Download: Regis – Built On Sand: A Birmingham Sampler 1978-86
1. Swell Maps – International Rescue
2. The Prefects – Barbarellas
3. Spizzenergi – Where’s Captain Kirk
4. Fashion – Sodium Pentathol Negative
5. The Au Pairs – It’s Obvious
6. The Dangerous Girls – Mo75
7. The Cravats – Rub Me Out
9. Ausgang – Here It Comes
10. We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Going To Us It – XX Sex
11. Steel Pulse – Handsworth Revolution
12. Joe Crow – Compulsion
13 Mighty Mighty – Everybody Knows The Monkey
14. Felt – Day The Rain Came Down
We were rather flattered when Karl O’Connor AKA Regis, the Birmingham-based techno icon who co-founded British Murder Boys and more recently Sandwell District, asked FACT if we’d like to give away a mix he’d initially planned to release on CD via his Downwards label.
The mix concerns itself with Birmingham’s vibrant but infamously fragmented and undervalued punk and post-punk scene of the late 70s and early 80s, and features amazing music by familiar artists like the Au Pairs and Swell Maps as well as more obscure nuggets from the likes of Spizzenergi. Mixed and edited with all the punch and precision we’ve come to expect from Regis, this is a blisteringly enjoyable listen and an invaluable history lesson to boot. Download it, and enjoy. Over the page you’ll find Anthony Burnham’s “sleevenotes” for the mix, in which he introduces the various bands and considers the city’s foggy cultural identity, something he terms ‘The Brum Problem’.
Words: Anthony Burnham
As with World Wars, there are lessons to be learned here.
World War One was said to be the ‘War To End All Wars’. But like Bobby Ewings dream shower, we insisted on the sequel: World War Two. And since then we have had the prospect of a Third World War – ‘The War To End All…’
Nasty things, wars. Weaken the gene pool and make a right untidy mess.
So? Lessons learned? We can always hope. Adam And The Ants then. There’s a lesson to be learned.
Great band. Enigmatic frontman who wrote some fantastic, intelligent songs. Rising through the talent-grabbing maelstrom of the Punk Explosion, the first thing they released was a Tango! They resisted the chainsaw guitars and bitter political lyrics for their debut single ‘Young Parisians’ – a song somewhere between folk music and beer-swigging chant. After this they helped manufacture their own cult cocoon – dubbing their fans ‘Ant People’. The reward for their dedicated fan base was Dirk Wears White Sox – quirky, cheeky, clever, intriguing songs – an album which by all rights should be on everyone’s ‘must buy’ list. And a handful of strong singles.
A job for life then? Fans that would have lapped up every release, attended every gig. Maybe their following would have been as strong, if not stronger, today.
Instead they became a joke. Self indulgence in the dressing-up box, targeting a market which lay beyond their indie success. On reflection they hadn’t that much to sell out – they weren’t political, and made no promises to be broken. Yet their 15 minutes of fame killed years of Good Will. ‘Prince Charming’, ‘Goody Two Shoes’, ‘Puss In Boots’ etc. When they turned around to wink conspiratorially with their fans, there was no one there.
So how does the Brum Problem come into this?
Musical Youth, that’s how. Remember them? Do you remember a band who created a solid, powerful double ‘A-side single, or a bunch of exploited kids making money from the “Ah Bless”-ings of Grannies? I was a fervent listener to the Peel show back then and remember him enthusing about the Saltley Musical Workshop – a project to introduce youngsters to the world of makin’ music. A guy called Freddy Waite has the inspired idea to launch a bunch of youngsters upon the music world with a tight, tuneful, ever-so-slightly dubby sound. He also had the foresight to sing both the A and B-side himself. Okay, so it contained such lines as “Give The Children A Chance / Give Them An Helping Hand”, but otherwise it was a solid sound which could stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Capital Letters. Political, yeah, but why not? Great, classic single. Do you remember that? No. All you remember is ‘Pass The Dutchie’, a simpering playground take on The Mighty Diamonds’ classic, ultra-cool song about ganja.
Which is my way of introducing The Brum Problem.
“Birmingham seems to be the Bermuda Triangle of success. Bands that show promise lumber into it’s La Brea Tar Pit of fulfilled aspiration, wallow around for a few years, then sink into the oily murk. lost forever.”
