The Dark Lord of Doom: Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” Still Reigning a Half-Century Later
Black Sabbath needs no introduction, and neither does their debut self-titled album which was released 50 years ago today. A half-century is one hell of a long time for any life, but perhaps no other heavy metal band from the genre's original era rings so true and powerful so many years on. To celebrate this release -- and to celebrate all of heavy metal to begin with -- some of the Invisible Oranges staff chimed in with thoughts and reflections on this beautiful and legendary release.
The Sab Four's debut album was released exactly one half-century ago today. It's both a long time and yet, so far as watershed moments in music history go, still comparatively recent. To re-examine Black Sabbath in 2020 is similar to how Roger Ebert described watching Nosferatu in 1997: it is, to paraphrase, "heavy metal before it has seen itself." All the tropes are there: heavy guitars, foreboding minor-key riffs, a tight and bassy rhythm section, and so forth, but it's often quite distinct from today's "metal." There's no screams, no double kick, and while the subject matter is occasionally dark, it's usually either just fantastic ("The Wizard"), bluesy (the entirety of Side B), or steeped in Christian mysticism (the title track).
And yet, even with these differences, Black Sabbath remains yet the one album we can safely refer to as "the first heavy metal album." Led Zeppelin had the riffs and Blue Cheer the attitude, but Black Sabbath was the first to phase out the blues in favor of a more romantic, almost Wagnerian approach. Their contemporaries may have been "heavy," but Black Sabbath created the "metal." Tony Iommi's necessity-based downtuning made the "heavier" arms race inevitable by proving that lower tuning increased the drama and power of your standard guitar lick. Furthermore, Ozzy's distinctive wail lacked the sexiness of Robert Plant or the ethereality of Pink Floyd: this was music that was designed to make an impact, not "feel good." Considering they began this process at the tail end of the 1960s, when the hippie movement was falling apart under the weight of Altamont and the Manson Family, Black Sabbath represents the creation of an entirely new musical order for the latter half of the 20th Century, one which, like it or not, has influenced every generation of other genres since.
One last note: check out this video of Sabbath performing on Belgian TV in 1970 (yes I know it's "Paranoid," but the point is this is the very beginning of their career). It's interesting to see Sabbath creating many of the physical tropes of metal virtually in real time: there's not windmilling, but the guys are definitely all banging their heads, which few hippies would ever think to do. Furthermore, notice how they play their instruments: Ward's precise but violent drum pounding, Iommi and Butler holding their instruments close so as to achieve maximal dexterity, Ozzy's face reflecting a wild-eyed excitement that could sometimes be dangerous if he also weren't smiling as much. Black Sabbath is the wellspring from which our entire genre was born, and this video demonstrates how much their image alone has resonated down the years into our current conception of heavy metal. Anyway, I'm off to listen to Black Sabbath on vinyl, and if you have any reverence for the art and glory of heavy metal, I'd strongly recommend you do likewise.
It’s 1992. You’re almost 10. You run your fingers across your parents’ record collection for the umpteenth time, past the Sesame Street records you wore out but whose existence you now deny. Music as a concept is beginning to permeate your mind; you’re not aware of it, but when you hear Pat Benatar or Christopher Cross on the station wagon stereo it affects you differently than when mom put on those Led Zeppelin records, or that one album with the song you love where the guys says "snot." You start picking out records in a haphazardly alphabetical fashion, staring at the cover art for Bad Company’s Desolation Angels and Blind Faith’s debut (of course). Hold on, what’s this?
A creepy lady standing near a creepy castle. The ornate, curly font spells out “Black Sabbath." Your insatiable love for horror movies is a few years away, but this looks like it came from one. Your father tells you it must have been from his brother’s collection. The uncle who went to Vietnam and came back… different. The one with the strained relationship with the rest of the family. We don’t listen to that one. It’s just there.
You drop the needle and hear… rain. A thunderstorm. A church bell, maybe? This isn’t rock-'n'-roll. Maybe it’s supposed to be like a movie, like the cover. Cool.
Whoa, whoa, whoa, what’s happening? You’ve never heard a guitar sound like that. It really is creepy. This doesn’t sound like those other classic rock records. It doesn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard. That guy’s voice is kind of shaky. Is this singing? It sounds sort of like when the priest leads the refrain at Mass. But this ain’t church. You don’t know if you get it. This is Something Else that Older Kids like, you think.
