The Jazz! The Devil! The Downtuning! It was all part of the recipe for the LP that defined heavy metal
As a music-crazed pre-teen developing a serious addiction to rock ‘n’ roll, many of my early musical discoveries came courtesy of older, more experienced friends.
Ricky D hung out with the guys from Grand Funk Railroad, but he found the time to introduce this 13-year-old neighbor to Spirit, Spooky Tooth and Jimi Hendrix before taking off to Chicago and forming a punk band called the Swingers. But it was in Bill B’s basement that I was introduced to the majesty of Black Sabbath.
Bill B and his brother Rick were members of a local group of motorcycle “enthusiasts” and the basement of their parents’ house was their exclusive domain. Both a crash-pad and a romper room for the brothers and their buddies, the basement had crudely-built plywood sleeping areas, a ratty billiards table with torn-up felt and a pockmarked cue ball, and a killer stereo system. Sitting in the basement one morning before catching the bus to school, with a half-dozen bodies strewn around, Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album was on the box, the vinyl playing at ear-splitting levels that seemed to bother nobody, no matter their state of consciousness.
Released 50 years ago, in February 1970, Black Sabbath the album rose from its humble roots to become one of the most influential records in the history of rock music. The band had formed a couple years previous in the English industrial city of Birmingham. Comprised of singer John “Ozzy” Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Terence “Geezer” Butler, and drummer Bill Ward they were known first as the Polka Tulk Blues Band, later changing their name to Earth. As Earth, the foursome was just another British blues-rock band banging away on the boards in the shadow of Cream. With their prospects bleak, Iommi actually left Earth in December 1968 for a (very) brief stint with Jethro Tull, appearing with that band on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus TV broadcast.
AUDIO: Jethro Tull “Song For Jeffrey” performed on Rock and Roll Circus
Dissatisfied with Tull, Iommi returned to the band in January 1969 with a new attitude and ambition. When they found that they were being confused with another British band called Earth, they changed their name to Black Sabbath, inspired by the 1963 horror film starring Boris Karloff, which would also inform the band’s future lyrical direction. Subsequently signed to Phillips Records, Black Sabbath released a cover of the Top 20 hit “Evil Woman” by the American band Crow as its first single in January 1970. Their self-titled debut album followed a month later, and while it was viewed negatively by the music press, it proved to be a big success commercially. This resulted in a quick follow-up record released a few months later with what would become their best-selling album, Paranoid, the band striking again in 1971 with the classic album Master of Reality.
Black Sabbath was recorded in a single day in a span of twelve hours, the band basically playing their then-current live set in the studio. A few sound effects were added to the opening track, and double-tracked guitar solos dubbed onto two other songs, but otherwise the recording is essentially live in the studio. Opening with the self-referential title track, an eerie thunderstorm intro leads into a plodding, alien riff which, in turns, leads us to Ozzy’s glacial vocals. As the frightening music swells and ebbs until it finally explodes into white-hot shards of fear and dread, we are provided the first exposure to Osbourne’s unique voice, Iommi’s uncanny riffs, Butler’s erudite lyrics and serpentine bass lines, and Ward’s powerful but subtle timekeeping. This is rock ‘n’ roll as a Hammer horror movie soundtrack, and it was at once both frightening and frighteningly exhilarating.
Black Sabbath offers the listener no quarter, the album quickly jumping into “The Wizard,” a four-minute swim in molten slag that opens with Ozzy’s mutant harmonica riffs before evolving into pure instrumental chaos. Ozzy’s vox barely break the surface tension here, his voice and the song’s barely-mumbled lyrics literally buried beneath an avalanche of jagged guitar licks, crushing bass notes, and machinegun drumbeats. A ten-minute-plus “medley” of sorts offers a brief respite from the album-opening aural assault, but it’s really just an exercise in building the Black Sabbath brand, as the band etches their instrumental signatures in stone. “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and “N.I.B.” – both longtime fan favorites – display the sort of ‘heavy’ definition previously reserved for uranium ore and modern warfare. Riding the lightning of Butler’s remarkable bass riff on “Wall,” Ozzy’s voice soars like a hungry bird of prey, lifted by Butler’s arcane lyrics while Iommi embroiders the song with rich, jazzy notes.
