On the 19th of March at Centrala, Digbeth at 5pm, the Sunday Xpress will be joined by music archaeologist and “the world’s leading expert on the genesis of Black Sabbath” Robert Horrocks. He will be presenting “A Field in Hampshire”, a re-enactment of a gig he played in 1991, which will be an experiment with music, memory, and nostalgia. I was invited to his home in Handsworth for a private viewing and dress rehearsal of this event, along with a sneak preview of his current exhibition.
It’s the second time I’ve been in this front room in Handsworth. A sumptuous Edwardian build with high ceilings. In the hallway on the right hand side, effects pedals have been lined neatly along the skirting board, pride of place on top of the Minton tiles. After a cup of coffee, I am invited into the front room.
It has changed since I was in here for the preparation of the Purple With Orange Sparkles exhibition that I interviewed Robert about last year. Most of it went in the skip, Robert said. He says he must be wary these days of being one of those men who pick up stuff from the street and take it home with them. But this current exhibition is as multi-layered as the last one. And, as usual with Robert being in the room and talking is like talking to a distorted mirror of your own conscious. Robert thrives on the shared experience. When I look at what he has prepared there is the laughter of recognition and empathy coming from me at all times.
I look at the exhibition in the room and my attention is drawn to the artefacts on the wall that Robert has created. You can get in contact with Robert for this guided tour if you want, I made it there today on the 11 route and a bit of Maps on my phone.
There are artefacts on Black Sabbath who Robert insists are as important as The Beatles in turns of influence. The problem is, he says, is that Black Sabbath never exclusively wrote a song about Birmingham. There are no Penny Lanes where the barber shaves another customer, no Strawberry Fields Forever. On Beatles tours in Liverpool, tourists are piled into a minibus that plays Beatles songs and Beatles songs only, and historic landmarks are pointed out whilst travelling between Lennon and McCartney’s childhood homes of ‘Mendips’ and 20 Forthlin Road. On the wall on the left hand side of the front room Robert has arranged four vinyl records hanging from string and picture hooks pointing diagonally towards the window, each with inscriptions stuck to them. On the other side of the records there are extensive notes written on what these historic landmarks signify in Black Sabbath lore.
- The Iron Gates (The entrance to the Ellison Industries Estate that Ozzy Osbourne would remember on their walks to school)
- Sabbey Road (An invation to cross the road in a more metal fashion than the location of that Beatles photoshoot)
- Escuela de GZR – (School of Geezer Butler, the bard of metal, its architecture an inspiration to him as well as the horror and sci-fi literature he was reading at the time.)
- 1968 – (Where band meetings and rehearsals were held)
These point towards a common theme throughout Robert’s work – the full moon and three stars. Eyes are then led to a copy of Echo and the Bunnymen’s ‘Ocean Rain’ LP, with ‘The original line-up’ written on a sticker in red. Above are the proposed statue template that commemorate Black Sabbath and the alchemics of music.
Robert says that the statue signifies 4 friends, standing with the BT Tower in the middle. Why the BT Tower? I ask. It’s the way up towards the moon and the stars, he says. It’s the thing that pulls you out of the shit.
The 4 friends motif is prevalent in his current exhibition “The 17 Slates (Jackson, His Mon) & The Heavy Relic” and it will be demonstrated in the performance of “A Field in Hampshire” that he will be performing at the Sunday Xpress on the 19th of March.
What Robert will present on the 19th of March is four of the six songs that were played on that night in that field in Hampshire. These songs are a historical re-enactment of that day on the 23/09/91, the crowning glory of four friends illegally fitting up a rig in a field in Hampshire and playing to 100 people. That night lives on in memories. If people can dress up in the Cotswolds for historical re-enactments, he says he doesn’t see why he shouldn’t be allowed to perform this to a wide and appreciative audience. He is quite happily going to relive the glory days, in this experiment with music, memory and nostalgia.
The event occurred in 23.09.1991. . As humans anywhere we go to and the experiences we have there are imprinted and stored in that vast multiverse we call our subconscious, ready to peep out at us at any time it sees fit. Indeed, I was 16 in 1995, the heady summer of Britpop. The event was previously entitled “Blues for George Michael” is a reference to a B-Side by The Boo Radleys off their most famous single “Wake Up Boo!”, a band signed by Creation, with lyrics ever pertinent due to the vulture presses picking apart of his soul. “Wake Up Boo!”, despite consternation from the song’s writers, became an anthem for Britpop and Cool Britannia, played incessantly by Chris Evans on Radio 1, becoming a harbinger of what was to follow in 1996, which Robert says is the “year the music died.” Leaving your mind “somewhere in a field in Hampshire” also is a reference to Pulp’s “Sorted for Es and Whizz’ a big hit in 1995, a wagging finger in the face of Camden Town and people never seeming to know when the party is going to turn sour.
All the songs that Robert has ever written can be classed as British Tribal Music. Workers songs, drinking song and folk songs swathed in feedback and choruses. Each one a one million seller. On the front of the notebook that he plays his songs from is written “The Lord Taught Me Songs” and underneath is written. “I look back in anger at the day the music died.”
His last appearance at Sunday Xpress saw him playing a song that he says was written on the guitar, a Rickenbacker semi-acoustic copy that Robert bought from a shop, which he was later told, and he has no reason to argue, had been owned by Alan McGee, head of Creation Records. Creation Records, despite having a roster of bands that most labels would have sold their soul for, were floundering in 1994 until the discovery of Oasis. Oasis were later to become the biggest band in the UK in 1996, and were no doubt instrumental in winning Tony Blair, always ready himself to seem at one with the kids riding the wave of the fashions of the day, onto winning the 1997 election. Blair was not only shape world history in an uncomfortable way, but also instrumental in making popular culture complacent and self-satisfied, something that I argue is still very prevalent in today’s cultural make-up.
The “look back in anger” is hark back to the year 1996, when Robert argues is when the music did die, when Oasis played to 250,000 people at Knebworth in August of that year, an afternoon full of cocaine, smoke and mirrors. “This is history” Noel Gallagher opined. I look at the floor. A box of demo tapes, neatly arranged and labelled, a last gasp before what had been burgeoning in the late 80s and early 90s became insidiously needed to be marketed. These days, bands are faced with endless tickboxes, spellchecked band bios and need to plead for approval by sending faceless mp3s to a never-ending list of tattooed ‘tastemakers.’ Robert is demanding that we need to step away from the bullshit of the uploader, relive the glory days, and look to our friends and the BT Tower, to find a way out.
Get to the Sunday Xpress for 5pm, and the performance will start. You will be handed a programme containing photocopies of that flyer of that gig in Hampshire in 1991, and a list of the songs played and the attitudes lived for. Those attending “A Field in Hampshire” will be presented with an analysis of how music works in society in 2017, a treatise of how fucked up it is, and an invocation to do something about it. In 2017, the stage will be state for the dream that never fades away.
I got on the 11a back to Selly Oak that afternoon, with an important part of my brain left somewhere in a front room in Handsworth.
Robert Horrocks will be presenting “A Field in Hampshire” at Centrala in Digbeth, as part of my Sunday Xpress event on the 19th of March. Free entry, after the performance there will be an open mic with poetry and music, and in the evening there will be scintillating live performances by Derrick D and the Back Bones, Tom & Jimmy and Citizen X. Full details by clicking the hyperlink.