1969 B.C. The bastard step-child turns 50
Article by Marc Del Cielo
For decades the origins of heavy metal have been fiercely debated. In the waning years of the 1960s, the peace and love sound we’re turning to a more aggressive form of rock, and new bands emerged bringing new sounds. Still steeped in the blues, country-western and rhythm and blues, new acts such as Led Zeppelin, Blue Cheer, Iron Butterfly and Grand Funk Railroad bought a more “edgy” sound to rock. The Beatles’ internal struggles produced their darker side in the form of the White Album. The Who got louder and the Rolling Stones got nastier. As 1970 began an album was released by a little known blues-based band from Birmingham, England. Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs described it as "just like Cream! But worse". Robert Christgau writing for the Village Voice called it “bullshit necromancy” and “the worst of the counter culture”. The album was the self-titled Black Sabbath.
February 13, 2020, marks the 50th anniversary of Black Sabbath and the birth of heavy metal. Black Sabbath are considered the inventors of heavy metal, something Led Zeppelin didn’t want to be credited with. Like Zeppelin, Sabbath was a blues-based band. Much of that is evident on Black Sabbath. But what became the bedrock of metal was the all-out assault of Tony Iommi’s guitar coupled with the dark lyrical content. “Black Sabbath’s first album is the black metal bible” says actor/singer Michael Des Barres. Venom Inc. bassist/vocalist Tony Dolan: “They were the birth of what we consider heavy metal. The themes, the weight of the music”. The album was recorded on October 16, 1969, in a single day. Iommi said that the band simply went into the studio and recorded their live set with Ozzy Osbourne simultaneously recording his vocals in an isolation booth. The opening thunderstorm and the double-tracked guitar on “N.I.B” were the only additions. But what made the Sabbath sound was Iommi. After losing two fingertips in a factory accident, he improvised different prosthetics, using super glue caps and pieces of leather. In addition, Iommi altered his fingering of the chords. “I'd play a load of chords and I'd have to play fifths because I couldn't play fourths because of my fingers,” Iommi explained in a 2013 Mojo interview. Iommi began the session playing a Fender Stratocaster, which he had favored. But a malfunction in the guitar's electronics forced him to use his backup Gibson SG, which with its humbucker pickups produced a less trebly tone. When he and Geezer Butler began using lower tunings on 1971’s Master of Reality, the definitive metal sound was born.
Released Friday, February the 13th, 1970, Black Sabbath opens with the title track “Black Sabbath”, based on the “Mars, the Bringer of War” movement of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, a tritone interval play at a slow tempo: the devil’s triad, it became known. The strong occult theme on the title track, as well as “The Wizard” and “N.I.B.”, caused the album to be panned by the London press. Black Sabbath eventually reached #8 on the UK Albums Charts and #23 on Billboard charts after its June 1, 1970, US release. As the band was gaining popularity amongst rock fans, they were being ignored by the press. Returning to the studio in June 1970, Black Sabbath recorded Paranoid, and they couldn’t be ignored any longer. What came next was some of the most influential acts in rock music. Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Deep Purple, KISS, Rush, Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy, and Motorhead all came to personify heavy metal in the 1970s, yet Black Sabbath was the template for metal.
Black Sabbath marked the birth of the ugly baby: heavy metal. Never respected yet couldn’t be ignored. Several of rock’s biggest acts and albums are called heavy metal such as AC/DC, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, Iron Maiden, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Metallica, considered some of the biggest of them all, and are still second to Ozzy. Heavy metal‘s popularity is once again on the rise, thanks to scores of new metal acts from all around the world. And it all goes back to Birmingham. It’s basically impossible to be a metalhead and say “yeah, I never was really into Sabbath.” The influence Black Sabbath had on music will always be debated because basically, mainstream music hates heavy metal. Within the metal genre, asking about Black Sabbath’s influence is like asking if you like breathing. I asked Tony Dolan about the importance of the album Black Sabbath. “Sabbath had that pure darkness. Heavy bass and guitar with (Bill) Ward’s explosive style. Then add Ozzy’s haunting vocals and oh man! What a trip.”
50 years later, Black Sabbath and Paranoid remain the blueprints of heavy metal. Sabbath has disbanded. Health issues trouble three of the four members, and old tensions still exist. As a music lover and history buff, I think of America’s founding fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. They loved and respected each other, but could no longer see eye to eye. The two men had long been estranged for some time, and on July the 4th, 1824 both men died on the 50th anniversary of their creation. Unaware that Jefferson had died, Adams said on his deathbed: “Thomas Jefferson survives.” Ozzy Osbourne’s final words may be “Tony Iommi survives,” but we might not understand him.