On the American release of Black Sabbath, the band’s original “Wicked World” was substituted in the place of “Evil Woman,” which appeared on the album’s U.K. version. This is a rare instance of a record label getting it right, “Wicked World” marking an evolution of blues music into what would become heavy metal, with a knowing nod to Eric Clapton and Cream as the song’s bludgeoning riff is balanced by Butler’s hypnotic rhythms, Iommi’s scorched-earth fretwork, and Ward’s jazzy flourishes. Another “medley” closes out Black Sabbath, this fourteen-minute-plus leviathan comprised of the band’s “A Bit of Finger” and “Sleeping Village” along with an explosive cover of journeyman drummer Aysley Dunbar’s bluesy “Warning.” Taken altogether, it’s another instrumental roller-coaster ride that leaves the listener breathless and stunned at its completion.
Nothing like Black Sabbath had been carved into wax at this point in rock ‘n’ roll history. Although bands like Uriah Heep and Deep Purple were experimenting with heavier sounds at the time, and 1960s-era mudslingers like Blue Cheer, Dust and Sir Lord Baltimore took the basic blues-rock form and played it faster and louder than anybody previous. Sabbath, however, was pioneering a new perspective and performance style. Many of the stylistic touchstones of heavy metal bands to follow can be found in the grooves of Black Sabbath, from the band’s mutation of the familiar tritone and redefining of the diatonic scale to its sludgy, smothering sonic overkill and their use of lyrical inspirations like authors H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkein as well as Butler’s brilliant religious iconography and flirtation with the occult.
The album was almost universally critically reviled at the time of its release. In the September 17th, 1970 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, the legendary Lester Bangs wrote “over across the tracks in the industrial side of Cream country lie unskilled laborers like Black Sabbath, which was hyped as a rockin’ ritual celebration of the Satanic mass or some such claptrap, something like England’s answer to Coven. Well, they’re not that bad, but that’s about all the credit you can give them. The whole album is a shuck – despite the murky song titles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley, the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much except stiff recitations of Cream clichés that sound like the musicians learned them out of a book, grinding on and on with dogged persistence.”
Time has been kinder to both the band and its debut album, however, as critics weaned on heavy metal reappraised Black Sabbath as the pioneering work that it is. Music historian and Sabbath biographer Martin Popoff, in his 2003 book The Collector’s Guide to Heavy Metal, Volume 1: The Seventies, wrote that “Black Sabbath still retains the psychedelic noodling and disintegrated focus of the ‘60s” but that the album is nevertheless “the only transitional step towards the concept of full metal jacket” and a “craggy, hurtful, and injured walk through an inhospitable, oxygen-free moonscape.” Popoff concludes his review saying that the album “cuffed a complacent rock ‘n’ roll world in the head, and the buzz and blurred vision fortunately persists to this day.”
Black Sabbath has received numerous accolades in the half-century since the release of the band’s debut album. Rolling Stone magazine would (begrudgingly?) rank Black Sabbath at #85 on their list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time,” with Jane’s Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro calling the band “the Beatles of heavy metal.” In The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock ‘n’ Roll, critic Holly George-Warren wrote that although the band was “despised by rock critics and ignored by radio programmers” that “Black Sabbath was the heavy metal king of the 1970s,” selling more than eight million albums by the end of the decade. Several other books and publications have ranked Black Sabbath as one of the most influential albums of all time.
VIDEO: Metallica inducts Black Sabbath into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Black Sabbath was inducted into The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 by Metallica’s James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich who, during the ceremony, said that “Black Sabbath is and always will be synonymous with heavy metal.” Sabbath’s influence spans generations of hard rock and metal bands, from Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Metallica to Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Guns N’ Roses, among many others. It all started 50 years ago, as an unassuming blues-rock band from Birmingham attempted to transcend its musical roots to create a sound that was as brutal and unforgiving as the environment in which it was forged.
With Black Sabbath, the band succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, the album changing the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll while inventing an entirely new genre not yet known as ‘heavy metal’ as well as sub-genres like doom and stoner metal.