Birmingham sits on the cusp of, but is not actually in, the Black Country. And yet culturally it seems to be the Bermuda Triangle of success. Bands that show promise lumber into it’s La Brea Tar Pit of fulfilled aspiration, wallow around for a few years, then sink into the oily murk. lost forever. Even the herculean efforts of John Peel could not break the spell. He promoted, sessioned and raved about so many of these bands, yet nothing seemed to push them out of the doldrums. OK, so there were a handful of success stories – bands big, fat and strong enough to escape Brum’s clutches – UB40, Duran Duran, The Beat, Dexy’s Midnight Runners – yet the majority seemed to be eternally cursed. It wasn’t the lack of talent – just listen to the compilation Karl O’Connor has put together. Yet maybe there was a lack of unity – there was a Manchester Scene, a Liverpool Scene, even Sheffield managed to exploit its gloom to churn out Industrial and electronic pioneers. Karl has sent this compilation to numerous Brummies who seemed not to know groups like Swell Maps and Spizz came from the area. Says it all.
I have spent the last couple of months trying to right a wrong – that Fashion seem to have succumbed to the Tar Pit, with almost all trace removed from history. So it was a pleasant surprise to discover that Luke Sky had breathed life back into the project. I felt it unfair that the flawed album Product Perfect had no review on Discogs or anywhere else. I saw Fashion supporting The Skids in ’78 and the experience blew me away. I became a loyal fan for life. The album, when it finally came out, was in many ways imperfect, but for those converted by their live performance, was also in many ways a masterpiece. It could be said that the Brum Problem curse affected them more than anyone else – they were lucky enough to support The Police on their first tsunami tour of the USA (surfing on the back of the ‘Roxanne’ and ‘Message In A Bottle’ single successes), had a pre-release Duran Duran support them and got to share the stage with luminaries like The Ramones, Squeeze, The Cramps, The Tubes and Joy Division. Guaranteed success, surely? Answers on a postcard…
Thankfully now Luke has returned, with a mature sound inflenced by the culture of his adopted US home. Anyone who wants further evidence of the Brum Problem should give his Stairway To Nowhere autobiography a read. Yet I feel the tentacles of his home town are still choking his chance of wider success.
One of the most successful acts to come from this area must be Swell Maps. They combined a sub-Buzzcocks punk with sprawling progressive self indulgence, which was saved from sagging into impenetrable rubbish by sheer bloody-minded self belief, and their backroom DIY approach ensured they would have an enduring respect from fringe groups – Mute re-released their material a decade or so ago. While A Trip To Marineville has been one of my favourite albums for 30 years, I still kind of expect it all to collapse in a heap. Which it does! In the way that billions of tons of gas collapses into a black hole, rather than the way some cheap metal shelving crashs to earth in a spattering of nuts and bolts. I feel that they never courted widespread success, which is why they remained one of the city’s greatest triumphs. Ironic, huh?
Spizz kind of grew from a seed. The original Spizz Oil incarnation was a kind of cold wave industrial folk duo – just really guitar and voice – very chill and spartan. Transmuting through various Spizz guises and band line-ups, they managed one big-ish chart success as Spizz Energi with ‘Where’s Captain Kirk’. From the metal-cold tumbleweed of ‘6000 Crazy’, they have grown and evolved into the band they are today.
‘Going Through The Motions’ is a slug-slow, soporific ass-dragger of a song, sounding like some doped journey through Birmingham’s worst urinals.
The Prefects I know very little about. They were one of Peelies’ favourites – he played the grooves off his copy of ‘Going Through The Motions’, a slug-slow, soporific ass-dragger of a song, sounding like some doped journey through Birmingham’s worst urinals. In a good way. Peel gave them at least one session, which I know he played at every opportunity. Listen to ‘Barbarellas’ – very Brummie, very funny song. When they formed both Nikki Sudden and Frank Skinner applied to be in the band. They later became The Nightingales, generally failing to fly, yet with John Peel a continuing champion.
The Quads’ ‘There Must Be Thousands’ was apparently another favourite of Peel’s. This record sat, and perhaps even still resides on the shelf where he kept his favourite vinyl. Although they released two singles, ths is the one most people would know, and the one which still gets airplay on BBC radio. It tumbles in through the speakers like some hyperactive child, spins around your house with total disregard for its environment then bustles back out of your life again for another year or so. It’s one of those secret pleasures – you don’t want to admit you like it – it’s a kind of post-punk powe-pop, and a little bit bland because of that, Think along the lines of Eddie And The Hot Rods or even Rich Kids – perky, bright, eager to please. Remarkably successful, given the Brum Problem’s effect.
I was surprised to find that Dangerous Girls had released 4 singles during their brief existence. I probably saw them 4-5 times – they were nothing if not hard-working. It would be difficult to pigeonhole their sound – despite having seen them so often, I never really grew to love what they did. However, they were one of the few bands with material so melodically strong that you would go away with their music playing in your head. ‘Clinically Dead’ stuck out above the other songs in their set, which thankfully was released on the compilation Bouncing In The Red, an album that should have showcased the strengths of music in the Birmingham area, but failed to even suggest there was a cohesive ‘scene’.
