It opened last weekend to chime with the cultural activities around the Commonwealth Games taking place in Birmingham and the West Midlands this summer.
It spotlights a selection of iconic artists whose styles were influenced by the unique heritage of the region and by the social and political change that happened here during their formative years.
The Black Country’s popular music scene has been shaped by its richly multicultural population, which developed after the Second Word War when people from the Commonwealth were invited to help re-build war-torn Britain. Within just a few years, this proximity of cultures produced the musicians and bands that are featured in this exhibition.
The show starts with the titans Slade, who rose to fame in the early 70s, swapping their bovver boots and braces image for long hair, platforms and satin, but remaining true to their working-class roots. It then features three ‘stars’ from the Black Country: R&B soul superstar Beverley Knight, music producer, DJ and visual artist Goldie and legendary singer, songwriter and musician Robert Plant.
The exhibition goes on to chart the emergence of the Black Country’s reggae and sound system culture. Bands from Wolverhampton such as Weapon of Peace, Capital Letters and solo artists like Macka B and Sister Aisha contributed to the creation of a British version of reggae and ska and paved the way for future generations of hip-hop, rap, jungle and grime artists.
Black Country Beats also showcases cult Black Country bands who enjoyed fame in the 90s such as Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, The Wonder Stuff, Pop Will Eat Itself, the Mighty Lemon Drops and chart-topping bands Babylon Zoo and Cornershop. It finishes by highlighting the rise of bhangra music in Wolverhampton with the bands such as the Sahotas.
The show also celebrates the imminent reopening of Wolverhampton’s legendary Civic Hall venue, which has played host to many huge stars since it opened in the 1930s.
The exhibition is at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in Lichfield Street, Wolverhampton, until September. Here we take a closer look at some of the artists it spotlights...
The importance of Slade is impossible to overstate. Without Slade, there’d have been no Britpop and no Oasis. They were the missing link between The Beatles and the wave of music that put the UK at the centre of the music universe in the mid-1990s.
It wasn’t just Oasis they inspired. Others who cite their influence included Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Undertones, The Runaways, The Clash, Kiss, Mötley Crüe, Poison, Def Leppard, Twisted Sister, The Replacements and Cheap Trick. They sold more than 50 million records, were the first act to have three singles enter the charts at number one and enjoyed six chart-topping singles. It’s a shame they all fell out and mostly don’t talk to one another… That’s rock’n’roll for you.
Britain’s foremost female soul singer-songwriter and winner of three Mobo black-music awards is Wolverhampton’s great ambassador. Her mother, Deloris Smith, 58, was an ophthalmic nurse in an NHS fast-track cataract centre and she and her husband, Edward, encouraged Beverley’s dreams. With hits like Greatest Day, Get Up!, Shoudda Woulda Coulda and Come As You Are, she’s a platinum-selling artist who went onto win an MBE for her services to music and become an honorary Doctor of Music at Wolverhampton University. She’s twice been nominated for the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 2015 and 2022 for her performances in Memphis and The Drifters Girl, respectively. She made her first foray into musical theatre in September 2013, replacing Heather Headley as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard. A legend, no less.
Clifford Joseph Price is the king of UK jungle, drum and bass and breakbeat. His Timeless album, released in 1995, was deserving of that title and remains precisely that. He acted in the 1999 James Bond film The World Is Not Enough, Guy Ritchie’s Snatch (2000) and the BBC soap opera EastEnders, while his art has been exhibited around the world. More recently, he’s modelled for Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring/Summer and contributed a song while he moved to Phuket, in Thailand, because he loved it so much, then opened a gallery in Bangkok.
Rock God, follower of Wolverhampton Wanderers and enduring legend: Robert Plant is Mr Charisma. A man whose star quality matched that of contemporaries such as Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, Roger Daltrey of the Who, Jim Morrison of the Doors, and Freddie Mercury of Queen, the Led Zeppelin frontman remains a colossus. Yet he’s seldom happier than when popping up in local theatres with such bands as Sensational Space Shifters. A decent bloke who donated money to a Kidderminster clothing manufacturer during the pandemic, which made scrubs for local hospitals, he lives quietly near Wyre Forest.
Ned’s Atomic Dustbin
A band who took their name from The Good Show, they formed at sixth form and sold more t-shirts than Top Shop as they gate-crashed the charts in the early 1990s. Touring the world, headlining the NME Stage at Glastonbury in 1992 and securing a silver disc for the still-mighty God Fodder album, they remain a perennial favourite with now-and-then anniversary shows in the Black Country, London and further afield.
The Wonder Stuff
A band beset by tragedy, line-up changes and more, the acerbic Miles Hunt led the band to number one – alongside Vic Reeves – with a cover of Dizzy, while finding time to headline Walsall FC. Wilfully contrary, they introduced alt-country to the mainstream, though lost bassist Rob Jones and drummer Martin Gilks along the way.
Pop Will Eat Itself
The alt-rockers started life as a grebo outfit while frontman Clint Mansell has enjoyed the most remarkable career of any Black Country rocker, with the exception of Robert Plant. Having enjoyed success with PWEI that saw their industrial rock crash land into the top ten of the charts, he moved to the USA and became an award-winning, Golden Globe and Grammy-nominated film composer.
His prodigious output includes Requiem For A Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan, Loving Vincent and more. Mansell turned down Madonna after preparing for a meeting with the Queen of Pop by eating chips in his car beforehand.
The Mighty Lemon Drops
The indie rockers enjoyed a seven-year itch between 1985 and 1992, drawing comparisons to Echo and the Bunnymen, before frontman Dave Newton left to found The Wild Flowers. Wonder Stuff drummer Martin Gilks was a former member – who quit to join the Stuffies – while the band enjoyed successful albums with Happy Head and World Without End before their star waned. Becoming part of the C86 movement, which was championed by the New Musical Express, they were soon snapped up by Geoff Travis of Rough Trade for his new Blue Guitar label.
Spaceman provided Babylon Zoo frontman Jas Mann with a breakthrough hit after it went to number one and was used in a Levi’s jeans commercial. It was a peculiar outcome for a band that started life as the indie combo The Sandkings – and whose one-hit-wonder moment tended not to characterise their other, better work. The band failed to live up to the hype generated by Spaceman – the song becoming a poisoned chalice. The Sandkings, in many ways, were the more interesting band. They toured alongside the Poppies, Stuffies and Ned’s as well as opening for Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses in the early 1990s.