On the Sinister Majesty of Black Sabbath

With a new box set collecting the original lineup’s first eight albums, we pay tribute to the lords of this world


When Black Sabbath first attempted to tour America in 1970, they had a Hell of a time. “We had to face the mayor of [every] town,” drummer Bill Ward once recalled. “We were banned all the time. They were afraid of us. They thought we were going to put a spell on you.”

Although Mick Jagger and Sammy Davis, Jr. had already publicly flirted with satanism, Black Sabbath — whose members all wore crosses to ward off evil — were much too scary for the United States. Their self-titled debut album sported a witchy woman on its cover, their eponymous song detailed an ill-fated dalliance with a demon (“Please God help me!”), and, in the U.K., their label took things one hooved step further by printing an inverted cross on the inside sleeve with a passage about a dead, black swan floating upside down in a lake as a preamble for what was inside. The group had nicked its name from a 1963 Boris Karloff horror movie, and both its name and fright-flick lyrics sparked confusion and new mythologies nearly everywhere they went.

Over the years, rumors have abounded that Church of Satan founder Anton Szandor LaVey hosted a parade in their honor in San Francisco that year (not true, the Church’s High Priest, Magus Peter H. Gilmore tells Rolling Stone — though there was a Sabbath float in a gay pride parade in the Golden Gate City that year), and then there were whisperings that the Manson Family were fans of the band, which makes no sense since the Tate-LaBianca murders were a year earlier. And then there were the misunderstandings that had nothing to do with black magic: Ozzy Osbourne recalled in his autobiography how when the band played Philadelphia, a group of African American concertgoers were disappointed the band didn’t live up to their expectations. “You guys ain’t black,” one of them told Osbourne. Black Sabbath were a mystery, and it was the mythology of Black Sabbath that built heavy metal.

Many bands can claim responsibility for the genre’s bludgeoning guitar lines and intensely intense vocals (Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin are obvious go-to’s, and critic Lester Bangs once curiously cited the Velvet Underground’s White Light/White Heat as a starting point), but the group most responsible for metal as the world knows it today is Black Sabbath. The song “Black Sabbath,” the first track on their first album, begins with eerie sound effects of rain and church bells (a brilliantly gothic detail that foreshadowed the darkness to come) before exploding with guitarist Tony Iommi’s lumbering, Godzilla stomp of a riff and Osbourne pleading to heaven to deliver him from Satan — lyrics he based on a nightmare bassist Geezer Butler had had. They wanted to feel scared and they wanted you to feel scared. Over the next eight years, they used that song as a prototype for new sounds — speeding it up, funking it up, stretching it out, wringing the blues out of it, inverting it into lucious folk music — essentially creating the Rosetta Stone for metal with their early discography.

The band’s first eight albums, the ones made by Osbourne, Iommi, Butler, and Ward, are still vital, enigmatic, and inspiring. On an album like Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, the band transitions from the blunt-force riff pugilism of the frightening title cut (dig that almost Black Flaggy breakdown, “Nowhere to run to … “) to the intricate, contemplative “Sabbra Cadabra” within a few minutes — and it makes perfect sense.

Those albums, compiled into Rhino’s new limited-edition LP box set, The Vinyl Collection: 1970 – 1978, represent the multifaceted essence of not just Black Sabbath but metal and hard rock as a whole, proving why they weren’t just the first but also the greatest metal band. And vinyl is the best way to experience the music since you can ponder the quixotic artwork (who is the witch on the cover of Black Sabbath? why are there airmen on Never Say Die? what was Bill Ward smoking when he wore see-through red tights for the cover of Sabotage?) and feel the pacing and admire the grooves of the music as the LP spins on the turntable. (And to sweeten people’s appreciation, the box set also includes replica tour programs from the Seventies, which oddly include Osbourne and Iommi sniping at each other in the interviews within — it shows how the prickly pair made the band’s chemistry work.)

But it’s the music that remains most powerful. You can hear the breakneck thrashing of Metallica and Slayer in “Children of the Grave” and “Symptom of the Universe,” the manic riffs of the Sex Pistols and Ramones are steeped in “Paranoid,” and the downer-rock groundwork of grunge reverberates through songs like “War Pigs” and “Into the Void.” Although Black Sabbath went on to record brilliant albums with Ronnie James Dio and Ian Gillan in the Eighties, the group’s original lineup sowed the seeds for a whole musical culture in the previous decade on their first eight LPs.

The reason the music was so game-changing — and so excellent — was because it was a reflection of who these four men were offstage. The band members have each made much of their working-class backgrounds, growing up in post-War Birmingham, England. Iommi accidentally lopped off the fingertips of his fretting hand, forcing him to relearn the guitar and draw inspiration from Gypsy-jazz virtuoso Django Reinhardt. Osbourne came from a big family and worked as a car-horn tuner and in a slaughterhouse before spending time in jail for burglary; eventually his dad bought him a PA, setting him on the road to music making. Butler grew up in an Irish-Catholic household but suffered from undiagnosed depression causing him to feel like an outcast. And Ward had a humble upbringing where his parents encouraged his drumming. When they formed Black Sabbath (né Earth, smartly né the Polka Tulk Blues Band) in 1968, they all were avowed fans of the blues and heavy rock like Jimi Hendrix and Cream but as Butler once said, “We just took it one step heavier.”