Should Steel Pulse be considered a failure? I wouldn’t have said so. Until, that is, you check out their output and realise how little they actually released. Birmingham has always gained strength from its ethnic culture – famous for unleashing various curries on the world – and in the cultural diversity of its music. So it’s unsurprising that some of the best reggae should come from the town. Steel Pulse seemed to live their lives playing festivals – always there, always welcome, a huge, loyal fanbase grooving and skanking to their smooth sound and warm, tight harmonics. UB40’s first album, with its clippy phased guitar and minimalist production gave Steel Pulse a run for their money. And if it wasn’t for the band’s insistence on the ‘Jah Rastafari’ approach – if they had gone for a more commercial, and less political sound – they might just have been as, if not more, successful than UB40. Those harmonies still astonish and give the listener a feeling of enveloping warmth.
One of Birmingham’s genuine underground successes was the Au Pairs. They received copious amounts of radio play and managed to release an impressive catalogue of songs. ‘Its Obvious’ – included here – kind of acts as a gauge for the changing times – a comparatively long track, oxygenating the air after the initial outburst of energy from Swell Maps / Prefects / Fashion etc. In many ways this typifies the post-punk alternative scene – energetic little songs which prepared the ground for the next generation.
By all accounts The Cravats should have had more success than they did. Eagerly supported by John Peel (those who tuned in could follow his association with The Shend), having releases on Small Wonder and the Crass label, they managed to release a handful of singles and a couple of albums. Their assocation with Penny Rimbaud possibly spurred on their Dada antics (even early on they had an oddball stage presence which suggested Bonzo Dog madness with some KLF attitude) which included ‘Acoustic Rock Cricket’ and performance art along the A34.
This sounds like Robert Wyatt singing Matt Johnson lyrics to an early Daniel Miller soundtrack. Which, lets face it, would be great.
I admit to knowing nothing about Joe Crow, but the track here made me sit up and take notice. A member of The Prefects and The Nightingales, this track is the A-side of his one and only single. To me this sounds like Robert Wyatt singing Matt Johnson lyrics to an early Daniel Miller soundtrack. Which, lets face it, would be great. My chicken-scratching bit of research suggests there are quite a few cover versions of this song out there. Worth checking out I imagine.
Ausgang were The Birthday Party meets The Antz. They played with the likes of The Sex Gang Children, plus Death Cult (post-Southern, pre-The Cult) and Gene Loves Jezebel among others. Deathrock.com says “Their timing method often varied even within single songs, making it hard for daft people to follow” and “often tumbling around barefoot and biting each other, their looks were also extreme”. Jello Biafra was a fan and tried to sign them but alas Ausgang made for the exit.
Mighty Mighty popped in and soon after popped out with their Postcard/Velvets-inspired brand of…er…Pop. File under C86. Possibly even more successful, and memorable for their name if nothing else (which I seem to remember was difficult to evade at one time), We’ve Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It had their 15 minutes of fame – they managed to get into the pop charts several times, and stayed in the indie charts for months. An all-girl band, they were kind of pressured to trade on their looks.
And from Fuzzy to Felt…
Difficult to fathom where the label Cherry Red were aiming to go. So many releases, with only a handful of true successes (Marc Bolan, Marc Almond, Nico, Dead Kennedys, Everything But The Girl, Captain Sensible) they seemed to instinctively hone in on the groups who could best be described as lower-case cult. Curiously enough there are releases by The Nightingales, Joe Crow, Got A Fuzzbox And We’re Gonna Use It, and even Fashion had their post-Sky output repackaged by the label.
Felt were one of Cherry Red’s most stable and consistent bands. Their career stretched from the beginning of the Eighties through to the early Nineties. A four-piece who are said to have taken inspiration from Velvet Underground and Television. Their sound had an easy ambient quality, leading to later releases being produced by Robin Guthrie and featuring Liz Frazer on backing vocals. Said to have been an influence on Belle and Sebastian.
So is Birmingham cursed? Okay, so it’s fragmented, with little sign of a cohesive ‘movement’ which would project it into the public eye. Yet how can you argue with its individual successes? ELO, Ozzy Osbourne / Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Duran Duran, Ocean Colour Scene, UB40, The Streets, Judus Priest, Napalm Death – hell, even Toyah Wilcox. All have left an indelible impression on modern music (well… most, anyway).
I think perhaps people just don’t want to consider Birmingham to be a success. It doesn’t suit the temperament. So they blank this part out. Birmingham is a joke, an embarrassment to itself. When a lot of Brummies are surprised to find that these groups were locally grown – what hope does the sullen cityscape have? About time there was a parade for the local musical heroes – who knows, it might inspire the next generation. Someone needs to write a book about this area and its music – wish I had the time.