Black Sabbath: still the soundtrack to these heavy times

This was written for  the 2006 book 100 Albums That Changed Music, edited by Sean Egan.




Released US June 1970 UK February 1970

US: Warner Brothers

UK: Vertigo

TRACKLISTING: Black Sabbath, The Wizard, Behind the Wall of Sleep, NIB, Evil Woman, Sleeping Village, Warning


DONG…dong…donggggggg! Are there three greater notes in the entire history of popular music than the opening clanging chords,profound bass and church bell stabs that kick off Black Sabbath‘s debut album? As an introduction, a statement of intent, it has to be up there with the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth and the theme from The Flintstones.

1970 was a heavy year: the war in Vietnam continued to rage, the hippie dippy dream went sour at Altamont and there was a new mood of paranoia in the air. Sabbath articulated that perfectly. Sabbath spoke to a generation of kids who were too young to give a shit about Bob Dylan or Eastern mysticism or sticking flowers into the barrels of guns. They caught the more pessimistic mood of a generation who really expected to be fried in a nuclear war before they got a whole lot older.

Black Sabbath was recorded in three days for £600. By their own admission, the band had no idea what they were doing:everything about the album is a sort of happy accident. They were booked into the studio by their then manager Jim Simpson who also secured them a deal with a new and very hip progressive label called Vertigo. Sabbath were apparently very unhappy at the amount of money that they were offered, but went along with the deal because they felt that getting a record out would help them to get paid more for gigs. The production on the album by Roger Bain was rough; he was to work on the follow up – and commercial breakthrough album – Paranoid and its successor Master Of Reality, but he was comparatively new to studio production and was appointed by the label rather than being the band’s own choice.

The seven songs on the album are fairly representative of the live set that they were playing at that time, though they already had songs like Paranoid written for the second album which was recorded only a few months later. They recorded Black Sabbath more or less as a live album; apart from a few overdubs and effects like the rainstorm at the beginning of the title track that opens the album, it was pure unadulterated no frills Sabbath.

The album was preceded by the single Evil Woman, a cover song originally written and recorded by an American band called Crow, and very atypical of Sabbath’s later sound. Evil Woman is a fairly standard R&B riff, an uptempo, soul-influenced song that sounds as though it was tailored for the disco scene of the day. It bombed.

The album fared better, entering the UK album charts where it stayed for 42 weeks, peaking at number eight. They were also big in Germany, regulars on the rock TV show Beat Club. When the album was released in the US in June it quickly accumulated a sort of cult status, mostly through word-of-mouth.

From the start Sabbath faced a press that was at best indifferent and at worst hostile: the term “heavy metal kids” was applied to their fans as an insult, though interestingly they were never actually dubbed “heavy metal” until the very late 70s,”heavy rock” being the preferred – and even the pejorative – term for their music. Sabbath were caricatured as “rock’n’roll from the building site”, a sneer at their working class origins, or “downer music”, referring to the supposed penchant of their fans for cocktails of tranquilizers and cheap wine. Sabbath did it all the hard way, building up a following through hard labour, playing gigs for as little as £70 wherever they could set up.

There are actually no ‘Satanic’ songs on the album: the song Black Sabbath is a horror story about demonic possession; The Wizard is about somebody using magical powers for good; Evil Woman is a fairly standard blues theme about a lowdown-cheatin’ no-good gal; NIB, rumoured to stand for ‘Nativity In Black’ was actually a nickname for Geezer Butler [his beard looked like the nib of a pen, according to Ozzy]; Behind The Wall Of Sleep, despite borrowing a title from pulp horror writer HP Lovecraft is just about dreaming and waking up. But decisions made by the record company – the album cover which the band did not see until the record was released with the inverted cross in the gatefold; the publicity department’s rumour mongering about their occult involvement in an attempt to generate press interest – as well as their name tapped them into a growing occult underground, particularly in the US. Their first US visit was supposedly cancelled because of the ongoing Manson Family trial.

Alex Sanders, the UK’s self-styled King Of The Witches, attended several Sabbath gigs and tried to get them to attend his covens supposedly on the strength of cover.

“I have no idea to this day who the girl on the cover was,” says Tony Iommi. The picture – credited to Marcus Keef, the in-house designer at Vertigo records – was actually taken at Mapledurham Watermill on the River Thames and was supposedly an actress hired for the shoot who met the band long after the album had been released. The washed out colours of the image suggested a witch or a ghost and further reinforced the supposed links to the occult.

The impact of Black Sabbath resonates to this day; it is far from being a perfect album – Evil Woman and their cover of Aynsley Dunbar‘s The Warning are fairly ropey – and the jury is still out as to whether Master Of Reality or Volume 4 is THE all time classic Sabbath album. But the song Black Sabbath itself doesn’t sound dated in the way that, say, most of Led Zeppelin III now sounds like a period piece. And the impact that the album had helped to spawn a sort of heavy rock arms race, where bands tried to outdo each other for sheer weightiness. Although debate rages as to whether or not this was the first proper ‘heavy metal’ album – Led Zeppelin, Steppenwolf and Blue Cheer had all beaten the Sabs by a couple of years – it did nail down the formula – downtuned guitars, Satanism, thundering volume – that would eventually become a global franchise.

Sabbath are still the soundtrack of these heavy times.

Tommy Udo


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