50 years ago, Black Sabbath released two albums that created a brand new sound. SOPHIA DEBOICK reports.
It was music with cinematic ambition. First torrential rain, then a tolling bell, thunder, and a dissonant, sinister guitar riff which would have been wholly appropriate as the announcement of the entrance of the devil himself.
When Ozzy Osbourne intoned lugubriously “What is this that stands before me?/ Figure in black which points at me?”, describing a “Big black shape with eyes of fire”, the eponymous opening track of Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album indeed revealed itself as a horror story on vinyl.
Doom-filled and ominous, that opener still has a spine-chilling power 50 years after its release.
Appearing on Friday February 13, 1970, and bearing an unsettling, grainy image of a witchlike figure in the woods on the cover, Black Sabbath’s landscape was populated by wizards, devils and evil women.
It was also a record which changed the course of musical history, despite having been recorded in a single day, the band using the time allotted in a London studio to just romp through their live set in the absence of any better ideas, recording live with minimal later overdubs.
Black Sabbath not only announced the band as the third and final part of the holy trinity of ‘heavy’ British bands, alongside Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple; no-one had ever committed anything quite so much like the sonic equivalent of a sledgehammer to tape before and the album would come to be seen as the first heavy metal record.
A number of factors conspired to make this unassuming-looking four-piece from Birmingham’s sound unlike any other.
A stint in a Black Country sheet metal works had ended in guitarist Tony Iommi losing the tips of two fingers on his fretting hand, necessitating false plastic fingertips and detuning his guitar to make it easier to play. A heavy-handed, ‘bigger’ and sludgy sound was the result.
Geezer Butler – a guitarist shifted on to bass duties – made the sound even more substantial as he simply played in step with Iommi for an initial want of greater skill.
And then there was Osbourne. A baby-faced former slaughterhouse worker who had done prison time for burglary, he sang with a Brummie twang and no apparent pretension.
His vocal was the very antithesis of the falsetto grandstanding of a Robert Plant or Ian Gillan, ranging from a guileless bellow to a lost-sounding keening.
Throw Bill Ward’s powerhouse drumming into the mix and the sound of Black Sabbath was audacious and overwhelming, with a sense of drama derived from Holst, Mahler and Wagner, and their debut’s lyrical exploration of the dark side was fitting of the atmosphere they created musically.
But as much as Black Sabbath’s satanic themes seemed potent and daring, they were very much of their time.
By the late 1960s the countercultural melting pot had been spiked by a large handful of the occult and rock’s stars were more than flirting with it.
Anton LaVey had founded the Church of Satan in the hippy mecca of San Francisco in 1966 and the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request appeared the following year, while The Beatles put Aleister Crowley, the occultist and self-proclaimed ‘Beast’, among the celebrated figures on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s.
The Stones would open their next album with Sympathy for the Devil, seeing Mick Jagger proclaiming “Just call me Lucifer”. Counterculture director and Crowley devotee Kenneth Anger took this literally, courting Jagger to play the title role in his Lucifer Rising, a project that had already involved LaVey and Bobby Beausoleil, a member of the Manson Family.
Anger would later enlist rock’s foremost occultist, Jimmy Page – owner of Crowley’s Scottish former home, Boleskine House – to write a score for Lucifer Rising.
Two events linked with the project’s personnel – the 1969 Manson Murders and stabbing of Meredith Hunter at the Rolling Stones’ free concert at Altamont – would soon signal the dark death of the ‘flower power’ era.
But the occult was not just for rockers; it was everywhere in popular culture too. Black Sabbath had taken their name from a 1963 Italian horror film, as repackaged for the Anglophone market, and Dennis Wheatley’s novels – which had largely defined Satanism in the British popular imagination – had been a major influence on the band, particularly his The Devil Rides Out (1934).
The year Black Sabbath formed, 1968, Hammer’s screen version of Wheatley’s novel appeared, starring Christopher Lee – then a decade into his 16-year run as Dracula – as the heroic Russian-French émigré the Duc de Richleau. The same year also saw the release of Rosemary’s Baby, launching satanic horror into the mainstream of cinema, while the British film company Tigon supplied the landmark folk horror Witchfinder General.
But while Satanism was representative of ultimate liberation for certain elements of the counterculture and exploited for shock value in horror films, Black Sabbath’s take on it was rather more unusually informed by the Christian concept of Satan and human sin.
Butler, the band’s lyrics man, had a strict Catholic upbringing and the record’s opening track was inspired by a disturbing vision he had of a dark figure at the foot of his bed.
The song was a warning about demonic forces, not an endorsement, and the band were known to wear large protective crosses around their necks rather than pentagrams.
The album track N.I.B., meanwhile, humanised Lucifer as a lovesick figure (“Look into my eyes, you will see who I am/ My name is Lucifer please take my hand”), making this something rather more interesting than mere horror schlock.
On the release of the album the critics branded Black Sabbath plastic Satanists and, musically, merely poor imitators of Cream and Led Zeppelin, detecting the marks of a rush job.
But the record-buying public disagreed, embracing this new sound that was the result of a band with 12 hours of studio time and nothing to lose simply throwing caution to the wind.
Black Sabbath went Top 10 in the UK and Top 30 in the US. A follow up album was required, and quickly.
Paranoid, released just seven months after Black Sabbath, opened in only marginally less dramatic form than its predecessor – ponderous, string-bending power chords, an air raid siren and Osbourne bellowing “Generals gathered in their masses/ Just like witches at black masses”. Once again, the listener felt the presence of evil, but it was in fact of a human rather than metaphysical kind.
Butler had first envisaged War Pigs as Walpurgis, referencing the feast of Saint Walburga, known as Witches Night in some parts of Europe, but decided to curb the occult references, instead evoking the ongoing bloodbath in Vietnam: “On their knees, the war pigs crawling”, “Ashes where their bodies burning”.
Real horror was not devils and bogeymen, but the violence created by mankind, and right from the start this was an album concerned with the disasters of its time.
The realism continued with Hand of Doom, about heroin addiction among Vietnam veterans, and with Electric Funeral’s horrific warnings about nuclear war.
Other than the classic Iron Man, a Lovecraftian science fiction story like the first album’s Behind the Wall of Sleep, and the fantasy blues stonker that was Fairies Wear Boots, Paranoid was an album rooted in the material present, but it could be accused of being rather naïve in its earnest effort to engage with
The portrait of mental suffering of the title track – a song which was worked up in minutes in the studio – in particular was a lyrically simplistic one (“People think I’m insane/ Because I am frowning all the time”). But Black Sabbath’s
lyrical directness on Paranoid, as in the case of their over-the-top occult lyrics, suited their massive sound and that song gave them their first and only Top 10 single.
The year after their first two albums appeared, Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality broke the US Top 10; metal was going to run and run.
In the decades since, the endless dramas surrounding Sabbath – particularly Osbourne’s legendary excesses and near invention of celebrity fly-on-the-wall TV – has proved a diversion from just what they achieved on those first records.
Against the odds, a band with a guitarist with missing fingers, a bass player who wasn’t a bass player, and a frontman who didn’t fit the rock god mould became the progenitors of a genre that has reached every corner of the world and that a roll call of metal festivals past and present alone –Download, Wacken, Bloodstock, Graspop, Hellfest, Sonisphere, and of course Ozzfest – reveals the massive fanbase for.
The opening seconds of Black Sabbath had indeed heralded a coming storm.