The grit and grime of inner city Birmingham or the peaceful melancholia of rural Arden, each had a part to play in the shaping of British music today, as Pete Paphides explains…

Pete Paphides

Previously chief rock critic at The Times, Pete’s fanzine Perturbed caught the attention of the folks at Melody Maker in 1991.

He has since written for the majority of the British music press whilst pioneering BBC 6 Music show titled Vinyl Revival, believed to be the only networked vinyl-only radio show in the world.  

His Radio 4 documentary on the Langley Schools Music Project is due to air next month.

@PetePaphides

Published

July 17, 2014

I’m not sure how location can determine the way notes and chords sit on a page, but it’s incontrovertibly clear that they do. Can you imagine The Smiths having emerged anywhere other than Manchester? Narratives such as The Headmaster Ritual and William It Was Really Nothing are cries for help made by protagonists who fear their voices won’t be heard beyond the rain-soaked council estates of Whalley Range. Behold the way light and space have flooded into Arctic Monkeys’ music in the wake of their move from Sheffield to Los Angeles.

Growing up in East Kilbride in the late 70s, the teenage Roddy Frame heard Love and decided he would co-opt their proto-punk take on West Coast pop into the sound of his own group Aztec Camera. Listen to the resulting debut album High Land Hard Rain and it sounds exactly like Love – if Love were teenage punks growing up in a rainy Scottish new town. And then, of course, the clincher: No-one has yet managed to fathom quite how John Lennon’s harmonica on Love Me Do evokes the bracing stink of Mersey mud, but it absolutely inarguably does.

 Sometimes, there’s frustratingly little left of the scenery that helped bring a record into life.

When you’ve played the records to death and there are no more books to read on the subject, you’re left with little choice but to get in the car and see if it’s possible to drive inside the music – or at the very least, to see with your own eyes landscapes that were hardwired into the interior worlds of the artists they inspired. Sometimes, there’s frustratingly little left of the scenery that helped bring a record into life.

The original Cavern Club was filled in 41 years ago during construction work on the Merseyrail underground rail loop. The rebuilt version, situated a stone’s throw from the original Cavern functions primarily as a meeting place for tourists. In fact, there are few untouched Beatles landmarks remaining in the city that spawned them. Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s birthplaces have been acquired by the National Trust (the latter after Yoko Ono purchased and donated it) and made over to look as it might have done in his childhood. One place that The Beatles tourist trail rarely takes in is The Casbah Coffee Club – the basement of the sprawling townhouse bought by Pete Best’s mother Mona after she pawned all her jewellery and gambled the proceeds on a 33-1 outsider called Never Say Die, ridden by Lester Piggott.

Located in the middle-class suburb of West Derby, The Casbah is the one truly intact unchanged landmark of The Beatles’ pre-London years – and (by appointment) it’s still open to the public. Magnificently unrestored and defiantly uncommodified, the first thing you home in on when you descend the stone steps is the word “John” deeply inscribed on the black cement wall. One low ceiling is daubed with faux-Aztec motifs sloppily applied by John Lennon. And in another corner where Pete Best and his current band still rehearse is a spider’s web drawn by a teenage Paul McCartney. The improvised décor, the smell, the cold propels you to a place where rock’n’roll – still staggering uncertainly from its egg – must have appeared a world away from the buttoned up post-war propriety of the surrounding streets. This was where Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, albeit as The Quarrymen, first played together – and where Mona, still flushed from her winnings, accelerated the tempo of Merseybeat by installing one of Liverpool’s first ever espresso machines.

Ever since The Beatles attempted to emulate American rock’n’roll and inadvertently invented something else, British music has evolved by essentially repeating the same process. Young musicians attempt to imitate their favourite records from far-flung places and find, almost despite themselves, that their surroundings have worked their way into the songs.

