Did heavy metal begin with Black Sabbath, or were the young Brummies behind that grim denomination simply the optimal vessels at that very moment for an entity perhaps as old as the Earth itself? Few would argue that evidence of our genre’s sinister heaviness predate the release of Black Sabbath through some of the kicks and licks and general derangement that bubbled forth from rockers such as Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Coven et al., not to mention the earliest tendrils of doom snaking its way through the Delta blues. But where the debate ends is the truth that the first bonafide heavy metal record landed on this doomed day precisely fifty years ago with the Friday the 13th (of course) UK release of Black Sabbath’s eponymous Vertigo debut in February of 1970.
A shadowy influence appeared to loom all those many years ago, as the circumstances leading up to Black Sabbath’s extraordinary heaviness certainly defies intent. Sure, bands were already searching for ways to outdo the potency of whatever groups were active in the next town (or one ocean) over—two of which Sabbath covered on this very record: heavy-hitters Crow (“Evil Woman”) and The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation (“Warning”)—but how could a young Tony Iommi ever predict that fashioning prosthetic fingertips for a damaged hand and detuning strings in order to make them easier to bend would lead to something so dark and mighty? And the fact that Iommi only opted for a backup Gibson SG because his preferred choice of a Fender Strat suddenly revealed pick-up difficulties was just, you know, a breezy coincidence. Adding to the mystique even further: the the wild reality that bassist Geezer Butler—a rhythm guitarist prior to Sabbath—had no idea how to play the meandering style of bass typical of rock at the time, so he simply mirrored everything Iommi did, thereby increasing the songs’ heaviness tenfold. Happenstance, all of it.
A feasibly devilish and unearthly sway aside, Black Sabbath in 1970 were simply primed and ready to shake the earth. The four men were young, daring and already curious about dark themes that included Lucifer (“Black Sabbath” and “N.I.B.”), H.P. Lovecraft (“Behind the Wall of Sleep”) and The Lord of the Rings (“The Wizard”), and the fact that they were afforded just a single day—October 16, 1969—and approximately 12 hours for recording meant everything was laid down in a very stripped “live in the studio with virtually zero overdubs” sort of way that included Ozzy howling away in a sequestered booth right alongside the band. The energy and raw heft of this approach squalls from every direction in these songs, even at doom metal’s (very first!) leaden pace.
The final piece to the puzzle—the visuals—only added to the comprehensive danger and heaviness at the heart of Black Sabbath. At the time, Vertigo employed one person who was responsible for the look of all their releases: Keith McMillan, going under the pseudonym Marcus Keef. Prior to this record, Keef’s style seemed pretty typical of rock and prog at the time, so the fact that he went from this…
…seems rather unusual in and of itself. But hey, allow Black Sabbath to bleed from the speakers to set the mood, then convince an unknown actress—the elusive “Louisa,” whose figure most definitely did not take form after the shot was taken [Editor’s note: please read this great article]—to have her photo snapped using infrared film in front of a place nearby (Mapledurham Watermill in Oxfordshire) and you’ve apparently got yourself a perfectly doomy and dismal visual representation of the grimness contained therein. The fact that Keef went the extra mile to include a fairly verboten inverted cross inside the original gatefold that emphasized a cryptic poem was the gravy on the chips:
the veils of darkness shroud the blackened trees
which, contorted by some unseen violence
shed their tired leaves
and bend their boughs
towards a grey earth of severed bird wings
Among the grasses, poppies bleed
before a gesticulating death
and young rabbits, born dead in traps
as though guarding the silence that surrounds
and threatens to engulf all those that would listen
Mute birds, tired of repeating yesterdays terrors
huddle together in the recesses of dark corners
heads turned from the dead black swan
that floats upturned in a small pool in the hollow
There emerges from this pool
a faint sensual mist
that traces its way upwards
to caress the chipped feet of the headless martyr’s statue
whose only achievement was to die too soon
and who couldn’t wait to lose
The cataract of darkness form fully
the long black night begins
yet still, by the lake a young girl waits
unseeing, she believes herself unseen
she smiles, faintly at the distant tolling bell
and the still falling rain.
