Pram were the first. I remembered Rosie and Matt from Birmingham indie gigs: Matt regularly turning up to Tuesday night indie hangout The Click Club, where Primal Scream, Talulah Gosh and Edwyn Collins all played. He always had a carrier bag, turned up alone and wore his fringe longer than any of us. He seemed painfully shy, but we finally got talking at a Chills gig at The Mermaid (we could hardly avoid each other – there were only about 10 other people there). Matt and Rosie had a band called Friends Of The Family who released one alright single and one absolutely stunning one called Lucibele Green. In 1988, they supported The Go-Betweens at Warwick University and shortly after that, I spoke to Matt for the last time in a decade. Waiting for the 63 bus on Bristol Road North, he told me that he and Rosie and formed a new band called Pram.
Pram signed to Too Pure (later moving to Domino) and finessed a dusty spook pop that occasionally veered into something approaching jazz territory – or at least the sort of jazz an attic room of Victorian toys might make when the hatch was closed and the humans were asleep. I’ve a hunch that if Oliver Postgate had made Bagpuss 25 years later, Pram would surely have been the group he would have called upon to provide the music. However, by the time they began to receive their first national reviews, I had left Birmingham. I didn’t know what was fermenting in the Moseley streets that once seemed so bohemian to an Acocks Green boy like me. In 1994 or 1995, my near-neighbour in London, Bob Stanley told me about Broadcast, using the language of test cards, Morricone and half-forgotten 70s children’s dramas to describe their first two singles on Duophonic. But when The Book Lovers EP appeared in 1996, my expectations emphatically trumped. To listen was to experience something like a Proustian landslide. I remember hearing both Pram’s The Legendary Band Of Venus and Broadcast’s Message From Home for the first time, feeling overwhelmed by these synaesthetic jumbles of sights and sounds: nursery rhymes and test card music refracted through the rainy daytime, off-school ennui of pre-Freeview Britain.
I don’t expect that this is what Pram and Broadcast intentionally set out to achieve with their early records. This is the sort of music that musicians of a certain generation and sensibility – with access to the same records and junk shops – would have made anyway. And, almost by way of proof, the streets spidering out from The Trafalgar pub yielded more bands who – whilst not all sounding like each other – all seemed to intersect with one another. Plone numbered just three. The instrumental analogue pop of their only album For Beginner Piano sometimes sounded like a playful half-brother to Kraftwerk’s Radio-Activity. Sounding a little like Pram, but with a greater emotional heft, Novak put out a string of superb singles – in particular Silver Seas and Blue Chinook – which portended exciting prospects. There were other groups too, many of them chronicled in the fanzine We Brought Our Friends. Back in 1988, I used to be in a band with Farfisa whizz Simon Vincent from L’Augmentation, whose Soleil seven-inch remains a masterpiece of deranged delirium. Back then, we called ourselves Maher Shalal Hash Baz, confident that there could never be another band on the planet who would ever give themselves such a preposterous name [sideways Eric Morecambe glance to camera].
By 1999, I was writing for Time Out. Despite being a London listings magazine, I somehow managed to persuade my editor to let me travel to Birmingham and write a piece on this burgeoning scene. I visited Broadcast in their unit at the city’s thriving arts hub The Custard Factory. They were hard at work on their second album The Noise Made By People. Trish Keenan played me a few songs being considered for inclusion on the record. They sounded incredible and, to the best of my recollection, poppier than anything that made it onto the record. That evening, my wife and I took Novak out for a balti in Balsall Heath, a few hundred yards down the road from Moseley, courtesy of Time Out. The following day, I visited Plone and Pram. I don’t remember too much about our conversations. The interviews were made more complicated by the fact that the odd member of one band was actually at the house of another. Most of the groups seemed to have members who subsidised their music by working at a local video rental shop. I felt tremendously fond of all of them. Proud too, although I had no right to be – I had played no part in their success. The picture with this piece was taken on the roof of The Custard Factory (sadly, I can’t remember who took it). I remember thinking it would be important to photograph all the bands together, because, when they all went on to become hugely successful, this would be an important piece of musical history.
Of course, there was no huge commercial success, although Broadcast amassed a modest global cult following for the four albums they made prior to Trish Keenan’s death in January 2011. Beyond the M42, the world went about its business oblivious to the storm of intense creativity that, for a time, gripped this tiny part of Birmingham. Which, of course, only serves to make the photograph even more priceless.
(Thanks to Kirsten from Novak for the jpeg of the Time Out photo)