For our latest Local Heroes feature, we sat down to chat with proud Brummie, hive of local knowledge and music archivist Jez Collins. Put the kettle on – this one’s well worth a read if you’re into your local music history!
Firstly, for those who don’t know you, could you please explain a little bit about what it is you do?
I’m the founder of the Birmingham Music Archive, Co-Director of Un-Convention and a member of the Birmingham Music Coalition amongst other things. I’m also a lapsed academic which is like being a lapsed catholic without the guilt or a lapsed clubber without the fun!
The main focus of my working week though is the Birmingham Music Archive which is a cultural and creative arts organisation that captures, documents and celebrates the musical culture of Birmingham. We believe Birmingham’s music history heritage and culture should be central to the city’s place-making policies and activities.
The BMA use the city’s music culture to develop participatory projects such as exhibitions, tours, talks, youth and community focused projects and broadcast media (films and radio). We currently have an engaged community of over 7000 active citizen archivists across our platforms who upload materials and memories of Birmingham and its music culture. So to give a concrete example, we are just about to start on a year long project exploring and documenting the history of the Que Club which was located in the Grade II listed* Methodist Central Hall on Corporation St. We’ll record oral history interviews with promoters, musicians, staff members and clubbers, we’ll uncover hidden flyers, posters, photos, sound recordings and digitise them for our online platforms and we’ll stage a number of pop-up events such as ghost gigs and exhibitions. We’re looking for volunteers to get involved so if anyone is interested in Birmingham’s music and dance culture get in touch!
How long would you say you have been involved with the Birmingham music scene on a professional/working basis, and what made you want to get involved with it more than just on a listening basis?
I’ve been in and around the Birmingham music scenes for a long time, over 30 years. I haven’t always directly worked in music but music has always played a central role in my life. I’ve been in and around bands, managed (fairly unsuccessfully!) bands, worked in community music, owned my own bar that programmed music, written about our music, made films about our music and done numerous events and exhibitions based on our music so it has consumed a lot of my working life! Not to mention the amount of money I’ve spent on buying and watching music!
I took a decision last year to leave academia where I worked at Birmingham City University to concentrate full time on the Birmingham Music Archive. There were a number of personal issues that helped me make the decision but I just thought the time was right to fully immerse myself in the business and see how far we could develop it and I have to say it’s been a great and rewarding year. I feel that we need the sort of people who you highlight as Local Heroes to keep pushing music and music culture forward and to say Birmingham is a music city and city of music.
There are a number of reasons why think it’s incredibly important that Birmingham’s music culture is documented, celebrated and shared.
- a) You’ve mentioned Manchester and London but you could also add Liverpool, Glasgow, Bristol and even Sheffield as cities that are often seen or mentioned as ‘music cities’ in the media. This association to music has tangible results. For example Beatles tourism in Liverpool generates £83m NET each year and supports over 3000 jobs. In Manchester, students are attracted to their universities because of the city’s music history and you can’t listen to BBC Radio 6 or watch a music documentary without some claim as Manchester being the centre of the UK music world. Similarly with Glasgow and its famed live music scene and the amazing audiences. London is London but you even have the V&A putting on blockbuster David Bowie and Pink Floyd exhibitions. More and more, cities are realising the economic benefits of celebrating their music heritage to attract visitors to their city for all types of reasons. Visitors/tourists spend money on eating out, staying in hotels and so on, go to gigs and visit visitor attractions.. So the first reason why we should document and celebrate Birmingham’s music history is for the potential economic benefits it could bring.
- b) The second reason is about the perception of Birmingham. The cities I’ve mentioned above, particularly Manchester and Liverpool, are thought of and talked of as being music cities. In fact Liverpool and Glasgow are UNESCO cities of music, and so they are seen as vibrant, young, happening places where music is part of the fabric of the city and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy, look at all the amazing music that has come from this place and look at all the amazing music that is still coming from this place. And people buy into that and it becomes a part of the cultural placemaking of and for cities. I’ve actually read serious writers talking about how you can just feel the music in the air when you walk down a Manchester street!
Now in Birmingham’s case, we haven’t grasped how incredible, how diverse and how sustained our own music culture is, both from a historical and contemporary view. All my life I’ve read and heard how Birmingham is a boring, concrete, grey slab of nothingness in the centre of the UK. And just as if you keep saying somewhere is great over and over and over again people will believe it, the same is true if you keep demeaning a place and saying nothing of musical worth or interest has ever come from Birmingham people will believe it to be true. And that includes people from the city! But this is a lazy assumption and nothing could be further from the truth and I want to change that. I want Birmingham to be talked about and seen as the incredible city it is. No other city in the UK has such a diverse range of music as Birmingham that has had a national and international impact on music and we should be using these histories and stories to change the perception of Birmingham. We are, without doubt, a music city.
- c) Finally it’s about valuing our cultural heritage and celebrating all those shared experiences that music enables us to have. The artefacts of music, the recordings, the flyers, the posters, the photos, the ticket stubs and so on, are important to people and when we document and share them people respond. New narratives emerge, hidden histories are revealed and we learn more about how music shapes and informs the social, cultural and political landscapes of the places, spaces, people and communities we live in. It also helps us know more about ourselves and the role that music plays in the everyday lives of people.
We need to harness the points above and make a concerted effort to ensure that we ‘do shout about’ our musical history. That music becomes a central part of the city’s branding or promotion, that we give serious thought about how we might better protect and document the past present and future music culture that emanates from Birmingham. And we should think about how we might create and support some type of visitor attraction / music hub for Birmingham.
