PUNKY REGGAE BHANGRA PARTY: THE MAKING OF "MADE IN BIRMINGHAM" (1/11/11)
There's nothing like supporting the underdog to stir up excitement, as filmmakers like Deborah Aston can attest. Having spent her formative years soaking up all the distinctive sounds in Birmingham's alternative culture -- from the late, great Au Pairs, to Anthrax, GBH and many lesser-known lights, as well -- Aston knows that feeling well.
Now, with the completion of her documentary, "Made In Birmingham: Reggae Punk Bhangra," Aston has brought that vision alive onscreen, in celebrating an era when a major British city's local musicians shunned major label marketing gimmicks to book their own gigs, make their own records and promote themselves through their own cut 'n' paste fanzines.
By speaking directly to their audience, the musicians gave themselves a voice -- however briefly, during the late '70s, and early '80s -- which is certainly no small point in this airbrushed era of manufactured pop (no need to name names: we know who the usual suspects are!).
Shot on a tight schedule and shoestring budget, "Made In Birmingham" offers a timely reminder of the do-it-yourself (DIY) ethic, and how it can bring people together who'd otherwise never cross paths. Among the long-promised gems are rarely-seen clips from Beshara, Musical Youth and Steel Pulse, plus Au Pairs footage retrieved from Hurrah's (New York City), and a Parisian vault!
Hopefully, with a little bit of luck, and financial fairy dust, Aston can bring her vision to a wider audience...hence, my reason for seeking out this phone interview about a subject that could never bore me...to which she graciously agreed. The highlights of our 45-minute chat follow below.
CR: What motivated you to make this film in the first place? For most people, Birmingham is probably best known as the hometown of [Black Sabbath guitarist] Tony Iommi, and [Judas Priest vocalist] Rob Halford.
DA: Excellent! And also, let's not forget Ozzy Osbourne, also!
CR: Oh, yes, you might have heard of him...
DA: Yeah, we kind of have a similar accent. Rock and heavy rock, of course, it's synonymous with the Midlands – which is where I live. Birmingham is actually known for delivering that heavy rock sound, because it came out of the foundries, the factories, and the young guys that were going to work. The starting point of the documentary was actually to re-purpose archive material around the themes laid down by the Digital Archive film fund around the themes of Home, Identity and Community.
From that starting point, we thought, "OK, what's our interest?" We basically thought, “OK, metal's been done, we've got a huge multicultural community, let's celebrate that, and share that.” And the three most diverse genres, if you like, would have been reggae, with everyone coming from the West Indies, and Barbados, and Jamaica. That brought a whole new sound, actually, to the young people on the streets of Birmingham, especially in the inner city areas.
Obviously, with the punks, you have the whole DIY ethos mixed in – this thinking of getting out there, doing things for yourself – unlike today, where you've got "The X Factor", where lots of things are given to you. Back then, it was very difficult to get that sort of recognition. So there was an ethos, and it brought people together, really, and it created a sense of community.
Those were the three genres that could tell a story that really hadn't been told. And we could tell it around the themes of home, identity and community – whereas, with the metal, it had been done before, but didn't really lend itself necessarily to that multiculturalism, the way that reggae and bhangra did, and punk. Because a lot of the punks were listening to reggae and dub, and it's interesting how that migrated into their music, or their record collections.
Places like Barbarella's – although it was a renowned punk club, it used to have different sort of evenings. At midnight, it would suddenly stop playing disco music, and then, punk music would be playing [laughs], you know? So, strange concoction of genres, all that sort of thing – that's why we didn't include metal. But it wasn't, "We don't want to do anything with metal," it was just basically the subject matter we were dealing with. Obviously, part of my region is that strong heavy rock tradition. So perhaps we could do something like that in the future.
CR: Definitely. Well, one of the things that motivated me to talk to you was, "The Au Pairs are featured – I'm a big fan." They're a band that never got a fair shake, really. How did you get them, and find that archival film of them? I didn't even know that any [film] existed.
DA: We live on the doorstep of the Au Pairs. You actually see them knocking around here and there, quite often. The two guys, [drummer] Pete [Hammond] and [guitarist] Paul [Foad], they're around, still doing their thing. They were just part of a wider network in the music scene, so they weren't difficult to track down.
In terms of the archive material – we literally shot the documentary in two days, edited it in four days, on a budget of nine thousand UK pounds. If we were with the BBC, we'd have had 10 times that amount and an army of people. But literally, it was just me, and just coming across private archives and Roger Shannon's contacts book and Jez’s knowledge. We worked with a fantastic archive in the region, who sourced a lot of material for me, and kind of operated as a partner.
