I went to the launch event of The Catapult Club Archive on Thursday, an event held as part of Vivid Projects’ 33 Revolutions series, a multi-strand series of events asking whether art and culture can still be the catalyst for social change. That night’s event was hosted by Jez Collins, founder of the Birmingham Music Archive, and would feature an interview with Arthur Tapp, founder of The Catapult Club, who since 1988 has promoted a staggering amount of bands, putting them on in venues such as the Hare and Hounds in King’s Heath and the much-missed the Jug of Ale in Moseley. Now resident at The Actress and Bishop near St Paul’s Square in the Jewellery Quarter amongst others, he is still carrying on today – September will be the 25th anniversary.
I had been looking forward to this – my inner geek was frothing at the mouth as well. Walking up the stone staircase to the Vivid Projects room in Minerva Works/Grand Union (is that right?!?) off Fazeley Street in Digbeth, I got my ticket scanned and then focussed on what was in front of me. An awe-inspiring chronological display of gig posters, all made and designed by Arthur Tapp went from the left hand side of the room and re-appeared on the right. The hand-made posters of the 90s era were a joy, pictures of cult icons and imagery cut out from magazines and arranged next to a myriad of band names which fired the imagination – too many to pick out – this review is not going to slavishly detail all the bands featured as it would take far too long and plus also because the waves of nostalgia, both my own and that of others made me dizzy and I only had a bit of paper to scrawl on. On the floor before the interview area, was a quiet screen playing footage of bands who had played, and underneath, a floor of consisting of some of the demo tapes sent in by bands over the years, with gaudy covers, beautiful designs and stencilled lettering. It was a lot to take in, and I needed another drink. I was willing the interview to start as soon as possible. And, like a true geek, I sat up front with my biro and the back of my ticket to scrawl on, and sat (almost too) intently and even, ladies and gentlemen, asked questions. I must say, I limited myself to three questions as I could have irritated people very quickly with my enthusiasm, and I was mindful of the fact it wasn’t me doing the bleddy interview.
The interview started with Jez asking Arthur about the start of The Catapult Club. Back then, Arthur said, there were barely any venues to play in, at the time there was only The Hare and Hounds, The Barrel Organ in Digbeth (now the Dubliner) and Sinatra’s on Queensway. The first Catapult Club event was a gig by The Liberty Thieves, promoted when Arthur was still in his teens, upstairs at the Hare and Hounds on a Monday Night, local kids came, and word of mouth spread – however the events where held on a very ad hoc basis. Thanks to the Enterprise Allowance Scheme that the Conservative government had put in place to make it look like employment levels were down, it was much easier to take the opportunity to learn and mistakes, and also, for bands, it was easier to get gigs if you were running them yourself. At the time Arthur would get back what he paid into the gigs, but during the early 90s, this would all change.
After being asked to leave the Hare and Hounds due to ‘musical differences’ (the owner didn’t like or understand the music) Arthur was asked very quickly if he’d like to move to the Jug of Ale pub in Moseley, and sometimes promote event at its sister pub, The Pot of Beer (or the Faculty as I grew to know it as, mind you I was always more of a Sputnik on Temple Street man.) The independent music scene at the time was in still in rude health with at least three weekly papers; NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, and also a dearth of monthly magazines including the excellent Select and Vox. If a band got Single of the Week in any of the weeklies, they would be booked. Arthur commented that it was much easier to get the band you wanted as record companies would subsidise the tours. Now, independent agents want more money, more rider, more advertising costs. The big promoters of live music wanted more control, and gig promotion these days is a bigger business that ever before. I thought to myself that you only have to look at the career trajectory of most bands who get anywhere (going through the Academies, playing on Jools Holland and going up the stages in Glastonbury)to see the careerist path that is mapped out for them. I was thoroughly enjoying the evening, as it showed my innocent eyes the work of someone who had harnessed creativity and shown innovation in getting bands to play. The posters all around me, electrosetted and photocopied, had been distributed by hand and shared with other promoters.
