Category: Black Sabbath


I spent the first 10 to 15 years of my life with a pretty black and white idea of Christianity and the world in which it exists. Christianity was completely true and all other religions, paths, practices and philosophies were completely false. In high school, I started to perceive a few shades of grey; my mind started wandering into things that ended in question marks and ellipses rather than periods. That made me curious but uncomfortable, so I confined my search for answers to my own internal logic, what I could figure out on my own. It was a bad move.

When I got to college, the number of my questions just exploded. Uncertainties were coming at me from all sides and I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. My only recourse was to dispense with the uncomfortable feeling and barrel on ahead. It got to the point where I was questioning just about everything. When I was young, all things were certain; now, very few things were.

A couple of things stayed true: God was real, love was real, and God loved me. I’ve always been certain of that. But every other thing was up in the air, and they’ve slowly been coming down to a more graspable height ever since college. They still fly away sometimes, but I know I’ve got a firm hold on the really important stuff.

The most important thing I’ve learned since high school is that there’s not a lot of difference between Christians and non-Christians. I used to think there was this thick black line dividing them, and that line ran along who treated you well and who didn’t. What, little Ben cut in front of me in the line for the drinking fountain? He must be going to hell! But who treats you well has to do with their own battle with their sin nature, not whether or not they carry the label “Christian.” Christians can be just as vile as other people, and they even have a corner on the market of certain types of vileness. And quite often some deep truths about God, love and the nature of both come from seemingly “heathen” sources.

Since their first record and for about 10 years after, Black Sabbath had been fighting against insinuations and outright statements that they were Satanists. Every time the question came up in an interview, they flatly denied it. Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler made no secret of the fact that they were brought up Catholic. The image was brought on by their dark, doomy music and references to Satan in their lyrics, but the public took it several steps further. Sabbath eventually learned to live with it, and then to use it to their own advantage, but it had to be frustrating. And around the time of their third album, they decided to fire back.

Master of Reality contains some pretty bold statements about the goodness of God, the evils of Satan, and some unabashed references to love. The songs “After Forever” and “Lord of This World” lay the groundwork for Christian metal, even if no Christian artist under the sun will admit that it’s true. “After Forever” takes an incredibly direct approach to God and the question of his existence, even having the narrator (which would most likely be Geezer himself) say “I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways.” Furthermore, he warns the person he’s addressing against denying God in front of their friends, and  says “God is the only way to love.” Gospel message? Maybe. Something a Satanist would say? Definitely not.

“Lord of This World” takes the opposite tack, being a letter from Satan to a hapless victim whom he deceived. But rather than laughing in victory, Satan seems a little sad, like taking the person’s soul was a little too easy. There’s no longer any need for deception on Satan’s part, so he just lays it bare. His victim chose “evil ways instead of love” and made him the “master of the world where [he] exist[s].” Satan might as well be saying, “Why did you follow me instead of God? I’m freakin’ evil, dude! Get a clue!” Christian ministers who preach hellfire and damnation can’t even do it as effectively as this.

At the cap there’s “Into the Void,” a futuristic account of the few people who know the truth leaving the earth in spaceships forever because it’s too corrupt, and searching the galaxy for a place to start anew. The earth is filled with hatred, evil, misery and death, and it’s all Satan’s fault. I have a feeling those who left the planet did so because they were looking for heaven, and Earth too closely resembled hell.

There is a very important distinction to draw here, one that could make or break your decision on Black Sabbath, if you haven’t already made up your mind. Sabbath’s message on Master of Reality is pro-God and pro-love, but not necessarily pro-Christianity. Jesus is never mentioned explicitly, though God is. The principles Sabbath presents here are found in an undiluted form in Christianity, but they’re careful to avoid throwing their hat in with the Christian crowd (or any crowd).

And I can’t talk about Master of Reality and its Christian themes without also talking about a track from their very next album Vol. 4, called “Under the Sun.” It’s a cover, but it captures BS’s spirit very well. It’s a call to not let anyone’s philosophy intrude on your own, to make your own path. This is stupid, of course; everyone’s philosophy is a collection of things they’ve heard and have chosen to hang onto. The reason I mention it is that they make a reference to “Jesus freaks” in the first line, where the narrator is laying out all the people groups he doesn’t want telling him what to believe. That list also includes “black magicians,” but the slap in the face to Christians remains. “Under the Sun” basically says the singer already has it all figured out, and doesn’t want anybody telling him what’s what; a revelation of arrogance, naivety, and plain old stupidity.

