How Birmingham, England Became the Heaviest City on Earth
The grim history of this working class British industrial hub explains how it birthed some of heavy metal's most revered exports.
Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Napalm Death, and Godflesh are some of the most influential bands in aggressive music, and as any hesher worth their leather knows, they all hail from Birmingham, England. This city is the Jerusalem of heavy metal, and much of the inherent grit and bleak outlook that informs its musical output can be traced directly back to the area's own coal-black history.
As the textbooks tell it, Birmingham played a central role in shaping modern industrial society. The blast furnace and cotton mill both saw key innovation in Birmingham. Large-scale production of sulphuric acid and alkali were also developed here. And then, in 1776, the Soho Manufactory, a Rosetta Stone for the modern factory, opened. This is where the assembly line was born, where businessmen discovered that dividing the manufacturing process into simplified steps would make it easier to train—and also discard—workers. A deep sense of worthlessness seeped into the hearts of the now-expendable proletariat. What began as a seemingly egalitarian breeding ground for inventiveness soon revealed its potential to destroy and abuse the human lives with which it intertwined. Roughly nine years later, Matthew Boulton and James Watt unveiled a powerful new version of the steam engine, which exponentially increased the factory's ability to manufacture goods. But the engine also made jobs more mechanical, more dehumanizing.
115 years later, the city was decimated by Germany's air force during the Birmingham Blitz. From 1940-'43, the Luftwaffe destroyed those things that made Birmingham a cultural jewel: its workplaces, schools, churches, and shopping centers. All told, over two thousand people died, more than three thousand sustained critical injuries, and another 3,600 were wounded. This is the type of destruction that forever lingers, haunting buildings and inhabitants. Just four months before Germany started bombing the city, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls wrote a memorandum at the University of Birmingham that unearthed new information about how to build a nuclear bomb, giving the allies a crucial push in their frenzied quest to construct that weapon. The city that breathed life into modern society also produced the recipe for its complete annihilation.
Despite its grim history, the negative aspects of Birmingham became the impetus for some of the most important music ever made. Tony Iommi was born three years after WWII ended, and it's hard to think of another musician who more profoundly bears the scars of this city. Iommi's story of getting his fingers mangled in a factory accident has become the stuff of legend—and deservingly so. Working at a sheet metal factory at the age of 17, Iommi caught the tips of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand in a massive cutting machine. He jerked back, tearing off the ends of those two digits.
For a left-handed guitarist, the injury was devastating. Iommi initially thought that he'd never play guitar again. But then he discovered Django Reinhart, whose masterful, two-fingered fretwork motivated him to find a way to overcome his injury. With an industriousness that perfectly aligns with Birmingham's spirit of invention, he melted pieces of plastic soap bottles into small gobs and sanded them into thimbles. He then covered the thimbles in leather to provide better grip on his strings. Standard guitar strings were too thick for him to navigate with his DIY prosthetics, so he began using lighter ones. He also down-tuned because loose strings were easier for him to play. The result is the inimitable heaviness of Black Sabbath, a band whose music pours through speakers like coal ash from a smokestack
Iommi found a kindred sense of aggression and pessimism in Ozzy, Bill Ward, and Geezer Butler. In its foreboding lurch, "Black Sabbath" portrays the hopelessness of life in an industrial prism, and "War Pigs" excoriates politicians that feel no qualms "treating people just like pawns in chess." To match Iommi's monolithic riffs and the raw fury of Ozzy's vocals and Geezer's lyrics, Ward beats his drums like a sledge-wielding factory worker.
Guided by cannibalistic industry and still displaying the marks of war, this city called for ugly and harsh sounds. Sabbath delivered, providing the proletariat with a musical weaponry designed to combat powerlessness.
The phrase "heavy metal" popped up in rock culture throughout the late 1960s. Black Sabbath is known as the archetype of this genre for a reason, though. There's no more accurate way to describe the quartet's spot-on portraiture of a city whose population is patient zero of industrial alienation. No doubt influenced by Priest, Birmingham quintet Quartz released its self-titled debut—produced by Tony Iommi and featuring appearances by Brian May of Queen and Ozzy—in 1977, which is a precursor to the classic metal that Iron Maiden later perfected. "Back In The Band" chomps like a steel shear and then soars with sugary dual leads. Black Sabbath, Paranoid, and Master of Reality swirl with despair, but Priest and Quartz tell workers that, if they're doomed to menial, degrading jobs, they might as well have some badass parties.In less than a decade, however, even Sabbath succumbed to the pomp and theatrics of its time, leaving the next generation of disillusioned Birmingham youth to crave new ways to sonically battle the capitalist politics and indifferent machinery that beat at the heart of their city.
Even though many unskilled laborers were able to earn a solid income in 1970s Birmingham, unemployment had been steadily rising since the 60s, and, in an attempt to curb inflation, English politicians passed several wage caps. The working class became a swarm of hornets in 1978 and '79, with laborers staging massive strikes during England's coldest winter in 16 years—the Winter Of Discontent. Combine wage caps with global recession and the beginnings of outsourcing and you have the recipe for Birmingham's Handsworth riots of 1981.
The city's blue-collar youth were already keenly aware of how how industrial labor erodes the body and self, but now, many young adults couldn't even get the torturous jobs that made their parents hate their lives. This frustration and poverty injected new levels of anger into the proletariat's collective psyche. Discharge's politically conscious D-beat and Venom's proto-black metal hovered in the air like poisonous smog, providing the elements for jilted children of Birmingham to create the most antagonistic music the world had heard.
