When it comes to Heavy metal music, there is one iconic band that springs to mind – Black Sabbath. Heavy, doom-laden songs powered by Tony Iommi’s signature guitar riffs, Geezer Butler’s powerful and technically proficient bass lines and the relentless battery of Bill Ward’s jazz-influenced drumming. Add the unique vocals of John ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne and you have the recipe for the most influential band in heavy music history. A special exhibition is being held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery to celebrate fifty years of the band’s existence. I was lucky enough to be able to go and check it out.
Pop has The Beatles (themselves a massive influence on Sabbath), reggae has Bob Marley and Heavy Metal has Black Sabbath. Of course, there were many other bands playing heavy, rocky blues at the time. Iommi and Butler were both influenced by Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce of Cream, but there was something about Sabbath that set them apart from the rest.
They were heavy. Very heavy.
In my opinion, it’s fair to say that Black Sabbath were the heaviest band in the world at one time. They have become so famous, as much for their offstage excess and antics as for their music; they have become such a huge part of the fabric of rock fan’s everyday lives. It would be easy to forget that in the 1970’s, music journalists were dismissing the band as “too loud” and lacking in musical skill. True, no one could accuse Ozzy Osbourne of being classically trained, but his skill as a performer, and the melancholic quality of his voice perfectly suited the band. No other line up has come close to the original Iommi, Ward, Butler, Osbourne era, and it is this period in time, from the late sixties to the late 1970’s, that the exhibition focuses on.
As soon as you walk through the gallery’s revolving doors, you are greeted by a giant, glittering, gold Black Sabbath logo, and a very welcome blast of cool air conditioning. A large board to the left of the logo introduces the exhibition and gives some background information on the band and their history, accompanied by a black and white classic line up photo. The exhibition is primarily focused on the band’s early years and their origins in Birmingham, but this initial write-up does mention the other singer that fronted the band over the years, namely Ronnie James Dio and Tony Martin. There is nothing new revealed here that the seasoned fan will not already know, but it does provide some useful background for casual visitors or music fans who have previously shied away from the heavier end of things. This could be their first real encounter with Black Sabbath, and it is important that they know there was a lot of history after Ozzy’s initial stint in the band.
The band members’ childhoods growing up in the aftermath of World War two really emphasised the poverty that they went through in their early years; playing in bomb craters was considered normal – they had just always been there and they didn’t know any different.
Next is the much talked about industrial backdrop that played such a huge part in defining the Black Sabbath sound. The band credit the constant pounding of industrial machinery as inspiring the pile driver beat that underpins much of their music (listen to ‘Iron Man’ from their second album Paranoid for a good example of this), as do their contemporaries Judas Priest. This section of the exhibition is housed in a small, darkened room with black and white photographs of the streets the band grew up in, and also the factories where they worked. There is even an old-fashioned, analogue clocking-in machine, which brought back memories of my own time working in factories and warehouses in my teens and twenties. I was lucky to benefit from modern health and safety practices but there was none of that in sixties Britain.
The story of Tony Iommi’s industrial accident which resulted in the loss of a couple of his fingertips is covered in some detail. It’s not for the faint of heart but it is an important part of Black Sabbath folklore. Iommi’s injury forced him to change his playing style and use light gauge strings. These had a lower tension which facilitated his trademark string bends and led to experimentation with lowered tunings – the lower the guitar is tuned, the heavier it sounds! That one terrible incident changed rock history forever and gave birth to the heaviest guitar tone the world had ever heard.
Most of the exhibition takes place in the main gallery, and this allows crowds to move around more easily. Almost everything is covered, from stage clothes worn by the band in their classic era, to the Laney valve heads that Iommi played through during those early years. There are even original lyrics to some of their classic songs, including ‘The Paranoid.’
There is a room with a mock-up stage, with 1979’s Never Say Die concert video playing on loop behind it. There are more stage outfits in glass display cases, and (a little haphazardly, I thought), some displays relating to Ozzy’s solo career. I felt that these were added to give the exhibition mass appeal, as everyone’s heard of Ozzy. There were some good quotes of his displayed on the wall, plus a couple of silly photos, which were entertaining enough.
A dedicated room has a small, illuminated exhibit for each band member, with artefacts, photographs and key information about their history and influences. Geezer’s was particularly interesting – he was the first bass player to record using a wah pedal.
There is fan memorabilia, including a recreation of a Sabbath superfan’s living room! A bit surreal, but quite good fun! I was surprised to see a large selection of LP and single covers courtesy of Cathedral’s Gaz Jennings (himself a massive Sabbath fan) and a Sabbath-themed Harley Davidson motorcycle which looks amazing, but doesn’t look very safe to ride.
Hidden away in the back is a section of guitars complete with little amps and headphones for fans to have a go. I selected a red Gibson SG (thankfully right handed), gave it a quick tune up and jammed a few classic Sabbath riffs. It was one of the best parts for me, but I only spent a few minutes on it as my partner was milling around pulling a similar face to that worn by men while waiting for their wives to finish shoe shopping!
There is a merch concession (of course there is!) on the way out, staffed by friendly volunteers. Visitors seemed more interested in buying t-shirts than any of the four original Sabbath LP’s that were on sale, but maybe they already had them, or could stream them any time they felt like it. They were overpriced, but I treated myself to a fresh, remastered copy of Black Sabbath One. I like all of their classic albums, but to me, this is Sabbath at their purest, before the rock ‘n’ roll excess took over, when they were still poor and in it purely for the love of what they were doing (and having a crack at the big time, which as we all know, paid off). I played it once I got home and it sounds fantastic, better than ever almost fifty years after it was recorded.
There is a lot to see, and it is definitely worth going, but I left feeling that the exhibition was a little smaller than I expected. I learned a lot, and I’m glad I went, but there could have been more depth. I understand that they were focusing primarily on Birmingham and they did that extremely well. There was a lot of the Sabbath story missing from this exhibition, but in terms of fulfilling the brief of Black Sabbath and Birmingham, it works. The ticket price is not that high by 2019 standards and you will leave feeling better than before you arrived.
The exhibition runs from 26 Jun – 29 Sep 2019.
Visit the Birmingham Museums website for more information.