CR: That was MACE (Media Archive for Central England), right?
DA: Yes, that's right.
CR: I was fascinated to read [executive producer] Jez Collins's comments about trying to get some stuff that would have been really wonderful, but it's essentially under lock and key at the BBC, and you need everybody's OK, and it would cost you a fantastic amount of money. Is there any way we're ever going to resolve those things?
DA: It's a huge hurdle that I'm not sure can be resolved. Interestingly, I was on a panel at London Film Festival, talking about use of archive material, and the BFI (British Film Institute), was actually expressing an absolute wish and desire to work with people like myself, and share their archive. I just had to point out, "We really contacted you several times for some material, you wanted 'x' amount per second, and it was not doable – and there was no leeway, it was absolutely that price. There was even no discussion.”
It's very frustrating. There's some real gems to be had, but the major players are just gonna have to put their stuff on the shelves and let it go to rot, really – because we can't afford this, at the end of the day. It's just such a shame. By the same token, there's some great personal archives out there, and private archives. Hopefully, that will help redress the balance.
CR: Yes, and certainly, Youtube has done a lot to redress the balance. What were some of the more interesting insights that you gleaned?
DA: Well, there was quite a few, actually. We've probably done in excess of 20-odd interviews with various musicians, and music commentators. A lot of the Asian youth [in the bhangra scene] became very entrepreneurial. They would hire these big venues when they were cheap, and no one else wanted them – and create these huge, big dancehalls. That was sort of ingenious, to start such a music scene like that.
What I found really interesting was John Peel; I didn't realize how huge an influence he had on people in this region. People like UB40, he would pay them to record sessions. That helped get them promoted. I didn't realize how much of a struggle some of them were having, and how entrepreneurial they were having to be, to basically get their sort of product out there...which made me reflect of what we're doing today, in film.
They'd set up their own record labels, go into the recording studio, and sell their own albums. They would market and distribute their sort of albums back in the day – before Facebook, before Twitter – and actually be doing OK at it. That entrepreneurial spirit, that DIY ethos, came out of that punk working-class time. I just found that really, really interesting and fascinating – we see Duran Duran today, they came from that same sort of ethos and movement.
CR: Well, some of those [other anecdotes] will have to wait for the DVD, I guess, when we get to that point...what does this film say about the cultural contributions that Birmingham made, with the three genres of music that you chose to profile?
DA: We have a real mixture, and a real confluence of styles in the region. But they never, ever show that, and I don't know why. Manchester, you know, home of Oasis; Sheffield, the Human League; obviously, Liverpool with the Beatles – you've got all these cities that actually have their trophy that they can hold up. I don't know if it's because it's too close to the capital, because we're literally an hour and a half away from London.
A lot of the musicians around here have been integral to supporting bigger names, such as Steel Pulse. One of the girls in the film, she's been a backing singer for many years for Simply Red, toured around the world with him [lead singer Mick Hucknall], and also, with UB40...so there's a whole host of these interesting, superbly talented people that actually somehow seemed to get lost in the big cities.
CR: Maybe it's a case of, you don't appreciate what's in your own backyard, I suppose...
DA: Yes, perhaps. But I think there's also something about sensibility of the personalities in the region, as well. I think there are a lot of these that come from working class mentalities about just getting on with it, and maybe not being boastful. I don't know, in many ways, you don't expect to- reach a certain point – [like singer] Dennis Seaton, for example, of Musical Youth.
When it [“Pass The Dutchie”] broke, they were at #1, they were all still going to school, and it was a normal day. And when it became #1, obviously, it all went slightly mental – little stories like that, I find absolutely charming. It seems to be part of the mindset that they just go on and get on with it. I just find it endearing, in many ways, but on the other side of that [coin] – you can potentially lose out, I guess, on the bigger picture.
CR: So what's the initial game plan, now that you've completed the film, and had a handful of initial screenings in your area, right?
DA: We're going to hook up with some different festivals at the moment –see if there's any interest in getting broadcast rights bought, perhaps [by] Sky Art, or something like that. They just recently screened the “Made In Sheffield” documentary. So I'm hoping that people will see the real benefit of getting this out to a wider audience.
It's interesting that you're calling from America. I, as a filmmaker, often ask: "How will this film travel? Is this gonna be a film that's really interesting to people, not just to the wider UK, but also, to the wider audience across the water?” I'm just very interested, trying to see how that pans out, really.
CR: Well, I think I've answered part of your question – the fact that I am calling you. I imagine you were very surprised, weren't you?