By 1999, and the start of ‘Quids In’ at the Jug of Ale saw The Catapult Club reach its popular peak. ‘Quids in’ was simple, you’d pay a quid to get into the pub, and you’d be able to enjoy whatever bands were playing upstairs in the 100 capacity room. Moseley changed in the 21st century however. People got older, and because the area was seen as desirable because of it’s bohemian and trendy image, property prices went up, and a lot of the artists who had made the scene what it was moved away. Travel also became an issue, many bands would prefer to play in the centre of Birmingham, rather than have to travel to Moseley or King’s Heath, getting separate buses or trying to park the van in a back street somewhere.
The arrival of Napster and music file sharing sites posed another problem for the ways in which music was heard and shared. When Arthur’s Catapult Club was at their most successful, people were still buying CDs. With Napster though, you could download a three minute song in two hours using a dial-up phone line, and inevitable updates in these sites and the emergence broadband connectivity obviously would make this process far quicker. With the advent of social media, such as Myspace and Facebook, people were now able to discover new bands and fashions, and not just have to concentrate on the NME anymore, the only survivor out of the three weeklies, which was experiencing incredibly low readership figures thanks in part to the internet. Arthur and Jez agreed that everything had to be had quicker now, and attention spans were disappearing. A very strange time to be living in. Social media evolved over time as well, leaving the old dinosaurs such as Friends Reunited and Myspace extinct. With Facebook and Twitter, there’s a bombardment, and bands can spam their friends to tell them where the new bands are playing.
One thing I have thought over the years, as a bit of an old fart myself, is that you certainly have to look harder for ephemera surrounding gigs and events. A good hand-made poster is one of the best things in the world. People like Arthur and other Birmingham collectives such as Punks Alive! cover all the bases, something which both Jez and Arthur agree on, if people want paper flyers and 7” singles, they should have it, if people want free downloads and up-to-the-minute web content, they should have it. The idea now, is to do everything that you can. Bands now organise and curate their own events, small labels are setting up with other labels to share ideas in the shadow of faceless but dominant PR companies. As a customer, I do find I have to work much harder to find the music I enjoy, and there’s a lot of sifting to do, but when I have time, it’s fun. What is now apparent is the amount of choice that you have. You can enjoy a copy of Brum Notes or have a well-thumbed copy of the ever-excellent Ryan’s Gig Guide as you sip your pint on an idle day.
Today it’s Record Store Day, and independent around the country will see increased footfall. These days, a good record shop will now be seen as a gallery – the new location of Swordfish Records in its new premises on Dalton Street (round the back of Scruffy Murphy’s) see the walls adorned with beautiful gig posters from old venues and from up-coming bands amongst the second-hand racks, re-releases and new music. Both Swordfish and The Diskery will have live music on apparently, and there’s plenty of gigs on later for it to be a great Saturday (an all-dayer at The Wagon and Horses, the best live music venue in Digbeth if not indeed the whole of Birmingham for my money would be on my cards later if I hadn’t already booked myself up.) And of course, there’s always Ignite (formerly Tempest) in Oasis Market, Music and Games Exchange on Smallbrook Queensway and ace dance music specialist shop Hard to Find Records on Gough Street (be sure to nip into The Craven Arms, one of Brum’s greatest new pubs.)
If that’s not enough for you, The Catapult Club Archive event continues today at Vivid Projects, with the exhibition still taking place and a screening of Last Shop Standing, a film documenting the rise and fall and resurrection of the record shop. That’s at 1pm. Not playing as part of today’s schedule, but I should also give a special mention also to Jeanie Finlay’s excellent documentary ‘Sound it Out’ about the very last record shop in Teeside, which, if you’re an avid music fan and crate-rummager, will surely make you laugh and blub at the same time. Hopefully, today will be a great Saturday. For me though, i’m going to get a cup of tea on and gawp at the Birmingham Music Archive website with my mouth hanging open.