December 8, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Birmingham – punk breaks the heavy metal stranglehold

5 min read
Heavy Metal reigned supreme in the English city of Birmingham in the 1970s until Punk came along as Tony McMahon discovers

In the mid-1970s the idea that heavy metal would ever be de-throned in Birmingham and most of the Midlands would have seemed highly improbable. For this, after all, was the home of Black Sabbath – not a band, so much as a religion. Punk might have swept across London like a tidal wave in 1976, but Birmingham remained impervious to its lack of charms.

Birmingham was widely considered to be the second city of the UK but unlike Manchester or Liverpool, it was more of a conurbation – a number of towns that had merged together into a city. It got bombed quite a bit in World War Two and then massively redeveloped in the post-war period. The centre became a web of concrete subways and overhead walkways. At its heart was the vast Bull Ring shopping centre. In the mid-1970s, my parents drove me through Birmingham and it really was a showcase of 70s architecture which we glanced at from a flyover. Motorists leaving Birmingham had to negotiate an interchange of roads and motorways layered on top of eachother known nationally as ‘spaghetti junction’.

Birmingham initially resists punk

Brummies loved their city. But in all honesty, at college in the 1980s, I regarded it as a place to be passed through on the way to Liverpool or Manchester. Those were more tightly knit cities with vibrant music scenes that were up to date and innovative. Brum was just a sprawling mess populated by heavy metal greasers. Of course that was ignorant of me but I certainly wasn’t alone in giving it a wide berth.

Down south, it was seen as lost in time. Untouched by the punk revolution. When I was at school in the late 1970s, I remember stunned schoolmates returning from football matches in the Midlands and declaring incredulously: “They’re still wearing bloody flares up there!” We had cut our hair, dyed it in some instances, and adopted drainpipe trousers. Yet north of Watford Gap, the fashion bible according to Vivienne Westwood was ignored. These pagans were refusing to be converted to the truth according to Johnny Rotten. Whatever was to be done with them?

First punk bands in Birmingham

In 1977, a band called The Prefects formed – one of the city’s first punk combos. Their first gig in March of that year at a private party was raided by the police. A gig at a brasserie-cum-nightclub called Rebecca’s ended in violence. Most likely some of the audience took exception to their song Birmingham’s a Shithole. The Prefects made enough of a name for themselves to end up supporting The Clash on tour as well as The Damned, The Slits, The Fall and The Buzzcocks. They later reformed as The Nightingales in 1979 who I’m pretty sure I saw supporting Teardrop Explodes in the very early 1980s at the Pyramid club in Liverpool.

1978 saw the formation of a female-led post-punk group, the Au Pairs. They emerged from the Rock Against Racism scene and have often been compared musically to bands like Gang of Four and the Young Marble Giants. They were strongly left-wing and like many post-punk, left-wing bands at the time liked to use Maoist political imagery. Their first album, Playing with a Different Sex, explored gender relations in a way that was very revolutionary for the time. There was a growing adoption of funk by white bands at the end of the decade and that comes through with the Au Pairs. Some of their gigs were marred by violence from National Front skinheads.

Barbarella’s – a venue for punk fans in Birmingham

One night club that adopted the growing punk scene was Barbarella’s which opened in 1972 and closed in 1979. And yes, it was named after the ultra-kitsch Jane Fonda led sci-fi movie released in 1968. Among the bands that would grace its stage were the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Ramones and Mod revivalists, The Jam. A certain Roger Taylor used to play drums for punk bands at this legendary venue before he went on to become a member of New Romantic global pop sensation, Duran Duran.

Predictably at the time, there was a growing friction between skinheads and punks in Birmingham. The skinhead scene had been infiltrated by neo-Nazis groups like the British Movement seeking to push back against the success of Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League. But I had an interesting conversation with the late Ranking Roger of The Beat – real name Roger Charlery – who I met on several occasions including at his house in the city. As a young black British punk, he used to frequent Barbarella’s and kind of got adopted by a group of local skinheads. Although very much on the basis that “you’re alright, it’s just the others we hate”. Ah – that old cliche!

In 1980, the Cockney Rejects brought their Oi! take on punk to Birmingham. As you’ll know from other posts on this blog, the Cockney Rejects were part of a movement in the late 1970s convinced they represented the punk voice of the working class and that other punk bands were pretentious, middle class, and the products of art colleges. The Cockney Rejects had a following on the football terraces and the prospect of a gig descending into a generalised fist fight was never far away. And so, in June 1980, they played what was said at the time to have been one of the ugliest concerts ever seen in the UK. Five hundred youths trashed the venue and continued brawling in the local hospital accident and emergency department – according to local press reports.

FIND OUT MORE: The violent hurrah of Oi! in Southall

But heavy metal refused to die

Punk had arrived in Birmingham and made its mark – but heavy metal wasn’t dead by any stretch. In fact, the 1970s ended with heavy metal resurrecting in no uncertain terms. The so-called New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) breathed new life into the genre. Whisper it softly – but some punks retreated back into Heavy Metal.

The bands that dominated NWOBHM had a harder, racier sound to the heavy metal giants of the mid-1970s like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. Now, it’s a moot point whether they were influenced by punk and I know some rockers dislike that argument. But I think it’s undeniable. Even though metal climbed out of the grave – it was a different beast that would transform into the hair metal combos of the 1980s.

DISCOVER: What was the New Wave of British Heavy Metal?

Leave a Reply