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July 10 2011

World of leather

Heavy metal was born in the Black Country when its furnaces still blazed. Now the area is celebrating its heritage – with a raft of gigs and exhibitions. Stuart Jeffries straps on a Flying V and goes back to his roots

When Mark Titchner was a boy, he spent hours watching Black Sabbath's Master of Reality album rotating on the stereo of his Dunstable home. Not so much to revel in frontman Ozzy Osbourne's Lovecraftian horror, or the guitar virtuosity of Tony Iommi who, only four years before the album came out, had lost the tips of two fingers in an accident at a Birmingham sheet-metal factory.

No, it was the spinning label that captivated Titchner. "It was my first experience of rotoscopic art, and it floors me every time I see it," he says in his east London studio. The label, known as the "Vertigo swirl" after the record label that released Sabbath's albums, is a roto-relief, cribbed from those made by Marcel Duchamp. "I used to put it on the turntable and spend a nice long time looking into it, rising and falling with it into the abyss."

That youthful fascination feeds into Titchner's work in his new solo show, Be True to Your Oblivion, at Walsall's New Art Gallery. It's part of a sprawling season of exhibitions and events celebrating Birmingham and the Black Country as the birthplace of heavy metal. I'm particularly looking forward to Hell Bent for Leather: Judas Priest and the Heavy Metal Look at Walsall's Leather Museum, which will, fingers crossed, tell the neglected story of fetish gear, homosexuality and heavy metal.

Little Mark's Sabbath records inspired much of the Turner nominee's later artistic practice. His 2006 piece Ergo Ergot, to be shown in Walsall, consists of two large spinning roto-reliefs that form a geometric arrangement called the Titchener Illusion, after 20th-century psychologist Edward Titchener. "He's no relation," says the artist. "The illusion is that a circle surrounded by other circles looks smaller the larger the surrounding circles are."

This optical illusion is especially striking when, as in the case of Ergo Ergot, two circles of the same size are placed side by side, and then surrounded by circles – small circles on one, larger ones on the other.

I'd come to Titchner's work through his banners hanging outside Gateshead's Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, screaming bracingly fatuous messages such as "The Future Is Behind Us". Like Barbara Kruger or Jenny Holzer, Titchner in his text-based work establishes what he calls "a dialogue about how you receive thought and ideas". He's had sour fun recently with banners subverting the government cuts agenda – images of them feature on his blog.

One new work at Walsall will be a video portrait of Nic Bullen, founder member of Birmingham grindcore band Napalm Death. It consists of an extreme closeup of Bullen singing, slowed down so you can see his muscles working as he silently bawls – Titchner has muted his friend. The artist was inspired by Billie Whitelaw in Beckett's Not I: "All you see is that terrifying babbling mouth."

Before we carry on, let's define our terms. Grindcore music is not grime. Grindcore is a stupendously fast anarcho-punk music drawing from death metal, industrial music, noise and hardcore punk. It arose in Birmingham in the 80s (probably not as a response to Duran Duran, but you never know). Grime is dance music originating a few bus stops from Titchner's studio.

Is that a metal turd?

What's the allure of heavy metal? "The sensibility of metal has a darkness to it that draws me, but it has a social dimension – particularly as you get into the grindcore end of it. There's anarchism, but nihilism is far away."

I was brought up in Birmingham from the 1960s to the 80s, the very period during which some of the region's greatest metal bands – Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Napalm Death, Godflesh, Diamond Head – were making ears bleed worldwide. I never claimed this music as my heritage since I regarded punk as deflating its pretensions.

"That's only one way of telling the story," counters Titchner. "Another is that after punk came these grindcore bands who said punks are effete – let's go faster, be angrier and be proper anarchists. That movement still has its hive in the Black Country."

Titchner's views prompted me to revisit my birthplace and reconsider its musical heritage. But there was an immediate problem. So much of the industry that fired the music has gone, crushed by deflationary Thatcherite budgets in the 80s. My dad's story is typical. He was an engineer for car, aeronautical and metalworking firms across the West Midlands, but spent his final years of working life as a Youth Training Scheme manager. I suspect he taught kids to manage down their expectations: the pride he took in being an engineer could hardly be theirs in this deindustrialised region.

