Earlier this summer, guitarist Tony Iommi and bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler returned to Birmingham for the opening of an exhaustive exhibition about Black Sabbath, the band they formed in the city 50 years ago. Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery is currently home to a vast collection of both the band’s own memorabilia and a staggering array of fan tributes. Asked if there was anything not present in the collection that they expected to see, Butler couldn’t resist a quip: “Ozzy?”
The Sabbath exhibition is just one part of a series of art shows being brought together under the name ‘Home of Metal’. There’s a great show at The New Art Gallery in Walsall where the artist Alan Kane has put together an exhibition that takes the bedroom of metal fans as its inspiration, also featuring work by the likes of Jeremy Deller and Sarah Lucas. Meanwhile, at the Midlands Art Centre, a metal iconography-inspired fabric show by Ben Venom sits alongside exhibits on metal (in both senses of the word) jewellery, as well as pictures of Sabbath fans from around the world.
It all begs the question: why doesn’t Birmingham have a dedicated Home of Metal year-round? As one of the very few places in the world not situated by the Mississippi river that can legitimately claim to have birthed a musical genre, isn’t the city missing out on not just a claim to fame but also a reason for the millions of metal fans scattered around the planet to make a pilgrimage to see their heroes’ hometown? Birmingham does at least seem to be moving in the right direction: in June, Butler and Iommi attended the grand dedication of ‘Black Sabbath Bridge’, a new landmark which also features a bench bearing images of the original four Sabbath members.
“Even before the bridge, we had fans coming here from all over,” Iommi tells me. “There’s even a convention that fans come to and go round where we used to live and the places we used to play at and whatever. That’s great. There’s more of it now, with things like this exhibtion. I think it’ll entice more people to come and learn about where we’re from.”
“I think a lot of the metal bands themselves know about Birmingham,” adds Butler. “But outside of that it’s hard to imagine.”
Being back in Birmingham, surrounded by so many memories, Butler can’t help but reminisce about the exact moment of metal’s birth. So much of the sound and aesthetic that would go on to define the genre was already present right from the opening track on their debut album: ‘Black Sabbath’ on ‘Black Sabbath’ by Black Sabbath. Hey, when you’ve got a name that good you want to make full use of it.
“We were called Earth when we first started, but there was another band called Earth that were a pop band and we kept getting their gigs!” explains Butler. “We used to get all these old age pensioner gigs. We’d start with ‘Black Sabbath’ and they’d be going: ‘What the hell?’ I always liked the title ‘Black Sabbath’, from the film. We said: ‘Well what are we going to call the band?’ The second song we ever wrote was ‘Black Sabbath’. I said, what about calling the band after the song that we wrote? It went from there.”
The song starts with the timeless lines: “What is this that stands before me? / Figure in black which points at me / Turn around quick, and start to run / Find out I’m the chosen one.” Butler explains that this image was inspired by a real life preacher in black who he remembers hearing speak in church. “He frightened the life out of me, and everybody in there,” says Butler. “He said: ‘You’re all gonna go to hell!’”
“To be fair,” cuts in Iommi. “He was right!”
“It was all these Irish blokes waiting for the mass to end so they could go to the pub,” continues Butler. “He was going: ‘You’re all fornicators!’ It frightened the bloody life out of me!”
‘Black Sabbath’ set the tone for Butler and Iommi’s working relationship, where Iommi would write the riffs first and then Butler would fill in the lyrics. As he points out with a laugh, there was no way he could write songs about anything as prosaic as “falling in love in a chip shop” after hearing Iommi’s doom-laden music. “He summed up what I was thinking with his guitar playing,” says Butler. “It was like: ‘Oh yeah, that goes perfectly with things that I’m thinking about.’”
“It was a great combination,” adds Iommi. “As soon as I’d play something, he’d play exactly the same. It was uncanny really. We’d lock in straight away with something new and jam something. We just knew. We went to the right place at the same time. It was incredible, really.”
These days, metal has grown into one of the world’s most popular genres. No matter how far from Birmingham you travel, you’ve still got a pretty good chance of running into a Sabbath fan somewhere. “I think Mexico is probably more metal than anywhere,” says Iommi. “And South America for us has been unbelievable. Huge crowds, and absolutely fanatical.”
“They all sing along to all the songs as well,” adds Butler. “You get people from the favelas that probably can’t speak English yet they sing along to all the songs in perfect English. It’s incredible.”
“That’s your fault,” jokes Iommi. “See if you’d wrote about chip shops it could all have been different.”
Butler reflects on this for a moment, before adding sadly: “We could have gone over there and got some fish and chips then.”
The huge global appeal of metal is part of the reason that Home of Metal founder Lisa Meyer is so keen to give the genre a permanent home in Birmingham. She first started the project in 2007 after she discovered that there was a demand from bands coming to play in the city to go somewhere to pay their respects. “I run a music festival called Supersonic, and we put on bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Sunn O))), who are not necessarily straightforward heavy metal bands,” she explains. “When they come to Birmingham they say: ‘Wow, I’m in the home of Black Sabbath. What can you take me to?’ Essentially, there are empty and dilapidated carpet shops that were once thriving venues like Mothers. It felt like there was nowhere for people to come and pay homage.”
Back in 2011, Meyer put on a Home of Metal symposium that sought to explain exactly what it is about this part of the world that proved such a fertile breeding ground for not just Black Sabbath but also bands like Judas Priest, Napalm Death, and Godflesh. Meyer says the verdict came down to a combination of factors. “I think the hippy movement that was going on in California just didn’t resonate with young people in Birmingham so they created their own thing,” she says. “Also, in places like Aston and Walsall you had heavy industrial factories on domestic roads, so you had that sound as your backdrop permeating through everything all the time.”
Despite attracting over 200,000 attendees, Meyer says she still kept being told that metal doesn’t have widespread appeal. That’s a perception she’s working hard to change. “There hasn’t been the confidence to take on metal and embrace it as something that’s part of our musical heritage,” she says. “Because it’s not seen as appeasing everyone, there’s a nervousness that it’s only for a few people. That’s why we have so many photos of fans from around the world this year, to show that metal is still relevant, there are still young people into it. It’s cross-generational, not just 60 year-old men. When Sabbath play in South America they play to stadiums of 60,000 people. We’ve already sold tickets to this exhibition to people from New Zealand, from Afghanistan, Mexico, Brazil, all over the world. They want to come here and pay homage. I think this is the first step for me. This is about putting a stake in the ground to say: There is an audience, there is a demand, now let’s work towards a permanent collection.”
Ideally, Meyer sees the Home of Metal as something that could be “living and breathing”, a place to encourage the musicians of the future rather than just paying respect to the past. Now she just has to convince enough people to share her vision.
After the event in 2011, Meyer went to see Birmingham City Council to discuss the possibility of creating a permanent Home of Metal. “They said, it’s been the most successful cultural project in the region other than the Pope’s visit,” says Meyer. “I was like: ‘Wonderful! What are we going to do?’ And they still said: ‘Oh, but it’s a bit niche, though.’ I said, ‘With all due respect, so’s the Pope’.”
Black Sabbath – 50 Years is at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until 29 September 2019. Visit homeofmetal.com for more information.