Home of Metal’s Black Sabbath 50 Years exhibition has opened its doors at Birmingham Music & Art Gallery and Planet Rock was lucky to attend a preview alongside Geezer Butler and Tony Iommi.
Following in the hallowed footsteps of Pink Floyd, David Bowie and The Rolling Stones who have all been the subject of major career-spanning retrospectives in recent years, Home of Metal’s Black Sabbath 50 Years exhibition is being held over the next three months in the band’s home city of Birmingham.
However, in stark contrast to those Floyd, Bowie and Stones exhibitions, crucially Black Sabbath 50 Years not only tells the Sabbath story from their own perspective but also through the eyes of the band’s loyal fans themselves, giving visitors an unprecedented insight into the heavy metal torchbearers.
In fact, such is its uniqueness, Tony Iommi professed to Planet Rock that there are many things on display that even he hasn’t seen before.
Entering the cavernous Gas Hall exhibition space, the first thing you’re confronted with is the band’s name in gargantuan ‘Master of Reality’ font in fetching glittery gold. Unlike other rock exhibitions, visitors aren’t funnelled down a chronological room-by-room journey through the band’s history; instead the square space allows you to roam freely between Sabbath’s own artefacts and those donated by the fans at your own whim.
Telling the story of the very city where Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Ozzy Osbourne and Bill Ward were born within a few streets of each other, a fascinating darkened video room screens archive footage of post-World War II Birmingham. Along the walls are photos of bombed terraced houses, pictures of families living on the breadline and video interviews with all four Sabbath members talking about how their working-class upbringing in Aston moulded them.
There’s also a prophetic quote from Birmingham’s first significant historian William Hutton from 1723 about how ‘heavy metal’ is very much entrenched in the city’s blood; “Birmingham begun with the production of the anvil, and probably will end with them. The sons of the hammer were once her chief inhabitants”.
Equally farsighted, a newspaper report details a growing trend of workers in the industrialised city losing fingers in machinery. Tony Iommi, of course, later lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers in a factory accident as a teenager; an injury that inadvertently shaped the very sound of heavy metal music thanks to Iommi’s crushing riffs.
Delving into the band’s history, a segment of 50 Years tells the story of Black Sabbath’s embryonic years. Among the smorgasbord of items on display are photos of the Brumbeat bands of the sixties, a poster for the 1963 movie ‘Black Sabbath’ that gave the band their name, a gloriously garish stage outfit worn by Geezer Butler at Birmingham Town Hall in 1971 that later featured in the gatefold sleeve of their 1972 ‘Vol 4’ album, Bill Ward's drum kit used in the 1974 Cal Jam, ticket stubs and posters from Sabbath’s earliest concerts and a Laney Amp that gave Iommi his signature tone on the band’s eponymous debut album.
Impressively, 50 Years also features an authentic recreation of Tony Iommi’s home studio where he laid down many timeless riffs over the years and incidentally also recorded his Planet Rock radio show. Alongside a series of gold and platinum discs are photos of Iommi posing with Eddie Van Halen and Dave Grohl, amongst others.
Mirroring this, on the other side of the gallery is an exact recreation of Black Sabbath superfan Stephen Knowles’s living room, which he describes as his own mini museum to Sabbath and is adorned with pictures of him and the band, posters, T-shirts, backstage passes, badges, programmes and framed records.
Knowles also lent a tiny selection of his 1,000-strong Sabbath t-shirt collection to the exhibition that Butler and Iommi were checking out when Planet Rock visited.
Among the plethora of other fan items that form an integral part of the exhibition are customised Wah pedals, a series of rare and signed record sleeves, endearing knitted Black Sabbath dolls, bootleg tapes and fanzines from Sabbath aficionado Chris Hopkins, portraits, patch jackets and a custom Sabbath Harley Davidson motorcycle that took fan Ric Lovett four years to make.
In an ultimate nod to Sabbath’s staunch fanbase, a gargantuan wall features photos of 3,000 fans both sides of the Atlantic and from as far flung places as Botswana, Indonesia, Japan, Lebanon and Brazil.
Truly interactive and immersive throughout, alongside the myriad of band interviews (both video and audio) and archive performance footage, there are listening points where attendees can listen to every Sabbath album in its unadulterated entirety from 1970’s ‘Black Sabbath’ through to 1978’s ‘Never Say Die’; Ozzy Osbourne’s last with the band before ‘13’ a quarter-of-a-century later. Ingeniously there’s also a bank of electric guitars you can plug in and play too.
A concert room at the exhibition features a big screen showing footage of Black Sabbath’s swansong show at Birmingham Arena and other archive performances, the striking sequin outfit Iommi wore on the Sabotage Tour, a Bill Ward overcoat and various bits of paraphernalia from Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career – including a cloak he wore on the No More Tours 2 trek in 2018 and photos of his notorious debauchery.
Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne also donated a pair of his trademark circular glasses to the exhibition together with a curious Gucci leather waistcoat adorned with various insects.
Elsewhere, in the centre of the room is a circular curtain featuring a memory box-like shrine to each of the original four Black Sabbath members as quadraphonic Sabbath music plays. Each shrine features records by artists that influenced them individually, old photos and other various items of importance. They include ‘All My Loving’ by Ozzy Osbourne’s beloved Beatles, Geezer Butler’s Aston Villa lighter, Bill Ward’s Gene Krupa records and Tony Iommi’s Django Reinhardt albums.
With more than 1,000 items on display, such is the staggering scope and ambition of the blockbuster Black Sabbath 50 Years exhibition, we’d have to write a thesis to cover it all. Offering something for everyone, if you’re a Black Sabbath aficionado, you’ll discover things you’ve never seen or knew before; if you’re a casual fan then there’s enough here to ignite your enduring love for the band.
When does the Black Sabbath 50 Years exhibition run?
Home of Metal’s Black Sabbath 50 Years exhibition runs at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from today (Wednesday 26th June) until Sunday 29th September.