Saturday, February 13, 2010

Forty Years of Black Sabbath

It was forty years ago today, on 13 February 1970 ( a Friday, fittingly enough) that the eponymous debut album from heavy metal band Black Sabbath was released. The album was like no other album that had ever been released. For one thing , it was the first fully heavy metal album, with tuned down guitars cranked to maximum volume. While a few bands had previously featured songs that could be considered heavy metal on their albums (such as The Beatles, The Who, and Led Zeppeln), Black Sabbath was the first band to release an album that was entirely heavy metal. For another thing, the songs on the album dealt with the occult or fantasy. Indeed, the closest thing to a love song, "N.I.B.," sung from the point of view of Lucifer!

Black Sabbath formed in 1968 after the breakup of a band called Mythology, which featured Terence "Geezer" Butler on bass and Tony Iommi on guitar. The two joined together with drummer Bill Ward and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, who had been members of a band called Rare Breed. The new band also featured Jimmy Phillips on slide guitar and Alan "Aker" Clarke on saxophone and played rather jazzy blues tunes. The band was named "The Polka Tulk Blues Band (after a brand of cheap talcum powder Ozzy's mother had bought or a Pakistani clothing store, depending on the story)," which was later shortened to "Polka Tulk." It was not long after Phillips and Clarke were dropped that the quartet renamed themselves "Earth." Earth would prove to have some success, playing not only in England, but in Denmark and Germany as well. For a very brief time Tony Iommi left Earth for Jethro Tull, even appearing with the band on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus television special, but returned to Earth soon afterwards.

It soon became obvious that Earth would have to change its name. There was another English band at the time called Earth, resulting in confusion between the two bands. Indeed, fans who showed up to see the other band named Earth were often displeased with the band's heavy 12 bar blues sound. As to why Earth renamed themselves "Black Sabbath," the stories vary. One tale is that it reflected Geezer Butler's interest in the occult at the time, particularly the novels of Dennis Wheatley. Another tale is that it was taken from the song "Black Sabbath," which supposedly was written when the band was still named "Earth." A third tale told by Ozzy is that the name was taken from the Boris Karloff movie Black Sabbath, which was playing at a theatre near their rehearsal studio. Regardless, the new name marked a shift in the band's sound, their new goal to produce the musical equivalent of horror movies. Influenced by Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Ten Years After, and 12 bar blues, Black Sabbath shifted to a much heavier sound, characterised by heavily amplified, tuned down guitars and dark lyrics. Much of their early music was characterised by the musical interval called the tritone and also the Diabolus in musica (literally "the Devil in music").  Quite simply, Black Sabbath became the first heavy metal band.

It was in December 1969 that Black Sabbath was signed to Philips Records. Their first single was "Evil Woman," a song originally recorded by Minneapolis based band Crow in 1968. "Evil Woman" failed to chart, which, fortunately for the band was not an omen of things to come. Recorded in late January, Black Sabbath's self titled debut album was released on 13 February, 1970. As mentioned earlier, it was an album like no other released before. Not only was it far heavier than any rock album previously released, it also dealt with subject matter that had rarely been touched upon in rock lyrics. The song "Black Sabbath" was inspired in equal parts by horror movies and Dennis Wheatley novels. "Behind the Wall of Sleep" drew its inspiration from the H. P. Lovecraft story of the same name. "The Wizard" was inspired by Gandalf from Tolkien's works. Perhaps the most shocking song on the album at the time was "N.I.B.," a song sung from the point of view of the Devil. Contrary to popular belief, the song's title is not short for "Nativity in Black," but instead a reference to Bill Ward's goatee, which resembled a pen nib. As to the song itself, it is not actually about Satan seducing someone, but about Lucifer being redeemed in the end by love.

Although the album Black Sabbath was revolutionary at the time, particularly given it is considered by many to be the first heavy metal album, it was lambasted by critics. Despite the venom spewed towards the album in most reviews, Black Sabbath reached #8 on the UK albums chart. It was released in May, 1970 in the United States, where it reached #23 on the Billboard 100. In retrospect the album would prove influential. It not only provided the basic musical style for the heavy metal genre, but grist for the subject matter it would cover as well.

Having achieved success in the United States, Black Sabbath returned to the studio to record their next album in June, 1970. The new album marked a move away from the occult subject matter of the first album. The song "War Pigs" was a protest against the Vietnam War. "Paranoid" centred on the subject of paranoia. "Iron Man" was a science fiction epic about a man turned to metal. "Fairies Wear Boots" dealt with an individual who is seeing fairies wearing, well, boots. The album was initially to be called War Pigs, but was renamed Paranoid because Warner Brothers (Black Sabbath's stateside label) feared a backlash from those who supported the Vietnam War. The album was released as Paranoid on October 1970 in the UK and January 1971 in the U.S. The single "Paranoid" reached #2 on the UK singles chart. The album itself would become the only Black Sabbath to reach #1 on the UK albums chart. In the United States it broke the top ten of the Billboard album chart. While Paranoid was a success, like the first album it was ravaged by critics. It would be the success of the album that would lead to the band's first U.S. tour in December 1970.

Black Sabbath's third album Master of Reality would be released only several months after Paranoid, on 21 July 1970. The album would mark a shift in the sound of the band, even including two softer ballads.  The subject matter also varied on the album. "After Forever" was undoubtedly  Christian in tone, while "Lord of This World" portrayed Satan as mocking his own followers."Children of the Grave" was a war protest song. Sadly, it was at this time that Black Sabbath began to dabble more heavily in drugs, from pills to cocaine. Indeed, the lead song on the album, "Sweet Leaf," was about cannabis. In the end, drug usage would partially be responsible for the disintegration of the band. As with the first two albums, Master of Reality was panned by critics. Regardless, it once more proved successful, reaching #5 in the UK and #8 in the U.S.

