At the end of May 2014, the Visit Birmingham website is running a competition where you would choose your own personal favourite track from any band or artist from Birmingham and the West Midlands, so that a virtual 20 track compilation of the best that the area has to offer musically would be created. Nominating one track alone would be difficult enough for me, but what if the roles were reversed and I was on the judging panel: what would I pick for a compilation that would really define the city musically from my own perspective? There's a lot to choose from and a lot to consider.
I also wanted to try and be fair, so each band or solo artist only gets one entry out of the twenty, and where possible, it's a good cross selection of the music out there, in keeping with the rich heritage the city has. And crucially, no cover versions, so all original work by the bands and artists here. Of course, as it's often defined as the birthplace of heavy metal, rock would have to feature considerably, and that's understandable, but a lot is under the surface that you may not have realised over the years. So, without further ado, and in order of year of release, here's the twenty I've selected. Feel free to drop me a line if you have your own selections!
Spencer Davis Group - I'm A Man (1967)
The earliest entry, but with plenty of good reasons. Steve and Muff Winwood were an integral part of the Spencer Davis Group, and whilst "Keep On Running" was a catchy, the direction that both the Winwoods were going in was much more demonstrated by this single - a blues rock track with an infectious Hammond organ melody that started the song off and finishes it with suitable aplomb, the bass line kicking in and giving it that element of groove, and Steve Winwood on fine form vocally. It was also a watershed moment for the band as they both left not long afterwards, and the same style was pursued by Steve in the likes of the band Traffic.
The Moody Blues - Nights in White Satin (1967)
Moving on from the early R&B (when it meant rhythm and blues of course) influences in their debut, and releasing a clutch of singles during the mid 1960s, it was this, their first single from the "Days of Future Passed" album which is for me a classic of early progressive rock. Justin Hayward. The title of the song apparently comes from a gift given to Hayward by his girlfriend, and the whole thing appears to be about a long distance relationship of unrequited love, building up dramatically throughout the verses to the chorus of "Yes, I love you" which gets higher and louder in each part. Simply a brilliant piece of songwriting.
Black Sabbath - War Pigs (1970)
The opening track of their Paranoid album for me is the example of Sabbath at their finest: the air raid sirens and doom-laden guitar give way to crunching riffs in between cymbals and Ozzy Osbourne's vocals, which although lyrically didn't change, were transformed into an anti-war anthem instead of a witches' sabbath. It's brutal, it's tough, and above all else it paints a picture of war and destruction that at the time of the Vietnam war being in full flight made it relevant, and showed the continued dark side of the band. Granted, Paranoid itself is shorter and maybe more poppier, but it's War Pigs which set the tone of the album. That tone is carried on by the track Hand of Doom, which references veterans taking drugs to forget the war.
Led Zeppelin - Black Dog (1971)
Picking one Led Zeppelin track was hard. I could have gone with Stairway To Heaven, Whole Lotta Love or Immigrant Song. However, the opening track of their fourth album somehow shows the band at their unstoppable peak: Robert Plant's vocal was never in better form in those first few years, the guitar riffs present that underpin the verses and the main chorus riff are just mighty, and the whole thing effectively is a lesson in rock in just under five minutes. Hard to believe it was all inspired by a black labrador retriever that used to hang around the recording studio when making the album and its sexual antics mirrored those mentioned in the song lyrics itself.
Wizzard - See My Baby Jive (1973)
Hard to select between The Move and Wizzard, but this affectionate tribute to the so-called "wall of sound" by Phil Spector wasn't just a classic for its time, but possibly one of the best things Roy Wood ever wrote - masses of backing vocal in the background, and a real feeling of happiness and joy throughout, and its song structure was one used for a certain well-known Christmas song by the same band. Also, the interlude in the middle with the likes of the saxophone having front of place certainly stood it apart from other pop songs at the time. One of the songs that defined the whole glam rock era, definitely.
Joan Armatrading - Love and Affection (1976)
If you were going to get someone to have an acoustic ballad that became almost the UK's answer to Joni Mitchell, then you'd have given this song as an example of how it should be done. It's a deceptively clever and feisty song lyrically, and how much that having love and affection makes you a different person, shown clearly by the line "With a friend I can smile, but with a lover I can hold my head back." It's also shown that the passion she has when singing the song reflects on the words too, once more, with feeling. Sometimes stripped back songs like this show just how good an artist is: it certainly does here. A late night classic.
