A few Sundays ago I went to a screening of ‘Made in Birmingham: Reggae Punk Bhangra”, a film made by Deborah Aston, and produced by Jez Collins, curator of the Birmingham Music Archive and Roger Shannon of Swish Films. I had been made aware of this by Roger Shannon, after I blogged about the Catapult Club Archive interview with Arthur Tapp, which had been shown as part of Vivid Projects’ 33 Revolutions series, and it was suggested that I came down.
This seemed like a real treat; I’d seen the film in passing when it was shown at The Public in West Bromwich alongside Friction Arts’ ‘From You To Super Me’ project, and had been looking forward to watching it in full.
And The Barber Institute of Fine Arts was a fine place to show this film. We had set off from King’s Norton and walked as far as Bournville when the rain forced us to take the train to University (I had been rather devil-may-care in my decision not to wear an anorak or wind-cheater.) The walk through University was a delight. The rain and the heat had mingled with the tarmac and set their delicious fumes into my senses. I was back the 70s and 80s. I was now in a realm that I hadn’t occupied in this life, or, all my learnings and research into nostalgia before-my-time now came to the forefront of my brain and made me believe that I was straddling space before entering a film made about the zeitgeist. This was a real nostalgia trip.
And the curves of the off-white art deco building seemed to me seductive, reminiscent of a wide-eyed era when anything was possible. This was Birmingham in the 70s and 80s and early 90s. These were the good old days, people would say, before Hollyoaks, New Labour and Simon Cowell, when you could still buy vinyl and John Peel was alive, and you could leave you doors open etc. In these documentaries, Peel’s voice is an omniscient narrator, an unseen Godly presence, here, his voice would be heard introducing tracks by Musical Youth, The Prefects or Bally Sagoo. Peel was the guiding light in the ever-expanding wasteland of choice, which had now gone into supernova with the age of the Internet.
I hadn’t booked, but I was allowed to pay on the door which I thought was very punk rock of me. and I got my seat in the lecture theatre. Again, I wowed at the evocative smells from the wooden benches and slatted floors, the green curtains and ball lights hanging over me, trying to ignore the cracked one which spoilt the fantasy a little. Green is the colour, that song from Pink Floyd’s ‘More’, visions of 60s and 70s rooms on sunny evenings. Again, this gave me an idea that this was somewhere in time, where it all used to happen. The screening would finish with a Q+A from the film-makers, Deborah Aston, Jez Collins, curator of the Birmingham Music Archive and producer Roger Shannon. ‘Made in Birmingham’ had been made 18 months ago, and derives from the ‘diaspora’ that has affected the cultural make-up of Birmingham. Without nodding to the region’s heavy metal influences that have been celebrated in recent years, this film would celebrate the scenes that ended up supporting and thriving off each other, occurring in the same backstreets of Moseley, Sparkhill and Handsworth.
The film started and I wallowed. Grainy footage of the Rialto Club and tear-jerking shots of records being traded in Rising Star Records, combined with the grim acceptance that povery, unemployment, crime, racism and fear are still as prevalent in 2013 as they were in 1977. Dennis Seaton from Musical Youth appeared in the first in the series of talking heads interviews that would pepper the film. In Birmingham, he said, you could head for stardom or anonymity. Birmingham would be overseen, overlooked, because of the fact that Birmingham is very close to London. People would either stay in London for gigs or travel further north or south. Birmingham didn’t need to have such attention lavished on it.
And it was great to see UB40 in archive footage. No sneers from me. I’m someone who remembers the Bull Ring fondly, seeing it’s dirt and small independent shops through rose-tinted glasses. “Come off it it was shit!” I remember someone-or-other incredulously shouting at me. But no. The Bull Ring was UB40 and ‘Roots Rock Reggae.’ Loud soundclashes whilst walking past the cheap independant shops. Signs written in block capitals in marker pen on multi-coloured card. “New Boots and Panties!!” Baskets piled with white sport socks and DJ vinyl. Summit. My kind of town. I was beginning to drown in the sea of nostalgia, as cheerful ex-members from the Au Pairs talked about DIY culture. More vinyl put in sleeves in the shops, more leg-ends enthusing, more sleeves folded over with pritt-stick or spit. Soon enough, bands were going in to claim their UB40 and be faced with angry job centre employees and managers thrusting copies of the NME at them, not to sign, but to demand what exactly was going on and that they’d have their benefit cut. This was it. This is where it all happened. Back in the 1980s.
