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Birmingham - Home of Metal | reviews, news & interviews

Birmingham - Home of Metal

Birmingham - Home of Metal

Informative and amusing exhibition takes heavy music back to its roots

Birmingham: The Home of Metal exhibitionKatja Ogrin

This site has never acknowledged a distinction between high and popular culture. Nor, it seems, does the city of Birmingham. Currently bidding for UK City of Culture 2013, it is also promoting itself as the "Home of (Heavy) Metal". This summer, at various locations across the Black Country, a four-month festival looks at the likes of Ozzy Osbourne and celebrates the people who inspired him to “bark at the moon”.

Surrounded by guitars, leather and fans' metalobilia in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, theartsdesk caught up with Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi to find out what it’s all about.

“Heavy metal,” explains Iommi, “is really just any industrial-sounding guitar music.” But although in 2011 metal might be a church as broad as it is dark, it started off in the industry of Seventies Birmingham. Osbourne worked in the Lucas car plant, and Iommi in a sheet metal factory. It was there that Iommi had the tips of two fretting fingers cut off in an accident. He was about to give up when a friend told him the story of how French gypsy jazzer Django Rheinhart had overcome a similar accident. Experimenting with thimbles on his damaged digits, using power chords, and down-tuning his guitar, Iommi gave birth to a whole new sound.

It’s all in the BMAG exhibition – the cornerstone of the festival. You can see photos of the streets in which Sabbath grew up, hear the sounds of the factory horns and machines that inspired them and, if you bring the kids along, they can sit in the metal crèche, colour in Ozzy and help him find his bat (at least we assumed the crèche was for kids). Birmingham music scenes would later give rise to slightly more bluesy or poppy formulations of heavy rock that would conquer the world and Christmas - both Led Zeppelin and Slade feature in the festival. Real metal music, however, has taken longer to be accepted as a bona fide popular art form.

“I’m not really sure why that has been," says Iommi.But both he and his manager agree when I put it to them that under the criteria of longevity and the depth of feeling it inspires, metal should have been considered an art form years ago. In2009 California’s Metallica - the most directly Sabbath-inspired of the current mega-acts – produced an album that was covered in almost every high-brow culture section. The same year the likes of critic Paul Morley were writing about the new Guns N’ Roses LP. theartsdesk were about to cover revivals by Stryper, Megadeth, Rush and the debut by Brummie metal super-group Black Country Communion. And as Iommi points out, by then even women had finally arrivedonto the scene. It seemedmetal’s rehabilitation was finally complete.

robhalfordYou see a display of fans of both genders in Steve Gerrard’sportraitscovering one wall in the BMAG exhibition. You also get a few clues as to why it took so long for non-metalheads to get what has been at times quite tribal and subcultural music. There’s a video of a doctor explaining the dangers of headbanging, a whole section onthe leather, chains and motorbikes of Judas Priest and perhaps most remarkably an archive of fans’ diaries, scrapbooks, photos, patches and badges.

Over in Wolverhampton there’s an exhibition of art inspired by heavy metal and in the Walsall Leather Museum the outfits of Judas Priest’s mainman Rob Halford (picture above) are celebrated (how strange it seems now that in the heyday of his career no one thought to question his sexuality). In Walsall’s New Art Gallery, Turner Prize-nominee Mark Titchner looks at the nature of the metal sound and encourages visitors to take part in a group primal scream. And these days it’s not all for young men, with the festival including family-orientated guitar workshops and badge-making classes.

Iommi says that when he toured the States in the Seventies, Americans knew Birmingham like they knew Liverpool, as a city in the UK responsible for a music scene that they loved. “So, Tony,” I ask, “do you think that this festival will finally establish the Birmingham metal scene like Merseybeat or Madchester?” “I doubt it,” he replies in his charming self-deprecating Brummie accent. “It’ll probably just be the fans who’ll come.” Maybe, but believe me, there’s plenty to keep anyone entertained here.

Watch a video of Birmingham's Home of Metal celebration

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