Category: Black Sabbath


Tony Iommi

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.

“you shall not pass!!!”

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.

Ozzy Osbourne

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.”

Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath – 2/13/1970

The evil mojo needs to be taken out of Black Sabbath; after doing that, you discover that they didn’t really have any to begin with. They started out the same exact way that countless other bands did. There was no demonic ritual that they used to bless their origin; the four members were not birthed from the mouth of hell. In fact, they weren’t even called Black Sabbath at their genesis.

Tony Iommi was a teenager had dreams of getting out of economically depressed Birmingham, England and starting a band. He recruited several other musicians to play with him, and it’s really that simple. The lynchpin came when they were auditioning lead singers and Ozzy Osbourne showed up with his own PA system, something the band needed. From there, they were off and running, complete with the name Polka Tulk. They must have realized that name was just bloody awful, so they redubbed themselves Earth. They soon discovered that there was another band with the same name, and they had to make a change. They went with Black Sabbath, the name of a famous Boris Karloff horror film from 1963. The name was a suggestion from their bass player, Geezer Butler.

Geezer can lay claim to Black Sabbath’s long association with darkness and Lucifer and all that foolishness; he wrote most of the band’s lyrics throughout most of their career.  He was very Catholic, so he identified with all that gothic, religious iconography, as well as Satan being a powerful, epic being. His conception of Satan was probably a little skewed, as everyone’s is. And like a lot of teenagers who are denied something, he got curious.

In truth, Geezer’s – and consequentially the band’s – early preoccupation with the devil loomed large on their first album, the eponymous Black Sabbath. Their understanding of the Prince of the Power of the Air, however, was childish and immature. This isn’t really a bad thing, ‘cause it worked for them and created groovy music. But I can’t help but give just a little chuckle when they mention Satan because they’re just so earnest about it. They’re like 6-year-olds dressing up in their dad’s clothes with his briefcase and trench coat, saying things like “I’m off to work, dear!” As upset as they would be about me thinking this, it’s just so cute.

Black Sabbath begins on an ominous and doom-heavy note, with just the sound of falling rain. A church bell chimes somewhere off in the distance. And then, heaviness beyond heaviness with the first track, which is also called “Black Sabbath.” The opening strains are tonic, then octave, then diminished fifth. Diabolus in musica. It’s also slow, deep, loud, and accompanied by frenzied drumming.

The lyrics are about a true life experience Geezer had. Ozzy had given him a book about witchcraft as a gift, and one night he awoke from a nightmare to see a dark figure whose face was obscured sitting in the chair across from his bed. The figure vanished soon after, and when he got up the next morning, the book Ozzy gave him was gone from the table in his bedroom where he had left it. Embellishment was multiplied a hundred times, ending with a song.

If you ask me, it was probably something as stupid as another band member stealing the book while Geezer was sleeping and never telling anyone. And after the song was recorded and they had become famous, they simply couldn’t let the myth die.

There is one other song on the album dealing specifically with Satan, “N.I.B.” The origin of the name is kind of silly: Geezer thought drummer Bill Ward’s goatee (now called a soulpatch) resembled a pen nib. He took a song he had already written that didn’t have a title and called it “Nib.” To add some ambiguity to the name (since it had nothing to do with the lyrics), he changed it to “N.I.B.” to make it look like initials. As soon as some dumb kid got his hands on the suggestion that Black Sabbath were into devil worship and anti-Christianity, it was over. That kid suggested that “N.I.B.” might stand for “nativity in black,” and because of the image Black Sabbath had created for themselves, they weren’t in a position to argue. Their fans wouldn’t have listened anyway, since they were so obsessed with the band being “evil.” After they became legends, Black Sabbath’s two tribute albums, contributed to by some big names in heavy metal, were both titled Nativity In Black.

As for the lyrics, they’re a first-person account of Lucifer (called by name) declaring his love for a human. It’s generally thought to be Lucifer using his deceptive, lying ways to seduce a young girl into Satan worship. Geezer tells a different story, and says it’s about Lucifer having genuine love for this girl, casting off his devilish ways, and becoming a “good person.” I think Lucifer (the real Lucifer) might have seduced Geezer into writing this song about him with those intentions. If that’s the case, though, everyone saw right through it; Geezer botched the job.

Friday: did Tony Iommi chop off his first two fingers in a Satanic rite? You be the judge… 😉