INTERVIEW: Jez Collins, Birmingham Music Archive

People’s History of Pop interviewed Jez Collins, the man behind the Birmingham Music Archive, about ‘activist archiving’ and uncovering Birmingham’s pop music heritage

A young Bobby Gillespie playing with Primal Scream at The Click Club, Burberries in 1986. Photo: Dave Travis, via the Birmingham Music Archive
A young Bobby Gillespie playing with Primal Scream at The Click Club, Burberries in 1986. Photo: Dave Travis, via the Birmingham Music Archive

In 2008, Jez Collins wanted to find out more about the musical history of his city, Birmingham, but when he went looking for books in the local library, he found nothing about music from Birmingham. When he read music magazines, Britain’s second biggest city rarely got a mention amidst talk of London, Manchester and Liverpool.

“I grew up in Birmingham. I didn’t go to Black Sabbath gigs or hang out with ELO but I went to venues and record shops. I thought I would ask the general public, what is our history? What is it for you?”

So Jez set up the Birmingham Music Archive to capture the histories of well-known bands such as Black Sabbath, ELO, UB40, Duran Duran, Dexys Midnight Runners as well as individuals such as  Christine McVie from Fleetwood Mac, Nick Mason from Pink Floyd.  But he also wanted to ensure that bands who might have existed only for a short time, maybe who never released any records but who meant a lot to their fans and their city, were represented. He wanted them to also have the opportunity to share their histories and tell their stories. It’s not just about the bands either. The BMA celebrates the seminal venues and incredible clubs and gig venues as well as highlighting the role the city has played in the development of genres such as reggae and bhangra.

The archive is a website collecting content and memories relating to Birmingham bands, club nights, promoters, festivals, managers, fanzines, venues, record shops and more. Birmingham music lovers can send in photos, ticket stubs and memorabilia as well as comment beneath other people’s contributions.

Each memory often brings new ones from others who shared the same experiences. “A ticket stub, if you make it available, it actually triggers and prompts memory. It draws other people in. You don’t have to know the person who posted it, you don’t have to have been in the club at that time, but it triggers the memories.”

“I class myself as a citizen archivist who engages in activist archiving”, says Jez. “My history is not represented in the British Library or the National Gallery or Birmingham museums. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to investigate our own history. It’s important because popular music has never been deemed as an integral or important part of our cultural heritage…Actually, this is our history and it’s important to us and it matters that we preserve it.”

Jez knows that only too well because, like many people, he has saved stuff from his years of being a music fan that elicits important memories. When asked what his favourite piece of memorabilia is, he answers, “I don’t know, I have so much stuff. I think it would be my badge collection. It’s not a massive badge collection, but it’s badges I can relate to certain times, certain people, and certain moments in my life. I think that would be the one collection that encapsulates a particular period in my life. Or maybe a Bob Dylan ticket as well. Or a Bowie ticket. I’m going to stick with the badges.”

The BMA is a labour of love and Jez is also a full-time academic at Birmingham City University, researching the role of popular music in collective and individual identities.  “The academic work I am trying to do is to show that these things are extremely important and if we do not recognise them and we do not save them, then we are going to lose huge amounts of our cultural heritage.”

As well as their work online, the BMA will be co-hosting ‘Is Anyone Out There?’ Documenting Birmingham’s Alternative Music Scene 1986-1990 exhibition about Birmingham’s alternative music scene at Birmingham City University from May 3-28 2016.