Black Sabbath didn’t sound like any other band, and they carved out for themselves a niche that was original and foundational. They had a deep, bottom-heavy tone, reaching low notes that other bands simply didn’t reach. Led Zeppelin, who were almost as heavy, had a similar musical method, and both bands are considered ancestors of heavy metal. But in addition to Led Zep being more blues-influenced, they also had a more standard range of musical notes. Black Sabbath, however, made music that came from a deeper place in your gut. That lent itself very well to their more apocalyptic and pessimistic lyrical approach.
But really, the origin of their unique sound is pretty simple and unexciting. Tony Iommi worked at a sheet metal factory when he was 17 to help his destitute family with money. On his last day, an accident with a machine cost him the tips of his middle and ring fingers on his right hand. He had been playing guitar for a while, and considering he played left-handed, the accident could have ended his guitar days for good. Instead, he used lighter strings and tuned his guitar way down to C# from the normal E to ease the tension on his fingers. Geezer also tuned his bass to C# in order to match Tony, and Black Sabbath’s sludgy, bottom-heavy sound was born.
Black Sabbath bears more than just a passing resemblance to Led Zeppelin; they too have a fascination with Lord of the Rings. “The Wizard” was inspired by the character of Gandalf, a charismatic wizard, mentor to Frodo Baggins, and de facto leader of the Fellowship of the Ring. The song also has application to the band’s drug dealer at the time, according to Geezer.
Here’s my own interpretation. The second verse goes like this: “Evil power disappears / Demons worry when the wizard is near / He turns tears into joy / Everyone’s happy when the wizard walks by.” Maybe it’s just because I grew up knowing Jesus like a member of my family, but “the wizard” in these lyrics sound an awful lot like the Son of God to me. “Everyone’s happy” indicates this was in the first part of Jesus’ ministry when people were glad to see him coming, before the Powers That Be decided he was big trouble. As far as I know, the only “demon” Gandalf ever made “worry” was the Balrog. He did more than make it worry, though; he smacked the crap out of it. However, Jesus was casting out demons all over the four Gospels, most notably the “Herd of Swine” incident as recorded in the book of Matthew. But again, it’s just my own interpretation.
“Behind the Wall of Sleep” features several time signature changes, which makes me grumble a little bit. Even so, it’s a pretty groovy song. It draws inspiration from the H.P. Lovecraft short story Beyond the Wall of Sleep, but the story has only tangential relation to the actual lyrics. They speak of a greater awareness lying behind the “wall of sleep,” one a person can access one they “take [their] body to a corpse,” which I can only assume means to shuffle off this mortal coil.
“Evil Woman,” while fitting right in with Black Sabbath’s motif of darkness and dismay, is not their song. It’s a cover of a song by Crow (if you’ve heard of them, you deserve a medal). Lyrics like “I see the look of evil in your eyes” plays right into Black Sabbath’s wheelhouse. I’ve never heard the original, but I have a hard time imagining it to sound very different from the BS version. Unless you looked into it, you probably wouldn’t even know it’s a cover, so seamless is the integration into BS’s oeuvre.
Finishing off Black Sabbath, we have the schizoid “Sleeping Village” and “Warning.” I talk about them together because they’re very much a medley, despite their separation on the track listing (though not on all editions – more on that later). I confess I haven’t been watching my iTunes like a hawk when listening to this album – I know, I know, forty lashes – so I haven’t seen when track 6 ends and track 7 begins. Nevertheless, the two songs together total up to about 14 minutes, a lot of which is just Tony Iommi improvising to fill studio time. “Warning” is another cover, this one from the Ansley Dunbar Revolution. Again, you can’t actually tell it’s not a Black Sabbath original.
Black Sabbath was released when difference between American and British editions was a thing of the (recent) past, but somehow this one slipped through. Perhaps it’s because no one expected the album to make as big splash, even in Britain. Thus, there are several different editions of Black Sabbath with different track orders, and even an extra song. “Wicked World” is an interesting slice of sludgy blues, delivered with what is now Ozzy Osbourne’s trademark sneer. It’s exclusion from the original British release doesn’t really make sense to me. It’s a good song, it fits in with the scope of the album as a whole, and it makes it a little longer without it being filler.
This entire album was produced in just a few days: two for recording, one for mastering, one for mixing. This makes perfect sense, considering the album’s bluesy, thrown-together feel, but it’s still kind of amazing. Tony Iommi actually said he thought two days was a little long to record. In less than 20 years, artists would routinely be spending multiple years on albums, crafting and honing everything in a meticulous and perfectionist way. Producers would insist on take after take after take until the musicians were on the brink of madness. Black Sabbath, however, would play a song a few times through and then say, “yeah, that sounds good.” Some of those perfectionists could learn a thing or two from early BS, not the least of which is when to say, “yeah, that sounds good.”
On Monday: “What the bloody hell is that noise?” “I think it’s the Beatles.”