When Africans arrived in America as slaves during the 17th century, they brought with them a five-note musical scale that had evolved over centuries along the trade routes between Africa and the Middle East. Upon encountering the slightly different musical scale that the plantation owners had brought over from Europe, the Africans found that not all notes could be easily resolved. This led to a certain amount of improvisation and bending of strings that eventually resulted in what became known as ‘blue’ notes. These became the distinctive characteristics of wholly new African-American forms of music such as jazz and blues.
Human beings are strange animals. One of our oddest traits is the belief that certain objects are made not of earthly or man-made materials, such as iron, carbon, cotton, or paper, but of fucking magic.
Some items are thought to bring us good luck, such as horseshoes, or rabbits’ feet, or particular types of coin, whilst other things, such as wood (when touched), or salt (when thrown over the shoulder), are thought to ward off bad luck. Not only that, but combinations of apparently unrelated items are either thought to bring about very, very bad luck (new shoes on the table, walking under ladders), or signs of impending very, very good luck (bird shit on the shoulder, black cats crossing your path).
Then, of course, there are the other items, such as a fridges, that are seen simply as white boxes that keep stuff cold and are not thought to contain any magic properties at all. Although, in the case of fridges, the question of whether or not the light goes off when you close the door remains a mystery.
It’s all very odd and arbitrary. But in Birmingham, as you’d expect, things are every-so-slightly different.
Whilst we Brummies might hold with some of those strange superstitions and beliefs, what sets us apart is that we also, as the accounts in this series of 101 things more than capably demonstrate, have long been in the business of creating, with our enquiring minds and ingenious hands, what others around the world perceive to be magic.
Take, for example, the Brummie engineer, Oliver Lucas: In 1910, he invented the car horn, and that is the perfect example. Here are some things it can do:
On the last day of October 2014, as trick or treaters took to the streets of the city suburbs for Halloween-themed fun, something genuinely terrifying was in the air.
It wasn’t the fact that Halloween has become, over the last few years, a poster child for the creeping Americanisation of our culture. Nor was it the fact that, just like the manner in which we’ve all apparently just rolled over and accepted that ‘High School Proms’ are now a thing, or that it’s OK for the FA Cup Final to kick off at 5.30pm, that we just don’t seem to have the energy to fight this kind of bullshit anymore.
It wasn’t even that we allow the economic machine to hijack dates on our calendar as merely points at which they can market disposable plastic shite to us.
Nor was it the fact that we not only buy this stuff, but that we then chuck it away — even though we know we’ll be buying the same plastic shite at precisely the same time again next year.
And it wasn’t even that the only thing that differentiates one plastic shite sales opportunity from the next one is how one now ‘naturally’ follows the other in a never-ending cycle, with the end of Halloween simply firing the starting pistol on Christmas, and so on.
The history of popular music is the story of youth, sex, drugs and revolution.
It’s also the story of the ruthless exploitation of naïve young dreamers by savage and unscrupulous media professionals, a long process of vertical integration by global entertainment conglomerates, and the development, packaging, and marketing of products to carefully constructed and controlled sets of audiences.
As Hunter S Thompson said, “the music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”
Or, as Les, former bassist with the luckless band Creme Brûlée from The League of Gentleman, put it with more slightly more brevity, “it’s a shit business”.
However, what people mean when they talk about ‘the Music Industry’ in these negative terms is often the large and successful parts of the recorded music business, and not all the other, sometimes benign and noble, stuff that happens elsewhere in what we should more accurately refer to as the Music Industries.
The recorded music business, as the name would suggest, is organised around the central idea of ‘the record’, and for that we must go back to Thomas Edison, who successfully managed to record the sound of his own voice saying the words ‘Mary had a little lamb’, in August 1878, and set in motion a chain of events that would eventually give the world The Spice Girls.
But there is also a positive side: the record, or ‘the pop song’, is the most democratic and versatile piece of art there has ever been.
It is the soundtrack to millions of lives, charts our loves and losses, and something that follows us and keeps us company from our wide-eyed, exuberant, youth to our befuddled and doddery old age. The experience you have when you hear a song is no more or less valuable than the experience it gives to millions of others. It’s a Living Thing, as a famous Brummie once said, available to all, mostly cheap and, even when the songs themselves are sad, ultimately very, very, cheerful.
