As anyone interested in the Birmingham music scene should know, ROBIN VALK has been running his Radio To Go blog for some while, interviewing all manner of good folk, from artists to studio bosses, rock to classical, connected with the city. Now, he’s gathered together the best of these, often in extended versions, for Survivors: Music and musicians in the UK's West Midlands, an E Book about, well what it says really. I can’t sum it up any better than the Amazon blurb (where you can download it for £1.99) whichj reads “this isn't about glamour, success, or stardom in enormodomes. It's about the grind, the persistence, and the luck you need to stay working in the music industry and maybe catch that break.” Featuring Brian Travers, KK Downing, Simon Fowler, Pauline Black, Johnny Doom and even veteran Coventry star Don Fardon “these are stories of craft, graft and creativity, tales of triumph and adversity, tales of good luck and good fortune arriving unexpectedly after decades... and tales of horrendous bad luck and catastrophic mismanagement.”
As part of their 50th anniversary celebrations, BIG BEAR RECORDS has made a clutch of their original singles available to download online under the banner Revived 45s. Although there’s surprisingly nothing by soul funk outfit Muscles, you can get hold of the label’s very first single, Bobby Dazzler’s Dance, Dance, Dance and sophomore release I’m Cousin Joe From New Orleans by, er, Cousin Joe From New Orleans as well as rare, if not always necessarily collectible, offerings from The Mighty Flea, Roy Gee and Ray King, whose celebration of West Bromwich Albion has recently enjoyed a new lease of life. Magnum obsessives will be keen to learn the series includes Bob Catley solo single Lights Went Out while Red, Red Libanon from Zulu features Simple Minds drummer Mel Gaynor. Bizarrely, Garbo’s Celluloid Heroes are represented by a cover of Lady Madonna rather than their regional hit Only Death Is Fatal while Gotta Get A Job is the choice for The Quads as opposed to There Must Be Thousands which, in the New Wave explosion, charted at #66 in 1979 and was the closest the label came to a hit single.
Followers of the local scene with long memories may well recall Hollywood Beyond, the 80’s brainchild of MARK ROGERS (not to be confused with BCC’s new Chief Executive) who scored/ a Top 10 hit with the tribal rhythm techno-dance number What’s The Colour Of Money. Since then, and discovering Mica Paris, he’s combined music industry interests with social arts programmes from Harlem to Georgetown Guyana. Now he’s returned to his native city to set up The BANG Foundation, .a non-profit foundation with a mission to create and develop informed and innovative contemporary arts programmes, initiatives, training, development and industries to both inspire and provide long-term relevance and practical applications. Essentially a contemporary arts youth club, the team (all Birmingham born) believes that art is a way of engaging young people and assisting them in their personal development, as well as helping address social issues they frequently face, such as post-code discrimination, gang affiliation, mental ill-health and homelessness.
Launching on May 19 with a 12-week multi-art discipline in contemporary music, drama, dance, film-making, production, and event management, it will involve some 70 young people between aged 16-25 years from Aston, Lozells, Smethwick and West Bromwich, four of the most socially-deprived areas in the West Midlands. The finished project will be performed at two Birmingham theatres.
To launch the project and boost awareness, Mark’s also recorded a new track, Rough Night, an itchy limb-loosening slice of urban dance soul that marries a Prince-like percussion driven rhythmic groove with the 60s psychedelic funk of The Temptations and a searing rock guitar solo, produced by Mike Thorne of Soft Cell fame and with all proceeds going to fund BANG. For info on the project contact BYC911@outlook.com
Hailing from Coventry, SUPINE ORCHESTRA are duo comprising Richard Sykes and Joel Kendrick and Marek’s Camp (Half Eaten) is their third album, one on which they seem to have cranked up the quirk and eccentricity. They lull you into a false security with the gentle opener, Manatee, a summery folk jog with harmonica then comes Brighton Breakfast , a sort of quasi tropical rhythm that dispenses with past S&G and Calexico influences in favour of Frank Sidebottom and manages to slip in a reference to Robert Smith. Bluff is a simple country waltz love song to a strummed acoustic guitar, Poor Bernadette is a piano backed jazzy waltz with a rock guitar solo and Nice For Jorge an undulating, laid back pastoral shuffle, scoured by some throaty distorted blues guitar.
The lyrics are probably stronger than the often very similar tunes to which they’re set, whether they’re tongue in cheek on Black Funky Metal, sending up your typical death metal fan as they sing “I keep a dead raven in my bag I like to inhale the fumes’, disarmingly romantic on Laces or nodding to Chas and Dave of the come drinking with me The Grand Union. They even have a moody little acoustic strum called Mutt Lange, which has nothing to do with the famed producer and everything to do with being an eternal fuck up. I’m not persuaded it’s as strong as their previous outing, but its skewed and often poetic perspectives are certainly worth exploring.