After a constant schedule of recording and touring, Black Sabbath took a break after Master of Reality. Their next album would not be released until 25 September, 1972. The new album marked a new era of experimentation for the band, as Black Sabbath began to utilise piano and strings. Indeed, the album included the ballad "Changes," a marked departure for the band. Black Sabbath had wanted to title the album Snowblind, after the lead song on the album's second side. As the song "Snowblind" dealt with cocaine, however, the label saddled the album with the generic title Black Sabbath Volume 4. Critics were once more dismissive of the album, despite Black Sabbath's expanding musical style. The album was a success on the charts, however, reaching #13 on the Billboard chart.

It was as the band set to work on their next album that their drug usage began to take a toll. The band convened at the Record Plant in Los Angeles to record, only to find themselves unable to come up with ideas. After a month with no results, Black Sabbath returned to England to record there. After writing the song "Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath," the new album finally gelled. "Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath" was lyrically a return to the songs about the occult from the first album, while "Killing Yourself to Live" dealt with alcoholism. Musically the new album, titled Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath after its lead song, would be a departure for the band. Black Sabbath made use of synthesisers, strings, and complex orchestration. Surprisingly, it would be the first album to receive good reviews from critics. It also did well on the charts. Released on 1 December, 1973, it went to #4 on the UK charts, and #11 on the U.S. charts.

 For Black Sabbath's next album, Sabotage, the band decided to shift back to a purer, rock sound. Gone were the complex orchestrations. The album contained some heavier material, such as "Symptom of  the Universe," as well as some lighter material, such as "Am I Going Insane (Radio)."  Released on 28 July, 1975,  the album was also well received by critics. Unfortunately, it did not see the success of previous Black Sabbath albums. Sabotage only cracked the top twenty on the UK chart and #28 in the U.S. It was the first Black Sabbath album not to achieve platinum status in the United States.

Black Sabbath's next album would generally be regarded as the worst album produced by the original lineup. Technical Ecstasy saw Black Sabbath make use of keyboards more than they had before. The album also departed from Black Sabbath's generally fantastic, often dark subject matter for more mundane subjects, such as prostitution ("Dirty Women") and drug vending doctors ("Rock 'n' Roll Doctor"). The album only went to #51 on the Billboard  chart. Like the earliest albums it was ravaged by critics. Unlike the earliest albums it is not regarded as a classic.

It was not long after Technical Ecstasy was finished that the strain placed on the band for years through drug use, touring, and recording began to take its toll. Ozzy Osbourne left the band,. Black Sabbath brought in former Fleetwood Mac vocalist Dave Walker to replaced Ozzy, and he actually appeared with the band on the BBC show Look! Hear! Ozzy started a solo project, which included ex-Dirty Tricks members John Frazer-Binnie, Terry Horbury, and Andy Bierne. By January 1978, however Ozzy changed his mind. He returned to Black Sabbath. This complicated things to a degree, as Ozzy would sing none of the songs they had written and they had to start from scratch. The album Never Say Die would take some time to complete because of the band's drug usage, with the band having to cut sessions short because they were too doped up. Finally, Never Say Die was released on 28 September, 1978. The album featured a diverse mix of subject matter, from optimism in the face of adversity ("Never Say to Die") to gangsters ("Johnny Blade") to death ("Junior's Eyes"). The album did well in the UK, hitting #12 on the album chart. In the United States it did not do quite so well.  It only went to #69. It took a full twenty years to be certified gold in the United States.

It was after the tour for Never Say Die that Black Sabbath returned to Los Angeles to work on their next album. Unfortunately, there would not be a next album. The entire band was ingesting a good deal of drugs at the time, and Ozzy was getting drunk on top of the drugs. The band found itself at a standstill with regards to working on the album. At last it was decided that Ozzy should be fired. Ozzy would go onto a successful solo carer. As to Black Sabbath, they hired Ronnie James Dio, formerly of Rainbow, as his replacement.

While I do like the work that Ronnie James Dio did with Geezer Butler, Bill Ward, and Tony Iommi, I do not believe it can truly be called "Black Sabbath," regardless of what the record labels said. With Dio as their lead singer, Black Sabbath's sound changed dramatically. Indeed, Ozzy's live album featuring vintage Black Sabbath tunes, Speak of the Devil, sounded more like Black Sabbath than the alleged Black Sabbath live album Live Evil. And while over the years many projects in which Tony Iommi was involved were labelled Black Sabbath, I do not consider them to be Black Sabbath either. Indeed, by the time of the album Seventh Star released in 1986 as "Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi," Geezer Butler and Bill Ward had left. It wasn't "Black Sabbath Featuring Tony Iommi," it was "Tony Iommi Without Black Sabbath." In my mind, there wouldn't be another true Black Sabbath album until the live album Reunion, which recorded the reunion tour of the original Black Sabbath from 1997.

Although lambasted by critics in their early years, Black Sabbath was a ground breaking band. While heavy metal had been developing for some time in the late Sixties, it was Black Sabbath who would be the first heavy metal band. As such they would set the course for the genre for the rest of its history. The fantastic and occult themes of Black Sabbath's first album would be repeated endlessly to this day. The horror movie motif which Black Sabbath utilised would be taken up by such artists as Alice Cooper and W.A.S.P. And while individual songs rarely cracked the charts, many of them are regarded as classics today, including "N.I.B.," "Paranoid," "Iron Man," "Children of the Grave," and so on. Black Sabbath, Paranoid, and Master of Reality all three made Rolling Stone magazine's "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" in 2003. While critics may have scoffed at Black Sabbath in 1970, they would leave a huge legacy behind.

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