Birmingham, England: The Cradle of all Things Heavy Metal

Birmingham, England: The Cradle of all Things Heavy Metal
© Photograph by Kenneth Sporsheim

There appears to be a strong consensus amongst academics and established journalists that heavy metal and hard rock emerged during the late 1960s/early 1970s in the industrial Midlands of England (for example, Walser 1993: 10, Weinstein 2000: 4 and Christie 2003: 1).

The Birmingham/West Midlands bands at the centre of that evolutionary process were Black Sabbath, (half of) Led Zeppelin and Judas Priest. Such developments invite an interrogation of why Birmingham seemed to provide a particular geographical space for the evolution and early development of metal, and hard rock and this chapter begins that interrogation.

The significance of ‘Music, Space and Place’, in this respect, emerges in Peter Webb’s article ‘Interrogating the Production of Sound and Place: the Bristol Phenomenon, from Lunatic Fringe to Worldwide Massive’ (Whiteley et al. (eds) 2004: 66–88) that investigates the reasons behind the growth of the “Bristol Sound”.

Webb’s discussion centres on the way in which musical forms are shaped by the geographical environment in which they evolve and his methodology is founded on the concept of “musical milieu”.

He suggests a process in which various influences combine to form particular constellations and trajectories at given points of time to affect the “sounds of the city”. The milieu, within and around a particular location, influences the music that becomes dominant for a period of time and this conceptualisation has particular relevance to my research into heavy metal and heavy rock. Not least, the theory of “musical milieu” provides a useful methodology for the interrogation of the early Birmingham metal scene.

An interview with Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, found on page 33 of Steven Rosen’s biography of Black Sabbath, ‘Black Sabbath’ (2002; originally published as ‘Wheels of Confusion’ in 1996), provided me with a relevant point of departure in searching for some of the influential factors that led to the emergence of heavy metal and hard rock in late-1960s Birmingham: “There was a boom going on that was created from everything that was coming out of Liverpool. Liverpool had opened up this enormous market, so most of the cities — Birmingham, London, Newcastle, Manchester, all had bumper crops during the ’60s. There were a lot of clubs opening up that had never before existed. Everybody was getting involved. There was the general theme of revolution and moving into new directions in a way that had never quite had the strength.” (Rosen 2002: 33)

Bill Ward’s reflections certainly point to a process of influence where copy or pastiche is followed by transgression. Moreover, that same process illustrates Fabbri’s argument that new genres do not form in an empty space but form as transgressions of already established genres. For example, “moving in new directions” and the importance of Liverpool summarises the way in which the starting point for the members of Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin (along with many other hopefuls) was to form a rock and roll band but then, after time and some success, to look for ways to be different.

It is important then, in relation to both bands, to look at the starting point and the influences, particularly from Liverpool (beat/rock and roll) and the London blues scene, and relate the musical coding of those dominant trends to developments in Birmingham. This process also includes identifying key musicians, managers and promoters, new venues and socio-geographic influences that collocate to shape the new forms of music.

This article, therefore, is presented in the form of three interrelated topics: ‘Outside Influences’, ‘Birmingham: The Sound of the City’ and ‘Liverpool, London, Manchester and Newcastle — Why Not Here? Dominant Musical Trends in Other Cities’.

In ‘Outside Influences’, I examine the extent and impact of the Beatles and Merseybeat (with its associated American rock and roll influence) and the London-based British blues revival and its impact on Birmingham during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Additionally, I seek to highlight the extensive and vital influences of managers and promoters, namely, Giorgio Gomelski, Mike Vernon and Jim Simpson, who not only encouraged experimentation and revolution but also provided new venues to showcase new styles.

In ‘Birmingham: The Sound of the City’, there is a focus on socio-geographic influences such as the idiomatic characteristics of the industrial Midlands and the personal attributes, background and interests of the Birmingham musicians who forged the hard rock and heavy metal sounds from that period.

Finally, ‘Liverpool, London, Manchester and Newcastle — Why Not Here? Dominant Musical Trends in Other Cities’ picks up on the reference made by Bill Ward that identifies the significance of other cities in the United Kingdom during the 1960s.

This comment formed an interesting challenge and led me to an interrogation of the dominant musical trends in London, Liverpool (besides the blues and rock and roll influences discussed in ‘Outside Influences’), Manchester and Newcastle. After all, these cities also had, as Ward explains, “bumper crops” in the 1960s and this raised the question of why the origins of heavy metal did not form in London, Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle.

This final part of my discussion will offer some brief suggestions and provisional answers to this question.

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