((From The Guardian, UK daily, 24 July 2009)True Grit
Bypass the Bullring and head for dynamic Digbeth, Birmingham's vibrant heart, says Jon Bounds
Digbeth is the hedonistic heart of Birmingham. Back in the 60s, Digbeth was the centre of the UK's folk scene, marshalled by Ian Campbell (daddy of Ali and Robin Campbell of UB40 fame). In the 70s, Digbeth Civic Hall was shaken to its foundations by Stiff Little Fingers, the Damned, the Police, Killing Joke, the Ruts and the Fall. Eventually, the rave and drum'n'bass scene took hold of its soul.
Arrive by train or car in Birmingham and you'll be pointed towards consumerism and the Bullring, away from the grit and the real excitement. Arrive by coach and, despite being deposited in the back streets of Digbeth, you'll be encouraged to run to the pimply bosom of Selfridges, at the top of Digbeth High Street, as quickly as possible. Don't. Stay. Digbeth has always been edgy – where the worlds of hard work and hard play have collided. In The Commitments they call soul music "the rhythm of sex, the rhythm of the factories". In Birmingham the rhythm has always been more akin to metal bashing – industrial noise, Black Sabbath or banging techno, covered with a thin layer of grime – and Digbeth is where you'll find that. See it now before creeping regeneration changes it forever.
If you get the chance to check it out on the web before you visit, go straight to Digbeth Is Good (digbeth.org), where Nicky Getgood chronicles what she calls the "great mix of industrial feel, creative spaces and artistic happenings, live music and festivals and the best cluster of [real] Irish pubs".
Start early, and get a taste of the pre-regeneration Digbeth at the wonderful Spotted Dog (Alcester Street). It's not so much an Irish pub as a pub that quite a few Irish people go to, a shady corner where the sunlight squeezes its way through the original stained-glass windows and illuminates the array of worn and comforting seating. The walls and shelves hang heavy with history. It hosts gramophone nights, film nights, groups of folk musicians who materialise from nowhere and fiddle and hurdy-gurdy around you. It's also becoming a hangout for some of the area's "digerati", so get in there before the iPhones edge out the shillelaghs. Not that Digbeth is quite gentrified yet – there are no cash machines this side of the Bullring. But the Spotted Dog will give cash back as part of its outrageously friendly service.
When it comes to refuelling, the Warehouse Cafe (54-57 Allison Street) is run by the Birmingham Friends of the Earth, so it's homely, organic where possible, ethical and vegan/vegetarian – and it has window boxes and solar panels on the roof. It's simple, but you'll feel good about yourself and once your potato wedges are fried, the vegetable oil is filtered and used as fuel for the car.
Should you crave meat, then you could do worse than the Caricom Caribbean Restaurant (Warner Street). It's authentic, bright and even has guest rooms should you be so full you have to end the night right there.
Punk didn't die – it just stopped hanging round in bus shelters. In Brum, punk mainly hangs out at the Wagon and Horses (Adderley Street). In the "yard" at the rear of the pub, weather permitting, there are gigs and DJs most Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
A similar makeshift style can be found at the rather fashionable Rainbow (160 High Street), where some of the country's coolest and noisiest bands cram punters into the partially covered courtyard at the back. The walls are either bare brick or covered in some of the best art around – the pub hosts the Birmingham Secret Wars live art championships.
Both the Rainbow and Spotted Dog are currently facing noise abatement orders from the council (see keepdigbethvibrant.co.uk, or check out the Spotted Dog's spoof of the Stella Artois ad on Youtube). They'll keep going, but to see Brum at its independent best, go as soon as possible.
If you're raring to go all night, the Custard Factory (Heath Mill Lane) is still, after all these years, the venue that's most likely to be up until the sun rises. By day boho office blocks and shops with fountains and sculptures, the area transforms most weekends when the water feature is drained to become a huge dance pit. Rave, hard dance and dubstep promoters regularly take over the whole complex, but the highlight of the year is the Supersonic Festival – three days of avant-rock noise every July (24–26 this year). Kill for a ticket.
• Jon Bounds is the founder of birminghamitsnotshit.co.uk