On February 13 1970, a gritty underground rock and roll band from the industrial city of Birmingham in the English midlands released their debut album entitled Black Sabbath, and in the process ushered in a new form of music so drastic and uncompromising in both tone and heaviness, it was given what was then the rather derogatory name “Heavy Metal” by critics.
The band of course was Black Sabbath. Writing the song “Black Sabbath” while still under their previous moniker, Earth, it was bassist and lyricist Terry ‘geezer’ Butler who suggested they change their name to avoid confusion with another English band called Earth. His three Brummie bandmates agreed, and the sinister sounding “Black Sabbath,” taken from an old Boris Karloff film of the same name, was born.
It was some seven months later that Black Sabbath would truly set the world of heavy rock music alight, with the release of what is widely considered to be the greatest heavy metal album ever recorded, the bands’ second; Paranoid.
The Birth Of Heavy Metal
The heavy raw feel to Black Sabbaths’ music came from life in the bleak and grim working class atmosphere of England’s second city. Birmingham was, and remains a thoroughly dreary place to live if one happens to be from the working class. Tony Iommi, Sabbath guitarist and master of the heavy riffs, is to that city was Mozart is to Salzburg, in so much that his music is representative of his surroundings.
Together with Geezer Butler’s stylized bass playing and wild and strange lyrics, delivered with the doom-laden vocals of one John “Ozzy” Osbourne, and the tight drumming of the much underrated and often overlooked Bill Ward, Sabbath had unwittingly stumbled onto a new sound and way of playing rock music that would in decades to come, both enthrall and frighten.
They set the ball rolling with Black Sabbath. What set them apart from the beginning was that gritty dirty feel the songs possessed. A loud sound is one thing. Bands like Vanilla Fudge, The Who and Led Zeppelin had been playing with volume years before, with varying degrees of ear splitting loudness and power.
But being loud isn’t the same as being heavy. Black Sabbath created a feeling of weight and thickness to the sound of rock music, giving it the kind of power beyond anything that had gone before. And no rock band had ever thought of melding such heavy music with equally heavy lyrical content.
Tracks like “Behind the Walls of Sleep” and “N.I.B.” a song about the devil falling in love, were so far outside the social and cultural mainstream, (even for the nutty 60s) Sabbath were instantly seen in a sinister light by the elite music press.
Iron Men Of Rock
The second album, Paranoid , released the same year as their debut, is now seen as a defining moment in the formulation of the Heavy Metal sound. The record now stands along side some of the greatest rock and roll albums of all time.
Panned by critics upon it’s release, Paranoid was nevertheless a huge hit with rack fans, and launched the band to the front ranks of rock stardom, much to the annoyance of critics and entire magazines, such as Rolling Stone.
Songs like “War pigs,” which after a slow intro quickly chugs into a full frontal attack, with Ozzy wailing on about “witches at black masses” and “bodies burning,” culminating in Iommi’s winding and sinewy guitar solo, were never going to endear Sabbath to the John Lennon and Bob Dylan crowd; although the title track is classic hard rock, with Sabbath showing a more mainstream side that would come to the fore later in their career.
Still, other songs, such as “Planet Caravan,” which takes the listener on a drug induced journey through satanic hippiedom before The brilliant “Hand of Doom”sounds a warning not to go too far down that road, were revolutionary and far ahead of their time.
One can only imagine the negative reaction and consternation Sabbath evoked at the beginning of the 1970s! Now days heavy music and dark topical lyrics about what is wrong with society are the norm for most rock and hard rock bands, (mainly thanks to Sabbath.) But in the era of Lennon’s “Imagine,” what the brummie boys’ were playing just wasn’t…Cricket.
However, from the grunge of Nirvana and Soundgarden to the thrash of Slayer and Megadeth to the hard rock heavy metal of Guns & Roses and Metallica to….well, you get the picture; the musical style Black Sabbath created has, at some point in time, been copied by almost every great post 1970s rock and heavy metal band.
Even the guitar tone of Oasis main man Noel Gallagher owes more to Sabbath than the Beatles or The Who. Bands who have nothing whatsoever to do with the “heavy metal” image have nevertheless been highly influenced by the groundbreaking sound and songs of Black Sabbath, even if they don’t really know it.
The Drugs Take Over
Following Paranoid; Sabbath released three more albums in quick succession thoughout the early 1970s. Great albums like Master of Reality and Vol 4, that utilized the same formula that had made the band a success; crushing riffs and maniacal lyrics, producing more great material.
Sabbath reached their creative peek with what is perhaps the bands’ second mugnum opus, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. Released in 1973, it stands as a testament to just how far the band had come in terms of songwriting. From “Killing yourself to live” and “spiral architect”to the title track, on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath we hear that now classic heaviness and grit, but we are also witness to a lesson in great musical experimentation.
Renting an old castle in Wales, Sabbath apparently rehearsed in the dungeon of the place and set to work writing the material that would appear On Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, The result is an eerie and evil sounding record, similar to their first album, but with a “classic rock” sheen to the sound, and a polished feel to the songs.
Unfortunately for Sabbath, and their fans, it was to be their last truly great record. The “Hand of Doom” had well and truly taken grip of the band by the mid 1970s, and while 1975’s Sabotage contained some great tracks, notably “Symptom of the Universe”and “Hole in the Sky,” it could not standing along side the bands’ previous work in terms of production nor songwriting.
Neither could the follow up, Technical ecstasy; although “It’s Alright,” a ballad sung by Bill Ward and the classic “Dirty Women” are personal favourites.
By 1978, Sabbath had reached the end. Relations within the band, especially between Tony Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne were at an all time low. At one point Ozzy had actually quit the band prior to the recording of the eighth album, Never say die, the final Sabbath album with Ozzy on vocals, (meaning the last genuine Sabbath album.)
Post Ozzy “Sabbath” had it’s shining moment with Heaven and Hell, with former Rainbow frontman Ronnie James Dio on vocals. But while Dio was an accomplished vocalist and performer, there was only ever one frontman and singer for Black Sabbath. Unfortunately, Tony Iommi never saw it that way, and throughout the 1980s proceeded to drag a once proud name in music down to the level of an Uriah Heep or Thin Lizzy, (all due respect to those bands) by working with a succession of great and not so great vocalists under the Sabbath name.
In the late 1990s, the Sabbath name finally began to gain back some much needed respect and much deserved acclaim. A reunion tour with all four original members, having put past conflicts behind them, was an unqualified success, and along with a general renewed interest in the classic rock and hard rock music of the 1970s, helped to wipe away the some of the abuse the name “Black Sabbath” had suffered since the early 1980s.