Judas Priest - Breaking The Law (1980)
Although the band had been around for over a decade, it was their 1980 album British Steel which saw them gain commercial success, and with good reason. Breaking The Law has a killer riff throughout the track and especially its introduction, which leads to a theme of being out of work, not being able to get out of the cycle of not working and thus turning to something more exciting, such as taking chances and breaking the law, with Rob Halford yelling "You don't know what it's like!" during the bridge. Of course having the likes of Beavis and Butt-Head sing this often during their cartoon series further popularised the track. Deservedly so too, it's a rock classic of its time.
UB40 - One In Ten (1981)
Forgetting all the hits that UB40 have had with cover versions, out of their original songs, this early single of theirs showed that not only did they have the pulse on what reggae music was doing at that time, but also the way that the country as a whole was suffering massive unemployment. At the time of writing the song, 9.6% were claiming unemployment benefits in the West Midlands, and the main chorus is an attack on this statistic and indeed the whole Margaret Thatcher era of power - " a statistical reminder of a world that doesn't care" being the stinging barb for that. An anthem for its time, for sure.
Toyah - I Want To Be Free (1981)
As someone said to Toyah Willcox years ago on Never Mind The Buzzcocks: "I didn't want to go to school - because of you!". Toyah herself has said that the song resonates with how she felt about her school years (bear in mind she was 22 when she wrote it as well) and how she wanted to rebel against the whole thing, and how dyeing her hair would be assumed she wasn't intelligent, and not wanting to be sweet or having someone live her life for her. It's a real feeling especially in the chorus where she wants to turn suburbia upside down, sung with suitable gusto and aplomb and a great synth hook. A real feeling of anger and passion in this, which made it authentic and rather brilliant. Who'd have thought she would have narrated the Teletubbies years later?
Duran Duran - Hungry Like The Wolf (1982)
The early 1980s were actually a great era musically, and Duran Duran, fresh from their controversial videos (Girls on Film, anyone?) built on their initial success with this, one of the singles from their "Rio" album. The main synth hookline was written on a Roland Jupiter-8 keyboard and together with the "do do, do doo doo" lines at the end of each part of the verse became instantly catchy. The guitar riff which slashed its way into the song as well throughout showed that they were more than just synths, and the more rock-orientated chorus still retained its pop roots rather brilliantly. Got to love the little laugh from Nick Rhodes' girlfriend at the time during the intro as well, neat little touch.
Dexy's Midnight Runners - Come On Eileen (1982)
Tough choice between this and Geno, but the structure of the song with the fiddle up front, along with a killer bass line hooked you in. There's mentions to Johnny Ray moving a million hearts in mono, and in the chorus how the thought of Eileen in a dress were giving thoughts verging on dirty (some people even thought that "come on Eileen" was a euphemism). Of course, everyone has danced to it at a wedding and attempted to keep up the pace with the bridge section (based on the Irish song Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Rai) as it gets faster and faster, I'm sure of it. An 80s classic and the best song Kevin Rowland had a hand in writing.
We've Got A Fuzzbox and We're Going To Use It - Rules and Regulations (1986)
At a time of C86-era indie music getting coverage, this band had a difference: all the members were women, and two sisters within the band at that. Vix, Maggie, Tina and the now sadly missed Jo's early single was a double A-side, but it was Rules and Regulations that stood out, and still does. Written about all the things that you would be facing up against as you grew up, and how there must be more to life than rules and regulations to command and obey, it was railing against the system with a distorted guitar and a punk attitude. It stayed in the indie charts for ages, and as part of its legacy, the band are still the most successful UK-based all-female band (not vocal group!) out there. Their 2010 live reunion showed just how good this was.
Pop Will Eat Itself - Wise Up! Sucker (1989)
As PWEI are one of my favourite bands ever, picking one track was massively hard, but in the end I picked my personal all-time favourite. It was a sure fire sign that their direction had changed and moved away from the "grebo" era that they'd had. With some mighty guitars present from Kerry "The Buzzard" Hammond and some pounding drums, it even showed the way to some of their more Industrial era later on. The megaphone rants of "Wise Up!" from Graham Crabb really underpin it, with Clint Mansell on top form vocally explaining "I've got the deep down crazies trying to get my head round this mess". This was anything but a mess mind you - it was a purely crafted three minutes of brilliance that even today, when played live, is still one to get everyone bouncing up and singing along in unison.
