‘At The Mermaid’ project – behind the scenes

Photo courtesy of Steve McGreedy

Home of Metal’s first major exhibition in 2011 showcased important touchstones in local metal history, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Led Zeppelin, Diamond Head were some of bands who, in their own different ways, carved out what has come to typify the sound of heavy metal. We also dedicated a big part of the exhibition to Napalm Death, and Godflesh, who took metal in heavy, subversive directions, grinding the ferocity of metal with the rawness of punk. This metal punk crossover was also steeped in a do-it-yourself culture and anti-capitalist politics.  At the exhibition, we gathered fanzines, hand-drawn leaflets, and bootleg cassettes to tell Napalm Death’s origin story, and the Mermaid appeared on dozens of these. We’ve been intrigued to learn more about the Mermaid ever since.

Home of Metal exhibition 2011 – Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery
‘At The Mermaid’ co-creating event – ‘In Conversation’ led by researcher Sarah Lafford

Home of Metal began the project by hosting a co-creating session to explore key areas of research and to help set the questions for the oral histories we would carry out with musicians that had performed at the venue as well as audience members that attended. The session involved a mixture of contributors (those that had visited The Mermaid in the 1980’s) and a group of Home of Metal volunteers as well as our project researcher, Sarah Lafford and our team. Most interestingly was the overwhelming response that The Mermaid had played host to a real variety of alternative acts from skate punk bands to post punk acts, blues rock and everything in between.

We used social media and word of mouth to do a call out for people to contribute their memories of the venue and surrounding scene, as well as those that had kept or collected ephemera ie photos, flyers and posters. One of those that responded to us was Stuart Minal (aka Swag) who had kept all his flyers from his time attending gigs at The Mermaid. With the help of our volunteers we catalogued each flyer, recording key info, and then photographed and scanned them.

A day spent at Home of Metal’s HQ with Stuart Minal (aka Swag) and his vast collection of Mermaid flyers
Stu’s flyers being catalogued by our Home of Metal volunteer Ian Woolaston, ready to be digitised
Flyers loaned to us by Nicholas Bullen

Through the oral histories that Sarah captured we started to build a bank of varied memories and stories which helped to paint a picture of the surrounding area of Sparkhill, the Mermaid pub itself, memorable gigs that took place there as well as the culture of DIY politics. 1980s Britain was described as a bleak place to grow up in, and this context informed the politics and culture of the Mermaid scene. A vital element to both the music and politics at the Mermaid was a DIY culture and ethics. To do it yourself is to live and breathe the anarchist slogan no gods, no masters. You get a real sense of people embodying their political views, moving beyond theory and debate to a politics in action, including hunt sabs, squatting, direct action against multi-nationals and campaign for nuclear disarmament protests. 

“This was the magic, this was literally kids doing it for themselves. This was the real DIY. This was the real punk rock.” Justin Broadrick

Over the last couple of months we have been transcribing and editing the oral histories collected and have turned these into a 4 part podcast series and zine-type publication which will be launched on the 1 June via this website.