Sunday, 22 June 2014

Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you got till it's gone?

Two weeks ago, I walked out of Birmingham's New Street station on to Hill Street. I found a man in a Judas Priest t-shirt, completely lost; no idea where to go. He hadn't been to Birmingham for a while. I set him on his way, walking with him down Hill Street. As he headed off, he told me that he used to be able to navigate in Birmingham by the music venues. And, irony of ironies, we were outside the Crown on Hill Street. 

Late in the day, there's been a bit of noise about the Crown. Pretty much the last of our traditional city centre rock venues, it's been sold for redevelopment. The Crown shut its doors for the last time on Sunday 22nd June 2014. 

Back in the day, it was a hell of a live music venue; big names and lots of them. Recent management were valiantly working to bring the glory days back. Now, the place is slap bang in front of the grand entrance to a swish new John Lewis. So regeneration money talks, and the Crown is to be redeveloped from a scruffy old pub in a dingy street to posh city living apartments and a swish eaterie. No surprise there. 

There goes another chunk of local music history. The Town Hall aside, there really isn't anything much left in the city centre of music heritage value. Like previous venues, the Crown has gone pretty quietly. There's been online discussion, a bit of TV coverage, and dutiful stories in the Birmingham Mail and Post. I suspect these only bothered because Black Sabbath, the one band they ever seem to write about (apart from when UB40 have another kerfuffle), played there. But now the deed is done. 

What are we fighting for, exactly?

I'm sad, of course. But I'm also interested in exactly what people are trying to protect, so very late in the day. All this stuff is fragile. So much of our lives gets swept away, pushed aside over time by cultural shifts, web trivia and consumerism. It's hard to place a value on recent losses without a proper perspective. Are we talking history, dim recollections, or pumped up nostalgia? Is anyone seriously looking at the germs of a tourist business? A Birmingham Graceland? 

If so, they've got their work cut out. Things change. People move on. Businesses grow and die. Places open up and shut down. And, mostly, we forget, unless it really mattered. Music scenes spring up, maybe become amazing, and then fade and die. And when that scene or the venue goes, it takes its trivia and its vibe with it. Sometimes the scene is tiny: important to its members, and to nobody else. 

Do you remember or care about the Railway? I do, because it was central to 70s / 80s Birmingham rock. Now it's long gone, buried under a lumpy box on the BCU Parkside campus. I adored the Golden Eagle; now it's a car park. Barbarellas, where I DJ'd and stuck to the carpet for years, went with barely a whisper. So did the Rum Runner, which spawned Duran Duran, one of the biggest bands to ever leave Birmingham for sunnier tax regimes. Last week, I saw Dave Travis' nostalgic photos on Facebook for the Click Club, one on Broad Street. It, too, is now a car park. The last Broad Street music venue was Ronnie Scott's. Now it's a lapdancing joint. Classy. 

I could go on. It's a long, long list. I've spent many happy hours reminiscing about time spent in this pub or that venue. Those places meant a lot to me. But that and two quid gets you a cup of coffee. 

Big fish, little fish

Our music industry plays by the same rules as big business; the big promoter and venue fishes always try to squeeze out the small fish. When conditions are kindly, things flourish. When they are not, you work harder, take it out to new areas, and build from there. But the things that bring us joy don't matter a flying fig where there's big money to be made. 

So each new generation finds new places to play. New promoters open new venues. Our city is still bursting - always has been - with exciting places where great music is to be found... they're just not the long gone city centre places. 

I loved the old days; they were fun and enormously satisfying. You'll find no argument from me that the Midlands spawned fantastic bands back in the day. There have been several attempts to document all this on an institutional level. I just don't think, now, that there's enough left - if there ever was - to spark music tourism as a business proposition, especially if subsidies are expected to cover costs. The subjects of all this didn't get subsidies. Consider Sheffield, whose National Centre for Pop Music lurched along for for a decade, funded by a multi-million pound pile of cash from the lottery. It still folded 14 years ago for lack of interest.

Does any place in the UK do music tourism? Well, Liverpool has enterprisingly traded on being the birthplace of the biggest band the UK ever produced for decades. You can go on Beatles walking tours, visit the (recreated and relocated) Cavern Club and spend your money in a Beatles museum on the Albert Dock, full of Japanese tourists. They do a roaring trade in toy Yellow Submarines and Magical Mystery Tour figurines

Could Birmingham compete? Metal still matters. But Black Sabbath aren't the Beatles. Ozzy owes his recent fame to his astute wife Sharon and the TV reality show she set up. Hawking Ozzy action figures (they exist, they really do) doesn't have the same instant charm as a Blue Meanie doll. I wonder if they've tried an Ozzy doll with a beheadable chicken? 

