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I arrived in Birmingham in September 1981 as a fresh-faced student and an obsessive music fan. I was in heaven for three reasons.

One: Birmingham was the fertile breeding ground for a wide variety of great artists at that time. They included The Beat, Dexys Midnight Runners, Au Pairs, Steel Pulse, Felt, The Nightingales, Musical Youth, Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy, UB40, Fashion and many more.

Two: It had an amazing live music scene with a great choice of venues. There were rooms above pubs, such as The Fighting Cocks, The Mermaid, The Golden Eagle and The Bournbrook. The Holy City Zoo had just taken over from the Rum Runner as the city’s coolest nightclub, plus there was the excellent Locarno, which later became the Powerhouse. Old cinemas, such as The Imperial and The Carlton, also hosted memorable gigs. In addition, Birmingham and Aston Universities plus the Poly all attracted quality acts. While for bigger shows, there was always the Odeon, Bingley Hall or the Tower Ballroom

Three: The early 1980s were an incredibly vibrant time for music with the rise of a myriad of genres including synth-pop, post-punk, hip hop, dancehall, electro, indie-pop, mutant disco, Britfunk, goth and many more. Everything was up for grabs, rules were there to be broken and styles were meant to be mixed up. This Spotify playlist of my favourite tracks from 1981 captures some of that excitement.

Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran . He's holding a mic, and looks to the right of the camera. It's a close portrait. He's got blonde spiky hair and a red headband
Simon Le Bon of Duran Duran at the Rum Runner nightclub on Broad Street in December 1981 Credit: Photo © Andy (@Birmingham81) 1981

Just before I arrived in Birmingham, I had been given a Rolleiflex 35-mm camera for my 18th birthday. I quickly worked out that I could get into concerts for free if I took photos for the Birmingham University newspaper, Redbrick, and subsequently for a local fanzine called Musique.

That’s how I ended up taking photos of some wonderful bands, often playing small intimate venues before they went on to fame and fortune. Examples included Depeche Mode at The Locarno, Eurythmics at the Holy City Zoo, New Order at the Imperial Cinema and Duran Duran at the Rum Runner.

Two band members playing music, the vocalist is singing into the microphone, both hands gripping the mic. The other is looking downwards as he plays his guitar.
Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook of New Order at the Imperial Cinema in Balsall Heath in February 1982. The venue was on the corner of Moseley Road and Clifton Road but has since been demolished. Credit: Photo © Andy (@Birmingham81) 1981

I had never taken pictures at concerts before and had little experience of photography full-stop, so I had to learn fast. Rolls of 35mm film and the subsequent processing and printing were all relatively expensive, so I had to make every frame count. It was a far cry from the current digital technology that allows virtually unlimited shots.

I rarely met other photographers at gigs, so in many cases my photos are the only record of these shows. Again, that was completely different from today when every concert is captured from all angles on countless mobile phones.

After I graduated in 1984, my photographs sat in boxes and bags for decades, unseen by anyone. It wasn’t until 2016 when I decided to scan and upload my prints to Twitter as @Birmingham_81 that they reached a wider audience.

It’s been great to share the images with the acts themselves, people who were also at those gigs, young fans who were born after the shows took place, and distant followers many thousands of miles away from Birmingham.

The exposure has led to my photos being featured in exhibitions, on album sleeves and in books and magazines, which has been a thrill and an honour. It still feels surreal that a photo of New Order that I took when I was 18 is currently displayed in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (as part of the Wonderland exhibition until 30 October 2022).

I’m also delighted to have been given the opportunity to share more of my photos here, including some of those bands that went on to be massive, some that flew under the radar, and a few additional snaps to provide some context of Birmingham in the early 1980s.

Andy (@Birmingham_81)

Annie Lennox of Eurythmics. The image is fuzzy, slightly out of focus. Annie has long bushy dark hair and pink lipstick. She has her eyes closed as she sings into the mic.
Annie Lennox of Eurythmics playing to a very small crowd at the Holy City Zoo in December 1981. The venue on Water Street was part-owned by the footballer Andy Gray Credit: Photo © Andy (@Birmingham81) 1981

Further listening

Wednesday Nights at the Powerhouse. This playlist will give you an idea of what we danced to at the alternative nights on Wednesdays at the Powerhouse around 1983 and 1984.

The Sound of Birmingham. This playlist is designed to capture the sound of Birmingham from the 1960s up to the current day.