Ned's Atomic Dustbin - Kill Your Television (1990)
An early classic single from the band, and always a live favourite as well. This to me meant that the Neds had arrived, and with a bang. With a chorus of just the three words of the song's title, knowing when to pause and not say a word put you above your mates in the indie knowledge stakes when seeing them play it live, or even down your local indie club. The main chorus near the ends explains how multiple soaps were causing sore eyes (visionary considering the overkill of them now), and an intermission was needed. Of course the best way to avoid all that is to effectively "kill" the television of course. The two bassists in the band made their sound different, and some chugging riffs in this one make it a song I still enjoy lots even now.
The Wonder Stuff - Size of a Cow (1991)
I could have picked Don't Let Me Down Gently or A Wish Away, but for me the peak of The Wonder Stuff was their 1991 album Never Loved Elvis, and this, the opening single release, showed just why their popularity was growing (culminating with a gig at Walsall's Bescot Stadium later that year). Miles Hunt is on particularly good vocal form, and the infectious sing along chorus has everyone even now at live gigs singing along, and of course added organ through the intro and the intermission which works wonderfully well. Building up the problems to the size of a cow might not be the way everyone deals with things, but in terms of the context of the song "me I'd like to think that life is like a drink" it makes perfect sense.
Ocean Colour Scene - The Riverboat Song (1996)
Having redfined themselves somewhat with the advent of Britpop, this opening single from their "Moseley Shoals" album got picked up by the producers of the Channel 4 show TFI Friday, and was used extensively on there as well. It does share its inspiration with Led Zeppelin's "Four Sticks" in terms of its main riffs, although there's also a considerable amount of blues inspired rock throughout the song, with the main vocal of Simon Fowler really giving it that particular feel. Steve Cradock's time with Paul Weller in between the band's first and second albums was time well spent, crafting their sound and making them a force to be reckoned with during the mid 1990s.
Clint Mansell - Lux Aeterna (2000)
This track, since its release as the main theme for the film "Requiem for a Dream" has grown massively in popularity, due to its usage in other television programmes (Sky Sports News used it for years) and film trailers, so even if you don't know the name, you'll know the song. Crafted with the Kronos Quartet, the composition is brilliantly simple, a continual theme developed on with even more desperate sounding strings, which gradually build up their anxiety throughout the track, getting louder and more passionate throughout. It matches the original film perfectly, and that theme in the film is maybe missed by those who seek to use it elsewhere. From grebo to god of soundtracks, who would have thought that?
The Streets - Dry Your Eyes (2004)
Mike Skinner's project showed early ambition and promise, not least with the single "Let's Push Things Forward" but it's this single from the second album "A Grand Don't Come For Free" that really crossed over between hip hop and pop perfectly. The rapped verses detail someone breaking up with their girlfriend, and the sung choruses was the friends trying to cheer them up and saying that over-used phrase during a break up "there's plenty more fish in the sea" but also encouraging the person to walk away as realistically it's over. It's delivere with real feeling and gusto that it was hard not to notice it capturing the mood of a generation.
Editors - All Sparks (2006)
I really liked their "The Back Room" album when it was released in 2005, and when this finally got a single release in 2006, I was rather pleased. Taking inspiration from the post-punk movement (there's clear Joy Division influences present, especially vocally) never did doom and gloom sound quite as uplifting and hopeful, and certainly the case here, with a great riff that emnates throughout the track, and a how that all sparks will burn out in the end defined by the chorus. Repeated listening shows just how good it was back then, definitely very much of its time.
Laura Mvula - Green Garden (2013)
A track from last year may not been seen as a classic by many yet, but as a modern piece of soul and R&B music, it's actually also a rather great pop song. The really nice xylophone melody throughout really underpins all the backing, and Laura's vocal is completely spot on. The drums kick in nicely to give it that instant feeling of wanting to get up and dance at the right moment, and the vocal building up to each of the choruses and sounding grand during it also is a master class of control - quiet bit, loud bit and sounding anthemic. If only everyone had that same level of soulful skill..
Writing this article showed that there were plenty of other tracks that I could well have picked which would have done this list suitable justice. Part of the reason it was so hard to pick a top twenty was purely because of the amount of musical talent that there was. But it'd be completely remiss of me not to mention the following tracks, which if it were a top 30 or more, would have definitely made the cut. They would have been as follows:
The Move - Blackberry Way (1968)
Traffic - Glad (1970)
Ozzy Osbourne - Crazy Train (1980)
The Beat - Mirror in the Bathroom (1980)
Diamond Head - Am I Evil? (1981)
Tin Tin - Kiss Me (1982)
The Maisonettes - Heartache Avenue (1982)
Musical Youth - The Youth of Today (1983)
Dodgy - Good Enough (1996)
Bentley Rhythm Ace - Bentley's Gonna Sort You Out (1997)