the suzi parker files

Politics, Pop Culture and Ponderings

Birmingham Calling: Duran Duran … Exhibited?

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Not everyone dreams about a vacation to Birmingham, England.

But Duranies do.

Birmingham is to a Duran Duran addict what Liverpool is to Beatles fans. Duranies long for a time machine to travel to the legendary Rum Runner, the night club where Duran Duran formed in 1978.

In a Duranie’s imagination, Birmingham is a mythical place where Brummies drink in pubs, boys dash out in eyeliner driving Aston Martins and girls have a chance to land in bed with a dreamy lead singer.

Birmingham natives say that is far from the truth, but it’s hard to convince a Duranie.

John Hemming, director of the Birmingham Music Heritage project and a rock historian, knows a lot about the British city. Hemming runs a website focused on the city’s musical history, and he is currently helping to organize an exhibit featuring Duran Duran in Birmingham.

“The goal of our project is to inspire future generations of musicians and alike from Birmingham to pick up an instrument and join the many famous bands and artists that Birmingham has produced,” Hemming tells me via email.  “We want to keep the music heritage of the city alive with films, exhibitions and live music.”

Birmingham’s musical legacy from 1965 to 1985, which Hemming has chosen to highlight on his website, includes an eclectic mix of bands and singers – Black Sabbath, ELO, Joan Armatrading, Musical Youth, Traffic, The Beat, Toyah Willcox and UB40, to name a few.

Hemming says that the city’s rich culture has always been – and continues to be – overshadowed by London, Manchester and Liverpool. It’s a place that has struggled with identity issues for decades, perpetually unclear of its place in British history.

“It was one of the first cities ever to face terrorism during the early 70’s so I think the city is still shell-shocked, but I think this has made Brummys the people we are today,” Hemming says.

In 1974, Birmingham was rocked by pub bombings that killed 21 people and injured 182. The British government blamed the IRA. And, in turn, introduced the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allowed suspects to be held up to seven days without charge and allowed people to be deported from Great Britain to either Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

But Hemming says, regardless of its past, that Brummys are “quite laid back and friendly.”

He also says that the city’s suburbs may have helped create some of the genius that emerged from Birmingham.

“Apart from the city centre visit the suburbs and then you can understand why the likes Black Sabbath formed and conquered the world…… its a dump!”

In the late 1970s, Birmingham, like much of England, was seeking an escape from gnashing punk energy. A perfect antidote? New Wave.

“Bands such as Japan [and] Tubeway Army were churning out a new sound of synth pop,” Hemming says. “In Birmingham bands such as the Beat and Dexys were breaking big due to the two-tone explosion in 79-80 in Coventry, but in the clubs something different was happening. Peacock Punks as they were called started to challenge fashion and people were making their own clothes and just being so experimental.”

But those who loved fashion didn’t call themselves New Romantics. Instead, Hemming says, media invented New Romantics.

“This was just boys and girls wearing make up and being flamboyant and having fun,” he recalls. “I can remember personally sharing eyeliner with the girls and blusher. In fact if you didn’t wear make up then you were really a geek! The bands in the underground were Fashion and Duran, it was a mix of disco, punk and synth.”

Duran Duran’s launch from the Rum Runner to global sex symbols didn’t happen for every band. Hemming said that one band that should have hit the big time but failed was Fashion. Duran Duran actually opened for Fashion, and Fashion supported the B-52s on the Athens band’s first UK tour.

“They really should have made it big,” Hemming says. “Their second album ‘Frabrique’ went out on the Arista label and made the top 20. The single ‘Move On’ was a great song but lead singer Dee Harris quit the band on the eve of the BBC’s ‘Old Grey Whistle Test’. The band had partied too much and finished themselves before fame and fortune.

But not Duran Duran.

Hemming said he remembers that “Girls on Film” version one was written by former lead singer Andy Wickett while working nights at Cadbury’s.

“He sold the rights to the song to the then management for £600,” Hemming says. “The song was then revisited by Simon who put his own stamp on it. But Andy was paid again by the management to teach Simon how to sing some of the songs.”

The Duran Duran exhibit, if Hemming pulls it off, will focus on the first years of the band leading to their first self-titled album that includes “Planet Earth” and “Girls on Film.” It will explore the band’s early line-ups and various incarnations as they played in clubs around Birmingham.

A documentary featuring interviews with Nick Rhodes and drummer Roger Taylor has already been filmed. Rhodes was a founding member along with bassist John Taylor. A photography exhibit by Paul Edmond is also planned. Edmond documented the early days of Birmingham’s new wave scene at The Cedar Club, Holy City Zoo and the Rum Runner.

Hemming says the exhibit will also feature designs by New Romantic fashion pioneers, Jane Karn and Patti Bell, who dressed Duran Duran at times.

“Patti Bell was renowned for selecting the best dressed to enter the Rum Runner and turning down anyone who was normal,” Hemming says.

For Duranies the most thrilling part of the exhibit, perhaps? Rhodes will donate some of his artwork and photography. Jody Craddock, a premier football player, has also painted what Hemming calls a “stunning portrait” of singer Simon Le Bon.

But don’t ready the passport just yet. Hemming needs money, sponsors and a location to pull off his plan.

“To make this happen we need the correct funding and the perfect location,” he said. “We are looking for funds around the 50k mark to totally offer something special and curate material for such an exhibition.”

Surely, some old New Romantics have a pound or two to spare.


Written by suziparker1313

August 2, 2011 at 12:52 pm

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