I started at Longbridge, looking at the wastelands of the car plant that once employed 50,000 people. Then I drove over to Wednesbury to visit my nan's house. She died in 1976, but I still remember sitting on her back step looking over the fiery blast furnaces of the Black Country at night. It's all gone – that fire and unspeakable beauty. My upset intensified as I drove around Dudley and Bilston, both so leafy that they felt like the Green Country rather than the Black Country. Counter-intuitively, heavy metal wasn't obliterated by Thatcherism: after the industry that spawned it was destroyed, metal music became more political and harder to listen to – expressing, perhaps, a howl over what was lost and a rage for those who took it.

At Wolverhampton Art Gallery, I experienced a corrective to this sense of loss in a show called From Iron Ore to Grindcore. On a table was something that looked like a metal turd – the final steel cast from Elisabeth of Bilston (the last Black Country blast furnace) dating from 1979, the year the flames were extinguished for good. In the years when Elisabeth and her sisters burned, local bands such as Judas Priest did something alchemical with industrial dust, fire and noise, transmuting them into music rich with fantasy, leather, desire and metallised beats – all of which makes it sound as Wagnerian as Alberich's metalworking cave in Das Rheingold.

I play the riff to Paranoid

In the next room is You Should Be Living: the Visual Language of Heavy Metal. My favourite piece here is Nic Bullen and Damien Deroubaix's installation in which visitors can sequence short grindcore audio loops at a mixing desk and scream into microphones. At least that's what I did: the guard eyed me narrowly.

Nihilistic art will figure prominently in some of Titchner's new work in Walsall. "I've long been intrigued by what happens when language ceases to communicate. That comes from Napalm Death – their almost primal scream music is a moral standpoint in the face of language that has lost its meaning." In a world of empty slogans, he seems to be saying, screaming is more authentic, more articulate, a nihilistic subversion of prevailing values.

Titchner says his latest work was inspired especially by Led Zeppelin's untitled fourth album, whose sleeve was decorated with intentionally baffling runic symbols, and by US black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room. He shows me the latter's 2004 album sleeve, featuring an unreadable hieroglyph.

"In this new work I was inspired by these kinds of metal non-typography to write strange neologisms on breeze blocks for a wall for the show. Then I carved them so it was like tomb carvings. Then I crossed everything out and it still wasn't right. So I obscured the text completely and mirrored it. I ended up with intractable symbols. It's a long, drawn-out process to arrive at a negation of words." It's the culmination of Titchner's text-based work, perhaps: instead of ironically subverting meaningless slogans, he batters them senseless. Very heavy metal.

Finally, I drove to Birmingham Art Gallery, where, in a space in which I've seen Renaissance art, is a show chronicling 40 years of heavy-metal culture. There I met the man credited with devising the first metal riff (possibly the one on Black Sabbath's Evil Woman), Tony Iommi. I shook his legendarily injured right hand. How did Iommi feel to see his music given the institutional imprimatur? "It's fabulous – but it's taken a long time. We spent a lot of time in the States because we were frowned on so much here."

Does Iommi think different bands have different riffs depending on the different metalworking jobs their members worked in? "Maybe. That might explain why Judas Priest sound different from us. Certainly the riffs I played on Paranoid or Iron Man only make sense if you realise where I worked as a teenager."

Iommi and I stood before a huge roto-relief, the Vertigo swirl. I told him that Titchner used to spend hours looking into it. "Yeah, a lot of our fans did – on dope probably."

Iommi wandered off to be feted by fans. I explored another room with electric guitars plugged into headphones for visitors to play. I strapped on a Flying V and tried to play a song I know well, Sabbath's Paranoid (it's my brother-in-law's ringtone). It sounded woeful. Clearly I need to work harder at reclaiming my cultural heritage.


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March 14 2010

Once upon a life: Nick Kent

In 1972 he was sorting mail in a Sussex post office. Twelve months later he was partying with Led Zeppelin. Here, the hugely influential music critic Nick Kent looks back on a year in which he witnessed the birth of punk, the arrival of Ziggy Stardust and the life-changing impact of Iggy Pop

Michael Caine was recently being interviewed on French television when a question about the 1960s came up. The venerable actor set off on a misty-eyed saunter down memory lane about the early years of the decade, when he and his immediate social circle – folk like Terence Stamp, Vidal Sassoon and Harold Pinter – were suddenly catapulted from struggling obscurity to glittering blockbuster success in their chosen fields of endeavour. There was a window of opportunity back then – or so he claimed – that was magically made open to anyone who was young, slightly different-looking and imbued with a certain irreverent outlook on life and good instincts about their profession. That window was now closed, he quickly added, because the novelty of youthful self-empowerment had gone the way of all flesh and the times had simply changed.

