It's a story that has only ever been partially told...
There had been tales of exciting young local bands that had once performed in some of the now-legendary (and long lost) venues in Birmingham during the late 1970s and early 1980s. After a few decades though, those stories all pass into myth. Did it actually happen? Did those bands exist? What were they like? Can anyone even remember?
Yes, Dave Twist can remember - he was the drummer in three of those legendary bands and has recently dusted down the recordings of them (TV Eye, The Prefects and, together with former lead singer Stephen Duffy, The Hawks) and released them to loving reviews.
Another person who remembers that music is comedian and writer Stewart Lee - who contributed the affectionate sleevenotes to ‘Un-Scene’ and who early last year helped bring one of the most celebrated acts of that period: Robert Lloyd of The Prefects and The Nightingales, into the homes of primetime Sky Arts viewers.
It was Twist whose extensive list of contacts from that era would prove invaluable to Lee in putting together the story of the ‘King Rocker’ documentary. And having told the story of Robert Lloyd, having delved into all of those contacts, then surely there are other acts whose music needs to be shared. 'UnScene' is their story.
When Dave Twist shows me a copy of the 'Un-Scene! - Post-Punk Birmingham 1978 - 1982' album I’m drawn to the wealth of images of the young artists, the fliers, the posters, the NME covers, and press articles that adorn the inside sleeve, it feels as if it had been put together with immense care by someone who really cares about the music it celebrates. It has.
Outsideleft: Dave, the compilation is called 'Un-Scene' - and it obviously leads me to think that whereas there were 'scenes' in cities like Sheffield, Manchester or Liverpool. Places where bands developed similar sounds and outlooks, that this might not have been the case in Birmingham?
Dave Twist: Indeed, Stephen Duffy uses the expression that '...there wasn't an adult around' when talking about that period, and I kind of know what he's talking about. With all of those other cities, they had that ‘adult' who probably fancied themselves at the time as being a bit of a Malcolm McLaren (the infamous Sex Pistols manager/Svengali). I think that maybe having those people around, like the guys running Zoo in Liverpool, may have been able to shape those sounds and create those scenes.
OL: Other than the bands that you were part of or had some link to, what were the discoveries you made when you were putting the compilation together?
DT: It was harder to find something that actually fitted the brief... because when you're invited to put together a 'post-punk compilation', any time ‘post-punk’ is used as a musical term, people are going to have a perception of the 'angular' sounding guitars. There's going to be that picture in people's heads of bands like...
DT: Yeah, it was harder to find the bands that actually sound like that! Those are maybe on the second disc (of the double album), those bands on the first disc (including Swell Maps, The Prefects, The Hawks, and TV Eye), well that feels like a different scene to that.
The other thing was just how hard it was to actually find some of the band members, even with the help of social networking. Some bands have completely gone to ground... I'm probably the only person who could have put this compilation together because I'm kind of vaguely Yeah, remember who knew who and who might still be in touch.
OL…Robert Lloyd has mentioned that The Prefects were adopted by Manchester and Paul Morley feels that the band was 'both Birmingham and Manchester'. With that in mind are there any other similarities between Birmingham's bands and those from other cities?
There were obvious parallels between The Prefects and The Fall, but possibly between Dada and Sheffield's Cabaret Voltaire (although we didn't know about them at the time) as well and, as we've mentioned previously, between The Hawks and Echo and the Bunnymen. But whereas those other bands all felt like they were part of the zeitgeist, Birmingham was far more ...eclectic. Not everyone was following a certain sound...
OL: (As someone who bought 'Planet Earth' as a teenager, I can't fail to notice that there's one current and two ex-members of Duran Duran on this compilation, so it's time for me to act like an aging Duranie...)
What about early Duran Duran? I've heard some of the Andy Wickett era recordings when he was their lead singer, would they have fitted on here?
DT: Well, the original Duran (the Stephen Duffy era), that tape is incredibly closely guarded, I didn't even ask for permission for that! But before that, if you want the presence of a real live Duran Duran member, then there's a song on the album by Dada - which is John Taylor and me. He was really up for having that on the album, which was nice. John's pretty proud of it and is glad that I resurrected it. It's just a shame how so few of those bands were recorded properly...
OL: Yeah, you've unearthed some very early recordings...
DT: Yeah, and some of those recordings are No-Fi. That Dada track was recorded on my little Phillips tape recorder that I took up to The Crown for what was probably our first gig.
It was wonderful the amount of ideas that are there both with Dada and also with early Duran but the technical musicianship to realise those ideas was taking its time, for instance with Dada - John is playing guitar, he hasn't moved to bass yet. It's all quite raw and you can feel the musicians feeling their way.
The thing with post-punk for a lot of Birmingham bands, I don't think any of us were striving to create that sound, we weren't trying to create a ramshackle post-punk sound, we were trying to create something else.
What those bands achieved came to be known as post-punk! We weren't pounding away on the kit thinking 'I want to sound like this' because it didn't yet exist!
Going back to your question about the Andy Wickett era of Duran Duran, people used to say that the early Duran sounded like early (Syd Barrett era) Pink Floyd. It was strange stuff, really quite weird, they had a drum machine as they didn't yet have a drummer. By the time you get to the Andy Wickett era of Duran, they've got Roger Taylor in on drums and they're technically really good. They had a guitar player who then vanished, he was good. Yeah. So the Andy Wickett era of Duran is starting to sound more like it's a halfway house between that early Pink Floyd and the global-straddling hit-making behemoth that we now know.
To be continued - tomorrow we discuss legendary Birmingham music venues, The Hawks and Joey Ramones toenail clippings.