To help celebrate the 50th birthday of Black Sabbath and heavy metal itself, the crew of Last Rites encourages all eyes reading these words to crank the record at a level adequate enough to ensure anyone within 100 yards can also enjoy its enduring spell, then turn it up a skosh higher to include the spirit realm. We will also share our first experiences with the album and urge you to do similarly in the comments here, on our Facebook page, or in the Twitterverse. Or hell, just talk about it with anyone and everyone you come across in the real world throughout the day. [CAPTAIN]
“Watch those flames get higher and higher
Oh no, no, please God help me!”
My dad has pretty good taste in music for an old guy. Sure, he likes dad-rock snoozers like Eric Clapton Unplugged and James Taylor, but he also introduced me to the Stones, to Pink Floyd, to Led Zeppelin, to Steppenwolf, and to plenty of other classics.
But he didn’t like Black Sabbath.
I know this because my cousin liked Black Sabbath, and I remember being at my cousin’s house sometime in the late 80s (maybe 1990) with my dad and his brother when my cousin put on a cassette of the first Black Sabbath album. My uncle then proceeded to tell us all, laughing, how my dad had bought the first Black Sabbath album as a teenager and he got rid of it because it scared him. My dad, of course, denied being scared, merely saying he gave it away because it was too heavy for him, but my uncle refused to give up on his version of the event.
And all the while that they’re bantering back and forth, I’m hearing the sound of thunder, of a tolling bell, and then… That Riff. That magical, magical riff. The heaviest riff ever written, still, 50 years later. The sound of everything that was to become heavy metal, encapsulated in three… slow… notes. (Read those words again, but sing them in your head, or aloud, to the sound of That Riff.) Add in Ozzy’s pained wailing about devilish damnation and Bill Ward’s pounding drums, and it’s easy to see both sides of my family’s banter, how this could be both too heavy and too scary for a kid raised on Southern Baptist gospel and the Beatles.
Thankfully, I was raised on Led Zeppelin and Steppenwolf, and not in church, so I took to Black Sabbath (and everything they inspired) with an obsessive zeal that lead me through three decades to this very spot, sitting here in an Insect Warfare shirt writing about heavy metal. Black Sabbath wasn’t the first metal record I heard – I’m not sure exactly what would qualify as that, since my cousins insured that metal records were always around, though I do know for certain that Iron Maiden’s Somewhere In Time was the first one I ever played of my own volition. But then again, Black Sabbath was actually the first metal record that ANYONE heard, because it was the first metal record, and without it… well, I don’t want to imagine a world without it. It’s the foundation of metal, the first strike, the sound that launched a thousand bands…
And it all started with That Riff, that scary… heavy… riff…
I grew up in an extremely Christian household. Not only was “secular” music not allowed in my house, it was well known that Ozzy Osbourne was the most evil of men, and Black Sabbath was the most evil of bands. I, however, was a guitar player, and constantly reading in magazines about how Tony Iommi was the greatest riff writer of all time had me curious enough to find a loophole. And so, MIDI-enabled playback of guitar tablature became my first exposure to the music of Black Sabbath. I knew how to play the main riffs of “Black Sabbath” and “N.I.B.” before I ever heard the church bells or Ozzy’s desperate scream of “Oh no, no, please God, help me.”
Once I decided that my family’s rules were not only foolish but deserved to be broken and I acquired secretive copies of Black Sabbath (along with Master of Puppets, Painkiller, and Piece of Mind), my knowledge of the musical notes played by Tony and Geezer only gave me a deeper appreciation for the work of the band as a whole. The trumpet-like wah on the bass in “N.I.B.,” the twanging mouth harp of “Sleeping Village,” or the tape delay effects in “Behind the Wall of Sleep”? None of these things translate into guitar tab, to say nothing of Ozzy’s unique vocals. You learn a lot about the importance of drums when you’re used to hearing MIDI files without them. You gain an absurd appreciation of tone when you haven’t had any.
To this day, it’s still the atmosphere of Black Sabbath that gets me the most. If you just take the individual elements of the music one by one, it’s hard to quantify why it’s so different from Fresh Cream or so much heavier than Led Zeppelin I. Even Black Sabbath themselves would quickly take the sound to new lands, and yet 50 years later Black Sabbath still stands out as something special. The church bells continue ringing, Ozzy keeps on wailing, and sheltered Christian kids keep getting drawn to the dark side of heavy metal. Maybe my parents were right to fear this music after all.