Black Sabbath eventually came to accept their slightly demonic image, and in 1980 they started fostering it. Ozzy had been fired, and an essential part of Black Sabbath’s image was gone. Nature abhors a vacuum, but rather than replace Ozzy, they shifted their image and musical direction, hiring Ronnie James Dio as the new lead belter. With the addition of Dio, they started leaning into the suggestions of Satanism, or at least started embracing the devilish side of their public face.

Ronnie James Dio

The Dio Sabbath always made me uncomfortable. With Ozzy, the suggestions of Satanism were a hysterical joke, made tragic by that some people took the joke seriously. With Dio, though, they seemed somehow authentic. I fear they started dabbling with things they shouldn’t. All in all, Black Sabbath’s Lucifer influences are a lot of bluster without any substance, but they came dangerously close to making them real in the early 80s. For that reason, I’ve always preferred the Ozzy years to Dio. After Dio… well, it’s not worth mentioning.

I’m sure you can visualize the scene: two long-haired gadabouts clad in dirty black cargo pants and Slayer t-shirts go to the home of one of them to smoke a bag of weed they just scored. They go to the tool shed in the backyard, converted to a drug haven for the two potheads, with metal posters on the walls, a lava lamp and an old, smelly couch with the upholstery spilling out of the cushions. The only thing needed to complete the scene before the two wastoids light up is some groovy, crunchy tunes. One of them goes to the CD player and very ironically puts on Master of Reality, and the first sounds of Tony Iommi coughing (presumably from marijuana smoke) starts in, and the other one nods and says “niiiiice.”

There; how’s that for completely unqualified knowledge from a guy who’s never done an illegal drug in his life?

A lot of people point to Master of Reality as the birth of what’s called “stoner rock.” It usually involves very distorted guitars, minor keys and simple, repetitive figures. An entire song can consist of one riff of two measures repeated for 4 minutes.

If you ask me, I’m not sure “stoner rock” really exists; it might be no more than music scholars having too much time on their hands but needing to validate their choice of career, and thus creating sub-sub-sub-subcategories for everything under the sun. I shouldn’t speak too ill of them, though, since I definitely wouldn’t turn down someone offering to pay me actual money to invent terms like “stoner rock.” The more I think about it, the more it’s sounding like a really good gig.

Here’s my argument. In my mind, stoner rock is music that provides a good soundtrack for getting high, and it helps if there is a positive reference to the uses and powers of drugs. Under that definition, Phish would be stoner rock. So would the Black Crowes. And Cypress Hill. So would Bob Marley, Enya, the Spin Doctors and Enigma. In fact, a case could be made for almost any band having at least one song that qualifies as stoner rock, which is what makes the label so problematic.

The questionable status of stoner rock aside, Master of Reality does have plodding guitars and lazy approach to musicality (simple and bluesy, not a lot of adornment), both of which make it particularly suited to leaning back and getting wasted. That combined with the opening track being a romantic ode to marijuana and it’s easy to see why Master of Reality gets associated with the drug culture. If there is such a thing as stoner rock, “Sweet Leaf” is the quintessential song of the genre, but it’s really the only qualifying one on the entirety of Master of Reality, and arguably in Sabbath’s entire catalog.

Hippies were really ancestors of modern-day stoners, and Black Sabbath shares some lyrical commonality with them on this album, if not musically. In 1971, The music culture was reacting to the hippie movement, and acts like Black Sabbath, the Stooges and David Bowie had an opposite aesthetic to hippie bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, even if they sometimes had matching lyrical themes.

“Children of the Grave” is a breath away from being a protest song, very in line with the hippie movement. While it has very dark and doomy music, it promotes revolution through non-violence and passive resistance. The title is a little deceiving; it makes you think it’s about zombies or something, and it takes a slightly more sardonic and fatalistic tone. You might not expect it from a band so often associated with Satanism, but “Children of the Grave” is quite positive. It centers on love.

Love, believe it or not, is a big theme of Master of Reality. Metal bands nowadays have a huge aversion to themes like love, forgiveness, joy and positivity. Instead, they myopically focus on suffering, evil, torture, self-loathing and chaos. Love is uncool. Yet here, on what is largely agreed upon to be one of the bedrock albums of heavy metal, Black Sabbath are talking about not only love, but (gasp!) God.

Next up: Black Sabbath says “God is the only way to love…” wait, what???

Master of Reality – Black Sabbath – 7/21/1971

You’ve probably already had an inkling that I’m a Christian. While I’m very much aggrieved at the misunderstanding the use of that term causes (people assume all sorts of stuff they shouldn’t…), I’m also not ashamed of it, and I can’t change that I’m a Christian any more than a bumblebee can change that it makes honey. So of course, my Christianity plays a big role in what I see through my Coke bottle glasses.