The song’s going faster now. Wow, this is kind of crazy. Your only point of reference for this kind of abrasive distortion is Blue Cheer’s cover of “Summertime Blues." Now there’s some super-loud harmonica. This is a bit much -- you take it off the turntable and put it back on the shelf. But you keep thinking about it the rest of the day. Now it’s tomorrow, and you want to hear the rest of it. Just to see what else is hidden in there. Ten thousand tomorrows later, it’s still a mystery, but you’ll spend a lifetime enjoying how to figure it out.
Having grown up on Black Sabbath’s radio staples (Paranoid’s singles), I had my work cut out for me back in 2007 when I decided to see what the rest of the fuss was about with such a well known and established act. What I didn’t know was just how bluesy this debut would be, let alone the classical impact Holst’s "Mars" suite from "The Planets" would be on the eponymous track and album opener.
While this was meant more so as an introduction to the band in 1970, it served the purpose as a reintroduction to band as a whole and not just what I had known previously. Bill Ward was an incredible drummer with jazz flair, and Tony Iommi might be the greatest riffsmith the world has ever known. Geezer Butler deserves great accolades for the "Wasp / Behind the Wall of Sleep / Bassically / N.I.B." combo which ends the original Side A with a flourish with all the wobble and none of the bullshit. A young Ozzy was the perfect singer at the time to convey the sense of existential dread that is dark music provided.
For those that have never given the first six Ozzy-era albums their due, you are sorely in need to revisit this timeless classic. This is one that launched a nuclear warhead of fuzz, bong juice and acid into your black-lit bedroom and gave that bearded friend of yours a favorite band or at least his favorite band’s favorite band. You can’t listen to many metal albums without thinking of Black Sabbath’s influence and this is where it all started. No better time than now to dive in, this ship is going down, and this is the sound of armageddon.
From a cultural perspective, nothing will ever be as heavy as the opening notes of "Black Sabbath" -- sure, mathematically speaking there's heavier sounding stuff out there, but it's guaranteed that no three notes ever played again will have the impact that the Devil's Third that kicks off the song did. That's not a knock against other bands, though -- metal has just fragmented to the point where nothing so new, so staggeringly different, can completely upend the genre. At the time of the record's release, metal was technically in existence, although in its infancy, and I guess we're just lucky that superb talent met divine chance and gave the newfound genre a torchbearer of a record that commands respect to this day.
Black Sabbath shaped my musical journey both in terms of taste and how I play as a drummer -- I find myself continuously seeking riffs that can stand up to the iconic melodies of "The Wizard" and "N.I.B.," and Bill Ward's fusion of swing-ridden grooves and skin-smashing heavy hits continues to be my main percussive inspiration. As the unfortunately disappointing 13 made clear to me, drumming kinda makes or breaks a Sabbath record, and Ward's playing made the self-titled a thing of dazzling beauty. It took me quite a while to understand the unusual brilliance of "Wicked World," for example, where a classic jazz beat gradually interweaves with thunderous accentuation, leading to an all-drum crescendo; then, after a brief pause, a deceptively simple fill sets the tempo and gets heads nodding as the iconic main riff of the song begins, backed by Ward's inventive (but now more conventional) accompaniment.
I originally got introduced to the record by way of the compilation work We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'n' Roll, which I heard bits and pieces from via the Internet radio service I used to discover music back in the day before Spotify and Bandcamp bulldozed the competition. After spending a few weeks wondering why "N.I.B" started with some seemingly random, if catchy, drumming, I bought the box set of the first eight albums and began a dedicated journey into the early output of the main roster. Then, I learned that much of the album had been crafted as a set of "suites," which the compilation (along with every streaming platform in the last 15 years or so) had chopped up. It says a lot that the band's work has survived such indignities, but it says even more that we're still talking about it 50 years later, and that after a half-century, it continues to be relevant, enjoyable, and heavy as shit.
