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Birmingham, England ... the unlikely birthplace of heavy metal

By Laura Allsop for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Heavy metal's birthplace is unlikely UK city, Birmingham
  • Bands including Black Sabbath from the city
  • Summer of events is celebrating all things metal in the city
  • Hoped that it will put the second-tier city firmly on the musical map

Birmingham, England (CNN) -- When it comes to heavy metal music, there is one UK city that can claim to be its rightful home: Birmingham.

Known for its former bleak industrial zones and often rainy streets, Birmingham is not normally synonymous with show business.

And Brummies, as they're known, are unlikely to shout their musical pedigree from the rooftops of the city's Victorian terraced houses.

But a summer of events titled "Home of Metal," celebrating all things heavy metal both in the city and in the aptly named Black Country surrounding it, should change all that.

This musical heritage is important to people across the world, so it's worth celebrating
--Nic Bullen, Napalm Death
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The bill includes an exhibition of metal memorabilia at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, where metal fans can play guitars, gaze at glittering costumes, original posters and LP artwork, and hear heavy metal blasted through the normally quiet galleries.

Also on the bill are exhibitions showing metal-inspired visual art; one devoted to stage costumes (the area's tanneries are credited with inspiring the heavy metal "look"); and several exploring the region's history of metalworking and the heavy metal sound, suggesting that the genre is a curious legacy of England's industrial revolution.

"Perhaps it's been a little backwards about coming forwards," said Nic Bullen, founder of Birmingham-based "grindcore" band Napalm Death.

"Birmingham has to some extent always been insular, not by some sort of elitist philosophy, simply because it exists within itself, so why reach out? But this musical heritage is important to people across the world, so it's worth celebrating," he continued.

Birmingham has spawned some of the pioneers of the genre, such as Black Sabbath -- all of whose members, including rocker-turned-reality-TV star "Ozzy" Osbourne, grew up in the city and worked in its factories.

Their shared experience of heavy industry was an important factor, said guitarist Tony Iommi, in shaping the band's uncompromising sound.

"It influences you and your music, wanting to get away, to break out in some way," said Iommi

He worked as a welder and his experience on the factory floor left a permanent mark on both him and his music. As a teenager, he lost the tips of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand while using a metal cutting machine.

"That was it, my life was ended as far as I was concerned," he remembered. "It was devastating."

But after listening to the music of pioneering jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt -- who also lost two fingers in an accident -- Iommi was inspired to keep playing.

"So I made some metal tips for my fingers and learned to play again. I had to start again, in a way, learn a different style of playing and it changed the sound entirely," Iommi said.

Nobody knew Liverpool until the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers came along (and) the same is now happening with Birmingham
--Tony Iommi, guitarist, Black Sabbath

Other musical heroes from Birmingham and the surrounding Black Country include Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant, and bands Judas Priest, Napalm Death and Godflesh.

But though Black Sabbath formed over 40 years ago, it is only now that Birmingham's contribution to modern music is being celebrated.

"There's always someone out there who is going to say, 'Oh, that's evil music, that's a racket' -- there's always going to be that type.

"But there's also the other side that love it and are really proud and glad to see it," said Iommi.

Lisa Meyer, Creative Director of local music and arts organization "Capsule," which is responsible for staging "Home of Metal," agreed.

"I hope it gives people a sense of civic pride and something to be really proud of, something that is home-grown.

All too often, places like Birmingham have a chip on their shoulder and tend to buy into modern cultural content but actually this celebrates something from here, a contemporary history that is authentic," she said.

And according to Iommi, who said he spent much of his Black Sabbath career in America explaining that he was from Birmingham, England and not Birmingham, Alabama, "Home of Metal" will go some way to putting his native city firmly on the musical map.

"Nobody knew Liverpool until the Beatles and Gerry and the Pacemakers came along," he said.

"And the same is now happening with Birmingham."

 
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