Celebrating 50 Years Of Black Sabbath
Fifty years ago today, four young men from Birmingham released an album that forever changed the face of music the world over.
There are as many "first heavy metal bands/albums/songs" as there are metal fans to comment on the subject - and rightfully so, as nothing ever generates spontaneously from the work of a single artist. Heavy metal's complex growth spans generations of musical styles and incorporates contributions great and small from all kinds of artists both metal and not, both musical and not; every fan has their own interpretations from which to construct their own genealogy of sounds, and it's a debate that remains as lively as ever even now. In fact, the debate will probably grow only livelier as more and more time passes, the genesis of metal fades into history, and the past blurs into uncertainty. My own interpretation ought to be taken with a grain of salt; at the time of writing, I am but half the age of the album whose virtues I shall shortly extol.
The late '60s saw a slew of albums that broke new records for speed and volume. Cream's Disraeli Gears and Wheels Of Fire boast thunderous drum work and a quintessential power-trio crunch that suggest infant heavy metal; Blue Cheer's 1968 debut, Vincebus Eruptum, is an oft-cited contender for the title of first metal album as a result of its squealing guitar leads, abrasive production, and furious instrumental abandon. That same year also brought Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild," a pounding hard rock anthem credited with introducing the term "heavy metal" to the musical lexicon. The Jimi Hendrix Experience summoned sonic whirlwinds on tracks like "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)", "Spanish Castle Magic," and "Purple Haze." By 1969, Led Zeppelin were on record blasting hot blues licks through overdriven amps, with a tremendous rhythm section and bursts of scorching speed making tracks like "Communication Breakdown," "Whole Lotta Love," and "Heartbreaker" powerful guideposts. Dozens and dozens of bands were chipping away at the façade of musical limitation to reveal something louder, heavier, and grander, and each has their own stalwart champions.
But whether you think the first heavy metal band was Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple or Blue Cheer, whether you credit Dick Dale's volume or The Kinks' distortion or Jimi Hendrix's charisma with encouraging the guitar obsession, whether it was Arthur Brown's shock tactics or Coven's occult imagery or Alice Cooper's theatrics that sculpted the aesthetic, whether it was Carmine Appice or Keith Moon or Ginger Baker who turned the drum kit into a cannonade, whether it was John Entwistle or Tim Bogert or John Paul Jones who made the bass guitar one louder and then some, whether it was the explosiveness of The Who or the recklessness of The Stooges or simply the rude end-of-sixties awakening that primed people for violent music, whether it was Janis Joplin or Robert Plant or Ian Gillan who made singing a combative art, whether you trace the lineage to The Yardbirds or Link Wray or Wagner, whether you crown "Born To Be Wild" or "The Nile Song" or "Helter Skelter" the very first metal song, there is always, inevitably, one other band that comes to mind. You can gloss over Uriah Heep, Iron Butterfly, Budgie, or Blue Öyster Cult; you can leave a footnote for Mountain or John Mayall; you don't even have to mention Gun, Jacula, or Josefus if you don't want to. But when discussing heavy metal's origins there is one band that can never be avoided, one band that checks off every box, and it isn't Lucifer's Friend, Jeff Beck, or Sir Lord Baltimore - it's Black Sabbath.
In my view, "Black Sabbath" is the answer to all three questions: the first song, album, and band that can be unambiguously described as heavy metal with more than moderate certainty. Other bands had been heavy before, but none had been quite as heavy as Sabbath, or as consistently, or as determinedly, and very few in a way we could still look back on today as part of the same scene; certainly none ever progressed beyond an incidental flirtation with metal to become a definitive pillar as Sabbath did. Among the first bands to be labeled "heavy metal" were Humble Pie and King Crimson - and though you'll find the latter on this site, it's not for their heaviness, but for their influence. Although "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" clearly foreshadows doom, no one would ever argue in earnest that The Beatles were a heavy metal band; likewise, while The 31 Flavors, a.k.a. The Firebirds, broke some kind of ground with "Distortions Of Darkness," seemingly a straight shot to stoner rock, the remainder of the Hair album comprises two questionable covers from the musical of the same name and several bland, amateurish rock songs with only occasional merit and focus. Jimi Hendrix stuck closer to the sphere of hard rock and psychedelia; Blue Cheer were ultimately a rather violent rock band; Led Zeppelin were often less flamboyant than their loudest moments, and while they could be mysterious and mystical, they never - much as some troubled parents suspected - fully embraced evil.
Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward, and Ozzy Osbourne revolutionized music with Black Sabbath, breaking away from their contemporaries. This album moved the goalpost for musical extremity beyond where it had ever ventured before. Where other bands had been merely loud and boisterous, Black Sabbath was also heavy; where other bands had been merely muddy and fuzzy, Black Sabbath was also dark; where other bands had been merely esoteric and occult-themed, Black Sabbath was also explosive and bombastic. There are those bands that, by pushing rock into hard rock and blues into heavy blues, opened the door for heavy metal, and then there is the band that stepped through into the future. Even if Black Sabbath had remained a straight blues band, we would probably still be talking about them in the same breath as other godfathers of heavy metal. Ward's drum fills shake with ominous thunder as he pounds his floor toms like a blacksmith, exuding perfection in both rhythm and power, and Geezer's elastic bass rattles rafters through its wah pedal. Nothing can disguise the sense of oncoming danger in Ozzy's voice, frantic and tinny. Iommi's fat, distorted guitar chords groan like the crushing of actual heavy metal. His incisive riffing on "Wasp," threatening one-two punch on "The Wizard," and apprehensive muting in the up-tempo B part of the title track shiver with electricity; his tone is abrasive and cutting, but full, deep, and rumbling. Whatever other contenders might have brought to the table, nobody else had a Tony Iommi. The sound of this album is immensely heavy.
What seals the deal more than anything is the song "Black Sabbath" itself. The tritone riff, the nightmarish lyrics, the creeping atmosphere - find a Led Zeppelin song that sounds like that. Find a Blue Cheer song that chills your bones the way that Ozzy does when he asks fearfully, "What is this that stands before me?" Find a Jethro Tull song that instills the same preternatural dread embodied by this inescapable riff. Even the bells and pouring rain in the beginning are more sinister than anything else committed to record at that time. The album's cover art - a grainy photo of a black-clad woman posing in a wood with a church in the background - serves the song particularly well. Other songs were heavy, other songs were loud? but "Black Sabbath" taps into a vein of indescribable fear. That is heavy. That is metal. "Born To Be Wild" doesn't have that. "Whole Lotta Love" doesn't have that. "Tales Of Brave Ulysses" doesn't have that. Though I can no longer find the source (so read with caution), I once heard that when the band played "Black Sabbath" live for the first time the audience was so stunned that they demanded a second and then a third performance of the song. Imagine having no concept of a song like this, anything as dark and frightening as this, and then having it blasted at you along with the infinite possibilities of a new era.
It might be odd, then, to turn around and say that, in large part, Black Sabbath is still a blues rock album, something cut from the same cloth as Outsideinside and Very 'Eavy, Very 'Umble. That the album enjoys a tighter sound and fuller production than many of its contemporaries is a coincidental mercy that has undoubtedly contributed to its impact and staying power, but the horn section on the cover of Crow's "Evil Woman" and the ten-minute jam on The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation's "Warning" do not especially bring to mind bats and bloodbaths. Neither necessarily makes a better claim to the crown than "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" or Gun's "Race With The Devil." Black Sabbath sometimes veers away rather far from the overwhelming malevolence of its title track. "The Wizard" opens, rather optimistically, with a lone harmonica, and for the first minute it bounces forward with an exuberant swing full of melodic gusto. Many instrumental runs throughout the album, be they in "Wasp" or "Sleeping Village" or "Wicked World," sound like very bluesy jams. That's really what they are.
In listening to Black Sabbath as a blues album, one of its strengths becomes clear: it is a fully collaborative effort by four individual musicians, each taking the lead for their own contributions. The two covers aside, all four members are credited with writing all of the songs; minus a few extra dubs, including the double-tracked guitar solos that appear on "N.I.B." and would become a habit for Tony Iommi over the next few albums, the album was recorded live in the studio. Black Sabbath captures the band at a young but passionate stage, influenced by the freedom of musicality and openness to participation found in the less-structured genres of blues and jazz. The fills, solos, and riffs are all felt, natural; Bill Ward has even stated that "Black Sabbath" has no specific time, only a general feeling that the band follows itself. Ozzy Osbourne's vocal lines, prominent and tracked but once in contrast to his later frequently adulterated singing style, are loose and comfortably mid-range; Geezer Butler's bass work is limber and groovy, reaching its height in "Bassically," even now one of the few solo bass pieces to surface in the heavy metal ken.