Trying to remember the first time I heard Black Sabbath is like trying to remember the first time I realized that I had fingers or toes or a head. Iommi’s fuzzy guitar licks have been as ever-present in my brain as the lack of serotonin and deficiency of dopamine. It could have been after seeing a Black Sabbath patch on the over-sized Vietnam-era Army jacket of Matt Dorfman at Hebrew School. It could have been after one of my older brothers took time out of his busy schedule of beating me up to spin a record in a common area of our house. It could have been in sixth grade when my best friend Mason Herring brought one of his dubbed cassettes (thanks to his older brother Nate for the dubbing) to spin at recess. The point is, while all of those are plausible, it’s unnecessary and pointless to attempt to pinpoint the exact moment, because it’s the value of the intrinsic memory that matters. It’s like trying to remember your first whiskey. You might remember the first time hard alcohol crossed your lips, burned your throat and sent your stomach reeling, leaving you to wonder why anyone in their right mind would ever enjoy this. But what you might not remember is the first time you understood: the first time you truly understood just how important it was that this great historic landmark graced, enhanced and entrenched itself in, your life. It’s the legacy of that moment that will live forever inside your cerebral cortex.
What I find truly shocking about Black Sabbath’s debut is the wholly negative criticism it received upon release. So negative that infamous drug thief and speed addict Lester Bangs referred to it as, “just like CREAM! But worse.” The Village Voice, until recently a tremendous source of music criticism, actually used the word “bullshit” to describe the necromancy and witchcraft contained in the lyrics. That’s some universal panning for an album that is now consistently ranked among the most important albums in history. It’s also, which should be noted, very much a debut. Ozzy hasn’t yet found his tinny-clean delivery. He’s raspy, letting the vocals spill out of his mouth through nicotine and whiskey-soaked vocal pipes. Iommi is lackadaisical; playing slower than his solo pacing we would come to love. But the critics do not have the benefit of hindsight. Rather, they were simply unequivocally wrong.
What isn’t wrong is loving this album. Loving it with all your heart. Owning it on vinyl. Owning a super high quality lossless digital copy. Owning it on CD. And, finally, owning it on cassette for that ”just-in-case” scenario. It’s also important to own not only the original but the later remasters that cleaned up the analog reels and re-mixed the album into a smoother, more luscious experience. Black Sabbath, particularly with Ozzy, is, with regard to most of their early albums, a timeless endeavor. The band simply ceases to be categorized by decade or era. Yet, for all its inability to be pinpointed they also represent the beginning. For without Black Sabbath, it’s unlikely that metal as we know it today would exist. Maybe you heard Metallica first. Maybe you listened to Edguy first because you grew up in a military family stationed outside Frankfurt, Germany. It doesn’t truly matter when, because that moment that you finally heard and understood Black Sabbath you knew that your life was changed forever. The woods would hold mysteries that you couldn’t unlock. Churches would become mystical places of incantation and wizardry. The world would become a fascinating place radiating with color and auras and all without the need for psychedelic, hallucinatory drugs (although they help).
In my book, the perfect introduction to metal includes a scenario where an older sibling eventually bequeaths Black Sabbath’s debut on a day when they finally deem you worthy of wielding such a heavy blade. As is often the case, though, things don’t always go as planned. Instead, my introduction to the genre launched via the following trajectory: from Queen to AC/DC to Scorpions to Iron Maiden, and the boulder kept rolling from there. I’d heard Black Sabbath in those earliest days, because the radio still played music like theirs in the 80s, but much like people jumping into the pool these days, my eyes were mostly set forward on the endless cavalcade of new bands dying to take away my lawn-mowing money.
I do, however, remember the first day Black Sabbath landed in my lap. It was a used copy of the U.S. Warner Bros LP version that opted to lump “Wasp / Behind the Wall of Sleep / Bassically / N.I.B.” together and closed out with another puzzling “A Bit of Finger / Sleeping Village / Warning” combo, and I’m guessing it was a used copy because some wily hair-farmer either needed weed money or finally decided to convert their collection into—gasp—cassettes. There were other Sabbath records in the bin that day, but Black Sabbath was the preference because the cover artwork basically demanded interest, particularly when compared to much of the visuals that followed from the band.