Everybody has Coke bottle glasses. They’re why two people can get completely different things out of a piece of art, why there’s such a thing as political parties, and why historical events look different the more time that’s passed. Some things look the same through everyone’s, but art isn’t one of them. Art, in some cases, can have as many interpretations as there are people interacting with it.

Suffice to say, my own Coke bottle glasses usually look at a thing and see God reflected in it, however he may be disguised. So what do they see when I look at the Black Sabbath song “Sweet Leaf?”

“Sweet Leaf” is an ode to the wonders and miracles of the ganja, though you might not know it at first due to the sappy sentiments the lyrics put forth. They’re downright gushing, like a teenage girl in love with her first boyfriend. Its squishy romanticism would be touching were the love it portrays not for an inanimate object, and an illegal one at that. As such, it’s pretty unabashed. It stops just short of actually mentioning marijuana by name.

The music is in deep contrast to the lyrics, however. Ozzy sings about his romance with weed with the same snarling intensity he would have if he were describing a witches’ coven. The guitars are slow, sludgy, unyielding and repetitive; the perfect soundtrack for getting completely stoned.

There is, however, an alternate interpretation (my own), one that doesn’t involve pot at all. Keep in mind this is absolutely not what the author intended when he wrote “Sweet Leaf.” There are few songs that are more obviously about a thing (and likewise not another), but I can’t help but think about Jesus when I hear it, just like I can’t help but chuckle at that thought.

That’s right, I said Jesus. Why couldn’t “Sweet Leaf” be about how much the singer loves Jesus? The rhetoric in the song is strikingly similar to what new believers say about their new-found love of Christ (“my life is free now” and “you gave to me a new belief”). The gushing adoration “Sweet Leaf” shows could easily be transferred to Christ. Heck, it even has biblical support. Consider this line:

You introduced me to my mind

 Hebrews 8 says, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Also, consider this:

 Straight people don’t know what you’re about / they put you down and shut you out

 In Acts 19, some of the people Paul was telling about God “became obstinate,” “refused to believe,” and “maligned the Way.” Then there’s this:

 You gave to me a new belief / And soon the world will love you, sweet leaf

 God had this to say, speaking through the prophet Isaiah: “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will confess.”

Remember what I said awhile ago about Christians who use the bible as a means to support what they already think, and how you shouldn’t do it? Pretty ironic, huh? It’s okay, though; I’m wearing my self-awareness hat.

It’s almost silly how blinding and obvious the parallels are between the love of pot and the love of Christ. Or at least, they’re obvious to someone with my Coke bottle glasses. So why not? Why can’t “Sweet Leaf” be about Jesus?

I’ll answer my own question, if you don’t mind. There are some very glaring inconsistencies within the text of “Sweet Leaf,” things that simply don’t make sense under this interpretation. Here they are:

You introduced me to my mind / and left me wanting you and your kind

I love you, sweet leaf / though you can’t hear

hey, don’t let me stop ya

The “you and your kind” line is enough to kill it right there. There’s no way for that to make any sense if the song is about Christ. “Your kind” would be who? Buddah? Mohammad? Vishnu? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? In addition, the “you can’t hear” line doesn’t even make sense if the song’s about pot. Of course marijuana can’t hear; it’s a plant. The most intelligent thing I can come up with is, “duh.”

Of course, I’m not saying “Sweet Leaf” is really about Jesus Christ. I’m only saying, “Wouldn’t it be weird/ironic/hysterical if it was?” I do this to illustrate two things. The first is that with art, truly nothing is off-limits. The second is this: where’s the fun in art if you’re not allowed to come up with outlandish and indefensible  theories from time to time?

Tomorrow: what is “stoner rock?”

Paranoid deals chiefly with three subjects: depression, drugs, and social issues relevant to the day. Two songs out of eight don’t fit the pattern, those being “Iron Man” and “Planet Caravan.” The latter doesn’t fit any pattern established by the rest of Paranoid, and is a very odd duck amidst the heaviest album ever, coming right before the two most metal songs on here.

“Planet Caravan” is a quiet, ethereal dreamscape. Its’ lyrics speak of the moon, the skies, starlight, and even the planet/Greek god Mars, supposedly being about a journey through the universe with your loved one. The one pattern this sets up is metal artists having one quiet, subdued, or sensitive number on their albums. Black Sabbath was consistent, having “Solitude” on their next record Master of Reality, “Changes” on Vol. 4, and “Fluff” on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.  While I think metal musicians generally suffer from insecurity about the size of their male organs, a lack of a “Planet Caravan” track somewhere in their catalog seals the deal.