UB40’s benchmark first album Signing Off came about by accident. The group were so inexperienced that they struggled to cover the reggae songs that soundtracked their childhoods in the Moseley and Balsall Heath streets of Birmingham. As a consequence, they wrote their own – Food For Thought, One In Ten (left), Dream A Lie – and the result was a kind of reggae music that didn’t evoke the sunny climes of Jamaica. UB40 could have only emerged from Birmingham.

Growing up in the nearby suburb of Acocks Green, the first time I heard Food For Thought, it rose up and dispersed like a vapor that enveloped the world outside: the Chrysler factory glistening in the rain on Coventry Road; the sulphur light of the subways beneath the Bull Ring. Signing Off was reggae refracted through the winter of discontent. Most of the factories  in Birmingham have now been shut down, but elsewhere, the world of Signing Off remains relatively unreconstructed. Drive through the back end of Balsall Heath and into the balti quarter – Ladypool Rd and Stoney Lane – and it’s still there.

The Eagle and Tun, UB40’s local, closed in 2008.

Birmingham was also where my all-time favourite songwriter Stephen Duffy found his voice. His 1985 hit Icing On The Cake was an affirmation that between the cracks in council estate concrete, beautiful flowers continue to grow. Then, when Duffy tired of pop stardom, he fled to the surrounding countryside and formed The Lilac Time. What I love about The Lilac Time is that perfect sense of suspension between two different Midlands backdrops: sunsets over silhouetted industrial skylines; and Duffy’s subsequent retreat to the hills of Malvern.

Suddenly, the candyfloss clouds were within touching distance. A few years ago my wife and I made a Lilac Time compilation tape and drove around the Malvern hills, immersed in the scenery that helped inspire songs like The Road To Happiness (above) and Return To Yesterday: places such as Bromyard, Much Cowarne and the village of Madresfield, which gives its name to the eponymous song, complete with the snow-covered cricket pavilion. In a moment of divine serendipity, The Girl Who Waves At Trains came on and just as Stephen sang the lines, “To where the kettle always sings/And walking down the lane your long hair swings”, we passed a sign pointing to The Kettle Sings – the cafe which inspired the very line, and before we knew it, we were eating beans on toast in a Lilac Time song.

This sun-dappled idyll was where Nick Drake – defeated by London and the indifferent reception afforded to his three albums – spent the last two years of his life.

On the way back to London, we couldn’t resist the urge to stop off via Tanworth-In-Arden – the childhood home of Nick Drake, whose song River Man (“Gonna tell him all I can/About the plan for lilac time”) prompted Duffy to name his band. This sun-dappled idyll was where Nick Drake – defeated by London and the indifferent reception afforded to his three albums – spent the last two years of his life. A short walk from the village green is Far Leys, the house where Drake spent most of his childhood and also the house where, aged 26, he took his own life. In the graveyard, his headstone is framed by messages and floral offerings left there by previous visitors. I thought I knew a lot about the songwriter who gave us River Man and Pink Moon, but once again, you resalise that there’s something about a pilgrimage to a place where experiences fomented to form songs that takes your understanding of those songs to another level.

So many writers have attempted to trace Drake’s depression back to a childhood spent here. But actually, they’re only half-right. As a child, this is the sort of place where you could enjoy absolute dominion in the surrounding fields. The summer days must last forever here. And early songs such as Fruit Tree, Bird Flew By and Time Of No Reply bear testament to that fact. Nick Drake was barely out of childhood before his songs saw him waxing nostalgically about it. For all of that, however, the last place you want to return to when failure has extinguished all your other options is home: where the bed’s a little too small; where ghosts from a more innocent age surround you and it’s all too apparent what old family friends are thinking when they see you.

The one comfort afforded to Drake in his final years was the simple act of driving. His 1970 instrumental Sunday was written specifically to simulate the sensation of driving – even down to the low string chord which was meant to represent the sound of a lorry going past. We respectfully fast-forwarded to that point as we left Tanworth and headed for the nearby M42. Not exactly a holiday in other people’s misery, but an undeniably pleasant afternoon.

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