Praise the Sabbath: now Birmingham shows its metal

Britain's second city gave the world its heaviest sounds. A series of exhibitions celebrates a deafening history

Every day tens of thousands of commuters hurry past a telling statue in Birmingham's main square. Antony Gormley's Iron: Man – a sort of wonky prototype for The Angel of The North – perfectly expresses the culture of Brum. The city, like its under-appreciated icon, is off-kilter. It was this intangible sense of the other, of being different despite being the bullseye of Britain, that meant Birmingham could give birth to strange new sounds and trends.

The most famous of them was heavy metal. Birmingham's contribution to the canon is celebrated this summer with Home of Metal. This season of exhibitions explores how the West Midlands affected musicians – and how, in turn, that heavy music influenced arts across the board, from the sculpture of Gormley to the art of Mark Titchner and the photography of Chris Coekin.

Black Sabbath started the movement that Home of Metal celebrates. Forty-three years ago in Aston, four lads met via handwritten ads tacked on the pinboard of a record shop. At the exact moment that great swathes of the working-class area they lived in were being swept aside to build the Aston Expressway and countless tower blocks, Black Sabbath wrote the song that Gormley's sculpture was named in honour of. "Iron Man"'s swampy, doom-laden intro set the scene for much that was to follow.

In musical folklore, metal is synonymous with the steam-hammers of the foundries and factories. But in the early 1970s, as local manufacturing began to die, the sound that hung in the air of the West Midlands was actually that of bulldozers, diggers and second-rate cars that rolled off the line at Longbridge. Streets were erased; council estates and concrete flyovers sprang up amid the industrial decline. Flower power was in short supply – not least on Sabbath's 1970 album Paranoid, some of its grislier lyrics inspired by Ozzy Osbourne's time working in an abattoir.

"My friend Mike had all the Led Zeppelin albums when we were kids. But it was Black Sabbath that I preferred," Turner Prize-nominated metal fan (and artist) Mark Titchner tells me. "I had a cheaply pressed compilation album called Black Sabbath – The Collection. I had no idea what Ozzy was singing about. When I finally heard the first album as it should be, I have to admit to being more than a bit terrified." As part of Home of Metal, Titchner is exhibiting his 2006 work Ergo Ergot, as well as his participatory primal-scream exercise Be Angry But Don't Stop Breathing (II), which channels the power of the guttural metal roar into an inky end result, at Walsall's New Art Gallery. Home of Metal includes several other exhibitions spread across the West Midlands. Judas Priest's stage costumes are on show at Walsall's Leather Museum. In Wolverhampton, the city's Art Gallery presents a show exploring the visual language of heavy metal. Next door, Chris Coekin's moody photographs of Midlands factories can be soundtracked as you wish: there's a pile of vinyl. In Dudley, the town's museum has an exhibition exploring the cultural significance of different types of metals themselves. Back in Birmingham, the showpiece exhibition of memorabilia at the Museum and Art Gallery boasts the contents of many teenage boys' bedrooms: T-shirts, posters, records, gig tickets. Home of Metal organiser Lisa Meyer – who also puts on the annual Supersonic Festival – launched an appeal for trinkets.

"Ultimately we want to make the case for a permanent collection in the West Midlands which honours the forefathers of metal. Where's the heavy-metal tea-towel?" she jokes. She has been working on the project for a number of years. "Since 2007 we've developed a digital archive of memorabilia and stories. We've also done a number of Home of Metal open days – think Antiques Roadshow for metal fans."

Singer Duncan Wilkinson helped out with the season. Who inspired him? "Judas Priest are probably even more responsible than Sabbath for influencing many of the bigger contemporary metal bands, with their twin lead-guitar work and leather-and-spikes aesthetic." Wilkinson also says: "Living in Birmingham or the Black Country lends itself to a sense of isolation. Venues, bands and fans are spread throughout the suburbs, only connected via less-than-ideal public transport."

Metal was about cheap thrills and a no-nonsense approach to life. The West Midlands epitomised that. Brummie Mark Greenway has been the vocalist in grindcore band Napalm Death for more than 20 years: "My focal point was gigs at the now-derelict Mermaid pub in Sparkhill. A lot of my individual memories are now quite cloudy – just like the scrumpy at the Mermaid. You would literally be picking the flies out of it before you dared to take a swig."

Greenway puts his finger on the fun. Post-industrial Brum may seem brooding and melancholy, but sprawling Birmingham is actually a big friendly giant. Its people possess the blackest and most self-effacing sense of humour – which they hone in the city's many hostelries. Pubs fuelled the metal boom: punters and bands alike necked pints of Ansell's, gigs took place in back rooms, music equalled escapism.

Sabbath's influence continues to be felt. Hard rock is probably more popular in Birmingham than at any point in its history. Teenage boys – and increasingly, girls too – cherish the exuberance, aggression and loudness of these bands. Lisa Meyer tells me about Brum's next generation of hard-as-nails bands. "There's Anaal Nathrakh and Einstellung. Or Morgue Orgy, who twist the twin-guitar leads of Judas Priest into horror-themed metalcore." And every Saturday night 2,000 youngsters turn up to one of the city's biggest venues, the Academy, for the Subculture night. And the people behind that event have had so much success that they're opening their own rock venue down the road, called Vudu.

But it was among the condemned back-to-backs of Aston that this experiment began, where the air was tangy with vinegar from the HP Sauce factory. Napalm Death's Mark Greenway reminds me: "I'm from Great Barr – just north of Aston – so Sabs were big news in our house. My dad was huge on them. I bought the "Paranoid" single from a small store in Newtown and never looked back."

Home of Metal begins on 18 June (www.homeofmetal.com; www.bmag.org.uk)

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before