DA: In this business, nothing really surprises me. Every time I've had a screening of this film, there's connections remade from 20, 30 years ago. Old friendships are being reconnected. Bands that haven't seen or spoken to each other for about 20 years are talking about things. People used to go out as part of the whole punk movement together, or live in the same street, and it's interesting.
A guy came to the screening, and said: "I came here to watch the film, because I'm very interested. But there's a clip in the film, and I'm actually in your film!" I was like, "No way!" He was actually playing some brass in the Musical Youth clip. So that's amazing – the guys, he hadn't seen them for so many years. And that was just absolutely fantastic.
That's partly what the benefit of this film is. It's getting people really excited again about where they came from, their journey, just reconnecting people again. And, hopefully, some people may re-form, go off and make some more music together. And so, it's all interesting. [The Accused's] Paul Panic, who's in the documentary, set up one label – basically, him and the Cracked Actors, and another couple of bands.
They released an EP that John Peel plugged on his show. They had something like 100 EPs pressed and released, and these are somewhere out there in the world. I find it fascinating that this guy had this whole understanding of the industry, – and actually took upon himself to get a few other people together, chipped in a few hundred pounds, just all they could afford. They went off and made those records, and I just thought, “All power to them, because that's really what it's all about, at the end of the day.” They really took it upon themselves to get something together.
CR: Well, to put this in perspective for you...I was 15, 16 when all those great punk records were coming out, and I was the right age to be exposed [to them]. But I feel like I did then – we're overdue for some massive changes, of some sort.
DA: Yeah, definitely! I just find it [the current pop scene] all very generic, it's all very [much] about the one-hit wonders. There's not the character you used to get back in the days of the Rolling Stones, punk bands, and reggae bands. Music's become quite boring and quite watered down. Obviously, that's because there's a big machine behind it that didn't really exist so much in the '70s – but, yeah, I couldn't agree more. There needs to be some sort of shakeup. Has the passion gone now, and are we just left with a big sort of marketing machine? That's the question.
CR: Give me one anecdote that exemplifies that spirit we're talking about, the DIY thing that's been lost.
DA: Well, I think it would just really boil down to the Au Pairs, bands like the Surprises. They all literally would go about their daily work...then, in the evening, maybe chip in together, go into a studio, cut a record, then get the sleeves printed. Actually, it [the finished product] would come boxed, and they had to pack their own records, make their own sleeves. All of that, to me, really drums home the essence of the DIY ethos.
It's about people with differences coming together with a shared vision, a shared passion, and that is what's magical about the documentary that you see. As a result, there's a unique sound that's come up from the streets of Birmingham, and the different communities that existed, and have managed to come up with their own sounds, and mixing of genres...[leading to] the multiculturalism. Perhaps you didn't get that sound in other cities.
CR: Now that you've gotten to work on this film, and trying to get it seen in the wider world, the inevitable question arises: what's next?
DA: I'm very interested in a documentary about the Au Pairs, we would like to pursue that right now. Having interviewed Pete and Paul it would be totally amazing if we could film [vocalist] Lesley [Woods] and [bassist] Jane [Munro].
They aren't in this particular film, but they have seen it, and they are very complimentary about it. So that's on my wish list, if you like. And I'm also developing a couple of feature films. I've got a couple of those in the pipeline, but I would love to do some more music documentaries, and explore how art, fashion, music, popular culture can act as the melting pot of society.
CR: With that, I'll let you go for the afternoon. Thank you so much for your time, and being willing to talk about a subject that, as you can probably tell, I could talk about all day, and never get tired of.
DA: Yeah, me, too. Lovely to talk with you: we're in touch now, so keep doing the good work, and we'll communicate soon. Take care.
RH: You, too. 'Bye.
MADE IN BIRMINGHAM: CREDITS
Including interviews and archives from: Alan Apperley (The Prefects, The Nightingales), Janice Connolly and Conrad Swartz (The Ever Readies, The Surprises), Pete Hammond and Paul Foad (Au Pairs) Pete Hyde (Spizz Energi), Dee Johnson (UB 40 and Simply Red), Paul Panic (The Accused), S-Endz (Swami), Dennis Seaton (Musical Youth), Amlak Tafari (Steel Pulse), Brian Travers (UB40), and Vix (Fuzzbox).
Made with the support of Screen WM and UK Film Council's Digital Film Archive Fund (DFAF).
Directed/Produced by Deborah Aston.
Executive Producers: Roger Shannon for Swish Films; Jez Collins for the Birmingham Popular Music Archive.