggy. When Iggy came to Barbarella’s, I was in the mosh pit.
Debbie Harry and Iggy Pop were pop stars from afar, CBGBs was unreachable across the Atlantic. But also I was beginning to pick up on a sense of culture and potential closer to home.
There was a turning point – a year after seeing Blondie at Barbarella’s, I went to the Fighting Cocks to see two local bands, Spizz Energi, and the Prefects.
The Fighting Cocks had been built in the mid-1800s, with a function room on the first floor, which had a separate entrance to the left of the building. It was an undistinguished rectangle of a space with rickety wooden floors, and dirty curtains pulled across the windows. Onstage, the Prefects made a lovely racket and performed in a markedly unshowbiz way. I decided to become a Prefects fan; and almost immediately they split up.
I went back to the upstairs room at the Fighting Cocks as often as I could, and saw mainly local acts there; like the Dangerous Girls, Fast Relief, the Pinkies, UB40, and the Au Pairs. The Au Pairs were a Moseley-based four-piece, featuring Paul Foad, an exciting guitarist with an idiosyncratic, choppy guitar action and a female singer/guitarist, Lesley Woods. I loved them, and saw them six or seven times live. Jane Munro playing bass like some tiny Tina Weymouth. Paul Foad and Lesley Woods giving everything onstage, Paul attacking his guitar, Lesley wielding her guitar too, and singing with such an edge.
The Au Pairs were passionate, intent particularly on questioning traditional and misogynistic views about sexuality and gender. It was music on the front line. They made me think. I liked that; I wanted to know stuff.
Their debates about violence and misogyny weren’t abstract, let alone irrelevant. One of the three songs on the first Au Pairs first 7” EP was ‘Kerb Crawler‘. There were red light areas in the bedsit area of Moseley and down in neighbouring Balsall Heath, and a couple of what were then termed “battered wives homes”; houses that were designated as safe havens for victims of domestic abuse.
In September 1979, the Au Pairs glued together the sleeve of that first record themselves and sold copies locally. I remember buying it in Prometheus, an alternative bookshop, up towards the Prince of Wales pub.
In my book I talk more about Barbarella’s, and about the Au Pairs. Including my thrill two years after I started following them round when I bought the NME one week and Lesley from the Au Pairs was featured on the front cover.
And I write about tracking down and interviewing Lesley thirty years later in East London, when she told me all sorts of probably unrepeatable things, including an encounter with Dexys Midnight Runners - specifically the band’s singer Kevin Rowland. It was a rum story, but I decided include it in the book anyway.
Dexys were another big influence. I loved Kevin Rowland’s seriousness and soul. I saw them play at Romulus on Hagley Rd. Support band; Joy Division. Joy Division had just released their debut album, ‘Unknown Pleasures’. I was soon obsessed.
My love of Joy Division and Factory Records pushed me towards Manchester, where I went up to study in 1980. When I landed there, I’d been schooled; I had a mindset, a way of looking at cities, and music. I bought fanzines from alternative bookshops, frequented clubs in forgotten parts of town, and found the best record shops.
As inspirations, Lesley Woods, Rob Lloyd and Kevin Rowland were up there with Debbie Harry and Iggy and David Byrne, they really were.
Buying their single, and watching the Au Pairs play in a little upstairs room of the local pub, all this had given me one of the most important lessons life has taught me. In our society we’re encouraged to think of culture as something that happens somewhere else and if you’re lucky you get to consume it; whereas I had learned something different, that if you know where to look you can reach out to culture, it’s there, touch it, change it.
Pictures © Birmingham 81
Dave Haslam ‘Sonic Youth Slept On My Floor: Music, Manchester & More’ is available online and at all decent bookshops.
On Wednesday June 6th Dave Haslam will be at Birmingham Town Hall reading from his book, and in-conversation with Jez Collins of the Birmingham Music Archive.
Tickets are only £5 and available from here