Back on The Stirrer all that time ago someone said that if the Sweeney was ever remade Digbeth is the only place in Birmingham it could be filmed. Cobbled streets, viaducts, scrapyards – they’re all (still) there. That’s what I love about the area; the council can try all it likes to tart Digbeth up, but it’s still the same grotty, authentic place it’s always been.
Where else could you walk past a SAAB dealership, then turn down a dark side street, walls emblazoned with graffiti, and into an unassuming pub where one of your childhood idols/influences was playing upstairs in a venue hardly any bigger than your front room?
Henry Cluney, original guitarist with seminal punk band Stiff Little Fingers, returned to the scene of one of his greatest triumphs, more than thirty years after SLF played a gig at Digbeth Civic Hall that passed into Birmingham live music legend – one of those where ten thousand people swear they were present.
There were a few less than that at the Waggon & Horses on Wednesday night. Well, it was cold, and there’s football on the telly, and there was bound to be a few school nativity plays clogging up the social calendar of Birmingham’s fortysomething ex-punk contingent. But those of us who were present had another night to remember as Henry played selections from his old band’s back catalogue, a few new songs and generally kept us all entertained.
With just a drummer behind him the set kicked off with Alternative Ulster, adding a new final verse to reflect the fact that, thank God, his native land is one part of the world where things have improved in the years since SLF exploded out of Belfast with an incendiary set of songs and the most authentic punk attitude of them all. Almost an hour later proceedings finished with the equally now-fortunately outdated Suspect Device.
In between was a host of songs from SLF’s classic debut Inflammable Material and its often-overlooked follow-up Nobody’s Heroes (to my mind the finest second album any punk band produced, and one which showed how they matured into the best loud and raucous poppy/punky band of the time). If you’re a fan you can guess what he played, and how the audience reacted. It’s rare that a singer can hand over vocal duties to the crowd, or for that matter ask them what album the songs came from and how does the next line go.
The new numbers sounded fine. According to Henry one was called The Devil Went Down to Digbeth, while a familiar intro was announced as I Wanna Be Your Cat. These may not have been the correct titles.
“What do you want to hear?” Henry asked as he came back on stage. “Everything, again” was one response. Rather unfairly I feel, this request was ignored and we got a traditional SLF set closer of White Christmas plus a reprised Alternative Ulster. And I’ve no doubt there were a few sore throats next morning and almost as many vows never to do anything that daft again at our age.
His former colleagues might still be pulling in good crowds, but there’s something not right about a band of middle-aged men singing about teenage angst and hating your parents, then selling tour jackets at eighty quid a throw.
With Henry you get the impression he’s doing it because he genuinely enjoys performing in venues like the Waggon, in the company of an audience who know what he was a part of, what it meant to them, and appreciate him all the more for it.