Black Sabbath wasn’t the first band to get me into heavy metal, but they were pretty damn close. Following from my first metal love in Metallica, about a half decade after their cultural peak, I looked toward their contemporaries and elder inspirations as avenues for more music to quench my ravenous hunger for those magical moments of heaviness that transported me to realms far more fantastical than my suburban life in Maryland could provide. When it came to Sabbath, first I obtained the compilation We Sold Our Soul for Rock 'n' Roll -- the single disc version, which I recall thinking I’d get pushback from my parents, especially my at the time still observant Catholic mother who took issue before and later with some of the music I sought out. Fortunately for me, Black Sabbath was thoroughly cloaked in the mist of 1970s rock-'n’-roll acceptance my parents held since that was the era of their own youth. In short order, I grabbed the rest of Black Sabbath’s first six albums and they all collectively created another pillar in my then growing love for metal.
Black Sabbath’s eponymous first album, forged by four young working lads from Birmingham, would ultimately give birth to a whole new genre of music in heavy metal. Admittedly it’s not my favorite album from the band, but it still contains some of their best work ever in tracks like the dark romantic rolling swing of “N.I.B.” and the self titled opener where thunder and church bells give way to a crushing devil’s note led dirge that in the end rises to a hellhound chase for dear life. Not only did the downtuned heavy blues rock contained in the album forms the musical basis for heavy metal, but the lyrical and aesthetic choices just as well foreshadowed the genre’s path. The album cover’s foreboding woman in black strikes the imagination of a witch about to conduct an actual black sabbath paired with lyric inspiration from Tolkein’s fantasy realm, H.P. Lovecraft’s otherworldly horror and of course more than a few references to Satan a.k.a. Lucifer a.k.a. The Prince of Darkness. All of which would become bread-and-butter themes and images for generations of metal musicians that continues to this day.
While Metallica were my first true love in the world of metal, Black Sabbath not only became nearly as beloved of a band, but, in short order, served as my first live introduction to the genre. In the summer of 2001, I attended my first metal concert ever at the northern Virginia stop of the inaugural Ozzfest tour, which was that year headlined by the reunited original line-up of Black Sabbath. Even though the blazing hot day paired with inadequate sunscreen distribution led to a rather uncomfortable predicament, all of that washed away as I shouted in glee upon hearing Ozzy, Tony, Geezer, and Bill tear into the first notes of their set. I danced and headbanged in equal measure like a possessed fool on the grassy amphitheatre field, unaware that 15 years later, with two more Sabbath sets witnessed in the years between, I’d be on the other side of the country attending the final California show of their final farewell tour.
That final show was truly bittersweet. While retirement tours have become a near guaranteed joke in terms of commitment to ending, I had a feeling in my bones that this really might be it. Bill Ward had already been unwelcomed from joining the final reunion shows under the pretense that he couldn’t handle it on stage anymore, coupled with Tony having only recently recovered from cancer, the ailment that ended the life of former Black Sabbath singer Ronnie James Dio. Even upon the cusp of that year the metal world suffered the heart wrenching loss of the fabledly immortal Lemmy, and with the years since the reality of mortality has only further solidified with continuing legends of the genre dying along with Ozzy himself publicly admitting his diagnosis of Parkinson's disease.
All of which under the lense of common sense should be no surprise, considering it’s now the 50th anniversary of Black Sabbath and heavy metal’s beginning. That easily places the teenage founders and likewise fans of that era in their 60s and 70s today. Ages where one’s last day having arrived is a real concern and especially for those who have lived the hard-edged life of a metal musician. Reflection of the time, reality, and my experiences makes me appreciate what I’ve been able to live and see so far. My age prevented me from witnessing Black Sabbath, Metallica, or dozens upon dozens of other beloved artists in their prime, but my gratitude knows no limit in being thankful I’ve been able to witness so many still full of enough energy to pull off some of the best concerts ever.
So, on this anniversary of the origins of Black Sabbath and our cherished genre they birthed, I suggest to do more than just crank that sacred first album up to ten. For certain, absolutely don’t skip doing that but just as much I’d plead to take stock of what opportunities you have within your grasp and which are now forever unreachable. That band you’ve seen once or a hundred times before that you’re thinking you’ll skip on this next tour or festival show of theirs… don’t. Life can be mean spirited and far shorter than desired, so relish it as much as you can. I’ve never regretted seeing Metallica, Motörhead, or Black Sabbath live… I’ve only regretted the shows I missed.
Black Sabbath released February 13th, 1970 via Vertigo Records.