Unlike Manchester, a noisy northern neighbour ever quarrelsome in its claim to be England’s true second city, Birmingham just shrugs its shoulders, rolls up its sleeves, and gets on with the job.
The Black Country too rarely blows its own trumpet, even though it’s the ancient powerbase of conquering Mercian kings and queens, cradled the Industrial Revolution, and bashed the modern world into the shape with its hammers.
Between us we made the millions of nails that held the English oaks of Henry VIII’s world together. We supplied Britain’s armed forces with swords, cannon, and Spitfires. Our Acme Thunderer whistle sent boys over the top in the Great War and is blown today by football referees the world over. We gave the great ocean liners their anchors and anchor chains. We sent saddles, stirrups, and bridles to Texas and Tijuana, and put spurs on the boots of the legendary cowboys. As well as iron, we worked with gold and silver, and used those precious metals to set the grand dining tables and the loveliest ladies of Europe aglitter.
In the early 1700s, we were among the first to put steam engines to practical use, and, in 1781, built the world’s first iron bridge, which is still standing strong. Charles Dickens wrote about us, and probably did so using a pen made in Birmingham, because almost everyone writing in his day used a Birmingham-made nib. We secured the world with our locks and keys, made mousetraps and mantraps, and had a handle on almost everything – on every door, on the first electric kettle, and on Winston Churchill’s coffin.
The many things we’ve invented, developed or made for the world includes – X-ray cameras, mass spectrometers, photocopiers, microwave ovens, bicycle bells, windscreen wipers, heart pacemakers, smoke detectors, vacuum cleaners, microphones, auto-changing record players, the Mellotron, the Mini car, skate wheels, and the Cream Egg.
And, just hark at us, still speaking the English of Chaucer and Shakespeare!
We really should blow our trumpets a bit more. Especially when we add drums, guitars, and the voices of our people. Because we and our music are bostin.
The ‘A’ Really Stands For Brummie ‘n’ Black A-List Playlist:
The Craig – I Must Be Mad
This is what happens when Birmingham University students gain access to musical instruments and junior aspirin – a psychedelic freakout of epic proportions.
Brumfact: Old Joe, Birmingham University’s clocktower, is the tallest freestanding clock tower in the world.
The Au Pairs – We’re So Cool
Aiming to smash hegemonic masculinity, this post-punk band wisely sugared the pill/hammer with dark humour and relentlessly danceable funk. Studio albums never quite captured the fizz they had live, but this Peel Session comes close.
Brumfact: Lesley Woods, lead singer and guitarist of the Au Pairs, is now a barrister with a special interest in immigration law.
Slade – Pouk Hill
Pouk Hill, sandwiched between the M6 motorway and the Beechdale housing estate, is one of Walsall’s few beauty spots. For one of their first publicity photos, local lads Slade braved a snowstorm there, and they even risked going bare-chested. When used, the photo was so tightly cropped that neither snow nor Pouk Hill could be seen.
Blackfact: Noddy Holder, Slade’s brass-throated vocalist and rhythm guitar player, went to T.P. Riley Comprehensive School in Bloxwich, where legend had it that he once ‘borrowed’ the upright piano from the assembly hall and rode it home as if it were a horse.
Jon Wilks – I Can’t Find Brummagem
This funny and sad folk song from the 1820s laments the rapid growth and transmogrification of Brummagem, and Jon has updated it with a few contemporary references – the Ship-A-Shore was a pub where Brum’s Mods gathered, and Snobs is a legendary nightclub that’s still going but is no longer in its original location. No place stands still, of course, and so this struck a chord because it made me think of the places lost from the Brum of my youth – Birmingham Odeon as a music venue, Musical Exchanges music shop, Reddington’s Rare Records, and Hudson’s bookshop. Jon’s deft interpretation and performance make this my song of the week.
Brumfact: Brummagem is a corruption of Bromwichham, an alternative name for Birmingham, and it persists locally despite appearing on no road signs or maps. In America, Brummagem is a word used to describe shoddy counterfeit goods, which were once said to be produced by Brummagem in large number, but this was a scurrilous rumour started by London sword makers trying to nobble the opposition.
The Lilac Time – A Day In The Night
Stephen Duffy started out as the lead singer and bass player of Duran Duran but had second thoughts after fake fur was glued to his bass amp. As Steve ‘Tin Tin’ Duffy, he released a couple of great pop albums and his single ‘Kiss Me’ literally had Black Country folk falling off nightclub balconies in their urgent efforts to get to the dancefloor. As Dr Calculus, he experimented with house music, and as song writer and producer has worked with Steve Page of Barenaked Ladies, Robbie Williams, and others. With The Lilac Time, a band that includes his wife and his brother, he’s released album after album of critically acclaimed folk-rock, of which this song is a fine example.
Blackfact: It was me who fell off the balcony in the rush to get to the dancefloor.
Fashiøn – Slow Blue
Duran Duran would’ve given anything to be as cool and sexy as this.
Brumfact: RMS Titanic’s anchors were made in the Nechelles area of Birmingham and were so large that each one left the city on a cart pulled by twenty Shire horses. The Titanic’s steering gear was made by the French and the Captain was from Stoke.
