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Seven Birmingham venues where music history was made

Robert Plant
Flickr: dinareginephotography.com Robert Plant

Birmingham's constantly changing, like every great city. That means that places come and go. Some of our most storied music venues have disappeared or been re-purposed. Some live on, of course, and there are fresh new venues all over town, but Birmingham's music heritage weighs heavy on the city. Here are just some of the unlikely places in Brum that music history was made.

Where Pink Floyd recorded half of Ummagumma…
Converted from the Carlton Ballroom, Mothers in Erdington was the ultimate hippie venue. It only ran from 1968 to 1971, but in that time Pink Floyd recorded half of Ummagumma at the venue; Soft Machine laid down tracks there; John Peel DJed regularly; and Traffic made their live debut at the place. It even got voted the top rock venue in the world by Billboard (how did that happen?!). On a sad note, it was while returning from a Mothers gig that Fairport Convention suffered a fatal road accident, losing their drummer and injuring the rest of the band. The building still exists.

Andy Mabbett

The venue that turned Birmingham onto punk…
The ultimate classic rock venue – Barbarella's. When Mothers shut its doors, the baton passed to this city-centre joint, which had been a nightclub and disco. You stuck to the floor, but the place had two bars, both with excellent sight lines. Not only was the place, like Mothers, a who's-who for a new generation of rock bands, but they ran a decent local night on Sundays, and opened up a punk room where everyone played – from the Pistols and Buzzcocks to The Jam. Before Judas Priest broke big in the US, they headlined Barbs – but rather overdid the pyro. You couldn't see them for the first half an hour. Sadly, this is all that's left – a salvaged street sign, roughly where Cumberland Street used to be.

Robin Valk

Duran Duran's Broad Street headquarters…
Blessed with an even cornier name than Barbarella's, The Rum Runner's (on Broad Street) main claim to fame was that the club nurtured Birmingham's very brief New Romantic movement, and in particular, Duran Duran, who went on to become global pop stars. Before they broke big worldwide on MTV, members of the band could be found at the club working the door, bar-tending or covering DJ shifts. It all happened very, very fast. Like Barbarella's, the club has long-since disappeared; it's buried under the Hyatt Hotel on Broad Street.

Flickr: Elliott Brown

Where Steve Winwood got his first break…
Legend has it, The Golden Eagle is where Robert Plant and Noddy Holder came over from Wolverhampton to watch the very underage Steve Winwood with what was to become the Spencer Davis Group. It was a brilliantly run city-centre venue, and survived to usher in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (including Iron Maiden, among others). It was also one of the last small venues U2 played before they went stadium-sized. It won't be remembered fondly by bands for its layout – kit had to be hauled up some very steep stairs by hand. This is all that's left now: a car park at the top of Hill Street. 

Robin Valk

The birth of Brum's own Masters of Reality, Black Sabbath…
Down Hill Street from The Golden Eagle, is The Crown – the building where Black Sabbath got started. For once, it's still standing – for now. Its rock history goes back to when Henry's Blues House ran there. That club played host to Robert Plant's pre-Zep bands, and one of the very first gigs from Led Zeppelin. The story goes that a local manager and photographer Jim Simpson, who ran the place, gave a support slot to a bunch of likely lads called Earth, opening for Ten Years After. They did well, so he took them on and they became Black Sabbath. The pub has closed now and redevelopment awaits. 

Robin Valk

The home of one of British reggae's most important acts, Steel Pulse
While punks were tearing it up at Barbarella's, The Rialto on Soho Road in Handsworth was party central. This was where Steel Pulse and The Beat first played some of their earliest gigs. Handsworth produced three huge international acts in as many years: Ruby Turner, Apache Indian, and Steel Pulse, along with a host of great British reggae bands – Eclipse and Beshara among them. The core of Pulse was three young men  – David Hinds, Basil Gabbidon, and Ronald McQueen – who all went to Handsworth School for Boys and formed the band as teenagers. The venue is long gone.

Soho Road nowGavin Warrins

Where world-conquering Brummies UB40 played their first gig
And so we come to one of the great survivors: the Hare and Hounds in King's Heath. Generally recognised as one of the finest small venues in the UK, it's a gorgeous Grade-II listed building dating from 1907, but there's been a music venue on the site since 1820. Under current owner Adam Regan, it's expanded and developed. If you head to the venue for one of two gigs that may be on in the upstairs rooms, make sure you pop into the back bar – there's generally freebie music going on in there too. It's making its own history right now, of course, but the Hare and Hounds lays claim to being the first place UB40 ever played at, back in the late-70s. There's even a PRS plaque there.

Elliott Brown

What are your own memories of Birmingham's classic venues?

More music on Time Out Birmingham.

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