Certain parts of the UK are synonymous with a sound – whether it’s the chirpy bounce of the Merseybeat, the jangle pop guitars of the Madchester scene or the bassy beats of Bristol’s trip-hop.
Birmingham and the West Midlands on the other hand, with our attitude of inclusion, fearlessness and understated innovation, have a back catalogue of musical exports spanning the entire sound spectrum.
Our rich musical history was beautifully showcased in the Opening Ceremony of the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games which Iqbal Khan, Artistic Director of the Opening Ceremony, referred to as a ‘concept album of a ceremony’. It explored how migration has reshaped the region, particularly the influence of Irish, Caribbean and South Asian cultures.
It’s this diverse heritage, along with our ambition to experiment, that’s led the city to be described as a ‘seething cauldron of musical activity’ across at least six decades. For a city with such an affectionate affiliation with the bird, we simply refuse to be pigeon-holed.
Let’s take a brief look at Brum’s chart-topping and genre-defying musical history…
1960s – 1980s
In 1964, the New Musical Express calculated that there were over 500 music groups operating in Birmingham, with several hundred groups whose memberships, names and musical activities were in a constant state of flux. ‘Brum Beat’ became prominent in the 60s, with bands including The Spencer Davis Group, The Moody Blues and The Move pioneering the sound.By this time, Birmingham had earned its reputation as the City of a Thousand Trades and this industrious prominence ended up playing an (accidental) part in the birth of an entire music genre… heavy metal. On the last day of his shift at a sheet metal factory, Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi had an accident, which resulted in him losing the tips of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. This meant he played guitar with a heavier touch and with a greater emphasis on chord shapes, which was instrumental in shaping Black Sabbath’s signature sound in the 1970s.
It’s said that the international success of heavy metal has been rivalled only by hip-hop in the size of its global following. Whilst it’s argued by some that Black Sabbath created heavy metal, other West Midlands bands played a huge role in the widespread rise of the genre, including Judas Priest and Led Zeppelin (which included Midlands-based musicians Robert Plant and John Bonham).
You can’t talk about the 70s without mentioning prog rock and you can’t talk about prog rock without mentioning Birmingham’s Electric Light Orchestra. And let’s not forget Wizzard and Slade who represented the region’s glam rock scene, but who will forever be known by most for their Christmas classics.
Birmingham was also a hotbed of emerging reggae artists in the 70s, with bands like Steel Pulse going on to win a Grammy for Best Reggae Album. During this decade, the West Midlands developed a unique culture of Black British music, where White and Black musicians could routinely be seen jamming together in pubs in areas like Balsall Heath. It was around this time that UB40 formed in Moseley and the Two Tone genre was beginning to gather pace with bands like The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat all leading the way from the West Midlands.
The 80s saw the rise of synth pop and Birmingham’s New Romantic subculture – ‘the only one outside of London that ever really mattered’. The New Romantics would head to Birmingham’s Hurst Street and Oasis Market for their garms and to the Rum Runner nightclub on Broad Street for their music. The club played an important role in launching the careers of Birmingham bands including Duran Duran and Dexys Midnight Runners.
1990s – 2010s
We entered the 90s with the boom of Britpop and whilst the Oasis v Blur battle dominated the headlines, modest melody-makers from the Midlands like The Charlatans and Ocean Colour Scene produced some of the most iconic riffs of the decade.
Jungle, techno and drum & bass were emerging on the UK rave scene around this time, with Walsall’s Goldie being one of the first D&B artists to achieve substantial mainstream success.
Another staple of UK rave culture in the 90s was the ‘daytimer’ – where young, British, South Asians would take over nightclubs in broad daylight and dance the day away to bhangra and Bollywood/hip-hop mash ups. Handsworth’s Apache Indian blended bhangra and ragga music, whilst Wolverhampton’s Cornershop shone a light on Indian pop culture with their song ‘Brimful of Asha’, named after legendary, Indian playback singer Asha Bhosle.
At the turn of the millennium, garage music was becoming increasingly popular, with one of the genre’s most notable artists hailing from Birmingham – The Streets. As we moved into the 2000s, contemporary R&B and soul music regularly featured in the top ten, with Birmingham’s Jamelia and Wolverhampton’s Beverly Knight both achieving commercial success.
Indie music had a huge resurgence in the 2010s and the Midlands massive continued to make its mark with critically acclaimed bands like Guillemots and the second-biggest British band of the first decade of the 21st century – Editors. Birmingham even created its own sub-genre of indie, with the Digbeth-based ‘B-town’ scene, including bands like Peace, Swim Deep and JAWS.
More recently, the ladies have been representing the best of Birmingham with the ear-catching melodies of Laura Mvula and the cleverly candid freestyles of Lady Leshurr.
And that barely touches the sides of the West Midlands’ musical acclaim and influence. I haven’t even touched on the fact that we’re home to a globally renowned orchestra, the CBSO, and that one of the world’s most famous composers, Edward Elgar, was born and spent much of his life in the region. His orchestration of Jerusalem is also what we heard ring out as English athletes took to the podium to collect their gold medals at this year’s Commonwealth Games.
The Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games proposed to be ‘the Games for everyone’ and if there was one city that could deliver on that promise, it was our city – because even Birmingham’s musical archive reflects the welcoming, open-hearted and courageous nature of its people.
I mean, what can I say? It’s a Brum ting!