Edison kickstarted a process whereby musicians and singers could commit sound to permanent record that could be played back across time and space. Originally in the shape of wax cylinders, then in the form of actual records (made of various materials, but eventually vinyl), and then assorted other formats across the 20th century and into the new millennium. The process of committing glorious noise to ‘record’ has similarly evolved over time, from speaking into a horn, as Edison did, to multi-track tape recorders in fancy, expensive studios, to pinging music to collaborators across the world via the internet.
Much has changed since August 1878, then, but one thing has remained largely constant in the face of all these technological developments, economic progress and changing social conditions: pop songs are still (usually) under four minutes long. They have been for as long as anyone can remember, and probably always will be.
According to The Billboard Experiment, which analysed and then visualised sales charts and song information dating back to the birth of the pop charts, the average length of a hit record in the 1950s was 2 minutes and 36 seconds. Even though technology has developed at a huge rate since those days, the average length of pop songs today is still under 4 minutes and 30 seconds. Why is that?
It certainly has some roots in the restrictions of the technology of earlier times, both in terms of recording and playback mediums (you can only fit so many grooves on a record, after all), but the idea of pop being short, sharp and simple has, nevertheless, stuck.
Verse, Chorus, Verse, Chorus, Middle 8, Chorus, Chorus – done. It’s a straightjacket we no longer have to wear, but still do willingly. And, because of these restrictions, the restrictions of music itself, and of the copyright industry that underpins the business of recorded music, pop has had to be endlessly and fabulously inventive. That’s why pop is great, bab.
There is, however, one particular point in the history of pop music when this brevity was temporarily bunged out the window, along with the idea of pop being a democratic, public art form belonging to us all… and that moment was called progressive rock, or prog.
Prog grew out of the notion of pop singers as artists that emerged in the 1960s around the likes of The Beatles and Bob Dylan. That, along with advances in studio technology and the realisation by the recorded music business that they could make more coin this way, led to the concept of ‘the album’ being the purest and highest form of the pop art.
From Sgt. Pepper it wasn’t too great or long a leap to the idea of rock musicians as virtuosos, aloof and apart from the punters who worshipped them, of rock as high art that could only be understood in terms of it’s ambition and scale. And also to Rick Wakeman’s King Arthur on Ice.
Prog was endless noodling, complicated suites of music, and lyrics based on the worst kind of hobgoblin bothering nonsense imaginable, made by musicians from often highly privileged backgrounds. There were those that battled against this indulgence, including the caretaker of Birmingham Town Hall who locked up the organ and took the key home the night that Keith Emerson (of Emerson, Lake and Palmer) tried to play it – but it went on.
Prog eventually bored everyone so silly that we were forced to invent punk rock, which was also shit, but a least it was short shit, and that meant that everything was right with the world again.
Where on Middle Earth would a bunch of University-educated show-offs get the idea that people would be interested in overly-long fantasy bollocks? Step up to the mike, and strap on that double-necked guitar, J.R.R. Tolkien: the Brummie who hated Birmingham — who do you think the orcs are? — and almost helped to ruin pop music.
Hot on the heels of the news that another area of Birmingham will have its architectural significance airbrushed from history in order for it to be regenerated into another identikit mixed use development with a fucking Costa at the bottom, Paradise Circus presents a simple three step process to the Birmingham regeneration process.
STEP 1: Manufacture A Design Issue
Sure, the lollipop is an enduring design and represents cosy familiarity with the human/confectionery relationship — but its form creates a barrier to the free movement of flavour and satisfaction.
To be a Cockney, you need to be born within earshot of the sound of the Bow bells. To be a Brummie, so Lawrence Inman’s joke goes, you need to be born within earshot of someone moaning.
The truth, however, is somewhat cooler: Anyone can become a Brummie, and that’s the beauty of it.
When outsiders do move to Birmingham – reluctantly or otherwise (although it’s usually reluctantly) – they are indeed welcomed with open arms. All they have to do is ride a full circuit on the 11 bus and they can collect their lifetime Brummie pass. It’s as simple as that.
In truth, no-one actually checks if you’ve done the 11 thing, and most Brummies haven’t done it themselves.
Once settled into their adopted city, these nu-Brummies begin to notice something strange: They find, perhaps in spite of themselves, that they begin to like the place.
When pressed on this, they will say things like, “Well, it’s not as bad as I expected,” which, whether these interlopers know it or not, is a very Brummie way of positively appraising a situation. Or, “the people are really nice… and they talk to you on the bus/in the street/at the shops”, or, “It’s a lot greener than I thought it would be”. Slowly, but surely, we reel them in, just as we have done since the city was founded.
