So how on earth do I come up with something new to say about the debut album from Black Sabbath, especially without alienating an entire generation.
Due to the antics of a certain Mr Osbourne and his family being broadcast all over our TV screens for years a whole generation who weren’t even thought of when this album was recorded seem to have proclaimed Ozzy Osbourne the undisputed King of heavy metal. Not bad for a singer with extremely limited abilities and who to all intents and purposes was finished and all washed up in the latter years of the seventies. Now this may all sound a bit negative, especially as this is one of my rare five star albums and is easily in the top thirty of my all time album list. But there is a point to this mini rant if you bear with me. You see I just don’t buy into all this satanic devil worshipping evil Black Sabbath myth at all and I can’t help but feel a bit sorry for Tony Iommi who has sort of had his band hijacked and turned into something that has supposedly influenced a bunch of bands who think the idea of making music is to play as loudly as possible, spout satanic nonsense and not even worry whether the singer can hold a tune or not. Okay, so that may all sound a little harsh but the point is how many of these self proclaimed experts have actually listened the the first couple of Sabbath albums in their entirety and judged them in the context of what was going on at the time. These experts regularly state that “Black Sabbath” was the birth of heavy metal, a term I hate but people seem to identify with so occasionally it is necessary to use it. Well that is stuff and nonsense as most people know. Yes it was a part of the scene that gave birth to the common use of that term but it certainly wasn’t responsible for it. Many people will think I am going to go on here about Blue Cheer, Vanilla Fudge and the like, but I’m not even going to go there. The late seventies and early eighties British rock scene is regularly referred to as NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal), now why do you think that is …… because there had already been one wave before and that was around 1969 to 1974. Black Sabbath were a part of it, but so so were Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Uriah Heep and countless other less successful bands. If you actually sit down and listen to the structures of the songs, the riffs, the instrumental passages and solos Black Sabbath are not really very different to any of the other bands. I would even suggest that there were some that were heavier. “Black Sabbath” the album actually has some great melody and jazzy little passages in there. It is not just doom and gloom satanic riffing as some people seem to suggest. If you listen to the Trapeze album “Medusa” certain parts of it have a very Sabbathesque sound to it to people hearing it retrospectively. The point is those two bands came from about ten miles away from each other and recorded those albums at virtually the same time. This was the type of sound that countless bands were beginning to explore. The hippy flower power time had been and gone and the music was generally getting angrier and darker in lyrical theme. Now no one is going to call the band Free heavy metal but Island wanted to call them “The Heavy Metal Kids” back in 1968. Their first album “Tons of Sobs” featured a track called ‘Moonshine’ which is the lyrical blueprint for the title track here and was also going to feature another one called ‘Visions of Hell’ which is lyrically as much Black Sabbath than anything on here. You see thats the trouble even I am doing it now. Anything that is a little dark or satanic in the world of rock music is referred to a being “like Black Sabbath”. The reality of the situation, and the point I am trying to make in an admittedly rather more long winded way than I intended is that Black Sabbath shouldn’t be regarded as musically inferior to their comtemporaries but at the same time they shouldn’t be seen as lone pioneers of strong riffing heavy rock music. The only real difference is that of the heavywight bands of the time Black Sabbath were the only ones who had a vocalist with very limited ability so they were a little hamstrung in the way they could approach songs vocally. Give great credit to Osbourne though because he found a style and way of singing that fitted the music and doesn’t take too much away from the quality. I just get a little annoyed sometimes when Osbourne is spoken of as being the most important part of Black Sabbath. The star of the show for me has always been Iommi and you couldn’t get further away from a devil worshipper if you tried !!
“Black Sabbath” was recorded in November 1969 and according to Iommi was virtually recorded live in one day as they only had the studio for two days and wanted to use the second day for mixing. The title track itself is a rock classic and is obviously one of the highlights. The original album had a gatefold sleeve and on the inside in an inverted cross was a poem. If you read the poem at the right pace it just fits perfectly into the sound of the rain at the start of the album. As you finish it the heavy riff comes in and the actual song begins. The song builds in a typically progressive rock way getting faster towards the end. For me it is a vital part of the Sabbath legacy and remains one of my favourite Sabbath tracks. ‘The Wizard’ reportedly written about Gandalf from Lord of the Rings follows and starts with a great harmonica riff from Osbourne. Ward’s thundering drums are integral to the success of the song and Iommi’s guitar work is superb throughout. However it is Osbourne’s harmonica that steals the show for me as it drives the song along perfectly. ‘Behind the Wall of Sleep’ starts with a riff that is more boogie than satanic but the interesting thing for me here is the vocal track. If you listen through headphones it is quite clear that the vocal track in the left and right channels are not the same take. The right hand side is marginally behind the left one in places and gives a very strange effect. As good as the first two track are the highlight of the album for me is N.I.B. Whether the letters stand for Nativity In Black is open to opinion but I’ll go with the opinion of the writer of the lyric Geezer Butler as he should know ! He states that he couldn’t come up with a title after writing the lyric so referred to the song as nib, which was what drummer Bill Ward’s beard looked like. Quite why you’d name a song after a beard is beyond me but stranger things happen as they say. The punctuation was put in to make it look more interesting in written form apparently. Butler also states that the song is not really about the devil trying to seduce the listener but is about the devil falling in love and becoming good. For some reason the wah wah bass solo introduction was given a seperate title on the original US release and was entitled ‘Bassically’. ‘Evil Woman’ is a more commercial sounding song which was actually released as a single prior to the album being released. The song itself was not an original and had been written and recorded by the Minneapolis based band “Crow” only the year before. For this reason it was omitted from the US version of the album. It has a pleasant enough hook but doesn’t really fit that well in the context of the album for me. However it is still a good song and Butler’s bass playing is once again superb. The weakest track on the album in my opinion is ‘Sleeping Village’ but things really pick up for the album closer ‘Warning’. A lengthy blues and prog jam originally recorded by the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation it features some great instumental passages from the band and although Osbourne struggles with the vocal in places it is a fine end to a classic album.
The whole satanic and demonic connections were probably helped along by the fact that the album was actually released on Friday 13th, that the band openly admitted an interest in the occult and that they were named after the Boris Karloff horror movie. However, don’t let any of the that or the generation of goth metallers who hero worship Ozzy Osbourne have you believe that this is anything other than a classic progressive rock album of its time. For that is what it is, and it is quite rightly mentioned in the same breath as Deep Purple In Rock, Led Zeppelin II and the other great rock albums of the time. And deservedly so too because for me Black Sabbath didn’t get any better than this.
© Martin Leedham. First published on RYM June 2011