Lost & Found: Birmingham

Birmingham's lost past and newly found musical places

Thursday 15th November 2018

The Mill, Digbeth, Birmingham. Photo Monica Martini

The West Midlands is synonymous with the development of many of Britain's youth subculture's. The ska revival, early heavy metal and new romantic scenes, in particular, all owe much of their propagation to the fertile environment provided by Birmingham's clubs and pubs in the 1970s and 1980s.

With its 20th-century manufacturing industries drawing a diverse working-class population, it's hardly surprising that there was a call for jazz bands, blues bands and rock 'n' roll along with the night spots for them to perform in. In 1964 the New Musical Express postulated that Birmingham had upward of 500 active bands, suggesting that its music scene was capable of eclipsing that of Liverpool.

In more recent times Birmingham has given rise to the Digbeth scene that produced bands such as Swim Deep and Peace, with bands as diverse as The Cosmics and Lady Leshurr bringing us up to date.

From Ronnie Scott's to The Hare & Hounds via Mothers and The Flapper. We take a look at some of Birmingham's lost past of quirky venues and newly founded musical hangouts.


Lost

Mothers
Rock clubs don't get the best rap these days, but Mothers was on another level in its day. Located in a modest former ballroom space above a furniture shop on Erdington High Street, when its doors closed for the last time in 1971 it prompted Billboard to publish a tribute piece about the club in the US. The legendary John Peel stated in the article: “I sometimes get mail from younger people who live in Erdington and are amazed to hear that for a few years, the best club in Britain – and it was because I went to most of the gigs – was right here in Birmingham".

Black Sabbath played early gigs at Mothers, Keith Moon collapsed on stage with The Who, and Pink Floyd recorded the first side of 'Ummagumma' on 27th April 1969. Robert Plant and John Bonham were regular punters when they were residing in their native Birmingham in addition to numerous early Led Zeppelin appearances. There were also shows from Elton John, Tyrannosaurus Rex, King Crimson and Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band. Few places can lay claim to the British rock'n'roll history that Mothers saw in its brief three-year lease.

Ronnie Scott's
Perhaps the archetypal story of the lost venue. Ronnie Scott's on Broad Street was the only club outside of Soho to bear the great jazz man's name (although he reportedly hated the club's appearance so much that he wanted his name removed). The club's finances went downhill in the years following Scott's death, and the club went under with a host of A-list jazz performers on the list of creditors, the like of George Melly among them. The empty venue was taken on by The Rocket Club, an adult entertainment establishment, in 2002, despite the best efforts of local councillors and jazz enthusiasts alike.  

Edward's No. 8
Located on John Bright Street, Edward's No. 8 was the eighth venue to be opened by Birmingham club entrepreneur Edward Fewtrell, hence the imaginative name. Initially, the queues were full of people trying to look like Simon Le Bon, but the club soon became associated with a more leather jacketed clientele. The rock club, complete with a resident, ghost named 'Mary', was one of the key meeting points for the alternative scene through the '80s and '90s. Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against The Machine all graced its billings in the early 1990s. When ownership passed to a corporate brewery/hospitality company which was more associated with pub lunches than the grunge scene, many clubbers felt the venue began to lose its soul. Perhaps the change of ownership angered Mary, or maybe the smoking ban arrived a year too late, as the venue burned to the ground in 2006, after a fire broke out in its upstairs toilet.

The Crown
Regarded as The home of the Brum Beat sound and cited as Birmingham's equivalent of Liverpool's Cavern, The Crown was the venue where Black Sabbath played their very first gig on a bill of blues bands, and where Ali Campbell's father recorded the UK's first live folk album. Ali Campbell followed in his footsteps years later performing at the venue in UB40's early days. Another favourite venue of John Peel and Robert Plant alike, the 180 cap upstairs room also became synonymous with punk and skinhead culture in the '70s and '80s against a backdrop of 2-Tone ska. The pub was reportedly sold to developers for £1.2 million in 2014 only to close and remain empty despite the redevelopment of the surrounding Station Street area and calls to make the building a heritage site celebrating the city's musical history.

The Barrel Organ
Another stronghold for Birmingham counterculture in the '80s and early '90s, The Barrel Organ had a fairly mundane looking 1960s pub in Digbeth, but its interior was a favoured haunt for that most uncelebrated subculture, the goth scene. The Barrel Organ played host to a thriving goth population but also drew the punks, rockers, psychobillies and shoegazers that sat at its edges too. Like the goth scene's numbers, The Barrel Organ declined in the mid-'90s. The bats left the belfry, and the pub changed hands becoming The Dubliner, an Irish pub with a carvery.

Birmingham gig goer Susan Latham at The Barrel Organ in its heydey. Photo: Susan Latham

"This was me relaxing in The Barrel Organ on a Sunday night, as you can see; Sundays were a lazy day when you didn't bother to spike your hair up!"
- Susan Latham, Birmingham

The Rainbow
Another Digbeth pub with musical heritage, The Rainbow was an early venue for the young Ocean Colour Scene among others. It fell foul of noise abatement orders in 2009 but managed to remain open after adding soundproofing until 2017 when its lease ended with no new tenants found.


Found

The Mill
Picking up the torch for Digbeth, one of Birmingham's newest venues, The Mill is the sister venue of Digbeth Arena, an innovative outdoor urban venue, located against a section of disused Victorian railway arches. Like the arena, The Mill is housed in the space provided by the arches but utilises them to create an indoor space. The programming is varied including homecoming gigs from local giants Napalm Death, alongside visitors such as Hinds and Gentleman's Dub Club. The club nights are also varied from the upscale theatrical rave of Foreverland to the regular Friday night Propaganda slot.

The Mill, Digbeth, Birmingham. Photo Monica Martini

Hare & Hounds
Again, a pub which can boast being the site of the first gig of a Birmingham great, The Hare & Hounds in King's Heath proudly displays a plaque on the wall commemorating UB40's first ever gig. In addition to its historical credentials, The Hare & Hounds has flourished as a new music venue in recent years, a relatively recent change of direction for the establishment given it dates back to the turn of the 20th century. 

Past bookings include trailblazers such as Black Midi, Dream Wife and Goat Girl - the kind of lineups that people claim you only get in London.

The Flapper
Good news and bad news regarding The Flapper. The venue was saved from the clutches of eager developers recently when its lease was extended. The bad news is that it was only extended by a year, for now at least. The canalside pub has lived to see another 365 days, though it seems likely that adjusted plans to turn the site into apartments will be submitted. Primarily drawing an alternative crowd and alternative rock bands The Flapper prides itself on being an affordable venue aiming to put on local or touring bands in its gig room with events such as This Feeling among them.

Amusement 13
Founded in 2014, three stripped back minimal bare brick warehouse-style rooms with the emphasis on sound quality provided by a state of the art sound system, Amusement 13 is a dance music orientated venue aiming to cater for the serious raver and deep, dark and bassy genre DJ's. Boasting one of the loudest Void sound systems in Europe in its main room with lighting to match, if underground bass and techno is your thing, this is the place.

Sunflower Lounge
Birmingham's place for pleasingly eclectic bookings on an intimate scale. From Psychedelic Porn Crumpets to Steve Ignorant, from Black Honey to Rolo Tomassi. Sunflower Lounge is one of those places with a capacity that hits the sweet spot, pulling in the bands before they get too big for independent venues. In a pleasing throwback to the days of Mothers and The Crown, Robert Plant has been known to partake of the entertainment on offer here as a gig-goer, undoubtedly one of the best endorsements an independent Birmingham venue can receive. 

 

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