The peaceful calm of “Planet Caravan” only lasts a few minutes before it’s utterly shattered by the stomping inevitability of “Iron Man” in what’s one of the most famous riffs in all of rock and roll. But “Iron an” arguably isn’t the heaviest track on here. In my estimation, that honor goes to the opening song of the vinyl flip, “Electric Funeral.”

Loud, doomy and quivering, “Electric Funeral” has the same element of impending destruction “Iron Man” does so well. Like “War Pigs” does with war, it deals with the topic of nuclear holocaust through horrifying imagery. Musically, this is even more terror-inducing than their Satan opus “Black Sabbath.” It’s not enough to tip me over into actually believing this, but “Electric Funeral” makes a pretty strong case for some music (regardless of lyrics) being inherently evil.

It’s also an example of a motif that’s present in much of Black Sabbath’s early output; the heaviest songs are often the slowest. Heavy metal acts from the 80s onwards took the approach that faster is better, more notes equals more awesome.  Metallica in particular developed early on a hard-charging musical personality. For them, it came out of playing in L.A. clubs where no one was listening to them, so they decided to play louder and faster in order to get the crowd’s attention. More and more, I’m realizing that while fast songs translate anger better, slow songs have much more doom. Doom is the most dangerous weapon in the heavy metal arsenal.

hey, fairies DO wear boots!

I mentioned drugs as a subject of Paranoid, and it gets two songs as well. “Hand of Doom” is a fairly straightforward song about the dangers of hard drugs, particularly heroin. It’s long and meandering, featuring an extended solo in the middle that has Tony self-indulging, like “Warning” from the previous album. At the cap, there’s “Fairies Wear Boots,” a more subtle treatment of hallucinogens. The fabled story goes that Geezer wrote the lyrics to this after he and Ozzy encountered some skinheads wearing combat boots. Geezer mocks them in the song calling them “fairies.” BS had a tendency to sensationalize themselves, and I have a feeling the skinhead story is simply that. Even a cursory analysis of “Fairies Wear Boots” tells me it’s about drugs, particularly the last 3 lines. “So I went to the doctor to see what he could give me / He said ‘son, son, you’ve gone too far / ‘Cause smokin’ and trippin’ is all that you do.’”

Two of my closest friends are practicing psychologists. One of the things in the shrink’s bag of tricks is the word association game. If a psychologist played that game with me and they said “Metal,” I would have to respond with “Paranoid.” Led Zeppelin are responsible for the genesis of the genre with II, but Black Sabbath wear the metal crown by having the single greatest and most influential statement in metal’s entire history, even to this day. Paranoid did 90% of the work that was started by II and brought it to full fruition by perfectly capturing what it means to be heavy metal, defining that term in a way that’s lasting through the ages. When musical scholars talk about heavy metal, they’re talking about Paranoid.

Paranoid – Black Sabbath – 9/18/1970

Things were barreling along for Black Sabbath since their first album. Black Sabbath didn’t do it for the critics at the time, but it sold well. The band was like lightning, and they did their best to capture that lightning in a bottle with their first two albums. They returned to the studio just a few months after Black Sabbath was released, and they again did a recording at hyper-speed. It was 6 days and Paranoid was ready for the presses.

In 3rd century BCE, the Macedonian author and war strategist Polyaenus wrote an account of Macedonian king Antigonus II Gontanas’ siege on the Greek city of Megara. Antigonus came with an impressive array of war elephants, but they failed because the Megarians outsmarted them by doing a simple but ingenious thing. When the fearsome elephants approached, the Megarians took several pigs, doused them with pitch and resin, lit them all on fire, and sent them out the city gates where they ran pell-mell, screaming and squealing. They ran right into the elephants. Instead of crushing the much smaller animals under their feet, the elephants panicked and fled in terror of the killer pigs, quite often killing the soldiers driving them. Antigonus had to admit that he had lost to a bunch of pigs.

This could be seen as the Little Guy (the Megarians) using pretty ingenious methods to overcome the Big Guy (the Macedonians) who was pushing him around. It’s kind of a cool underdog story, but what about the pigs? Any way you spin it, it pretty much sucks to be them.

From there we go to “War Pigs.” In Black Sabbath’s narrative, the “pigs” are reversed to mean politicians who carelessly and arrogantly send others off to die. BS must have been feeling the injustice of the powerful making unilateral decisions that have no effect on them, but a huge effect on the powerless. But the song was originally about witches and satanic rites, a darker but less sophisticated subject. The original lyrics can be heard on The Ozzman Cometh, a retrospective of Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career released in 1997.

