Home of Metal exhibition rocks Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery's Gas Hall

By Ben Miller | 24 June 2011
A photo standing in front of a display of heavy metal memorabilia

Exhibition: Home of Metal, Gas Hall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Birmingham, until September 25 2011

Home of Metal represents the tale of a region. Manchester may be forever intertwined with arch-miserablists and charismatic bad boys and Liverpool may be devoted to The Beatles Experience, but the genre Birmingham spawned bears less umbilical ties with its host city. In redressing the balance, this show affirms the psycho-musical lie of the Midlands in superb style.

It starts with everything from pictures and videos to art and picks used by the bands, centred primarily around Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Napalm Death. The other side of the exhibition, though, is where the origins of these hard-living musicians can be found, in a walk-in installation of anvils and factory hardware shining under glowing red lights.

Tony Iommi, the constant member of Black Sabbath’s various reincarnations since 1969, lost the tips of two of his fingers on his right hand when they were clamped by a piece of machinery on his last day working in a sheet metal factory at the tender age of 17.

Technical innovation and sheer bloody-mindedness (he talks about both through headphones here) saw Iommi go on to become one of the world’s greatest guitarists, leaving behind men driven mad by decades of grind in the factories of the industrial heartland of the UK.

But the mills and mines also created the music – the crash-bang-clatter of metal is also the sound of the workplaces those who were making and listening to it came from.

An adjacent 1960s front room features an old TV set broadcasting the inimitable strains of Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne. In typically obsessive fashion, Osbourne spent months in a studio playing with the horns which would call employees to work during his childhood.

He played on slum grounds bombed by the Luftwaffe or later flattened by the council, brutal and often dangerous terrains which also shaped the area’s culture. They’re pictured here along with recorded reminiscences, positioned next to walls of the epic album covers metal, grindcore and doom-rock specialise in.

Compiling these ready-made canvasses might have been the simplest part of an exhibition which has taken a truly impressive amount of effort. About five years ago, Lisa Meyer and Jenny Moore, from local creative alliance Capsule, began working with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which lent curatorial skill to their determined vision for the show.

Their tireless research has resulted in enough memorabilia to satisfy the hardcore fans in a show which is also concise enough to hook those who might never have banged their head in anger at a gig. The core is a darkened room with a stage full of guitars and sound gear, much of which was given to them by Iommi.

There are rows of magazine covers, sections on the fans and clothing and, brilliantly, a plot of classic guitars which you can pick up and play while wearing various wigs. The display isn’t object-rich, so this experience aspect draws everything together in a way which is pure fun.

If this is a story which has been understated, then the characters involved remain proud – Iommi is acting as a figurehead for the show, strolling around oozing rockstar presence in all black, and Noddy Holder, of the band Slade, looks like he’s enjoying himself as he wanders the space, amiably offering his thoughts on the youth of today. Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant still lives around here, and Osbourne’s ratings-winning Los Angeles antics prove you can’t take the Aston out of the boy.

The Lottery gave significant funding to this project, presumably because it saw the wider story of our past it has to tell, one which stretches far beyond the black t-shirts and thunderous riffs and across the evolution of England in the 20th century.

These are the sounds and people of places and a period which should never be forgotten. Home of Metal does them proud.

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