wed 21/02/2024

Music Reissues Weekly: Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands - The Bostin’ Sounds of Brumrock 1966-1974 | reviews, news & interviews

Music Reissues Weekly: Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands - The Bostin’ Sounds of Brumrock 1966-1974

Music Reissues Weekly: Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands - The Bostin’ Sounds of Brumrock 1966-1974

Birmingham in a box

Spot the familiar faces - some Birmingham musicians gather outside Heavy Head Records in 1971

The picture seen above doesn’t have quite the same resonance as Art Kane’s 1958 shot A Great Day in Harlem which brought 57 American jazz musicians in front of his lens, but it is nonetheless significant. Here, in 1971, is an evocative, unique record of a moment in West Midlands music history.

The shot was taken at the opening of Heavy Head Records, a Sparkhill record shop run by Move/Electric Light Orchestra drummer Bev Bevan. The shop was formerly a toy store run by his mother.

In the front, from left to right, are Rick Price, Ozzy Osbourne, Raymond Froggatt, Jeff Lynne, Bev Bevan, Tony Iommi and John Bonham. In one place at one time were then or past members of Black Sabbath, The Electric Light Orchestra, The Idle Race, Led Zeppelin, The Move and more. Bevan worked behind the counter in the shop when he could. Roy Wood helped out on odd Saturdays, in full make-up. John Bonham hung out there, as did Jasper Carrott. Popping in to snap up a copy of Exile On Main Street or Ten Years After’s Watt, there was fair chance you’d hand your money to Bevan – or his mother. Later, in 1976, the flip side of Bevan’s solo single “Let There be Drums” was titled ”Heavy Head.”

Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands - The Bostin’ Sounds of Brumrock 1966-1974What’s caught by this thrilling photo is an informal confirmation that Birmingham and its immediate surroundings was a significant player in pop music. It’s reproduced in the booklet accompanying Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands The Bostin’ Sounds of Brumrock 19661974, a 69-track, three-CD clamshell set cleaving to its title. The tracks are not all Birmingham born. Wolverhampton is in there too.

In the immediate post-Beatle era, Jimmy Powell & The Dimensions became the first Birmingham group to record. The first regional outfit into the Top Ten were The Applejacks with “Tell me When,” a March 1964 chart entry. Once Liverpool was on the musical map, record labels looked to Birmingham as a potentially similar wellspring: two LPs titled Brum Beat arrived in 1964, one on the London budget label Dial the other on the more storied Decca. Soon, The Fortunes, The Moody Blues, The Rockin’ Berries and The Spencer Davis Group followed The Applejacks into the charts. The no-less important Gerry Levene and the Avengers, Mike Sheridan and the Nightriders, The Ugly’s and more did not. But as it opens in 1966, this lift-off is not where Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands begins.

Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands is sequenced chronologically, though for listening flow it’s not strictly diaristic. Disc One covers 1966 to 1969, Disc Two 1968 to 1970 and Disc Three 1970 to 1974. No reason is given for choosing 1966 as the start date – the seeds sewn and successes of earlier are missed. The opening track is The Craig’s 1966 freakbeat monster “I Must be Mad.” Counter-intuitively, cover stars The Move – formed in 1966 and instantly prominent – are first heard as Track Nine of Disc One with “I Can Hear the Grass Grow.” Some things are unlicensable so not here: Black Sabbath, the pre-Zep Robert Plant, Zeppelin themselves. It’s also not clear why 1974 is the cut-off. The local independent label Big Bear began issuing records by Birmingham bands in 1975 (it was previously dedicated to US blues) so an immediately pre-punk end date may have been more fathomable.

As the introductory essay and track-by-track commentary makes clear, it seems almost every band had members who had been in one or more of the others. That’s an exaggeration, but a local interconnectedness (i.e. what’s seen in the header photo) and a related support network were integral to what was going on.

Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands - The Bostin’ Sounds of Brumrock 1966-1974_blackfoot sueWhile The Idle Race, Medicine Head, The Moody Blues, The Move, The ‘N Betweens, The Rockin' Berries, Slade, Spencer Davis Group, Traffic, The Ugly’s and many others (The Montanas, World Of Oz amongst them) are great, it’s the lesser known territory of Disc Three which is most interesting. Blackfoot Sue (with the wonderful, glammy “Bye Bye Birmingham”), The Electric Light Orchestra, Steve Gibbons, Sheridan & Price, Slade, Wizzard and Roy Wood are present. So are lesser lights Luv Machine, Mail, Ptolomy Psycon and Salamander. The early Judas Priest are represented by the fantastic 1974 single “Rocka Rolla”, a slightly prog-leaning rocker with a creepy feel.

This disc cuts to the chase of what inevitably comes to mind while listening to the set’s later cuts. Despite the absence of Black Sabbath, can the roots of the West Midlands metal scene – encompassing Magnum, eventually birthing Napalm Death – be heard? Not really. Dave Morgan’s “Ill Wind” (1971) is freaky, Luv Machine’s “Reminiscing” is a fine riff-rock pop number, Jimmy Powell’s “Talking Progressive Blues” (1971) chugs along and Possessed’s “Disheartened and Disillusioned “ fuses hard rock with prog (1971). Only Bedlam’s Cozy Powell-driven “The Beast” (1973 – heard here in a new remix) suggests an impending dawn of heaviness.

Once Upon A Time In The West Midlands - The Bostin’ Sounds of Brumrock 1966-1974 is about the moments it captures and the paths of their creators. And despite the geographic specificity of what’s collected, it's hard to point to anything heard as intrinsically "Birmingham" though. While everything collected is great, a sense of regional evolution and concomitant reaction remains out of reach. Another release will have to describe these pop-cultural arcs.


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