As for the earliest experience with the music, most anyone with an extended history in the metal sphere remembers the first time “Black Sabbath” slithered from the speakers. It was, to put it mildly, an epiphany, because most everything I’d attempted to get my hands on at that point opted to push the speed limit, not float from the woods like a caped warlock set on bending the speed limit sign with some doomed form of telekinesis. The songs that followed “Black Sabbath” warn’t no slouch, either, but the title track was (and still is) a textbook definition of a revelation, and it remains in the top three of “spookiest songs metal has ever delivered.” The album itself conjures a palpable presence in the room as it plays, which is fairly rare, and the fact that it stands as heavy metal’s true starting point is just… well, the most deadly chef’s kiss one could ever imagine.
Happy birthday, ol’ chum. Here’s to the next fifty.
My experience with Black Sabbath is sort of fractured thing, but nonetheless important. You see, as a broke teenager, I couldn’t afford to buy whole discographies, so sometimes, if I wanted to see what a band was about I’d buy a best-of compilation. So it was with Sabbath: One fateful day in the spring of 1991, I received, from Columbia House, Black Sabbath’s We Sold Our Soul for Rock n’ Roll. (I also got Master of Puppets in the same order; it was probably the most important purchase of my life.) We Sold Our Soul contains over half of the material on Black Sabbath, including the title track, “The Wizard,” “Warning,” and “N.I.B.”
Metal had been around quite awhile in 1991, but I hadn’t been around metal for very long at all. There was almost no metal played on the radio where I grew up, not even much hard rock. The only Black Sabbath songs I knew at that point were “Iron Man” and “Paranoid,” and even those only got played once in a blue moon. So even though I was about 20 years late, my experience of hearing it probably wasn’t all that different from hearing it in 1970. That shit blew my mind is what I’m getting at. Fittingly, “Black Sabbath” was the first track on the album, and I remember vividly, listening to it on my Walkman on the school bus. The rain, the thunder, the tolling bell, and then BOOM!: the iconic tri-tone riff. Maybe it sounds corny now, but back then, to me, the atmosphere of “Black Sabbath” was so intense, it was all-consuming. I was practically high on the power of it, and that was just the first track. The album had so much more to offer, like heavy metal harmonica, six-minute guitar solos, fuzz bass, and all manner of sprawling, multifaceted compositions.
Black Sabbath instilled in me a deep love of heavy metal that continues to this day. They also inspired me to pick up a guitar, and not, surprisingly some of the first riffs I learned were Black Sabbath riffs. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that without Black Sabbath, both the band and the album, I wouldn’t be the man I am today.
I was 12. My family wasn’t hyper-religious, but the adults in my life loved their livin’-fer-Jesus talks, which almost always included a cautionary tale about some poor schmuck whose whole damn life fell apart after he forsook The Lord by tainting his ears with The Devil’s Music. Kids In Satan’s Service!!! I’d already flirted with damnation by smuggling home a couple AC/DC tapes and hadn’t yet caught a whiff of the brimstone, so when a friend whose parents cared not for his eternal soul offered to loan me a bag of tapes one weekend, I took him up on it. That bag had Moving Pictures, Hair of the Dog, Van Halen, a Deep Purple best-of comp, a bunch more 70s hard rock I don’t rightly remember, and Black Sabbath. All I knew about Black Sabbath at that point was that they worshiped the devil and listening to them meant a lifetime of drugs and an afterlifetime of pain in fire, but I also knew the adults in my life were sometimes full of shit, so I had to know.
I sat alone in my room and stared at that album cover for what seemed like days trying to figure just what that figure meant to do to me, decided not to be such a little pussy!, inserted the beige tape with smeared black ink into my gray Emerson office cassette recorder (with one speaker), and pushed PLAY with its definitive clunk! The tape hiss gave way to rain, thunder, and a solitary church bell and… that riff. It was scary and thrilling and a little bit confusing and I loved it, mostly because it made me feel strong to be doing the thing that shouldn’t be done and yet still be okay. And then the tempo picked up and the riffs woke up and Iommi’s leads sang and it just felt like rock-and-roll with godly guitar and I was happy. Of course, the rest of Black Sabbath was a whole lot more good ol’ bluesy rock than the eponymous title track, but it did it with a brand new heaviness, the impact of which was genuinely life-changing; the gauntlet had been thrown, the pathway to heavy metal revealed, and nothing but heavy would do for many, many years to follow, my poor damned soul still very much my own.
