Still gritty-edged, Birmingham is making some serious noise for Black Sabbath, finds STEVE McKENNA
During the recent Cricket World Cup semifinal at Edgbaston, in the leafy south of Birmingham, there was a particularly loud moment when the latest Australian wicket fell. The partisan home crowd roared, and AC/DC’s Back in Black boomed out of the public address system.
Things would only get louder, later, as England romped towards the final.
Edgbaston, which will also host the first Ashes Test (August 1-5), is famed for being the loudest, rowdiest cricket venue in England and Birmingham, as a whole, is also known for its high decibel levels.
In its industrial prime, when it was nicknamed The Workshop of the World and the City of A Thousand Trades, a cacophony of clattering sounds and bashing metal permeated Brum, as Birmingham is nicknamed.
Even when many of these industries sank into decline after World War II, this West Midlands metropolis still retained its noisy, gritty edge.
It was against this backdrop that Black Sabbath and heavy metal music was born. A new exhibition, Black Sabbath — 50 years, is celebrating the band and its legacy, exploring everything from its humble beginnings to global stardom and the best part of 75 million album sales worldwide.
On until September 29, you’ll find the exhibition at the Home of Metal in the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, one of the opulent Victorian landmarks in a city centre punctuated with construction cranes and building sites as ambitious multi-million dollar projects fashion new tramways, glossy offices, hotels and apartments.
All these sleek developments are a far cry from the Birmingham in which Sabbath’s founding members, Ozzy Osbourne (vocals), Tony Iommi (guitar), Geezer Butler (bass) and Bill Ward (drums), grew up. In one room of the exhibition, which explores the band’s roots, there are black-and-white photographs of post-war Aston, then a rough, tough, working-class district.
In video interviews, the band reflects on their childhood in Aston in their still-strong Brummie accents and there are intriguing quotes on the walls, including this one from Ozzy: “On every other street corner when I was a kid there were ‘bomb building sites’… for years, I thought that’s what playgrounds were called.”
There’s also archive footage of the daily grind in a typical Birmingham factory back in the day, and it’s revealed how, aged 17, Iommi severed the tips of two fingers in an accident while working at a sheet metal factory.
After initially being told he would never be able to play the guitar again, he was inspired by the revival of Django Reinhardt, a Belgian jazz guitarist who had adapted his playing style after burning his hands in a fire. Iommi fitted homemade thimbles to his injured fingers, tweaked his string gauge and his new playing style conjured a lower, heavier tone that would become Sabbath’s hallmark as they morphed from a blues rock act into something darker and heavier.
Having previously been called Polka Tulk Blues Band and Earth, they renamed themselves after seeing the horror film Black Sabbath, starring Boris Karloff. Sabbath’s brooding sound and eerie lyrics were a stark contrast to the flower-power hippy music that was popular at the time.
As I browse more exhibits in the gallery — think: vintage posters and T-shirts, band members’ personal effects and a chart displaying Sabbath’s influence on other heavy metal genres — I admire, with fresh ears, Iommi’s unmistakable, crunching guitar riffs from Paranoid, one of the Sabbath tunes that reverberate around the exhibition hall.
You can also pick up guitars and play your own riffs and listen to the band’s classic albums, via headphones, from the eponymous debut, which was recorded in 1969, to Never Say Die (1978), the last studio album the original line-up made together and the last to feature Osbourne until the 2013 album, 13.
The Sabbath brand endured during the interim years, with an ever-changing line-up that included the likes of Ronnie James Dio and, briefly, Rob Halford (the frontman of another Brummie metal act, Judas Priest).
The fan base remained devoted.
The exhibition boasts a recreation of a memorabilia-strewn living room of one Sabbath die-hard, while on another wall, there’s a map of the world, with visitors invited to stick red dots to show where they’ve come from.
There are dots in virtually every part of the planet, including clusters in Perth and other Australian towns and cities.
In 2017, with Osbourne at the helm, Sabbath returned home after a mammoth world tour to perform what they said was their last-ever concert.
The atmosphere was electric and if you didn’t catch it, it’s available on DVD, called The End: Live in Birmingham.
One more thing, don’t miss the newly-renamed Black Sabbath Bridge.
It overlooks one of Birmingham’s picturesque canals on Broad Street — a 10-minute walk from the exhibition, opposite the Walkabout bar (where Australian batsman David Warner had his infamous run-in with England’s Joe Root before the 2013 Ashes). On the bridge, you can take a breather on a new bench that has on it the faces of Birmingham’s Fab Four: Ozzy, Tony, Geezer and Bill.
- Admission for Home of Metal: Black Sabbath — 50 years is £13.57 ($24) per person or £8 ($14) for children under 15. A family ticket, for two adults, two children, is £30 ($53). A wider program of Sabbath-inspired events, from gigs to exhibitions, is being held across Birmingham and the West Midlands as part of the anniversary celebrations. homeofmetal.com
- For more information on visiting Birmingham and Britain, see visitbirmingham.com and visitbritain.com
DisclaimerSteve McKenna was a guest of Visit Britain. They have not seen or approved this story.
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