Music gives and shapes who we are and informs our cultural identity. The music I listened to, the record shops I visited, the venues I saw bands in, the friends in bands and the friends I went with or met at gigs or clubs have all helped shape who I am
If you had to pick your favourite Birmingham album and single ever – what would they be, and why?
Ha, that’s impossible as it changes depending on what mood I’m in or who I’m with or where I am! I love Don’t Stand Me Down by Dexys, Felt’s The Strange Idols Pattern and Other Short Stories, Forever Breathes the Lonely Word and Ignite the Seven Cannons. Steel Pulse’s and UB40’s Handsworth Revolution and One In Ten are two of the best reggae albums ever, ELO’s Out of the Blue, Joan Armatrading’s Love and Affection…Sorry! I’ve not even mentioned Sabbath, Broadcast, OCS, Laura Mvula. It’s impossible!
I’ll give you one song. It’s not my favourite but it highlights how we keep our music history and heritage hidden. Stanley Myers – Cavatina. If you’re a film buff you will absolutely know this song! What an amazing piece of music!
How important do you think music education is to the future of music in Birmingham and the UK?
I’m a great believer in education and of music education. As children in primary, junior and secondary education get less and less music education I worry about the future of FE and HE music education which will be devastating for music in Birmingham. However we’re not at that stage yet so the music education provision is critical to developing, nurturing and growing the music industries in the city from artists to sound engineers to producers to managers and I think the city is well served with music educators like BIMM, they’re all doing a fantastic job.
I would like to see the education sector work more closely together though and I’d like to see better connections between the education and music industries as we’re going to see an awful lot of music graduates in a few years and I worry if there will be enough opportunities to sustain them in the city. Hopefully they’ll be creating their own businesses and employing the likes of me!
Have you managed to meet any of your heroes through your work? If so, who?
I’m a bit old to have heroes now but I’ve been very very lucky to meet and work with some musicians whose work I really admire.
I’ve got all the time in the world for Brian Travers from UB40. He’s just an absolute straight up person and very much rooted and in love with Birmingham. I’ve shared pints and talks with Pete Williams (original Dexy’s member) and I’ve spent time with Lawrence from Felt/Denim/Go-Kart Mozart who I think is one of the most underrated musicians/songwriters to ever come from this country.
I’ve done some work with PJ Harvey which was really interesting and eye opening, knocked around with Young Fathers in their early days (and what a delight to see the band become what they are!) and done events with the likes of Billy Bragg, Jarvis Cocker, Don Letts, Andrew Loog Oldham (Rolling Stones manager) and others but I think my most special memory is of driving Jimmy Cliff to Stansted Airport.
It was about 3am and his band were dozing in the back of my van and Jimmy was upfront with me. I put a Simon & Garfunkel LP on and Jimmy just sat bolt upright and proceeded to sing every song on the album, twice! My own private Jimmy Cliff gig, it was so special. It’s something I’ll never forget!
A lot of people think working with music is a fairly glamorous job, but those who get into it know that isn’t often the case. Are there any struggles that you think people looking to work in the music industry should know about?
Well it’s called the music business and as such it’s no different from any other business. Of course I think it is more interesting and creative than most other businesses but the rules are the same and there are good and bad things! Working in the music business can be precarious, you’ll be freelancing a lot or on short term contracts, you’ll have to develop what we call a portfolio career so you’ll need be good or have knowledge or experience of many aspects of the industry which means getting to grips with things like spreadsheets and health & safety and licensing laws that type of stuff! Hours can be long and you will definitely meet or work with people who have way too much self confidence and ummm, ‘interesting’ personalities!
Birmingham really was giving a platform to so many of the world’s biggest alternative artists in the 60s and 70s. When I was younger, I remember reading up about Mothers in Erdington and not quite believing that the likes of Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd used to frequent a venue that was down the road from where I grew up! Has there been anything you’ve discovered through researching that made you think “wow, this really happened in Birmingham?!”
Oh there’s loads! I love the story of Davy Jones (not yet David Bowie!) playing a gig with his band Lower Third at The Cedar Club on Constitution Hill. Ace Kefford and Trevor Burton were there and Bowie told the pair of them to ditch their respective bands and start a band together. They took his advice added a couple of members and became known as The Move, one of the great bands of the 60s.
There’s also the little known fact of the record shop and label on Moseley Rd in Balsall Heath. It was called Oriental Star Agency and released the first ever Bhangra records by local bands Bhujhangy Group and Anari Sangeet Party. They also first introduced the Qawwali superstar Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan to world and released Asian superstars Bally Sagoo and Malkit Singh’s music. They sold millions of records from this small shop in Balsall Heath, incredible!
Or what about Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac going to school in Bearwood and then studying at the Moseley School of Art? Or how about Small Heath lads John Carter, Ken Lewis who sang backing vocals on The Who’s I Can’t Explain and had a massive psychedelic hit as The Flower Pot Men with Let’s Go To San Francisco?
Or Erdington’s The World of Oz and their euro smash The Muffin Man, or the legendary drummer Cozy Powell playing first with Brummies Youngblood, or that the sound effects for Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds, Stingray and Fireball XL5 were created and recorded by John and Joan Taylor at Hollick & Taylor studios in Perry Barr and this was also the studio that Noddy Holder AND John Bonham were ever captured on record! Or did I mention Stanley Myers….Seriously, this is the tip of the iceberg. We have so music history and heritage to shout about!