Black Sabbath was a product of the British blues explosion, as was Paranoid shortly thereafter, and the laidback musicality does it much good. Even as early as Master Of Reality, Black Sabbath had begun to exhibit the rigid tendencies of harder rock bands that foreshadowed heavy metal's power-driven structure; almost as if they had achieved self-awareness as the figurehead of a style far more concerted and given to dramatic affectation than blues, the band began to focus more and more on achieving a monolithic sound. Iommi's riffs took center stage while Geezer and Ward became more marginalized, less musically independent; the sounds of Volume 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and so on are adventurous in their songwriting and production more than in their musicianship.
Achieving that narrower sound was itself an important step in the evolution of heavy metal. That kind of tense, pattern-seeking structure, with the rhythm section as merely an added layer for volume, the guitars bearing the brunt of the melodic/tonal work, and the vocals wrestling for control, turned into the formula for generations of metal bands to follow, many of whom had heaviness and loudness as their stated intent more than artistic sensitivity. Thrash metal certainly could not exist with the level of freedom found on Black Sabbath, nor would it work to the advantage of power metal, death metal, or black metal; even modern doom in its many varieties tends to focus all of its instrumentation on achieving the same idea for a given song. While counterexamples do exist in the endlessly experimental pantheon of metal, one need only compare how expressive the bass and drums are on Black Sabbath to how inaudible or formulaic or subordinated they are on thousands and thousands of other metal albums to catch the difference between a blues-based approach and a rock-/metal-based approach. Heavy metal is less about intuition and more about aggression; Black Sabbath does not quite reach this degree of concreteness. Its power is organic, the result of four distinct musical entities combining their strengths; it is a sum of four parts rather than one packaged instrument of musical bludgeoning.
Ultimately, however, Black Sabbath is not essentially a blues rock album. I don't return to this album for the blues. I return for the doom, the gloom, the tripartite bass run in the bridge of "The Wizard." "N.I.B." boasts a Cream-like swagger, but its simple riff is pure, bassy malevolence, its main body a driving force that boosts its groove into a steamroller. The minute-long "A Bit Of Finger," while largely acoustic, is haunting - far too eldritch for a basic rock album. There, too, lie the embers of heavy metal. It is surreal to me, enjoying all the advantages of hindsight, that Black Sabbath ever could have considered themselves something other than groundbreaking pioneers; when I listen to the cool meanderings of "Sleeping Village/Warning" and the mid-paced jaunt of "Behind The Wall Of Sleep" - now artifacts of an old-style Sabbath sound - I find myself wondering why none of these musicians realized that they were not, in fact, playing the blues, but were laying the foundation for an entirely different style. This is heavy metal as it came into the world: dark, unadorned, heavy.
Black Sabbath is not a perfect album. Paranoid - which, in my books, is a perfect album - cleaned up all the aimless noodling, turned the volume up, darkened the mood, and uncovered all the missing pieces in the songwriting. There's nothing on the second half of Black Sabbath that I'd stack up against anything on its successor. Despite the impression I may have given earlier, I also love the subsequent Sabbath albums, sometimes more than the first, depending on my mood; Master Of Reality, Volume 4, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and Sabotage are all classics with their own important innovations and inimitable tracks, and I'll even spare a thought for Technical Ecstasy now and then (Never Say Die less often). This is without even getting to the post-Ozzy material. But Black Sabbath will always be special for laying the foundation. And perhaps you still don't agree with my take; perhaps you hold another album as the first. It's kind of a moot point anyway. In music, as in many things, "who did it first" is not as important as who got heard first, who got heard the most, and whom everyone else tried to emulate. It's a question of influence, not winning the race, and I don't think I have to cite any sources to claim that, when it comes to heavy metal, Black Sabbath outstrips every other band I've mentioned thus far. Even after five decades of existence, their self-titled debut remains a classic, a textbook, a milestone, studied and beloved by metal bands in every country on earth that has two leather jackets to rub together.
We all know a bit of Black Sabbath legend - how an unfortunate industrial mishap led to Tony Iommi's foreshortened fingertips and a deeper, darker, looser guitar sound, how Geezer's nightmarish encounter with a mysterious figure inspired the lyrics of the title track, how the band took its name from the 1964 Mario Bava film, which was playing at a nearby cinema at the time they were seeking a new moniker. These stories are the lived experiences of the band members, remembered firsthand by fewer and fewer people as time slips by, now immortalized as the creation myth of our favored genre. All of that spectacular generative energy went into this album, Black Sabbath, a hallowed piece of history not only in heavy metal but in music itself. I've spent a lot of time unnecessarily blustering about what I think and what it is and who did what when, but regardless of your feelings toward the album or the band or the songs, 50 years is a long time. A lot has changed since then. Black Sabbath is still an incredible achievement.
|Written on 13.02.2020 by I'm the reviewer, and that means my opinion is correct.
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