We are kicking off Rocktober here at Cigar Jukebox where we will do scary album reviews for the entire month. There is no better place to start than with Black Sabbath. Their debut record Black Sabbath released in England on Friday the 13th, of course, in 1970 from Vertigo Records. Ozzy Osbourne, Toni Iommi, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler brought darkness to rock and lit the heavy metal fuze, which will explode in the late 70s and 80s.
Interestingly, we can probably trace heavy metal’s distinctive guitar sound to a sheet metal accident that cut off the tips of Iommi’s middle fingers on his fretting hand. Iommi made some makeshift plastic replacement tips, but he had to tune his guitar differently in order to hit the cords with his plastic finger tips. This unique tuning created the heavy guitar sound we associate with metal today. Moreover, this unorthodox tuning created interesting bass lines for Geezer Butler who broke away from more melodic / traditional bass lines. Butler later stated that he used Iommi’s guitar riffs as a guide and followed his lead on the bass, which reinforced the heavy sound Sabbath was known for. Ward’s tight percussion and Ozzy’s vocal fire, similar to Robert Plant’s high vocal range, and flare for dark and disturbing lyrics brought it all together.
The most underrated aspect of the band’s debut record, Black Sabbath, was the faith their producer Roger Bain had in their sound. I mean, you had an untuned lead guitar, a bassist who didn’t want to play a traditional bass and a lead vocalist who wanted to sing about the devil and corpses…not really the typical band in 1968 – 69. However, Bain and Vertigo Records knew they were onto something and Bain would later produce the first record, Rocka Rolla, for heavy metal icons Judas Priest. Butler later spoke about how Bain was the only producer to let the band record live and was extremely supportive. This faith in the band gave them the energy to record the record in one day. Even though they would add different sound effects and vocal effects in post production, all the songs were recorded live in one day.
We will look at three songs off Black Sabbath’s debut album that encapsulate what made the band so successful and historic. The first track Black Sabbath set the scene for heavy metal for the next few decades. First off, the track begins with a thunderstorm and an ominous church bell harkening the impending doom to follow. It is difficult to put into perspective how daring this was in 1970. To put it in context, the top two songs in 1970 were Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel and (They Long to Be) Close to You by The Carpenters. Even though Led Zeppelin was beginning to explore heavier guitar led rock in the 70s, there was nothing like this. Immoi’s opening riff and Butler’s funereal bass were genuinely frightening. Next comes Ozzy singing about black figures of death and hell chasing him as he screams for help in vein. Ward’s restrained percussion adds to the feeling of doom within the track’s opening few minutes. However, as the song progresses and Ozzy gets closer and closer to the devil the music reaches a fever pitch and resembles the rapid fire adrenaline rush at metal’s core. This opening track not only sets the scene for the rest of the record, but sets the scene for Sabbath’s career.
One deep cut from the record, Behind the Wall of Sleep, highlights Sabbath’s blues influence. The first minute or so of the track is a bit of a warm – up for the band as they play in more of an unstructured jam. Then, Iommi and Butler settle into one of the best riffs on the record. These riffs follow a 4/4 time, which harkens back to classic blues timing. Iommi’s unique guitar tuning does not mimic traditional cords in 12 bar blues, but the links to blues is there. However, they turn these blues notes to 11 with heavy riffs and Ozzy singing about how you “turn your body to a corpse.” Such dark lyrics set Sabbath apart from other bands of the time and really shows how Bain let Ozzy and the boys go for it.
The combination of dark / evil themes and heavy industrial guitar riffs reach their apex in N.I.B. Other than the opening track, this is probably the most well known track off the record. Geezer Butler wrote the lyrics and said that it is a first person account from Lucifer about how he changes as a person and falls in love. A classic love song. The track itself was thought to stand for Nativity in Black, but Butler has said that it is a reference to Ward’s beard and he couldn’t think of another title. For PR, I think Butler should have just went with Nativity in Black and kept the dark mystery, but you can’t fault him for his honesty.
The track N.I.B. kicks off with a funky bass line from Butler, which warps into one of the heaviest riffs on the record. The track itself is driven by Iommi’s and Butler’s heavy riffing off each other and is underscored by Ozzy’s depiction of Lucifer falling in love. I think the best part of this track is how you can see the partnership of Iommi and Butler, which really drives the band and will anchor their sound moving into the future. The lead and follow structure of guitar and bass is flawless and each person builds off the other. Ozzy’s unique vocal is synonymous with Black Sabbath, but I think the core of the band is Iommi’s and Butler’s symbiotic relationship on guitar and bass.
Black Sabbath’s debut record sold extremely well and made it to #8 in the UK and #23 on the Billboard charts. Scott Seward from Rolling Stone wrote about the record in 2004 and said that it is “an album that eats hippies for breakfast.” I can’t argue with that sentiment. At a time where Led Zeppelin was singing Going to California about people with flowers in their hair, Black Sabbath was ripping music apart with flaming guitar riffs and singing about Satan and corpses. Most importantly, this record marks the gradual shift from free love to dark excess, which will come more into focus in the late 70s and 80s. Black Sabbath brings dark magic to rock and has put millions under its spell.
Listen to Black Sabbath