The beats of Birmingham: A music lover’s tour of the increasingly diverse U.K. city
On a Birmingham music history tour, the surprises are as plentiful as the hit songs.
As we drive past the red-brick walls of Villa Park, the Aston Villa Football Club’s stadium, Birmingham Music Archive founder Jez Collins says, “Black Sabbath are all massive Villa fans. Aston is their neighbourhood, and their first rehearsal space was a nearby nunnery. It was dirt cheap.”
Such quirky factoids are music to the ears of a classic rock fanatic. I’ve reviewed albums and concerts by Black Sabbath and fellow Brummie metal icons Judas Priest for years. And the first cassette I ever bought was “Seven and the Ragged Tiger” by Duran Duran, Birmingham’s biggest pop legends.
Once an Industrial Revolution powerhouse, this U.K. city of 1.1 million boasts an intriguing musical legacy that’s as wide-ranging as its famous network of canals, which spans more than 160 kilometres.
This legacy is what attracted me to this three-hour, van-based tour with Collins, a Birmingham City University researcher passionate about how music and culture intersect. Stars like Jimmy Cliff and the Jesus and Mary Chain have also taken his tour.
Music put Birmingham on the map long before it was named the host city of the 2022 Commonwealth Games (July 28 to Aug. 8). In the 20th century, Brummie musicians hungered for an imaginative escape from the industrial Midlands landscape of steel and coal.
As Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” chimes on the stereo, Collins pulls up at 14 Lodge Rd. It’s a bleak interwar terraced house with chipped white paint. There’s no noble statue to indicate that Ozzy Osbourne, who sang Black Sabbath classics like “War Pigs,” grew up here. A woman in a niqab walks past as we gaze at the decrepit shrine.
“Back when Ozzy was getting sent to juvenile court for stealing, Aston was a very white neighbourhood,” Collins explains. “Today, there’s a large Asian population with Pakistani and Bangladeshi roots.”
Shortly afterwards, as we navigate along Soho Road, bustling with Indian restaurants, Collins notes, “This is the heart of Birmingham’s Asian community and the home of U.K. bhangra. Many bhangra songs you’ll hear in Bollywood movies were created here.”
My perceptions of Birmingham are expanding. In this multicultural, musically driven city, if you stick to obvious downtown highlights like the 2013-built Library of Birmingham, you’re missing out.
Socially conscious reggae is another hallmark of Birmingham’s diverse music scene, as I witness when we drive to the Handsworth Wellbeing Centre. In front of the public recreation building is a mural, unveiled in 2018, celebrating Steel Pulse, the local reggae pioneers who became the first non-Jamaican act to win the Grammy for Best Reggae Album with 1986’s “Babylon the Bandit.”
The mural, inspired by their 1978 “Handsworth Revolution” album cover, shows a jungle surrounding a Volkswagen Beetle beneath a grey hillside city. It’s an evocative vision of urban regeneration.
“Steel Pulse performed at the Rock Against Racism carnivals after Eric Clapton praised Enoch Powell’s anti-immigration policies at a 1976 Birmingham show,” Collins says. Even if Steel Pulse isn’t as renowned as fellow Birmingham reggae stars UB40 (“Red Red Wine”), their influence is undeniable.
What I love about this tour is how Collins illuminates nearly forgotten aspects of Birmingham’s music scene. He eulogizes long-gone venues like Mothers, which Billboard named the world’s top rock club in 1969 and 1970, describing how pot-smoking fans camped in the nearby St. Barnabas Parish Church graveyard before a Pink Floyd gig.
He also details the ongoing negotiations to have Duran Duran bassist John Taylor unveil a Birmingham Civic Society heritage plaque at the Rum Runner nightclub’s former site, where the group toiled before exploding with 1981’s “Girls on Film.”
We exit the van to mosey around Digbeth, a gritty industrial neighbourhood undergoing massive revitalization as an arts district. Backstreet electronic music clubs and psychedelic murals next to railway bridges generate an upbeat vibe.
I’m excited to learn that a Digbeth location of the Museum of Youth Culture is slated to open in 2025. A 260-million-pound ($430-million) project, the 6,500-square-foot venue will include a permanent Birmingham Music Museum, with everything from Birmingham concert photos and posters to vintage instruments and demos created at Grosvenor Road Studios, where Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and Slade frontman Noddy Holder made their first recordings.
As my tour ends, my brain buzzes with musical possibilities. I’m already planning to shop Europe’s largest entertainment store — Birmingham’s 25,000-square-foot HMV Vault, opened in 2019 — for old-school CDs like “Obviously 5 Believers” by the Hawks, starring original Duran Duran singer Stephen Duffy.