THE BIRMINGHAM MUSIC ARCHIVE
I’ve Got The Birmingham Blues – Our amazing music history.
I’ve witnessed many attempts by our esteemed city leaders over the years to create the definitive marketing slogan that captures the ‘essence’, the ‘joie de vivre’ the sheer… erm, Brummieness of Birmingham. My personal favourite (tongue stuck firmly in my cheek) was in the late 80s, early 90s, ‘Birmingham: Europe’s meeting place’. Now, I’m extremely proud of my city, but even I would have to baulk at us claiming to be the number one city of choice in which the movers and shakers of Europe meet, sup a cappuccino and broker multi-billion Euro deals.
No, I’m more inclined to go with the slogan that is uttered by Brummies and non-Brummies alike. One that is never really shouted out loud but is deafening in its repeatedly mumbled mantra (and there are slight variations on the exact wording of this) ‘Birmingham: We just don’t shout enough about ourselves’.
With this in mind, I resolved to do my little bit to try and change this innate sense of wanting to feel loved and valued while simultaneously reveling in the idea we just don’t care what anyone else thinks about us.
So I started something.
Like a lot of people growing up music was hugely formative in shaping my identity. It gave me life-long friends, introduced politics into my life and gave rise to some, shall we say, interesting haircuts.
I never played an instrument but I briefly flirted with being in a band. I bought masses of records (which I continue to do.) I went to music centered pubs and clubs like The Barrel Organ and The Powerhouse, and went to gigs nearly every single night of the week.
I remember being obsessed with bands such as New Model Army, The Cult and Spear of Destiny, amongst others. But it was local bands Egyptian Fringe, The Anti-Contras and Nigel The Spoon that really mattered to me. They were made up of friends from the Birmingham alternative scene and the audience for their gigs were mainly made up of the same forty or so people (my memory may be being overly harsh on the attendance figures!)
These bands were so important to us. Of course we thought they were the best bands going and the music was incredibly important. But equally, if not more important, was the social aspect and the shared experiences. Meeting up at a mate’s house and catching the bus to town swigging a bottle of Thunderbird Blue (The Blues Brothers was stuck on a continual loop in the squalid house we shared on Stockfield Road, Acocks Green.) Then meeting up with ‘the gang’, watching the gigs and drinking really dodgy Scrumpy in The Barrel, before dodging the townies around Pigeon Park and on the night service home.
It is these memories that stuck with me as I grew older, had a family, stopped going to so many gigs and began losing touch with the Birmingham music scene. The long forgotten and never really known bands, the venues that no longer exist, the record shops that were so important to me growing up or the dingy recording studios and lock ups where we would practice and hang out. All the things that are never part of the ‘history’ of popular music. And worse still, not even part of the history of Birmingham – this place I call home – and which, through its music culture, has given me so much to be grateful for.
So the thing I started was the Birmingham Music Archive (birminghammusicarchive.com) and I started it for a number of reasons.
I was frustrated that some of the ‘famous’ bands that have emanated from the city – Black Sabbath, Electric Light Orchestra, The Move, Apache Indian, Felt, The Moody Blues, The Beat, Duran Duran, The Spencer Davies Group, Stevie Winwood, The Streets, Dexys, Bally Sagoo, Napalm Death, Ocean Colour Scene, Steel Pulse, UB40, Musical Youth, G.B.H., Joan Armatrading (and there are so many more I could list here) – were never deemed to be as culturally important, or in music-speak as ‘cool’ as other bands. In my mind they were never given the dues they deserved for the role they played, and the impact they had, in the global music industry. This chimed with a general media discourse about Birmingham being dull, boring, grey and having nothing of note to write home about. And don’t even mention what was said about the accent! My accent.
I was also frustrated that the history of popular music was nearly always the same history: Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, The Sex Pistols – blah blah blah. Again, it was those bands or musicians who were deemed cool or important. Now, there is no question the above bands are both brilliant and have played a huge part in shaping popular music history. But it wasn’t my history. I didn’t see these bands, hang out with them or go to school with them.
Also it is very rare to hear or read about the culture of music. We hear about the bands and some of the Svengalis of music but less about the sound engineers or the session musicians, the local DJ’s or journalists, the local promoters or record labels or the venues that hold so many memories for so many people.
Finally, I wanted to create something that Birmingham, and the people of Birmingham, could be proud of and that they would actively help build. In some senses it was about engendering civic pride in our great city and I wanted to use music, and music culture, to do this.
The Birmingham Music Archive began with this statement:
We want Birmingham to take pride in its musical heritage and to start shouting out about it. Other cities aren’t shy in celebrating their successes and neither should we.
We believe music provides individual and shared experiences, self-expression and memories. For us, these memories and meaning can be stirred by a vast array of music ephemera, it could be a song, it might be a photograph or a ticket stub or it could be someone else’s recollections that make a connection with you and trigger your music experiences. And we aren’t just interested in the ‘star’ names. We want to hear about ALL the music activity in the city.
We are interested in hearing and sharing stories. Were you in a band? Where did you play? What venues did you go to and who did you sees? Did you work in a Record Shop? Or perhaps you ran a label or were associated with a Pirate Radio station. You may have worked in a rehearsal space, been a sound engineer to a DJ. All this and more, no matter how big or small you think it was. All those personal experiences and memories that surround and inform this vibrant city and its music is what we are after.
Our rather big ambition is to capture the entire history of popular music in and from the city.
So whether you were in a band, or were a regular gig-goer, we want to hear from you – Tell us what you know, tell us what you think!
Taking this approach has proved to be a huge success. While there are entries for, say Duran Duran, there are hundreds of bands on there I’ve never heard of like 70s band Spellbound or the mysterious Tarzan 5. There are lots of discussion about venues like Bogarts, a rock club that was situated on New St (approximately where Snappy Snaps now is and opposite the new Wagamama) and where the Sex Pistols played one of their only two gigs in Birmingham, and people talk about the record shops they went to or the club nights they attended.
Alongside the written comments, and of particular interest to readers of this site, are the pictures that are uploaded to the BMA. Like Brumpic, I’m continually in the middle of scanning photos (currently about 900 incredible photos of bands from 1977-1985) but there are also loads of ticket stubs, flyers, posters, photographs and other material objects of popular music culture being continually uploaded or sent in to me. These digital images trigger memories and provoke people to engage in discussion, sharing and exchanging knowledge about Birmingham, its music and its culture. Hidden histories and being uncovered and rediscovered and I love this.
Most of all the archive really offers a new insight into the rich, deep and vibrant music of Birmingham and the role it has played – and continues to play – in the everyday lives of the people of Birmingham.
There are huge gaps in the archive that can only be filled by the collective wisdom and knowledge from the people like those reading this piece. I’d love you to come and get involved and help create thecomplete history of Birmingham music!
This is Birmingham and Brumpic are developing a working partnership where we share materials and support and promote each other’s site (in all honesty this is a pretty one way relationship!) so if you have photos that are music related please send them into This is Birmingham and they’ll end up on the BMA, details below.
View the accompanying film Made in Birmingham: Reggae Punk Bhangra
Sex Pistols at Bogarts 20 October 1976 CC BY NC Paul Appleby/Birmingham Music Archive
Blonde on Blonde gig poster Aston University 27/11/1969 CC BY NC Pat Myhill/Birmingham Music Archive