The secret to Black Sabbath’s sound in the beginning was that they wanted to be big. The first original song they they remember writing was “Wicked World,” a skittery blues number about what an abomination the planet was in 1969 with poor people dying in the gutter. But it’s on the second song they wrote, “Black Sabbath,” where they consecrated their approach. Iommi and Butler (formerly a guitar player) colluded to make the riff sound massive, like more than the two of them playing at once, and Ward approached his instrument not so much like Ginger Baker but like an expressionist painter, adding drama to each of Osbourne’s pleas for salvation. The first single they put out, included in the box set as a bonus cut on its mono-only Monomania compilation, was a cover of American hard rockers Crow’s “Evil Woman,” a chunky blues number advising cruel-hearted ladies to steer clear of the band members. It was two years after Fleetwood Mac’s “Black Magic Woman” (and the same year as Santana’s) and two years before Eagles’ “Witchy Woman” — and none of this means anything since Black Sabbath courted every kind of women throughout the Seventies, regardless of their evil affiliations.

But beyond the cover versions, each band member found his groove. Iommi was the riffmaster general, capable of whipping out a song like “Paranoid” in an afternoon; to this day, Osbourne says that while he and Iommi have had their personal differences, nobody writes riffs like Iommi. The guitarist once said that he would sometimes put himself in a grim mood on purpose in order to write riffs, but his impish personality and love of pranks suggests they just come naturally to him. Osbourne was the king of melodies, sometimes copying the riff, sometimes going way out. Butler was the wordsmith, the “Irish poet” as Ward has dubbed him (even though Butler unapologetically rhymed “masses” with “masses” in “War Pigs”), writing about his general malaise with the world. He and Ward together were the band’s glue, creating a heavy groove that no other band has matched. Together, they concocted a curious mix of footslogging blues and ornately gothic melodies that paradoxically both paid tribute to and showed a great fear of death and the underworld.

And then there was their look. If the peace and love generation dressed themselves like an acid trip, Black Sabbath were like a PCP nightmare with their garish clothes, Osbourne’s fringe jacket, and their mid-Seventies wizard garb. They looked as scary as they sounded. You knew that their racket was unwittingly born of a beautiful dysfunction, a natural urge that came out of the four of them together.

Music critic Lester Bangs infamously closed his Rolling Stone review of the album Black Sabbath (which was incidentally released in the U.K. on a Friday the 13th) with the punchline that Sabbath were “just like Cream! But worse.” He eventually became a fan as the group became more nuanced, but he missed out on the directness that separated them from Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce. Where Cream had a song like “Sunshine of Your Love,” Sabbath used a similar riff for Black Sabbath’s “N.I.B.” and infused it with dark psychedelia and a thicker wallop. Their music was much more barebones and much more like a slap in the face; Cream were genteel London noblemen by comparison.

Butler wrote lyrics about H.P. Lovecraft–inspired trippiness (“Behind the Wall of Sleep”), astral projection and love (“Planet Caravan”), war (“War Pigs,” “Hand of Doom,” “Children of the Grave”), and feeling like an outcast (“Paranoid”). He avowed the band’s love of Jesus Christ in the wake of a British sorcerer allegedly hexing them (“After Forever”) and his love of drugs (“Sweet Leaf”). “Into the Void,” one of the band’s heaviest early songs, was an elegy for a dying planet: “Back on earth the flame of life burns low/Everywhere is misery and woe/Pollution kills the air, the land, the sea/Man prepares to meet his destiny.” It was the opposite of megahits in 1971 like Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart.”

“Sabbath was everything the Sixties weren’t,” Metallica frontman James Hetfield once beamed. “Their music was so cool because it was completely anti-hippie.”

In their defiance, Sabbath embraced nuance. Just look at the grooves of 1970’s Paranoid or 1971’s Master of Reality, and the folky ballads are immediately noticeable next to ragers like “Lord of This World,” as are effects like the gurgly voiced “I am Iron Man” that opens one of their most famous songs or the choking weed cough of “Sweet Leaf.” It’s a paradox of detail and dudeliness. A mono version of the Master track “Into the Void” on Monomania is even thicker and heavier than the one on the record, and you can feel the power they were starting to tap into with their music on the way the verse riff on “After Forever” returns with an extra dimension of bass-guitar smackdown. They were masters of their own reality.

