What is this that stands before me?
What do I even say about the most celebrated and notorious album in Metal history, and the one most-often cited as its origin point? There are books about this record. It makes sense: Black Sabbath (by Black Sabbath, featuring the opening track “Black Sabbath”) turned 50 this year, making it older than most of its fans and the generation of doom-worshipping metalheads it would inspire forty years later.
It is, literally, history.
Like a lot of albums considered musical history, I think it’s easy to over-mythologize Black Sabbath. When we think Sabbath we think Ozzy – older than time itself, constantly cursing, and obsessing over the devil as he lords over the genre he created. But Black Sabbath, band and album, aren’t obsessed with the devil – they’re terrified of him on the title track, and “N.I.B”, which is about Lucifer himself (and is a love song). For the most part they’re a surprisingly God-fearing group. There’s no swearing on Black Sabbath either, nor was Ozzy the architect of their sound – guitarist Tony Iommi – or the originator of their obsession with the occult, which was lyricist, bassist and massive hippie Geezer Butler. Black Sabbath in ’69 was a group of dorky 20 year-olds who had just discovered Lovecraft and Crowley, and whose quirks accidentally canonized a genre.
While everyone else was enjoying the Summer of Love, these guys were in the basement defining Metal in-between smoke sessions and shifts at the sheet-metal factory. The only reason they weren’t into Dungeons and Dragons was because it wouldn’t be invented for another 8 years.
Black Sabbath were the original spooky Metal nerds. The breathless enthusiasm of this first release makes it a perpetual autumnal classic, and one of my favourite records. Now why hasn’t anyone heard it?
I was 23 when I realized there was a Black Sabbath album before Paranoid, the classic that gave us “War Pigs” and “Iron Man” and made turned Black Sabbath into a serious cultural force. I can be forgiven for overlooking the album art. The US release for Black Sabbath looks like an EP, with its weird blurry picture of a girl in a field in front of – an abandoned house? A church? It was difficult to tell. At only five tracks it was easy to assume Black Sabbath was some kind of demo collection, despite the fact that one of the songs is a quarter-hour long.
It’s not a demo. Except that it also kind of is.
(The following is a history lesson. It’s fun and spooky, I promise.)
Black Sabbath, the album, was hammered-out in a single studio session over the course of twelve hours, but it wasn’t Black Sabbath’s first recording. They’d previously gone by the name Earth, a band guitarist Tony Iommi briefly quit to join Jethro Tull. He got bored of Jethro Tull in about a month (same), and when he returned, Earth found themselves mistaken for another local band by the same name. They needed a change. Inspired by a movie-theatre across the street, drummer Geezer Butler and singer Ozzy Osbourne started work on a new song, named after the Boris Karloff film on the marquee: Black Sabbath.
So “Black Sabbath” was the name of a song before it was the name of a band. The rest, of course, is history. But before it was a song, it was a nightmare, one that instilled such fear in Butler that it would go on to be a defining characteristic of Black Sabbath’s work going forward: an intense fear of the Devil. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia, taken from the liner notes of Black Sabbath’s ’98 live album Reunion. Geezer Butler says:
“I’d been raised a Catholic so I totally believed in the Devil. There was a weekly magazine called Man, Myth and Magic that I started reading which was all about Satan and stuff. That and books by Aleister Crowley and Dennis Wheatley, especially The Devil Rides Out … I’d moved into this flat I’d painted black with inverted crosses everywhere. Ozzy gave me this 16th Century book about magic that he’d stolen from somewhere. I put it in the airing cupboard because I wasn’t sure about it. Later that night I woke up and saw this black shadow at the end of the bed. It was a horrible presence that frightened the life out of me! I ran to the airing cupboard to throw the book out, but the book had disappeared. After that I gave up all that stuff. It scared me shitless.”
There’s your opening lyric: “What is this that stands before me?” Oddly, there’s more cursing in that Geezer quote than all of Black Sabbath itself. Scared shitless, the 20-year-old Geezer wrote the defining title track, the one the band named themselves after. To hear the satanic panic that arose after its release, you’d never think the song was about an episode of sleep paralysis, suffered by a dude that read too many spooky books before bed. But there it is.