Fronted by Lynda Simpson and featuring members of crust outfit War Wound, Sacrilege recorded its first demo in 1984. The quartet then unleashed the feral and highly influential LP, Behind the Realms of Madness, a year later. While hardcore kids and metal heads in the US fostered a futile rivalry, Sacrilege melted those styles together. Industrial grime covers Damian Thompson's whiplash riffs, and Andrew Baker's precise, jackhammer drumming propels this racket. Dismissing the stubborn aesthetics of many punk guitarists of his time, Thompson hops into hypnotic solos after charring listeners' skin with an abrasive mix of hardcore and prototypical death metal. Instead of trying to shock with lyrics about Satan and the occult, Lynda Simpson brilliantly rails against governmental corruption, war, and systemic mistreatment of the working class.
In many ways, Sacrilege poured the concrete for the path that Napalm Death eventually followed. As with Judas Priest, however, Napalm Death needed a few years to develop its signature sound. Formed in 1981, the band's first recordings bounce with the snotty fury of Crass. The next four years saw Napalm Death's lineup splinter and reform multiple times. Justin Broadrick joined, and the band started playing shows with increasingly aggressive acts like Icons of Filth and Concrete Sox. In 1985, Napalm released Hatred Surge, a demo tape that combines the anxious gait of crust with the hateful vocals and noise of industrial pioneers Swans and Throbbing Gristle.
Still in a state of rapid evolution, Napalm Death recorded the corrosive From Enslavement to Obliteration demo in 1986, as well as Side A of the LP that changed the world, Scum, which didn't see the light of day until '87. Featuring the winged tempos of Carcass and Celtic Frost, Scum became the blueprint for grindcore. Bassist Nic Bullen shouts like a sadistic drill sergeant over Broadrick's chaotic riffs, and Mick Harris intermixes raw blasts with dexterous cymbal chokes, two flourishes that still define grind drumming.
Within a year, Carcass guitarist Bill Steer replaced Broadrick, bassist Jim Whitely took Bullen's spot, and Lee Dorrian joined on vocals. Wanting to record where Sacrilege tracked Behind the Realms of Madness, Napalm Death entered Rich Bitch studio to lay down Side B of Scum, honing the rawness of Side A into a more precise assault. Dorrian screams like a cat getting strangled and then, in a split second, drops into bottom-dwelling growls. Harris exhibits a higher level of control on his kit without losing anything in aggression, and Steer guides this bombardment with riffs that border on noise. Put out by Earache in 1987, Scum seethes with the frustration and anxiety that defined the 80s for so many of Birmingham's workers.
But let's go back a bit, to '82. While Napalm Death was still playing Crass-worshipping punk, bassist G.C. Green and guitarist Paul Neville were combining programmed beats, electronic noise, and churning metal riffs in a band called Fall of Because. Justin Broadrick started playing drums for the group in '83, eventually splitting his time between this project and Napalm Death. Fall of Becauserecorded the sadistic Extirpate demo in 1986, multiple songs from which Broadrick and Green would re-record under the Godflesh moniker. Extirpate blends the power electronics of Whitehouse with a metallic interpretation of Throbbing Gristle's monotonous rhythms to make for a listening experience that constricts the throat.
Broadrick ditched Napalm Death and joined industrial noise rockers Head of David in '86, recording a Peel Session for BBC's Radio 1 with the band. Broadrick's focus on Head of David led to the dissolution of Fall of Because, but, wanting to engineer more abrasive sounds, he soon diverged from Head of David as well. Heavily inspired by the ominous mania of Aphex Twin's Digeridoo, as well as the earthshaking groove of Public Enemy, Broadrick formed Godflesh with ex-Fall of Because member, G.C. Green, in 1988, recording the infamous Godflesh EP that same year.
Black Sabbath and Napalm Death poignantly depict the negative energy that industrial life instills, but Godflesh is a direct recreation of the factory and its indifferent thrum. The band's self-titled EP forces the brain down conveyer belts and through a maze of steel compactors that never seems to end, mirroring a life of toiling alongside machinery that could so easily grind your body into goo.
Godflesh released its first LP, Streetcleaner, on Earache just one year later. Still deploying the crushingly minimal riffs of Godflesh, Broadrick yawps like a man who's ingested antifreeze. Greene's bass notes parasitically latch onto the programmed kick, together invoking a mechanized nervousness that steadily builds throughout the LP. To add insult to injury, Streetcleaner finds Broadrick and Greene returning to the sandpaper electronics of the Fall of Because demo. Godflesh heavily inspired post-metal godfathers Neurosis, as well as legions of other epic bands, including such legends as Harvey Milk, Floor, Isis, and The Body— yet another revolution in aggressive music that was born in Birmingham.
Unseen Terror, Benediction (whose original frontman, Barney Greenway, joined Napalm Death in 1990), and Doom told citizens that they can always use an instrument or microphone to mutate their powerlessness into art—an ethos that continues to foster an amazing scene.
In more recent times, from 1999-2008 the impish Mistress antagonized listeners with a hyperactive mix of death metal, doom, and grind-infused hardcore. Also formed in '99 but still going strong, Anaal Nathrakh places technical death metal, black metal, and Ministry-inspired industrial in a glass cage, letting these elements battle like desperate insects. Esoteric has been making some of the most punishing and sonically overwhelming funeral doom in existence for over 20 years, and Burden of the Noose spews pure, unadulterated sludge. And these bands are just a small portion of Birmingham's metallic iceberg.
No other city has played such an integral role in defining and shattering what heavy music can be. In the face of ever-increasing globalization, Brexit and its looming economic impact, and rancorous divisions between political parties, there's no doubt that the city's children will continue to evolve this musical realm in vital ways.
Cover image by Adam Miganelli / @adamignanelli
J. J. Anselmi is suffering (but why?) on Twitter.