The first time I heard Black Sabbath, I hated them. Twenty years later, I wrote about their eponymous track with great reverence for one of our Halloween features. Let me fill in the blanks.
That initial disappointing foray into a bargain bin greatest hits cassette did nothing to dampen my interest in the Nativity In Black tribute album. I was a teenage snotnose gatewayed on Reign In Blood, Wolverine Blues, and Vulgar Display of Power –how could I resist a collection of many of the other top bands from that era? After spinning the hell out of that, I went back to the cassette. For whatever reason, now it all made sense. What a fool I’d been.
I had to hear more. So I pulled out my record club catalog and ordered Black Sabbath and Master of Reality. The latter was amazing. The former… something was still off. It started off solid enough with “Black Sabbath” and “The Wizard,” but things started to get middling after that. “N.I.B.” popped up and offered some hope, but the soft, bluesy noodling soon resumed and took me out of the rest of the album. After that, I dreaded sitting through those parts to get to the good stuff.
Now, people often talk about the wonders of life, wishing they could travel back in time to witness Earth’s creation; they speak in awe of watching mammals give birth or athletes prepare for a big game. As I continued to explore their catalog, as my understanding of metal evolved, I came to realize that listening to Black Sabbath is like that. It transported me back to 1970 to witness the creation of both a musical masterpiece and the blueprint for an entire musical genre. Listening to these tracks, I could finally hear the similarities between them and so many of the modern day bands that I loved. Here was metal in its purest form, and goddamn, it was glorious. I’ve been worshiping at the Sabbathian altar ever since.
Compared to my childhood friends, I was a tad late getting into hard rock and heavy metal. I remember elementary school classmates bringing their in Poison, AC/DC, Ozzy, and Metallica tapes, but I had no interest, largely because of some misdirected fear. You see, as a Good Catholic Boy, I thought this music was wrong in some way (I was right about Poison, at least), and wanted to hold myself to a Higher Moral Standard, or something dumb. Eventually I actually listened to Metallica, and I was absolutely floored, changed, and knew that something about this was my future. I quit worrying about whether or not it was right. Soon came Megadeth, the Skids, GN’R, Priest, solo Ozzy, and others. I had stopped fearing this music, and in truth I realized that I never truly feared the music, just the societal implications of it, or something. Who knows, I was pretty naive.
I came upon Sabbath very early in high school. There was still something about the name “Black Sabbath” that still brought that old fire and brimstone Catholic fear to the forefront, but then the same friend that introduced me to Metallica played me We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll. That comp featured most of the A-side of Black Sabbath, and started with the eponymous track. The bell hit… the riff hit…
And finally, this music terrified me.
I knew that Ozzy’s career started in a much darker place than “Crazy Train,” and hooboy was the barely-teenage Zach convinced quickly about that. I had simply never heard something that sounded so… enchanted in a way. It sounded only partly of the mortal plane, as if someone had pulled it out of the unknowable space between our world and that of the spirits, whomever they are. Needless to say, I was hooked. “Black Sabbath” was the first time in my life that I truly loved being scared. I soon nabbed the full album, along with the rest of the original classic run, and loved/love it all, but to this day Black Sabbath still holds two superlatives for the band: the title track remains the darkest thing they ever penned, and “N.I.B.” the most beautiful.
The latter is also my all-time Sabbath favorite, and gives me chills more than 25 years after I first heard it. To my ears and mind, the soloing in “N.I.B.” song is the finest moment of Tony Iommi’s entire career, a crescendo of emotion and soul within a tragic love song, to say nothing of the truly heavy main riff or the rest of the band’s performances (Bill’s rolls during the solo section are key). You can bring up all the “heavy metal started with blood!” anecdotes about how Tony lost his fingertips and had to alter his playing style, but technique is merely the vehicle here. That solo and those melodies… those come from the expressive heart of a true wizard.
Speaking of wizards… one more superlative: the drumming in “The Wizard” remains the coolest thing, period.