The origin of anything always seems to be a matter of controversy. One thing in this world is certain, though, and that is that heavy metal came from Birmingham. Fact. No, The Kinks, Led Zeppelin or The Who didn't invent it; sure, they all had the odd heavy riff, but in reality it was Black Sabbath whose doom-laden blues would spark something quite majestic, all from the small Birmingham suburb of Aston.
I caught up with Jim Simpson, who has curated a new exhibition of rare and unseen metal memorabilia under the proud, Brummie banner Home of Metal. Featuring local boys Sabbath, Judas Priest, Napalm Death and Doom, Jim was well-placed to whip up such a show – in the late 60s, he put on a blues night in Birmingham where all the luminaries of the future scene hung out, and where Sabbath eventually played their first shows.
VICE: Hey Jim. I understand you owned the first blues bar in Birmingham?
Jim Simpson: Well, we didn't own a bar, we used to rent an upstairs room in a pub and put on a regular blues night, yeah.
What year we talking?
'68 we started, I guess.
And that's where all the guys who created heavy metal hung out together, correct?
Originally, I opened to showcase a band I was handling called Bakerloo Blues Line, later known as Bakerloo, who featured Dave Clempson on guitar (you probably know of him from Humble Pie, Colosseum and numerous others). I think he's one of the finest ever blues guitar players. I'd been in a band called Locomotive, we had a hit record with "Rudi's in Love" in '67 or '68, I can't remember, and I quit to manage the band. I found myself with some time to spare, so we decided to create our own venue which was called Henry's Blues House, named after my neighbour's dog; a very glamorous Afghan hound. We didn't just put on music – we showed stuff like Laurel & Hardy and other silent films, too – but the music was really how Henry's Blues House came about.
How did you first come into contact with the Sabbath guys?
They were members of Henry's Blues House.
It was a members-only bar?
No, no. You paid a shilling, or something, to be a member for a year and you got in a couple of quid cheaper. They used to come to the club to listen to blues. We got talking and I heard they had a band, and after a while they asked if they could do the intermission. I'd gotten to know them by then, so I said "Yes" and it all went from there.
Was that when they were still playing as Earth, or were they calling themselves Sabbath by then?
Originally as Earth. They played their first gig ever as Sabbath there, too.
So how did the scene change from blues to hard rock/heavy metal?
The blues boom happened very quickly. It became formulaic very quickly, and suddenly the world was full of guys who wore the same denim, had the same haircuts, played the same repertoire, smelled the same, stared at their boots the same and played the same thousand mile-long guitar solos. It wasn't good box office, I suppose, 'cause they weren't all good players. The blues sort of killed itself really quickly, so bands like Sabbath, who were a blues band, looked around for different directions to go in. They used to refer to Henry's as the first progressive club outside London. Well, I didn't quite see playing blues from the 20s or 30s as being progressive, it was more regressive, I would've thought, but we got the progressive label. And then the aim was to be heavy – you had to be heavy. We revelled in it. There was nobody heavier than Sabbath. On the early Sabbath publicity you'll find one of my corny straplines, which was: 'Black Sabbath Make Led Zeppelin Look Like a Kindergarten House Band'.
That's kind of true…
Well, of course it's true. Absolutely. Undeniably so. We knew we got something very special with Sabbs and they didn't like being thought of as an 'alternative Zeppelin', because they weren't. They were a totally different sort of band. Everyone says "Oh, heavy metal, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, both from the Midlands…" Oh, apart from the fact that only half of Zeppelin were from the Midlands and they didn't come from the same roots. Also, they had totally different economic backgrounds. Half of Led Zeppelin were recruited – Bonny [John Bonham] and [Robert] Plant – from Birmingham bands by a very successful, already established, well-moneyed manager, to take part in what was a supergroup, really. Sabbs were organic, more natural. Funnily enough, the band that John Bonham left to join [Zeppelin] was my band.
So why do you think it all came from Birmingham then?
Well, we had two good venues: Henry's Blue House was the first, and it was followed by a venue called Mothers. Mothers used to have any band that were heavy on. They had a much bigger capacity than us, six or seven hundred people, almost three times ours. That educated a generation.
What about Judas Priest? Did you know those guys?
We all knew each other. Sabbath were the best, no question. It was no contest. We knew all the local musicians, we knew Judas Priest well. I had a couple of recordings with Judas Priest's singer, some soul ballads, funnily enough. We never released them. Rob [Halford] was well-respected round here, was for many a year. In fact, I think the drummer of Bakerloo, Charlie Hinch, went on to join Judas Priest [he did, for two brief spells in the 70s].
Wait, you said you had Rob Halford sing on a soul record?
A soul ballad, yeah.
What, just one track?
He did about two tracks, I think... three tracks? We didn't ever release it. When you stumble upon a great song and you get one of your mates to sing it, it doesn't necessarily mean you end up releasing it. These weren't commercially thought-out ideas. You get inspired by somebody's song and you want to make a recording of it, but I didn't see any natural place for that track so it stays on the shelf.
You can see tons of other unnatural stuff that's been hanging around on shelves too long at Home of Metal, which is running from now until the 25th of September at the Birmingham Museum. All the details you need are here.