The 21st of November 1974 was a Thursday. I had been in a hurry since leaving work but the long bus journey between Dudley, where I lived, & Birmingham would not be rushed. I like the early evening darkness of late Autumn, liked being out & about in the twilight zone. The mists & mellow fruitfulness have passed, this fresh chill signals that I have a birthday coming up & then Xmas.The return of the drones to their hives, after doing whatever it takes to put some pollen in their pockets, illuminated by street lights & shop fronts, was still of interest to a young man new to city living. In my home town 6 cars at a traffic light was rush hour congestion (still is), this anonymous urban hustle seemed fresh & exciting.
Still, in that month, in that year, a whole bunch of stuff was exciting. I was on my way to the city centre to meet the woman who had been lucky enough to marry me. Just 19 days earlier we had pledged our troth to each other, even signed something involving sickness & health, love & honour. Well… the optimism, the confidence of the newly married couple. The future’s so bright we gotta wear shades…in Birmingham…in November. Tonight our new friends from Down South were coming to the city & we were going to meet up with them. It was a big month for them too. Their first single had just been released & it sounded like this.
I had met Dr Feelgood, the most exciting rock group in the country, earlier in the year when the band had kindly helped a student hitchhiker who was goin’ back home. We got on well. They were playing a gig at my college & I agreed to help the night along by providing an ounce of hash. The gig never happened. There was a riot at the university when a sit-in was broken up by the police. Over 100 people were arrested, many of them friends. With a pocketful of illegal resin I had made like a shepherd & got the flock out of there. Different times.
We had seen Dr Feelgood on 3 occasions now. Hanging out with the band had become a thing we did. There must be an element of Groundhog Day about touring, fans have good intentions but tend to ask the same questions. I think the guys liked to pick up our conversation where we had left off, liked to chat around something other than where they had played & where they would be playing.My wife & I ? We got to hook up with the, have I mentioned this before ? The most exciting rock group in the country. Oh yes, that was the truth. Something was happening with the boys & it was all good. We were looking forward to seeing the guys but seeing them play would be enough because it was quite something & quite something else.
We arrived early enough to help with the load in to the venue. The crew were glad of the assistance. Hey, look at us ! We’re roadies ! We carried the gear onstage, moved some stuff when we were asked but nah man, I’m not touching anything electrical, I’ll break it. We got to make the rock go that evening…cool. The venue was Bogart’s, hardly “Rick’s Cafe Americain” but even now able to moisten the eye of former members of Midland biker gangs & old dudes with a decal-smothered denim jacket in the wardrobe…that doesn’t fit. As the premier metal club in Britain’s heavy metal city it was here that Judas Priest played it again & again & again Sam.
Bogart’s was smack dab in the middle of Birmingham’s city centre. The club had no car park & the tour bus needed to be put somewhere safe. My wife & I had the local knowledge so we went off with Wilko, the guitarist, to do the necessary. In a narrow back street our coach happened to brush against a car. Now Birmingham is the UK’s Motor City. They make them there & they love their’s more than their children. The driver who was approaching us had vengeance on his mind & violence in his eyes. Wilko jumped out of the coach to meet the guy on the street. We were close behind, we had, I guess, got his back. Wilko Johnson is a considerate, erudite former teacher. Perhaps it was the individual pudding bowl haircut or was the Thames Estuary drawl a surprise? Certainly Wilko’s eyes, tinged by serious LSD investigation, fixed in the 1,000 yard stare so wild & effective on stage, were the clincher. Our man with a scrape who was looking for a scrap pulled up short. He sussed that he could be entering a world of pain here & was out of his depth. Wilko explained that nothing was fucked here, that he would now hand over some money for the man’s trouble & the matter would never be spoken of again. He did not ruffle the guy’s hair but he could have done. We had seen the effect Wilko Johnson could have on the man in the street in the…erm, street. We held each other up so that we didn’t fall over laughing..Brilliant !
This night was the last time we saw our friends play in a small venue.. In February 1975 they starred on “The Naughty Rhythms Tour”, a triple pub-rock treat which played universities & Town Halls. Then the word & the first LP was out on this taut, tight,fresh take on the very same R&B that inspired the first Stones LP. In a jammed little club the music could abracadabra, reach out & grab ya. The interplay between Lee & Wilko stirred, shocked, even scared you. Jenny & I, old Feelgood hands now, could check for the agitation & appreciation which always came. We knew that this shit had caught on,it could only get bigger, that we were lucky to have been in on it so early. However, there was no encore for the band tonight.
Yeah, we were back in the night before we could even say any goodbyes. The band were expected onstage for a couple more tunes but someone else was there asking us all to leave the club in an as orderly way as a Brummie rock crowd could manage. We thought it was a fire at the club but outside the road to the Bus Station was blocked by a cop. Birmingham city centre in the 1970s was a barbarian traffic controller’s dream. Screw the pedestrian, the combustion engine was king…Motor City. We got the fuck out of Dodge, past the library to where the streets got broader & the buses had to pass.
Then it got a little strange. For what seemed like an hour of those longer “bus waiting” minutes there must have been passing traffic, must have been people around. There were certainly no buses. Something had gone off in the centre but, in those days before smart phones & the whole world in your palm, we knew nothing. We were a little selfish. The longer the wait, the later the night, the sooner the morning comes around. Our ride finally did appear & it was late when we got back home. The guy across the landing asked if we had heard about what had happened in Brum, we told him we had just come from there, knew there was disruption but no hows, wheres & what fors.
On Thursday November the 21st 1974 21 people were killed, 182 others injured when bombs were exploded in 2 central Birmingham pubs. The political climate of the times meant that the Irish Republican Army were immediately blamed. Whoever was responsible (it was not the 6 men who received life sentences in 1975) pretty much fucked up the job. The protocol of a 30 minute warning before an explosion was ignored, with only 6 minutes between a telephone call & the first incident a lot more people died. The Tavern In The Town was a pub in a basement with no direct access to the street, they were scraping bits of body off the remaining walls. The anti-Irish sentiment I witnessed at my workplace the next day was not the product of government, media or police propaganda but genuine outrage that innocent people should lose their lives. The I.R.A., whatever their involvement, distanced themselves from this terrible incident.
This happened just 100 yards away from where my new wife & I were enjoying our evening. Blow your ifs, buts & maybes out of your arse but if Bogarts had been chosen then I may not have been writing this. I was not ignorant of the Republican struggle in Ireland. The occupation of a part of the United Kingdom by the British Army on behalf of a obdurate Unionist movement who’s ideas were obsolete was wrong. The determination of successive British governments to refuse to engage those involved in any political dialogue caused entrenchment on all sides & a higher body count. British people in Northern Ireland were forced to live a life which we on the mainland did not understand. A friend told me that when you see an armed soldier throw your mother across a room of her own house then political views become irrelevant. I believe that is true. The fight was with the Army, the government. Just 6 weeks earlier 4 off duty soldiers had been killed in an attack. The Houses of Parliament had been bombed. If the targeting of British civilians was an attempt to extend the war then it was ill-judged. The British public did not spend enough time thinking about “the Troubles”, maybe questioning government policies would help. A bombing campaign on mainland cities which killed anyone unlucky enough to be around was not going to make anyone consider the policies any more seriously or sympathetically.
Wow…loosehandlebars gets serious because these were serious thing & times. You go out for the night in the city & History happens right across the road from you.