Home of Metal

September 12th, 2011

I thought it might be an idea to write something on here that wasn’t based on my simplistic 6th Form analysis of recent political events.So instead I’m going to write about Heavy Metal, which is much more sensible.

Yesterday I went to visit the Home of Metal exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I’m not a great museum visitor, they tend to bore me, but an exhibition devoted to Heavy Metal seemed like something I should do. Though it has been on since July and I only got round to it a week before it finished.

I think I should start this with stating that it is a great exhibition, it’s well made and does a good job of holding your hand through a very different bit of Birmingham’s history. I also recognise that Capsule, who put it together, have done a vast amount for music in Birmingham over the last decade, they’ve let me see Lightning Bolt and Shellac for a start.

With that caveat I have to say I left the Home of Metal feeling at a bit of a loss.

One thing I’ve learnt in the 20 years I’ve been living in Birmingham is that it has always been seeking an identity to distinguish itself from other cities. It’s constantly fighting to define itself as the second city of the UK, when I say fighting I’m not really sure that Manchester is aware that there is a fight going on nor is actually that bothered about how UK cities are prioritised.

Birmingham is jealous that other UK cities appear to have a more defined musical heritage. I don’t think other cities have a greater heritage of music but they do seem to be able to bundle things together. Liverpool had Mersey Beat and Manchester had the MADchester thing of the early 90s. Birmingham hasn’t had anything equivalent. Birmingham has had international fame with ELO, Duran Duran and of course Black Sabbath but there hasn’t been a unifying marketing ploy behind them.

These themes, or close groups of bands, are nothing more than a device by record companies to promote bands that otherwise wouldn’t get anywhere. As such I don’t think Birmingham has really missed out.

This lack of a Birmingham “sound” now seems to have been addressed by the attempt to claim the genre of Heavy Metal as being a product of Birmingham (and the Black Country to an extent).

Heavy Metal is a really difficult type of music to define. It is incredibly subjective to distinguish where hard rock stops and heavy metal begins. Essentially it is a semantic difference but one that still seems to be a pre-occupation for some people. It is also a semantic difference that seems to be at the heart of Birmingham’s claim on musical history.

Whilst growing up in Eastbourne (the home of The Mobiles and Top Loader) I listened to a lot of Heavy Metal, I’m not proud of it but it is a fact. In the 80s we were probably past the first blossom of Metal as a genre and just at the beginning of what I’ve been repeatedly been told was a new wave of British Metal (the NWOBHM).

I missed the early 70s on account of not being born so am on delicate grounds to refute Birmingham’s claims to have invented a musical genre. Whilst I was aware that Black Sabbath existed I couldn’t have told you they came from Birmingham and I would have struggled to explain to you why they were more important historically than Thin Lizzy, Rainbow or any number of other bands.

Before I started writing this I did spend a bit of time looking at Wikipedia, it was useful to try and get a sense of what happened before I was born. I have many albums from before I was born but little knowledge of when they came out and no real understanding of their impact or relative sales. I was struck that Black Sabbath do indeed seem to be considered as some sort of originator of this type of music.

This confuses me quite a lot. I am at a complete loss to figure out what is that different about Black Sabbath (the album) and Deep Purple’s In Rock, or King Crimson’s In The Court of the Crimson King? All dabbled with occult(ish) references, all relied on riff based songs and all came out at roughly the same time (King Crimson the year before and Deep Purple a few months later). Certainly sales don’t seem to distinguish Black Sabbath from the others. This is before you consider Born to be Wild which came out two years before Black Sabbath and mentions Heavy Metal in the lyrics of the title song.

Obviously one band doesn’t mean the birth of a movement (I know Heavy Metal cannot be defined as a movement). The Home of Metal appear to emphasise this by devoting a fair amount of space to Judas Priest who are from Walsall (a bit). I don’t know what to make of Judas Priest. As I grew up I had always assumed they were a joke band, apparently they’re not a joke band. They didn’t seem to innovate anymore than any other band around and when their first album came out in 1974 they were considerably behind bands such as Kiss and Aerosmith in terms of world wide profile.

Which leads on to the main point that is only hinted at in the Home of Metal. Of the time when Black Sabbath came to prominence the biggest band in the world, after The Beatles, were Led Zeppelin. Led Zeppelin II predated Black Sabbath and much of it seems to be a template for Metal/Hard Rock through the last four decades. The problem with Led Zeppelin is that their Birmingham/Black Country roots are shakey. Yes Robert Plant grew up in West Bromwich and John Bonham was born in Redditch but the other two were born and bred southerners. Can Sidcup claim to be the home of rock because John Paul Jones was born there and Keith Richards went to college there? No, that would be tenuous.

The second part of Home of Metal relates to Birmingham’s role in the 90s with Napalm Death. I’ve always had a soft spot for Napalm Death but it is really hard to say they set the world on fire. They defined a new type of metal (Grindcore) but were relatively unknown outside of Birmingham, except to a core group of fans (and are massive in Mexico). Were they more influential than Anthrax, Metallica or Slayer? It would be difficult to claim they were.

The reality of the early 90s was that Heavy Metal was largely defined in LA through cocaine fuelled hair bands like Guns N’ Roses and Motely Crue. It wasn’t pretty but was strangely popular. It also, almost managed to kill the concept of Metal for a generation.

My point, and it has taken me a while to get to it, is that Birmingham did play an important role in the creation of Heavy Metal, but so did Hertford (Deep Purple), Sheffield (Def Leppard), London (UFO, Iron Maiden, Uriah Heep, Motorhead, and even Barnsley (Saxon).

It is no more the Home of Metal than any of these cities.

Birmingham does have a really disparate history of bands and it would be better off celebrating the difference in these rather than attempting to a create an artificial construct after the fact.

I know this comes across as quite sniffy about something that was created through a lot of hard work and with only the best of intentions. On the plus side it did provoke me to think about this in considerably more depth than is probably sensible, so on that level it worked very well.


Posted in Birmingham, Music | Comments (3)

3 Responses to “Home of Metal”

  1. Chris Says:

    You’re probably absolutely right about the link to Birmingham being tenuous, if you just look at who was born where.

    So why does it feel so right to me that Birmingham is the home of Heavy Metal? I don’t know, but hazarding a guess – home isn’t necessarily whre you were born, but it is where you belong.

    Birmingham wants the Heavy Metal link, we value it, we have nurtured it when it was wobbling on its infant legs, and its various pubs, venues and – maybe sentimentally rock fans’ hearts – always have a special place for it long after it’s left home. It belongs!

    If yo’re right, then we Birmingham rockheads have adopted it rather than given birth, but its still ours. 🙂

  2. Rob Says:

    Its always great to read people’s views on Home of Metal.

    The critics and the fans agree.
    Track one, side one of V06 is where it all started. They don’t need prompting to say that – ask them.
    The fans and the critics also agree that a lot of musical moves led up to that point and the academics and commentators make contributions that, like yours discourage totalising theories.
    Try and put that in a museum though and you would have a very disjointed and unimpressive show.
    As for the musical innovations that distinguish Sabbath from Purple, King Crimson etc, there’s a 250 page book on the subject by a chap called Andy Cope. Its heavy going – and again, wouldn’t make much of a museum presentation.

  3. Kim Says:

    I’d rather go to the Home of Metal exhibition than the Home of New Romantics one.

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