Black Sabbath is credited with creating heavy metal. They influenced many hard-hitting bands who came after them including Metallica and Guns ‘n’ Roses. Not until they upended the music scene did the term “heavy metal” enter the popular vocabulary to describe the denser, more thunderous offshoot of rock over which they presided. Their riff-based songs, extreme volume and dark, demonic subject matter embody the key aspects of this aesthetic.
Their story began in Birmingham, England where Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward were looking to escape a life of factory work through music. After forming several psychedelic and blues bands, they started to “happen” when Butler had an idea for a song inspired by a disturbing apparition. With lyrics by Osbourne, the group composed a song about the visitation entitling it “Black Sabbath” after the 1963 Boris Karloff film. It provoked a reaction in their audience unlike anything else in their repertoire and gave them a direction and the band’s name. There was a shift in the world of rock with the success of their first two albums. Black Sabbath recorded in November 1969 reached Number 8 in Britain and exhibited staying power in America, remaining on the charts for 65 weeks. Paranoid recorded in 1970 including the classic tracks “Iron Man” and “War Pigs” reached Number 1 in the U.K. and charted for 70 weeks in the U.S.
With Butler serving as principal lyricist and Iommi as the musical architect, Black Sabbath pursued such themes as war, social chaos, the supernatural, the afterlife and the timeless conflict between good and evil. “We arrived at the height of the Vietnam War and on the other side of the hippie era, so there was a mood of doom and aggression” in the words of guitarist Iommi but Black Sabbath weren’t devil worshippers as many believed. Osbourne flashed the peace sign during their concerts.
The band’s inventiveness and fluency makes them seem as much of a progressive-rock band as a heavy-metal one. Their lengthy songs had frequent meter changes, there was ample room for improvisation and they could swing with a jazzy temperament using blues forms and scales. Drummer Ward grew up listening to Count Basie, bassist Butler was influenced by Frank Zappa and guitarist Iommi found inspiration in Django Reinhardt. Vocalist Osbourne was a fan of soul music and his voice was melodic and well-pitched, never resorting to histrionic screaming.
Black Sabbath’s next two albums Master of Reality (1971) and Vol. 4 (1972) contained their share of Sabbath classics such as “Children of the Grave”, “After Forever”, “Snowblind” and “Supernaut”. The group’s fifth album Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) comes closest to equaling their early masterpiece Paranoid.
The demanding pace of the road and various lifestyle excesses began catching up with the Black Sabbath by the mid-70s. Their next three albums Sabotage (1975), Technical Ecstasy (1976) and Never Say Die! (1978) had memorable moments but the cracks in their façade became permanent when Osbourne left the band in 1978. Ronny James Dio, an American vocalist and songwriter, replaced Osbourne after meeting Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi by chance in Los Angeles. Both men were in a similar situation. Dio was seeking a new project and Iommi needed a vocalist. On the first day of a getting-to-know-you jam session, the duo wrote “Children of the Sea” which would appear on Heaven and Hell, the first album Black Sabbath recorded with Dio in 1980. Black Sabbath went through lineup changes that didn’t always include Butler and Ward. The post-Osbourne albums including The Mob Rules (1981) and Headless Cross (1989) are highly regarded by hardcore fans. But when all was said and done, the classic lineup could not be bested.
The original foursome has reunited on a handful of occasions, most notably for a pair of 1997 stadium shows back home in Birmingham released as Reunion and four times as headliners for Osbourne’s “Ozzfest” festival. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
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