Whereas their record company generally ignored them the first time around, they were slavering dogs for Paranoid. Executives paid it very close attention, meddling only a little in the scope of record companies’ involvement in the creative process. The album was originally supposed to be called War Pigs, but label bigwigs thought that would cause too much controversy about the ongoing Vietnam War. The band members had to be saying, “What’s wrong with controversy? It is about Vietnam!”

The title track comes next, though it almost didn’t exist. Near the end of the recording process, they found they didn’t quite have enough material. They also didn’t have a punchy, radio-friendly single, as the record company reminded them. Tony Iommi started playing a guitar riff, the rest of the band joined in, and Geezer penned lyrics on the spot. “It took twenty, twenty-five minutes from top to bottom,” drummer Bill Ward explained.

Twenty or twenty five minutes to give birth to what is largely thought of to be one of the greatest heavy metal songs of all time. In Finland, its name is even shouted out at concerts, regardless of who’s playing or what style of music is being performed. The riff is one of the easiest guitar licks to play, and the legacy of “Paranoid” has grown so that for nearly every young rock guitarist, this is one of the first songs they learn.

no, not THAT Iron Man… jeez

Amazingly, this album houses yet another iconic and uber-classic metal song, “Iron Man.” When Tony first played the riff for the rest of the band, Ozzy said it sounded “like a big iron bloke walking around.” Lyrics were again written on the fly in the studio, and recording of it couldn’t have taken that long. Again, this is foundational stuff for rock guitarists. In the movie School of Rock, Dewey Finn is introducing classical guitar prodigy Zack to the electric by playing him rock licks and seeing if he can copy them. And what’s the first riff Dewey plays for him? You guessed it.

Tomorrow: can music be evil?

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… 😉

Diabolus in Musica

I graduated from college with a BA in English, and knew I was going to be an English major ever since I was 14. Another type of no-brainer was selecting a music minor; it was a no brainer not because it was really easy and I didn’t have to even think about it, but because if I had actually used my brain, I would have said “not on your life.”

Nevertheless, I was technically a music minor for the entirety of my freshman year; I dropped it when I had my fall sophomore conference with my academic advisor. During that freshman year, I took Music Theory I and II. It was stimulating, if you can call taking an electric drill to your own forehead “stimulating.” But despite the mechanizing of something I found to be completely organic, Music Theory taught me a great deal about the craft and science of music. I learned about the diatonic scale, counterpoint, the different modes (Ionian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, etc.), and the I IV V (one, four, five)pattern.

One of the things that stuck in my mind was the interval (the amount of distance between two consecutive notes) called a diminished fifth. Now, the technical definition of that interval involves a lot of math and calculations and other things I don’t find at all interesting (and you probably won’t either).  But like music itself, it has an aspect that transcends the menial, ordinary mathematics of it.

The diminished fifth is a rather infamous interval in the music theory world. Its nickname is diabolus in musica, which is Latin for “the Devil in music.” Different from every other interval, its inherent dissonance strikes the listener as unsettling at best, terror-inducing at worst. It’s reserved for when the composer wants to portray a sense of dread and danger in his music. The Austrian composer Johann Joseph Fux thought it smacked of evil, something that could only come from Satan himself.

The most famous use of diabolus in musica in popular music comes from none other than Satan’s most loyal servants, the pinnacle purveyors of all things evil and malignant, Black Sabbath.

Sense the sarcasm, people.

The name Black Sabbath indicates all sorts of evil, unsettling things in a very cliché, stereotypical way. As a young Christian boy, I was warned about Satan and his wicked influence in the world so vehemently that he turned into a caricature, and I became skeptical that he even existed at all. In particular, I was warned about the rock and roll music I was becoming interesting in. Some even said there was a one-to-one connection between rock and roll and the worship of Satan; one inevitably lead to the other in a short period of time.

Poppycock and foolishness, all of it. Music can’t make you worship Satan any more than watching Bob Newhart on TV can make you go bald. The idea that millions of kids everywhere are falling into the “trap” of rock music is one of the more insulting things I’ve heard – not just to rock musicians, but to kids.

For the record, I do think Satan exists. In my opinion, he’s kind of like the Wizard of Oz; behind the smoke, lights and big scary machine, there’s a small, scared, pitiful person operating that machine. The difference is that while the Wizard of Oz constructed it himself, Satan’s frightening guise is our making. He only has as much power in your individual life as you yourself give him. In truth, you have power over him.

As for rock and roll, Satan finds it to be a rather useful tool; but so does God. Rock music has been used by humans to promote some pretty awful things, both obvious and subtle, but it has also been used to save kids’ lives, lead people to God, and generally uplift humanity. Rock and roll (and all music) is one of the most striking places we can see God.