His words stirred something in me because I'd known that window, too, albeit a decade later than Caine. It might not have been wide open in the early 1970s, when I came of age, as it had apparently been throughout the 1960s. But it was still definitely ajar – offering just enough space for the young and ambitious to squeeze through in order to go on and make their mark on the world. I was ordained to receive my catapult ride from student nonentity-dom to gainful employment as fledlging celeb journo for the NME in 1972. I began the year sorting mail in a Sussex post office to the baleful strains of comedian Benny Hill singing his No 1 hit single of the day, "Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)" – His name was Ernie, and he drove the fastest milk cart in the west – and ended it in a four-star hotel carousing with Led Zeppelin. It wasn't what you'd call a normal or particularly healthy career trajectory to embark on, but I've never complained. Later on in the decade there would be hell to pay, but it would all seem worth it in retrospect. If I hadn't let myself get sucked up in the career tidal wave that '72 presented me with, I'd have probably stayed in my student garret dreaming my way into an underachieving life as a provincial librarian.

The key events that sparked my rise in fortune and public notoriety are dealt with in microscopic detail in my new book – specifically a long chapter dedicated to the year in question. Mostly it was about being in the right place at the right time, I now feel. From my vantage point, 1972 was the year when 70s culture truly cut itself off from the ghost of the 60s and began to express the real growing concerns and desires of its age. Films such as Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris and Martin Scorsese's seminal Mean Streets were all put into production during its 12-month duration. And there was a brand-new sensibility in rock music, too – a turning away from po-faced musical virtuosity (or middle-class prog rock ideal for post-hippie navel gazing) to make way for the emergence of something shorter, sharper, more vanity-driven and impudently audacious. In January, David Bowie first showcased his doomed peacock alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, on English stages, and it was at that moment that the 70s as we now perceive them were born. David Bowie didn't invent glam rock – Marc Bolan and Alice Cooper had both predated him as hit-making ambassadors of the form – but he was its prettiest and most musically accomplished human asset and, moreover, possessed the requisite charisma and lightning intelligence to change the whole course of popular music that year.

Bowie also had exquisite taste, particularly when it came to choosing other rising forces in the new decade to share the spotlight with. He cajoled both Lou Reed from New York's recently disbanded Velvet Underground and a wayward Michigan-born young man known as Iggy Pop to move to London that year and employ the services of his manager, a loud Colonel Parker wannabe called Tony DeFries. Reed had been Andy Warhol's house minstrel in the late 1960s and didn't waste the opportunity to instil the fey pop artist's glamour-fixated anti-utopian doctrines on British pop culture upon his arrival on our sceptred isle. And Iggy Pop imported his old group, the Stooges, from the Motor City that spring and performed just one concert, in a King's Cross cinema, that was already being called "punk rock" four years before the Sex Pistols and their scheming manager claimed to invent the genre in 1976.

Elsewhere in the metropolis a young US poetess – Patti Smith – gave her first feisty spoken-word recitation to European ears early in the year, while a bunch of snooty UK-based refugees from the halls of higher learning, known as Roxy Music, were busy re-styling art rock with bold camp flourishes and a menthol-cool postmodernist perspective. In short, those of us who'd failed to cast our shadows across the 60s creative landscape suddenly were dealt the opportunity to leave our respective signatures on the decade's trickier successor.


In my case, things took off in January when – tipped off by a friend – I'd taken an afternoon off from studying "linguistics" in a section of the University of London then known as Bedford College in order to offer my fledlging music-writer services to an underground journal based on Portobello Road called Frendz. I just turned up at their office unannounced, but the paper's editors were encouraging. When I returned with three album reviews, they printed them and then offered me the job of becoming their music editor for the princely sum of £4 a month and all the free albums I could cadge from the record companies. It seemed like a sweet deal to me, and it only got sweeter. That spring I went out on separate tours with weird and wonderful acts, like Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, the Grateful Dead and Hawkwind. Sometime in February I met Iggy Pop and discovered in the process my very own lifestyle guru for the years ahead.

The Iggy connection was important also because it was what first drew me to the attention of the New Musical Express. The music weekly had been struggling to keep afloat at the beginning of the 1970s and in early '72 was given an ultimatum by its owners, IPC: either find a new direction and a much larger readership base or get put out to pasture. The editors had exactly 12 issues in which to turn things around and began furiously headhunting young scribes from the (then-ailing) underground press to help swell their ranks and inject a more "irreverently hip" attitude into the copy. Nick Logan – then the assistant editor – phoned me out of the blue some time in the summer and asked me to write a short piece about Iggy for their pages. Once I handed him the text, he offered me staff membership but I politely refused, preferring a role as a freelancer to a (mostly) desk-bound job in the office. He was agreeable to this less structured arrangement and I was suddenly afforded the financial sustenance and mainstream platform to really get my name out to the greater Brit-youth consumer demographic du jour.

