Reggae in Birmingham

Category: Stories

A recent nearby Steel Pulse concert tour stop, got me thinking of a time in Birmingham… England.

This Birmingham was rebuilt from the Nazi blitzkriegs and became home to the industrial region of working class residents in West Midlands, England. Socially and musically, Birmingham was in contrast to the sophistication of London and spawned a number of notable artists, The Spencer Davis Group and Black Sabbath claim their roots there and later high profile UK reggae like Steel Pulse and UB40. By the early 80s, big industry had faded away or had dispersed to other areas and in its wake, the resulting recession brought unprecedented levels of unemployment.

I happened into the city, via a mostly aimless itinerary, other than I was generally moving north towards Scotland. My soundtrack was a looping John Lennon’s Mind Games, who was less than a year removed from our lives. I was glad to see that I could likely score a train station bench for the night, much better than the always optional street level sidewalk. I was sharing a musical conversation with a homeless resident and he said I may be interested in a live reggae concert that night. He said it was for the unemployed and was free with a “social card” of some relative sort. I didn’t have one, of course, but believed that I qualified on some level and swung by the event in hopes I could get in somehow.

With my backpack and guitar in tow, I pleaded my case and was let in without any questions, but they said I had to leave my guitar stowed in an upstairs room. Whoa, that was the extension of my soul, or at least that is how I felt, and it was a practical way to earn some Sterling when I had to. I almost turned around and walked out, but the gate keeper had some honest eyes and I hadn’t heard any live grooves for awhile, so I let go and walked into the hall.

I had liked reggae for some years by now, but was only a casual fan until I experienced the energetic live shows that I had seen from a headlining Bob Marley & The Wailers and later a Peter Tosh performance opening for The Rolling Stones. I wasn’t too familiar with UK reggae, but was treated on this night in particular, by Steel Pulse. The energy from this Birmingham show, the local crowd and the bands, was on another level. Everyone was friendly and loud and all were dancing like they wanted to. The music met the vibrancy of the people and turned up the collective heat. What a card-carrying blast!

After the sweaty show was over, I picked up my guitar as promised and retreated to the train station, hoping to secure a bench for the night. There were a few more people looking to do the same by that time, but there was still a couple that were open and I sat down to wind down with John Lennon’s music in my ears again. As it often happened, a seemingly friendly drunk worked his way into my space and was asking about what I was listening to. He knew I was American, and since Lennon was killed in New York, he began to get worked up about it and I became his idea of the prime suspect – an American in his Birmingham – I suppose, was all the convenience he needed to convict. I never felt threatened and simply moved my way laterally to the only other vacant bench, adjacent to the one where I was being tried. Apparently that was all the verve he had for this brand of justice, since moving to another bench to continue the drama was too much effort for him.

A bench for the night with John’s voice in my mind, reggae in Birmingham was a good day remembered.