As the lyricist for Black Sabbath he’d go on to write “N.I.B”, a track whose name was misinterpreted as Nativity in Black at the time, but whose true meaning was a joke about drummer Bill Ward’s pen-nib shaped beard. “N.I.B.” is a love song about Lucifer, who falls in love with a human girl and decides to become good, to “feel” as a man. It’s a common refrain in Geezer’s lyrics: an intense anxiety over evil, and a yearning for peace and understanding. It’s totally at odds with Black Sabbath’s sound and image, but completely obvious to anyone that reads their lyrics. Geezer wrote “The Wizard” too, with its infectious harmonica riff – and that song is literally about Gandalf. If there’s one take-away from these stories, it’s that Black Sabbath – and Geezer especially – don’t get credit for the humanity and joy embedded deep in their spooky music. This isn’t evil stuff, it’s distinctly, even naively human.
After all, they were like 20. Either way, Earth was done and it was time for Black Sabbath to hit the studio.
(Don’t worry: the name Earth would go on to be taken by another genre-defining group of Black Sabbath fans.)
When we talk about ‘Heavy Metal’ it’s tempting to take the term on face value. “Heavy Metal” sounds like it ought to: heavy. All the instruments are distorted, the strings are made of steel – so why not? It’s as good a name as any, but the sound itself is rooted in the industrial landscape of working-class labourers in the 60’s.
In Tony Iommi’s case, incredibly literally.
Iommi is regarded as one of the fathers of Heavy Metal, and a big part of the reason why is his use of the ‘tritone’, the specific musical interval also known as diabolus in musica. It’s an intense, dissonant set of notes and was generally regarded as bad-form in musical compositions going back centuries. It’s the iconic interval that opens “Black Sabbath“, and it pops up all over their discography along with Iommi’s distinct, blues-chord heavy playing style. The actual reason Iommi plays this way goes far beyond the band’s obsession with sounding ominous.
In an incredible moment of metaphor-made-real, Tony Iommi lost the tips of both his middle fingers while working in a sheet-metal factory at 17. Refusing to give up the guitar, he molded prosthetic fingertips out of a bottle of Fairy Liquid dish detergent with a soldering iron. With his new thimble-fingers, he re-learned to play guitar by detuning the strings and bending them down to accommodate his new grip. Because the fingers had no feeling, he’d press the strings far too hard, and on account of his decreased dexterity he found himself focusing more on chords than fretwork, a quirk that quickly became permanent. It’s entirely safe to say that without his literal heavy-metal accident, Iommi would not sound the same, might not have leaned as heavily on the tritone, and Black Sabbath couldn’t have sounded the way it does.
And then there’s the fact that his guitar, a Stratocaster, exploded halfway through the sessions for Black Sabbath. Iommi had to re-learn on a Gibson he’d just bought by playing it upside-down, because he’s left-handed. Meanwhile Geezer Butler, the bassist in addition to the lyricist, had been the guitarist in his other bands and didn’t know how to play rhythm. So he just followed Iommi on melody, leading to the Heavy Metal convention of double-tracked guitar and bass melodies.
Ozzy, meanwhile, was Ozzy, hard at work making his band seem way, way more evil than they actually were – while singing songs about Lovecraft and Gandalf.
Black Sabbath, and by extension Doom Metal, is 90% accident, 10% nerds. Isn’t music history fun?
I lean so hard on these stories of classic-rock mythology because they humanize the band. It’s easy to look at these albums and think, derisively, that they were made by professionals who knew what they were doing. It’s easy to get stuck in that mindset and look at Black Sabbath now – some of the richest musicians ever to play Metal – and forget that at one point they were a bunch of pre-Goth misfits stumbling their way into the history books. In a sense they still are.
This kind of stuff fascinates me. I don’t know what it’s like to be a platinum Rock God, but I absolutely know what it’s like to be a spooky 20-year old and thinking you’re making the heaviest shit ever with your friends in the garage.
Black Sabbath by Black Sabbath (ft. “Black Sabbath”) doesn’t have to be evil. It’s honest.
And what’s more Hallowe’en than that?
ps. Black Sabbath > Paranoid