What was it exactly that made me so suddenly sought after? I couldn't even type my own copy – I'd scribble everything out in wobbly longhand and then pass the pages over to a long-suffering office secretary to type instead – but the editors never made an issue of my (considerable) shortcoming. I had a problem with deadlines, too. In point of fact I was any self-respecting copy editor's worst nightmare. But they tolerated all this because they evidently sensed I was an overall asset to their general operation. I'd like to think it was all somehow tied in with the excellence of the work I was handing in, but I've reread most of those old early pieces of mine and they're neither excellent nor particularly good.

The truth of the matter is I wouldn't start maturing into a writer of credible "new journalism" for another two years. But I was prepared from the very outset to go to extremes in order to snag a story, and "going to extremes" always gets results (even if – most of the time – they're not the results you may have at first set out to attain). Also, I had good instincts for embracing rising talent and, recognising instantly that the paper's readers were generally afflicted by an extremely short attention span, I thus chose to affect a flamboyant, look-at-me approach to my journalistic endeavours and general comportment when in public in order to keep them (hopefully) hanging on to my every word.

But the key to it all lay in the fact that I was really just part of a winning team. Two other underground-affiliated young writers – Charles Shaar Murray and Ian MacDonald – had come on board roughly at the same time I had, and both proved to be deeply influential on the paper's rising style and substance. And Nick Logan was at the controls, honing the skills that would go on to make him one of the most visionary and successful editors of the late 20th century.

The paper's change in fortunes was practically instantaneous. By autumn of 1972 the NME's weekly sales had rocketed up from 60,000 to approximately 150,000; by year's end we'd become "the world's biggest-selling music weekly", a state of affairs that lasted throughout the decade. But skyrocketing success always brings its share of problems to whoever is tied to the rocket, and we were no exception to that rule. An unhealthy measure of divisive competitiveness soon entered into our office relationships and grew as the paper became more and more widely read. Heads started swelling – and as the youngest contributor to the journal I became more arrogant than most. In due course this would turn to premature jadedness, and soon enough I'd be heading for self-destruction.

My immediate future was blindingly bright: in '73 I'd tour with my heroes the Rolling Stones through Europe, spend two months traversing America on a hectic voyage of (self-) discovery and fall head over heels in love. But a year after that I'd fall into heroin addiction and heartache, and all that early journalistic promise I'd displayed would be hijacked and rendered dormant for the rest of the decade.


But back in 1972 everything still seemed possible. My NME co-conspirators and I were still in our brief-but-blissful honeymoon period of one-for-all-and-all-for-oneness. And I'd yet to become personally tainted by the whole pop process. At heart I was still a callow 20-year-old who'd spent his teenage years in his bedroom lost in music, and now that I'd penetrated the music industry itself and was getting records for free, free tickets to all the concerts and lots of face-to-face contacts with musicians I'd once only dreamt of encountering, I couldn't get over my luck.

When I think back to that year, the memories that shine brightest are the many times I was privileged to see shows in London – and elsewhere – that left me trembling with ecstasy. I caught the UK debut of Germany's groundbreaking Can, witnessed Captain Beefheart speaking in tongues and reinventing electric music to a bewildered Brighton audience, was bedazzled by David Bowie's first Ziggy show in London and equally captivated by Roxy Music's early showcases. Oftentimes those future historic events would attract only a handful of paying punters. Indeed one monumental concert that the MC5 performed in London's West End that summer only attracted three attendees, none of whom had paid to get in. Even the Stooges's now legendary "punk"-inducing King's Cross gig only managed to draw 150 or so spectators. But that show changed my life. Before it I'd been a cautious youth, but when I witnessed Iggy doing somersaults on a moving microphone stand that night, I realised once and for all that – in order to leave a lasting impression on the times I lived in – I had to throw all caution to the four winds and plunge headlong into the fray of whatever fate had in store for me.

By December of 1972, it was official: I'd been expelled from the University of London, exiled from academia. It was bound to happen, as I'd failed to turn up to all my lectures and hadn't even been there to sit an important end-of-term exam. In fact, I'd been out on tour with Led Zeppelin when it had occurred. My fate was already sealed, in other words.


guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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