Take some guys, dress them in black and stand them in front of an unkempt country church, preferably under an overcast sky. Layer that image with some heavy guitars, some atmospherics like church bells, add ominous lyrics and what do you have? The basics of a heavy metal band, right? Sure, we know that now. But, in 1970, that genre was hardly invented when four lads from Birmingham made two landmark albums, Black Sabbath and Paranoid.
Since the dawn of pop music in the 1950s, an aspect of theatre had always played a part. From Elvis’ pelvis to Hendrix’s flaming guitar, pop music nestled nicely into the comforting arms of dressing up, acting weird and playing a part.
But, that play acting and high-jinx stuff, particularly during the wafty hippy-soaked ’60s, was all about self-indulgent fun. Black Sabbath just twisted that whole game and made it dark. But still fun.
Sabbath founder Tony Iommi played for a while with Jethro Tull — a band based around the eccentricities of the cod-piece wearing, flute playing Ian Anderson — so he for one was already well versed in musical staging.
Singer and lead nutter Ozzy Osbourne and drummer Bill Ward were addled and/or air-headed enough to try anything. Bassist Geezer Butler probably just wanted a decent band to drop his revolutionary bottom end lines into.
So poncing around in Gothic dregs, dangling giant crosses from their necks, snarling at cameras and peppering troubling lyrics through stark, often apocalyptic songs was no stretch for these Brummie boys.
But, in 1970, Satan hadn’t really made an appearance on the pop music scene in any big way. Bands like Cream, Led Zeppelin or Status Quo, were about as close as the mainstream listening public got to what might be called metal music. It’s taking some liberty to lump any of these in the heavy metal genre.
While such bands weren’t necessarily choir boys, no one outside the Bible belts were too worried. But clothes do maketh the band. While musically, there is not a million miles between say Black Sabbath and Cream’s 1968 Wheels of Fire, Clapton, Bruce and Baker weren’t decked out like they were off to a bit of blood letting at the local Satanic gathering in the woods somewhere or singing about being consumed by the fires of Hell.
It’s not just the dress-ups of course. Musically, Sabbath brought a lot to the table. Sure, there’s the gimmicky tolling bells that kick off the eponymous track one on Black Sabbath, the band’s first album, or the distorted “I am the Iron Man” line from Paranoid‘s “Iron Man.” But, there’s more.
Guitarist and lyricist Tony Iommi slowed down the hard rock approach, utilising a dropped tuning and lighter strings, both effecting a darker tone, and sparser riffs. This was largely by necessity as he had lost the tips of two fingers on his right hand — kind of valuable parts of the anatomy for a south paw axeman — and had to fit plastic thimbles held on with leather straps to play. Finding difficulty in playing lightening runs, his sound therefore adapted nicely to the diabolic image Sabbath were cooking up.
Iommi is constantly at the wheel throughout both albums. He leads the other three along strings of altering lines like a drunk man wandering a partially lit street, disappearing in blackness before re-emerging under a street lamp with a new chord progression. An inspired drunk. Sabbath songs from this era are effectively numerous Iommi riffs matted together into something like a coherent track by the woven rhythms of Butler and Ward.
Butler in particular is something of an under-rated hero of the Sabbath sound. Bassists were, and still are, generally downplayed in the rock mix. Butler’s elevation not only provided the shape for Iommi’s trips, but largely gave the bass a more exalted place in the rock sound.
For instance, his call/response conversation with Iommi on Evil Woman, Don’t Play Your Game With Me and his run at the end of the passage gives equal footing to the hitherto unheralded rock potential and metal potential of the bass.
Similarly on the beginning of War Pigs on Paranoid, Butler’s bass become a star in its own right, along with Iommi’s choppy rasp, Ward’s hi-hats and a bit of air-raid siren for some Sabbath-esque effect. Butler even intro’d tracks, like N.I.B on Black Sabbath.
Butler’s bass influence touches many areas of what has come, from funk-rock (think Living Colour) to various metal sub-genres and even into sounds like that of Duran Duran and John Taylor’s elaborate thumping.
Geezer Butler somewhat invented a place for rock bass.
In all this, Ozzy Osbourne’s vocals can seem superfluous. The actual words (although Osbourne is rarely credited as a lyricist) are often silly and a bit comical and Osbourne seems determined to act the part and serve them up earnestly. He is a figure you either love or hate. Whether he scored one of the great rock music lottery wins in getting to stand in front of the other three Sabbath members is one for debate. Musically, the vocals may be unnecessary or even annoying.
But, let’s remember that Black Sabbath are as much theatre as mere sound. And here Osbourne is perfect. Thick as a bunker wall, singing like he’s talking to a non-English speaking deaf person, plying lyrics that a 10 year-old could better, Ozzy comes into his own as the bumbling Everyman seemingly lost in the troubled nightmare worlds he sings about.
His largely unwitting comic timing saves Sabbath from taking themselves too seriously, and their fans from getting too carried away. How could such a doofus ever be dangerous? If anyone could ever make Satanism laughable, it is Ozzy Osbourne. Without him, Sabbath could have become way anal.
The influence of Black Sabbath and Paranoid is less in the music than in the impact of Black Sabbath’s presence. While they became known as satanic rockers, they weren’t averse to heading into trippy acid landscapes (Planet Caravan on Paranoid) or raw, headline-of-the-day politics (much of Paranoid is a critique of the Vietnam War). But it was always with that darker, grainier tone that gave popular rock music not only a new genre — metal — but an acknowledgement that the shadowy areas of humanity and the murky geography of the netherworld could be traversed and still chart.
Both albums were railed against by most major critics. However, the fans voted with their wallets and both did well enough commercially to engender large tours and established the band as a major act. Sabbath went to sell over 70 million albums in total and are considered pioneers in the vast genre that is heavy metal music.
Some may have been a little scared of Sabbath when they first appeared on the scene — a reaction they relished. But, music fans weren’t and record company execs only saw mounds of dollars. In Black Sabbath and Paranoid you can hear the birth of a genre.