Made in Birmingham: Reggae Punk Bhangra was working for me. It was sad that neither Apache Indian or Bally Sagoo could take part in the documentary, instead, the bhangra sections concentrated on an excellent fusion band called Swami. Ammo Talwar, director of Punch Records, said that from 1988-90, bhangra was going hand in hand with the burgeoning dance community. Anything was possible. This was great. This was like the bit in the superb documentary of the Sheffield music scene, Eve Wood’s ‘The Beat is the Law’ when they start talking about the rise of Fon Records and later, Warp Records, with Sweet Exorcist’s ‘Test One’ playing on 12” vinyl. Sounds of the future in the past. Birmingham was where plans were being made, and lives were changing. Again, the footage used for the bhangra section was exemplary. Old footage of terraces in Highgate and Balsall Heath. What goes on behind closed doors. Gaudy event posters. Walking down the same streets again and again.
However that was the danger that slowly began to descend on me, making the walls crack and separate, leaving me alone in black limbo. The comforting hugs of nostalgia and used-tos and remember-whens. As someone who loves his rock journalism and retrospectives possibly a bit too much, sated by of by the BBCs “Britannia” series and Sky Arts’ screenings of a panoply of wonderful documentaries, MOJO and ‘Classic’ magazines– today, “Made in Birmingham: Reggae Punk Bhangra” would be another trip that I possibly didn’t need to take. “I’m a historian” i’d moan. But no. Instead of forging forward, I would be forever looking backwards, looking at others’ archives, gorging myself on selected memories. As the credits rolled, I became slightly terrified, however, this was stemmed by the wonderful Q&A/call-to-arms that followed the break.
The rise of the internet, instant downloads and the fact that the mixture or ‘melting pot’ is now even more prevalent in today’s society, means that once again, the underground is underground. Bands now flirt with more styles and fashions than ever before. In Birmingham, the programmes of entertainment across the city, The Drum, The Hare and Hounds/Bull’s Head, Club PST, Suki10c, The Adam and Eve and The Wagon and Horses have an eclectic range of performers on their schedules week in week out, and it deserves reporting on. Venues are closing but venues are re-opening. New light through old windows. And as everyone knows, the most exciting stuff is happening around the corner, down the backstreets, behind closed doors in one of the many terraced houses in the city.
I have recently been concerned about the lack of reportage on national television of the underground music scene. It seems that a new Tony Wilson or Janet Street- Porter needs to emerge, with wild-eyed ideas, badgering the powers that be to give more air-time to the unsigned and underdeveloped. Roger Shannon hammered this point home in the Q+A. Those with cameras and movie-making equipment need to start knocking on the doors and spamming those in power. Most of the beauty in ‘Made in Birmingham: Reggae Punk Bhangra” came from the archive footage of the bands, scratchy footage in cramped smoky rooms (the clips of the 1980s Blues parties in Handsworth make your eyes red just watching it.) Clips sourced from national news networks cost money to licence – a recent Kickstarter project for a documentary film made to celebrate the fab music career of Frank Sidebottom needed an extra £20,000 to get as much television footage in the film as possible. In ‘Made in Birmingham: Reggae Punk Bhangra”, the real beauty footage had come from local news and documentaries and fan-made videos donated to the Birmingham Music Archive and the Media Archive of Central England.
For once, I left without an aching to flick through my copies of MOJO or scan the internet for old footage and articles on the bands. I left with the desire to see what was NOW as opposed to what was THEN, and if there was anything I could do to get the ball rolling, and keep on promoting gigs, recording albums and anything else I could do to share the ever-gestating Birmingham and West Midlands music scene. The Quietus recently wrote a superb article, documenting the work that goes into finding new music and sharing it as a labour of love. You should read it, it’s one of the best things they’ve written in a while. DIY culture, in this respect, has never been so relevant. We walked the rest of the way back home to the Mailbox. The air was perfumed with bluebells and wet mud. An empowering, alive smell. And if you want to watch “Made in Birmingham: Reggae Punk Bhangra” with your windows wide open, you can do so here.