We're not in the sixties anymore. Of course none of the monster bands still exist, There are no original incarnations. There are undignified disputes over name rights. A few originals still live in the region, but others have retired or passed on. Still others have skipped to more advantageous tax addresses, which further dilutes the heritage proposition. After all, if a big local star leaves town for tax reasons as soon as he damn well can, he can hardly pretend to still be local, part of the culture - or the tax base.

The new mix in Birmingham

But here's a plus: the new ethnicity of Birmingham has expanded music horizons beyond our wildest dreams, opening up fabulous new music possibilities previous generations could not have dreamed of. There's a lot more going than hormonally pumped white boys in tight jeans throwing macho shapes and blasting out power chords. This being Birmingham, however, we will always have that metal tradition, and I'm glad of that. 

Let's, just for a minute, indulge in a wild fantasy. Let us suppose that our enlightened City fathers had long since acknowledged the potential of our musicians, and so moved to positively support the sector. We might then have held on to a few more places. But that still wouldn't have guaranteed a continuing string of venues putting on live music. People talk affectionately about Mothers in Erdington, where Pink Floyd recorded for Ummagumma. The building is still there. The club folded over forty years ago. 

My point? If there's a heritage horse, valuable or otherwise, it was allowed to bolt a long time ago. A critical mass of historic venues has gone. The greying boomer market that would sustain any such initiative is getting on. Pretty soon they're going to start dying off. To cater to that market and ignore exciting new working musicians is plain wrong, even if it's an easy route to take. 

Seeing Jeff Lynne or Ozzy wing in to plant a star on Broad Street and leave the very next day does not make me burst with civic pride. But to see the city genuinely make a serious, intelligent effort to support our current crop of brilliant talent really would make me proud.

Celebrate the now

We need to celebrate what's emerging now. Do it right, and the city benefits hugely. And the venues where this talent is emerging? They matter, of course; they really matter. That's why what's happened to the Crown and all the others is regrettable and sad. And I note that while the council occasionally makes brave noises about the music sector, it didn't lift a finger to stop the Crown - or any of the others - being sold for redevelopment.

Ultimately, venues matter because of what they are: not just bricks and mortar, but the acts, the audience, the management, the promoters, the sound crew, the security, the tech and bar staff, the idealists, the characters and the crazies. What went down forty and fifty years ago was great. We should be proud; it should be marked for those people who care and those who might want to learn about the old days. But now is where you'll find the potential. 

It's the people that make the places. We got some gooduns right here, right now.

Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you got till it's gone....

I can't find Brummagem - courtesy of Birmingham Museums

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Adrian Juste said...

I went past The Bulls Head in Barnes yesterday - another famous nursery slope of good music. That too has been suffering similar intimidation. Why are the money-grubbing suits allowed to destroy everything? - they have no discernable talent whatsoever, and should show a little more respect for people with some ...

Phil Ward-Large said...

The problem is that the 'money' thinks that music is all about TV talent shows. Most of the 'talent' have never played a pub, club or toilet in their young lives, they go straight from singing in front of their bedroom mirror to performing in front of millions on TV. They've never perfected their craft or honed their chops in front of an audience that would be brutally honest rather than the studio crowd that boos judges when they have the temerity to inform them that they were out of tune. It's sad when these old venues close and it's happening everywhere, we even lost The Marquee and if that can shut then nowhere is safe. We had the best of it but I fear for the future.

Neil Spragg said...

Another great piece of writing Robin, the one thing you can ever be sure of though is that things change...I think it would be more worrying in many ways if these venues *didn't* close or change, for whatever reason...that way leads to stagnation.

Robin Valk said...

Thank you, Neil. You're right: cities constantly reinvent themselves - Brum is particularly convulsive at the moment. And Rock music is a product of the city

Andrew Morton said...

Once retreated down the fire escape in the face of a hostile audience. Actually, this was not an uncommon experience with Slender Loris. Similar at JBs - we were just too "dainty" for rootsy Birmingham audiences.All they want is Knees up Mother Brown. Still do. A city gets the venues it deserves - or loses them. This pub was the scene of at least one famous murder back in the 70s. It always felt like that kind of thing could happen.