Laura Mvula – Sing To The Moon
Birmingham and the Black Country have produced more than their fair share of great female vocalists – Ruby Turner, Jaki Graham, Beverley Knight, and Jorja Smith to name just a few. Laura makes the A-list because this must be what angels sound like.
Brumfact: Birmingham’s Lunar Society (1765—1813), so called because they met on nights when the full moon would light the walk on the as yet unlit streets, was a supper club for prominent figures of the Midlands Enlightenment. These included Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgwood. Table talk covered scientific innovation, entrepreneurship, and social reform. They played an important role in the anti-slavery movement – Josiah Wedgewood, for example, made and distributed many thousands of anti-slavery medallions asking the now famous question: “Am I not a Man and a Brother?”
Dexys Midnight Runners – Plan B
Kevin Rowland’s voice isn’t the only thing about him that’s barking. His us-against-the-world mentality exhausted bandmates, infuriated record labels, and was ultimately self-sabotaging. Mind you, the strident pop that resulted is irresistible.
Blackfact: Kevin was on first-name terms with my nan.
Denim – The Osmonds
The cultural and historical references from 1970s Birmingham and Britain in this song don’t just chime with me, they ring me like a gong. Everything’s here – from three-star jumpers to an infamous kidnapping and murder. As hilarious as it is poignant, it’s a surprisingly sophisticated thing despite or perhaps because of the bubble-gum pop styling. An absolute stonker.
Blackfact: Wednesfield, which lies between Walsall and Wolverhampton, is an unremarkable little town, and yet its name is a contraction of Woden’s Field, which claims it as the home of the chief god Odin, and Anglo-Saxon chronicles record that Mercians encircled and hacked to death several thousand Vikings there in a battle worthy of ‘The Game of Thrones’. Nearby is New Invention, which was named in the 1660s in honour of an invention that obviously impressed passers-by, but there’s no record of what this invention actually was – a new type of chimney pot? A very early steam engine? An interdimensional time-portal? A little further afield, we have West Bromwich, whose Anglo-Saxon name signifies a dark and dismal place with a useless footie team – probably.
Ocean Colour Scene – The Riverboat Song
The greatest swing time guitar riff ever to come out of Moseley.
Brumfact: Musical Exchanges in Birmingham, of which guitarist Steve Craddock of Ocean Colour Scene was a regular customer, may have been the greatest music shop in the world. It had a second-hand amp department known as Shanty Town, new and used guitars mixed so freely that it was often left to the customer’s own judgement as to what exactly it was they were buying, and a generous exchange scheme that meant you could experiment with all kinds of kit. The piss-taking in the shop was epic and applied whether you were a kid getting your first guitar or Eddie Van Halen hiring guitars because yours were stuck in transit. Legend has it that Prince once turned up and bought a new microphone that he immediately sent to the Jewellery Quarter to be gold-plated, bejewelled, and engraved with his symbol in readiness for that evening’s performance.
The Bostin’ B-List Playlist:
We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It – Rules & Regulations
Big hair, big hearts, big fun.
Beverley Knight – Moving On Up (On The Right Side)
Beverley is a Wolverhampton Wanderers FC supporter, which almost propelled this velvety soul to the A list, and surely a duet with fellow Wolves supporter Robert Plant is long overdue. Perhaps they could sing the chant a certain Edward Elgar composed for his beloved Wolves – it’s titled ‘He Banged The Leather For Goal’.
Billy Bragg – God’s Footballer
In 1970, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ star striker Peter Knowles had the world at his feet but gave it all up to spread God’s word among the heathens of the Black Country. The club kept him on their books until 1982 in the hope that he’d change his mind.
Spencer Davis Group – Gimme Some Lovin’
Only a zedding for the sensational Hammond organ kept this ‘American’ classic off the A list.
The Beat – Can’t Get Used To Losing You
Those guitar stabs! That sax!
The Move – Blackberry Way
It looks like there’s no actual Blackberry Way in Brum and so town planners really should put that right.
Duran Duran – Ordinary World
A later blooming from the Rum Runner nightclub’s house band.
Electric Light Orchestra – Across The Border
Written about the time Jeff Lynne strayed beyond Offa’s Dyke – probably.
The Mighty Lemon Drops – Inside Out
Who knew that Black Country post-punk psychedelia could be this good?
Victories At Sea – Bloom
I know nothing about this one, other than it appears to qualify and I like it. A big, big, 80s-retro sound.
Guru’s Wildcard Picks:
Diamond Head – Shoot Out The Lights
Everyone who saw this band’s early pub gigs thought they’d ride the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and be massive. It never quite happened for them, but somehow their self-made records ended up in the hands of American kids, and they are cited as having a big influence on Metallica, Megadeth, and others.
Mr Hudson and The Library – Two by Two
Just a great record.
Spirit of The West – The Hammer and Bell
Canadian folk song with a surprising reference to being drunk with a butcher in Walsall that never fails to amuse.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Birmingham and Black Country music scene, there’s a great resource at Birmingham Music Archive, and you can contribute by adding your own memories to the archive.
These playlists were inspired by readers' song nominations from last week's topic: Bostin'! Songs from or about Birmingham and The Black Country. The next topic will launch on Thursday at 1pm UK time.
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