Black Sabbath: the Classic Years

How do you find Black Sabbath? Turn left at Led Zeppelin and take the down escalator.  You won’t find them, they will find you.

I don’t know exactly when the heavy metal era began.  Our parents might have said when the Rolling Stones launched “Satisfaction.”  We could spend all day talking about the origins of heavy metal but I’ll plant the flag somewhere around the evolution of Black Sabbath.

I became aware of Black Sabbath in the early 1970s, high school days. A couple of friends had Sabbath albums and we passed these around so we could enhance our musical flavors.  Black Sabbath colored outside the lines, something young kids are drawn to (no pun intended). Rock and roll has always offered something different, an alternative from confining societal norms and boundaries.  Heavy metal would open the door to much more extreme genres of music, imagery and beliefs. Heavy metal originated from heavy blues inspired rock, in the form of bands like Cream, Jethro Tull, the Yardbirds, Alice Cooper and a few other bands.  It wasn’t just loud, it was musically creative and the blending of genres moved the needle.  Early heavy metal had some appeal, but for me, progressive rock was more exciting and evolutionary.

Whether Led Zeppelin is considered heavy metal or hard rock, is a personal judgement call.  I would say hard rock, even though Jimmy Page mixed his black magic and occult influences into the music.  This gave way to the British Heavy Metal wave that followed and the spandex wearing hair bands.  The closest I get to that genre is Van Halen and the Cure.  Otherwise, that entire genre holds little interest for me.

Now, back to Black Sabbath.  I found it quite interesting that as a young man, guitar player Tony Iommi lost the tips of two fingers in a factory accident, the ones used to push the strings against the fretboard. This is very serious for a guitar player.  Iommi learned to compensate by de-tuning his strings to make it less painful to push down. Doing so lowered the pitch, giving his chords a lower-end sound. Bass player Geezer Butler did the same thing to be in sync, thereby giving the band a more sinister sound.

On their website, Black Sabbath credit themselves for creating the heavy metal genre. They also write that they utilized the sense of doom and gloom of the late 1960s, with Vietnam and other tears in the social fabric, to create this attitude of evil and society breakdown.  Their saga began with the release of their first album in 1970, aptly titled Black Sabbath.

For the next decade, Black Sabbath would be the arguably the most successful of the heavy metal bands.  For me, the decade can be divided into the successful years, and the less successful years, and ended with Ozzy being fired from the band.

The successful period was 1970-1976, the years described below.

Black Sabbath (1970)  From the first chords, the darkness in their music was unmistakable, quite different from the heavy blues-rock of bands like Cream, Led Zeppelin and the Yardbirds.

The album cover, a grainy photo of a mysterious woman in a black cloak by an old building and pond, should raise the hair on your neck. You’ve woken up find yourself in an old English horror film.

The opening sound effect of rain and the continuing ringing of the bell, provide an eerie feeling, then the dark power chords launch “Black Sabbath,” the first song on the album. “N.I.B.” has that distinctive bass into, which becomes the riff that Iommi builds his guitar chords around. “The Wizard” opens with the slow, bluesy harp, then explodes with power chords. “Warning” is a ten minute heavy-blues song, similar to early Led Zeppelin.

Overall, this is a very solid debut, communicating Black Sabbath’s mission in very forbidding shades of darkness.

Paranoid (1970)  This album is perhaps my favorite Sabbath effort.  “War Pigs” starts the album with eight minutes of twisting, heavy blues flavored rock, molten around the edges. Iommi has very quickly defined his style of playing, laying down a barrage of power chords, then connecting then with solos or fills, while Ozzy does his thing. “Iron Man” is another instantly recognizable riff classic. Is he alive or head? “Paranoid” is one of Sabbath’s most recognizable songs, an endearing riff and then shifting into high gear. In under three minutes, they create a classic. “Planet Caravan” is a slow guitar track with heavily processed vocals. It is quite different than the normal high energy thunder.  There is very little to dislike on this album. War Pigs was intended to be the name of the album, but Warner Bros. said no way – America was divided by the Vietnam War.

Master of Reality (1971)  Their first top-ten album in America and a two million seller. “Sweet Leaf” leads off and there is a noticeable change in Ozzy’s vocals.  Maybe it was smoking the grass referred to in the title.  Sabbath albums are built around Iommi’s creation of guitar riffs, which he certainly does on this song.  “After Forever” is a catchy tune that Jethro Tull might have done on Aqualung.  “Children of the Grave/Embryo” has a very cool drum technique and dares to be one of the best tracks in the album. “Orchid” is a short, but very melodic acoustic solo number by Iommi, something he would do on nearly every album. “Solitude” is a lovely song with flute and piano. It sounds very little like Sabbath. This album is more skillfully produced. The songs are stronger, as is the presentation.