The newcomers also point out unlikely things. They point out things that the indigenous Brummie would miss, or not consider important, or not even dare to dream true. For example, one adopted Brummie I know, who spent a decade here, thinks the accent is a genuinely beautiful, lilting tone, and has described it as ‘the English Italian’. Mind you, he was from New Zealand (a Brummie invention, incidentally) so perhaps he was just pleased to find a tribe of people who are more malicious to vowels than his own.
The other thing a lot of these adopted Brummies almost always point out is how crackers it is on the roads. Brummies, it seems, have what has been described by another outsider-cum-Brummie I know as a ‘free jazz’ approach to motoring. Birmingham is a town where ‘No U-Turn’ signs, for example, are an affront to the driver’s inner Ornette Coleman and are often viewed and read as a direct challenge, rather than an instruction. As with the lilting accent compliment above, we’re perhaps too close to notice this because we’ve lived with it all our lives, but it’s probably true.
Whatever it is they teach you, for instance, about how to behave when negotiating roundabouts when you learn to drive is something we Brummies swiftly and proudly forget. This is highlighted by the fact that we, uniquely, refer to them by the more conceptual and poetic name of ‘islands’. In fact, as any Brummie knows, the only real and true function of an ‘island’ is to provide, along with pubs, collectively understood points along an imaginary breadcrumb trail that enable us to give another Brummie directions from A to B in the city.
The irony in all of this motorised lawlessness is that road signs, whether they be warnings or general travel instructions in the form of images, collectively understood these days as ‘street furniture’, would not exist without the city of Birmingham.
It was here, in 1921, that following a series of traffic accidents at the junction of Maney Corner in Sutton that white lines were painted down the middle of the road, instructing drivers to keep to their lane and to WATCH IT. The experiment duly reduced low-speed pile ups between men in driving gloves and goggles and the practice quickly spread throughout the world. The rest is history and inevitable progress, and one that has recently returned to bite visitors to Birmingham in the wallet with the introduction of 200-metre-long Bus Lanes that appear and disappear at the will of Birmingham City Council, who use them to fine unsuspecting drivers.
Beyond it’s original motoring safety function, the white, centralised line – the middle of the road, in other words – has taken on a number of other, separate meanings throughout modern culture. A politician who deliberately occupies a position that makes them seen less of an arsehole than the others occupies ‘the middle ground’, for instance, just as a piece of popular culture, a film, or a pop song perhaps, that is inoffensive but entertaining is often said to be ‘middle of the road’. No-one likes the middle of the road particularly, but there are sometimes worse places to be, and sometimes it’s the best and most expedient place you can be. Which brings us back around to those newly arrived, newly minted Brummies.
So, next time you go out to or watch, listen, eat or vote for something, and upon reflection you find that it was dull, uninspiring, but, ultimately, not as bad as you were expecting, and if you then manage to make it home in one piece, just remember that you have Birmingham to thank for that entirely forgettable evening.
FIRST HIPSTERMAN (Craig):
That was, literally, a lovely flat white?
SECOND HIPSTERMAN (JB):
..and those artisan chipotle fish tacos were really quite something too.
THIRD HIPSTERMAN (JH):
Best I’ve had since I went to visit my more successful friends down in Islington.
Who’d have thought, eh, that three years ago, we’d all be sitting here, in Birmingham, in a crowd-funded pop-up streetfood bazaar, watching a circus skills workshop, eating a fine selection of ethically-sourced Italian meats served on a piece of slate, eh?
I know people who live in other cities take this sort of shit for granted, but Nu-New Street is a very nice railway station (with the Brum-obligatory shop on top).
It needs a clock – call me old-fashioned, but no great romance ever started with the words, “I’ll meet you outside Five Guys. Yeah, the one opposite Pret”, and there are no chairs anywhere. Perhaps they’ll come, but probably not. I think it’s designed so that you spend your waiting time in the retail paradise on the upper deck. Oh, and it also needs free/some Wifi (there was no way I was getting fooled into joining the unsecured network. Not after last time), but the fact that it has space and natural light is quite something, and once you get down on the platforms you can see across to other platforms, and that blew my Brummie mind.
Re: It’s fun to stay
How’s the shop going? I’ve just stepped in to do some consultancy on the new Combinded Authority and thought we could maybe use your budget for some promo. The councils don’t have any as you know.