BIG TENT AND THE GYPSY LANTERN are a Moseley-based four piece of Conservatoire graduates with vaulting ambitions and a self-released debut album, Richest Man Today, which draws on folk, the avant garde and early 70s prog to impressive effect. Acoustic but rich in texture, it announces their intentions with seven minute opener, Mortals, which builds from barely heard shimmers of strings to a couple of rousing crescendos before again fading into the ether. With instrumentation that includes guitar, percussion, timple (basically a 5-string plucked Spanish guitar), ukulele, brass and accordion with Tom Lenthall and Paul Norman taking care of the vocals, numbers like the dreamily swaying Bus Ticket Sculptures and the choppy folk pop of Curious will invite the usual Mumford comparisons, but the band’s horizons are far wider than that.
Members have spent time with both Urban Folk Quartet and Joe Broughton’s Folk Ensemble as well as sharing a bill with The Destroyers and the influences have clearly been ingested. 24ft March is an urgent flurry of harmonies, trumpet, handclap percussion and timple that does a rhythm somersault midway and ends with a dead stop, the equally pace shifting Brightly Coloured Wall embraces hints of early Jethro Tull, staccato rhythms and Eastern textures while Gregory is an almost bare boned folk ballad, Hangover a suitably woozy lurch and Stuck a nod to the bucolic Drake tradition before Lemon winds up proceedings with forcefully strummed guitar, a choir of backing harmonies and a wholly unexpected brief digression into wheezing campfire squeezebox before the big swell climax. They’re already at work on a second album, and I for one can’t wait to see where the path takes them.
Exploding out of nowhere, one can only assume that THE VAMPS, fronted by Sutton Coldfield’s Bradley Simpson, spent months locked up in a room listening to the likes of Busted, One Direction, The Lumineers, Bruno Mars, Blink-182 and, going by the intro to Dangerous, maybe even Supertramp, before recording their Meet The Vamps debut. It doesn’t have two atoms of originality to rub together (Somebody To You is a almost a remake of Ho Hey) and it ranges so far and wide across the influences that there’s no real consistent individual style, but, that said, there’s no denying that numbers like pop anthem Wild Heart, Another World, the shuffling Move My Way and chest beater She’s Was The One do precisely what they’re supposed to and are hard to shake from the head once heard,. They even manage to take Simon & Garfunkel’s Oh Cecelia chorus and fuse it with talk along toasting lyrics into annoyingly catchy tropical pop that has all the makings of a massive summer hit, even if it does make them sound like the boy band version of Black Lace.
A fairly speedy sequel to their eponymous debut, now signed to Navigator, Simon Fowler’s folk side project, MERRYMOUTH release Wenlock Hill. Named after one of the steepest gradients in the UK, the trio’s completed by fellow OCS man Dan Sealey are now full time keyboard player Adam Barry (who co-produced with Dan) while violinist John McCusker reprises his appearance on the first album, joined by Chas Hodges on the ivories as well as cellist Catherine Harper, Nick Lydon on double bass, Hugh Thomas on clarinet and Andy Derrick and Anthony Jones providing the brass on trombone and trumpet, respectively.
Folk is a perhaps fairly loose definition this time round; like OCS colleague Steve Cradock, Fowler’s 60s influences shine through, albeit from a different side of the spectrum. The Bee Gees, Robin Gibb’s quivering vibrato especially, are in evidence as ever, indeed He Was A Friend Of Mine, a setting of the McGuinn song with new lyrics paying tribute to Lennon, has distinct echoes of Holiday off their first album, while the title track, a love song inspired by A.E.Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad, wouldn’t have been out of place on Odessa and captures the quintessential Englishness of the project.
But the arrival of Salt Breeze, with Hodges on the old Joanna, immediately reveals new perspectives, the song, heralded by seagulls, is a jaunty, almost children’s fairground shanty about a boat and its occupants, rat and mole included, that conjures thoughts of The Idle Race, from where, via the Jeff Lynne link, it’s only a small step to long distance relationship number Without You having you imagine Paul McCartney were he to have chanced upon Dylan while writing I’ve Just Seen A Face.
And then, sung in Noel Coward accent, there’s Teashop Serenade about taking tea with the afternoon ladies that’s pure New Vaudeville Band, complete with kazoo and Dixieland jazz brass.
Having not made it on to the debut, it’s good to find I You Follow here, and while the Byrdsian jangle as been replaced by more of a Slim Chance feel, it’s still catchily infectious. As before, Dan’s written a couple of numbers, keyboard, accordion and cello ballad about mortality, Blink Of An Eye, the folkiest number here, and That Man, which, with its lyrics, bowed cello, piano cascades and shifting time signatures, is like some fusion of Idle Race era Lynne with his Diary Of Horace Wimp self. Sealey and Fowler also come together for the lovely closing tinkling piano and cello lullaby, The Ragged Spiral.
There’s also two inspired covers, though perhaps reimaginings may be a better term; The Stranglers’s Duchess extracting the original’s folk core and serving it up with an airier Ray Davies minstrel touch featuring what sounds like mandolin and virginal, and stripped down to piano, strings and three part harmony, a decidedly folk version of The Stone Roses’ I Am The Resurrection. As the band’s name suggests, there’s plenty to put a smile on your face here.