Vol. 4 (1972)  The first group-produced album.  Recorded in California where recreational drugs were plentiful.  “Snowblind”is about Sabbath’s favorite recreational activity, cocaine, and is one of the standouts on the album. “Changes” is a piano and mellotron song, a complete change of pace. “Supernaut” is a very aggressive guitar song, but the playing is better than the quality of the song. “Cornucopia” has another bull-rush style guitar riff. Good, but not great. “Laguna Sunrise” is another Iommi acoustic guitar song, it’s good, but his other efforts are better. “St Vitus Dance” is also a change of pace. This album was a step down from previous albums, sounding like lesser versions of their stronger songs. Snowblind was also the intended name of the album, but once again, Warner Bros. declined, in favor of the more innocuous Vol. 4.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)  After the long tour in support of Vol. 4, Sabbath again intended to record in L.A., and again rented a house in Bel Air to write.  Sunny, cocaine California did not help them to concentrate, so they retreated to a castle in England to write.  The change in venue and mood seemed to work.  “Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath,” is a favorite of metal-heads, very strong, with dirty guitar riffs. Good, but they’ve done better. “Fluff” is anything but fluff. It is another Iommi acoustic instrumental, this one is quite good.  “Sabbra Cadabra” featured cape wearing Yes keyboard player Rick Wakeman. It’s an interesting song with his jaunty piano. “Killing Yourself to Live” is a cut above the other tracks, it has some intriguing style shifts. “Looking for Today” uses a different beat which gives it a nice energy. “Spiral Architect” uses both acoustics do electric, and seems one of the more creative songs on the album. Overall, the album is slightly above average, the highlights are pulled down by the repetition and lackluster songwriting.  Perhaps they were snowblind?

Sabotage (1975)  This was the first Sabbath album to not sell a million copies.  There were several very fine songs, but as a whole, weaker than previous albums.  The massive “Meglomania” clocked in at just under ten minutes, the song is brutal and raucous.  It is one of my favorites. “Thrill of it All” and “Supertzar” are keepers. They deviate from the very repetitive style and offer something fresh. The other keeper on the album was “Am I Going Insane (Radio)” which has a decidedly commercial veneer. “The Writ” changes from heavy selection riffs to an acoustic number in mid song, like something the Alice Cooper Group could pull off.  Half of the album is very good, but the rest of the album sinks to the bottom. The band tried a leaner sound, with less gimmicks, but didn’t help matters with uneven material.

In 1976, Technical Ecstasy was released, and then in 1978, Never Say Die!  This period can be summed up as uninspired and accentuated the turbulence in the band. Even Ozzy was quoted as saying he was doing it for the money. That may have contributed to his firing in 1979.

In the forty years since, Ozzy had a fine solo career.  Black Sabbath soldiered on with different lead singers and at one point was only Iommi and some hired hands.  Every so often, the original Black Sabbath reunited for touring and the occasional album. Their last world tour ended two years ago with three of the four original blokes.

The pressure to record so many albums burns out a band, and it’s hard to replenish with quality material. The challenge is to keep evolving but not travel too far from the formula. Without a keyboard player who could write, like Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple, the band was locked into the same type of song and sound.  This might be considered blasphemy, but Ozzie never really tried to improve his singing.  Hardcore fans didn’t seem to mind, but album sales were decreasing.  The key to Black Sabbath was not Ozzy, it was Iommi. Ozzy wrote some, but it was mainly Iommi with Butler a contributing writer, mostly as lyricist.  Iommi wrote the riffs and he took over production of the albums, which was a big mistake.  The band needed someone, not in the band and not doing lines of coke, to not only capture the sound, but help shape the sound, something a producer does.

Listening to those six albums was fun and it brought back a lot of memories.  I heard many things that I enjoyed so many years ago.  My opinions did not change much, but I tried to listen with open ears.  I was a bit more appreciative of the creativity, especially of Tony Iommi, and his mastery of the guitar.

The 1970-1975 period was the band’s best output. They built the heavy metal genre and put it on the map. Other bands came along and surpassed them, something that happens in modern music. Black Sabbath lasted for five decades, that’s an incredible run. That’s iron man territory.

For more reading on this period in the band’s history, Rat Salad: Black Sabbath, The Classic Years, 1969–1975, by Paul Wilkinson is a fun ready.  He digs into the musical structure of the songs and relates the world events happening during the recording of each album.

All of the song reviews and album opinions, are entirely my own.


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