How about we fire up our Midlands Engine with something like this. Excuse the note form, our target personas should be
Construction workers on those new mixed unitsPoliceman who patrol EDL marches and the Tory conference
The cowboy rounds up the horses running free on Black Country estates
The ‘Red Indian’ could be the Batli triangle, or the indigenous whites in Kingstanding.
..and then there’s the song
Business: There’s no need to feel scared.
I said, Business, we’re equipped and prepared.
I said, Business, ’cause you’re in a new town
There’s no need to be unhappy.
Business, there’s a place you can go.
I said, Business, we’ll accept all your dough.
You can stay there, and I’m sure you will find
Many ways to have a good time.
Come and invest in the W.M.C.A.
Come and invest in the W.M.C.A.
They have everything for you staff to enjoy,
You can hang out with all the Bores …
Come and invest in the W.M.C.A.
Come and invest in the W.M.C.A.
Your Tax bill will be clean, you can have a good meal (no plates),
You can do whatever you feel…
Business, are you listening to me?
I said, Business, what do you want to be?
I said, Business, you can make real your dreams.
But you got to know this one thing!
No man does it all by himself.
I said, Business, put your pride on the shelf,
And just go there, to the W.M.C.A.
I’m sure they can help you today.
Come and invest in the W.M.C.A.
Come and invest in the W.M.C.A.
They have everything for you men to enjoy,
You can hang out with all the boys…
It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A.
You can get yourself clean, you can have a good meal,
You can do whatever you feel …
Business, I was once in your shoes.
I said, Business, buy a box down the Blues.
I felt no man cared if I were alive.
I felt that London was so jive …
Pretty much anyone who ever invented or discovered anything of note was a nerd.
Just look around you: electronic devices; carpet; the shoes on your feet. All of those things, just like everything else man has created, from the world-changing discoveries to the mundane, everyday items, only exist in the first place because someone, somewhere had an idea and then worked obsessively to make it a reality.
In other words, someone was sufficiently nerdy about it to will it into being.
You’d think, then, that we’d celebrate the nerd. You’d think that the state of nerd-dom, the practice of nerdery, the act of nerding, would be highly prized. You’d think it would be something to aspire to, but it isn’t. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. Let’s look at the dictionary definition.
Nerd (noun: informal)
- a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious.
- a single-minded expert in a particular technical field
Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein & Marie Curie were all nerds by that second definition, and all are quite rightly held in high esteem by our culture. Chances are, though, that when you read the word ‘Nerd’ at the top of this article the picture that formed in your head was based not on the invention of the lightbulb, or the theory or relativity, or the fight against cancer, but was instead based on that pejorative first definition.
Not only that, but it’s also likely that the mental image your mind effortlessly conjured up is one that is very similar to the image many others would have arrived at. This is because it is a mental image that is deeply informed by popular culture: The Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons; Moss from The IT Crowd; Egon Spengler from Ghostbusters – socially awkward weirdos who will never, ever get laid. The customers of Nostalgia and Comics. Nerds.
These types of nerd, rather than the cancer-curing, electric light-giving nerd, have a particular function in our society: They are there to make you feel better about your own obsessions. Nerds are effectively a barometer of cool and sit firmly on the bottom rung in the social caste system. No-one wants to be a nerd.
But, and here’s the thing, we’re ALL nerds.
We’re all nerds because we’re all barking mad in one way or another and to varying degrees – we all have something (or more than one thing) that is our ‘thing’. Running, cooking, shopping, DIY, gardening – you name it and I’ll show you someone who is a little bit more into it than most.
My particular ‘thing’ is Pop Music and, as luck would have it, society deems that to be ‘quite cool’. My mate Robson’s ‘thing’ is poetry, and society deems that to be ‘quite interesting’. I’m sure your ‘thing’ is also an equally interesting and sexy ‘thing’. Well done, you.
If, however, your ‘thing’ happens to be science fiction, or computer games, or comics, or – heaven forbid – all three, well, you’re fucked. You are a first definition nerd, you sad sack.
Guess what? This brutal social and cultural apartheid in which all of Western culture blithely takes part would not be possible without the city of Birmingham!
It was here, in 1971, that the first meeting of the Birmingham Science Fiction Group took place. Initially the BSFG met informally in pubs and acted as a space where Science Fiction fans could discuss their ‘thing’ with like-minded individuals, but it soon evolved into a proper organisation with members all over the world and laid the groundwork for a network of other organisations that grew throughout the 1980s and beyond, all of which ultimately cemented the idea of the nerd-as-saddo in the collective consciousness.
Photo CC wheatfields