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)
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