When The Levee Breaks; Inside the Midlands’ Music Scene.
In some towns, music is just there. As much a part of the atmosphere as oxygen, music moves through open windows into homes, out of venues into hearts. I was born in a small town called Stourbridge, which is situated around ten miles outside of Birmingham, UK, in 1991. The previous nine months I’d spent in the womb reportedly tossing and turning to Bob Marley and The Clash tunes. I entered the world in a year ravaged by the loss of Freddie Mercury, and excited by albums like Gish, Metallica, Ten and Dangerous. In retrospect, 1991 must have felt strange – like music was about to change in some lethal, unalterable way.
By the time I’d reached my mid-teens, the alt scene had all but burst its banks and the musical landscape had shifted again in a big way. I remember a local venue hosting a tribute night to Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine – once cutting edge, ‘otherly’ bands now showcased alongside Tuesday’s regular Abba singalong or one of seventeen KISS tribute acts passing through the area that month. Music, as it had been in the 90’s - a vehicle for making things happen or changing the world - seemed to have been marginalised by the mid 2000’s. Sounds were harder to imitate for us kids, too. I didn’t know anyone who could rap, nor did I own a computer with good production software (if it even existed in the mainstream at that time), and Nu Metal hardly made me want to pick up a guitar and create a band. There was a craving for that punk ethic which just wasn’t there in the mainstream at that time.
As myself and my friends moved together through the decade, we started to collectively go back through rock and metal music to near obsession. Maybe the old bands could outdo the new? As ‘classic’ bands like Annihilator got billed with new schoolers like Trivium, we began to sense a change that would capitulate with the thrash revival in the late 2010’s. It was during this time that I first felt a real, genuine connection to my local music scene, as built by local bands and touring bands alike, that would fully confirm my passion. We had good venues too – a point often forgotten about when discussing the growth of music. Sure, we didn’t have a CBGBs – we had a run-down pub with a room we could book for free upstairs – but it was enough. When A Call For Blood, a local hardcore band featuring some good friends (and now bandmates) supported Madball at Eddies in Birmingham, suddenly everything felt achievable.
Stourbridge has always been one of those towns with an omnipresent sense of creativity and the Birmingham and Black Country areas, in a wider sense, have been the gestation point for a lot of great music over the years. Brian Tatler, guitarist of Diamond Head – main influence of Metallica – can be seen in my local pub or out walking his dog, Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin still lives locally, and surely there’s moments where even Ozzy Osbourne returns from his mansion in the States to breathe in the polluted, industrial air of Birmingham. Stourbridge itself has The Wonderstuff, Pop Will Eat Itself and the aforementioned Diamond Head, with the Birmingham area adding the Black Sabbath’s and Napalm Death’s whose contribution to heavy music is unparalleled.
There is a feeling of apathy towards all this though, of neglect to the very reasons why this area was perhaps better than any other in the United Kingdom for the arts. There’s a sense things have moved on. The Crown, the pub in central Birmingham which hosted the first ever Sabbath gig, has been derelict for years, promoters continue to pile local bands onto bills with no focus (money notwithstanding) and pay-to-play is sadly still very much a thing. Attendances are way down, perhaps in a gesture of lethargy from audience to band, the act itself a mirror echoing the stale, generic, motionless mainstream metal scene. People want to see something new and exciting, but the lack of good venues, good promoters and sadly, good bands are making 2016 feel like 2001 all over again. You only have to look at the Metal 2 The Masses ‘competition’ with all its drama and Facebook outrage, designed, in actuality, to hand-pick bands to play the popular Bloodstock Festival in Derbyshire, to realise just how wrong things are with the scene at the moment.
Stourbridge, though, has gone through somewhat of a revival and things are progressing in a way unique to the area. We have ScaryCanary, a bar built up out of the ashes of an old McDonalds, and Katie Fitzgerald’s, an Irish pub that’s been sitting on its corner longer than anyone can remember, as our venues. Both are booming on gig days, and such evenings are becoming more frequent as their fair and fun policies are drawing in bands from all over the world. Even Riverrooms, a club more dedicated to tribute bands and cringey singles nights, hosted one of the best attended metal shows of recent times for local heroes Godsize’s last ever performance. My band, Unhinged, who, though not the focus of this article are every part affected by it, have benefitted hugely from the giving people of our town. Now that we’re in a position to headline locally, I want us to be a similar force – encouraging other people to go out and play music because it is a viable choice, still. It still counts and it still matters.
Since the venues have become more accommodating, it’s no surprise that things are starting to flourish again. Math rock is championed by the dextrous Shogun’s Decapitator and bombastic Constant Waves, punk of all kinds has been met head on by ourselves, along with Them, Tomorrow Come the Wolves and heavier acts like Vicious Bastard and Golden Death Mask, and doom’s slow crawl is maintained by the likes of Conjurer, Opium Lord and Women. Now, with the right bands and the right rooms for them to play in, people are once again coming out to shows. We played to a room full of 18 year old kids a few months ago and it was at this moment that I realised we were onto something pretty special, and the night when we sold 40 CDs in a single evening was a big fuck you to any sort of notion that people don’t care about physical media, or even music in general, anymore. People sometimes forget that the beauty of being in a band is the connections you make, the same way living in a place with great people makes you feel truly at home. We're all in this together.
I think, given time, Birmingham will once again get back to its best – but it has to start at grassroots level in places like Stourbridge; places that breathe music and always have done. Beyond anything else, I hope that this article encourages someone, somewhere to make some noise about something that matters to them. Collectively, it’s these chain reactions which can right a lot of habitual wrongs – one song can change the world. Is it yours?