On 1972’s unimaginatively titled Vol. 4, the group broke new ground and recorded some of their most creative sounds. It was the band’s proud cocaine moment (“We wish to thank the great COKE-Cola Company of Los Angeles,” read the liner notes) and they paid tribute to their powdery muse on “Snowblind.” But there was a new depth of sound on the weighty “Wheels of Confusion” and thumping “Supernaut.” The ballad “Changes” featured a piano and a mellotron with an orchestral string sound, and it was disarmingly fragile. The record closes with “Under the Sun,” a tune that grinds slower and slower and slower as it ends until you’re looking up from the dirt. “Life is one long overdose,” Osbourne sings.

The group had leveled up, and its music would grow more and more complex on 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and their last masterpiece, 1975’s Sabotage (which sports a deceptively corny album cover despite the impossibly hard-hitting riff on “The Thrill of It All”). Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’s “Killing Yourself to Live” is like a Black Sabbath glossary that finds Osbourne screeching, “I’m telling you, believe in me” — and you want to with all the blues riffs, Sgt. Pepper psychedelia and its surprising breakdown. In the middle of it he whispers “smoke it” in one speaker, and “get high” in the other, and you don’t know if it’s peer pressure or an admonition. That album’s “Who Are You?” is a buoyant synth track Osbourne dreamt up, complete with a proto-industrial rattle, and the record as a whole variously features Iommi playing synth, flute, organ, bagpipes, and piano, while Ward expanded his repertoire to bongos and timpani.

And on Sabotage, they invert the folky, Latin jazz jam at the end of “Symptom of the Universe” by pairing one of their heaviest-ever songs, “Hole in the Sky,” with a quirky acoustic jam called “Don’t Start Too Late.” And once again, you can see in the grooves how complicated a song like the gloomy “Megalomania” on Sabotage is by the way the rungs contort. “Symptom,” too, contains some of Butler’s trippiest lyrics, in which he asks you to “take [him] through the centuries to supersonic years” and “swim the magic ocean I’ve been crying all these years,” making it one of the band’s biggest headfucks. The megagothic “Supertzar” is an instrumental piece Iommi dreamt up, complete with a 55-voice choir, and it was majestic enough for the band to use it to open their shows on the tours that followed.

Drink, drugs, and too many years on the road got the better of them on their two final releases of their initial run, 1976’s Technical Ecstasy, and 1978’s ironically titled swan song for Osbourne, Never Say Die!, and the music is noticeably less inspired but still rocks as hard (if not a little harder) than Led Zeppelin’s two final albums. Oddly, the Never Say Die! single “A Hard Road,” with its slick swagger got them back on Top of the Pops, eight years after they played “Paranoid” on the U.K. music show, making them pop stars. But the intra-band bacchanalia proved too much for the group and they oustered Osbourne for his herculean drug use (even though they were all using), ultimately giving him the opportunity to defy all odds and become a bigger solo star than the band in the Eighties all while they started over with Ronnie James Dio and inspired a new wave of heavy metal fans with their Heaven and Hell album.

At their peak — whether that’s their first trilogy of heavy-hitting albums or the technical ecstasy of their work in the mid-Seventies — Black Sabbath were the touchstone for everything that followed. Although the band members have each scoffed at the metal tag over the years, they’ve never denied their influence on the genre and the bands whom they have inspired.

In the five decades since they formed, Black Sabbath’s music has been interpreted in many different ways. Metallica reveled in the complexity of their mid-Seventies recordings. Megadeth zeroed in on the hits (“Paranoid” and “Never Say Die”) and thrashed them up. Pantera surprisingly tackled the ballad “Planet Caravan.” Van Halen, who went out on their first big tour supporting Sabbath, once flirted with calling themselves Rat Salad after an instrumental on Paranoid. Cypress Hill, Ice-T and Busta Rhymes all sampled Sabbath. And the band Sleep is basically a Sabbath tribute band, formed at a time when the band was less fashionable. Moreover, Weezer, Green Day, Charles Bradley, Blondie, Foo Fighters, Replacements, the Roots, Beastie Boys and Courtney Love, among dozens of others, have covered their songs. Without these eight records, music would sound drastically different.

Weirdly, some of the band members don’t fully appreciate the work they put into their records. “I was always disappointed with our albums because of the fact that we were a fucking great live band,” drummer Bill Ward said in the liner notes to the 1998 live album Reunion. “I felt we always lost something by trying to record what we did.” But long after the original lineup fell apart, it’s what they put on their LPs that cemented their legend.

Since 1979, the original members of Black Sabbath have reunited and broken up and carried on with solo records. Everything finally came full circle in 2013, when they released 13 (sadly without Ward and not included in the box set) showing they still had it in them to conjure their dark spirits for tracks like “Damaged Soul” and “God Is Dead?” that could have come out anytime in the Seventies. The album was a worldwide smash, notching the Number One positions in the U.S. and U.K. The determination, and the willingness to work through their differences, harks back to a lyric on Vol. 4’s “Under the Sun,” and one that captures the spirit of the band:

“Just believe in yourself you know you really shouldn’t have to pretend/
“Don’t let those empty people try to interfere with your mind/
“Just live your life and leave them all behind”

Long may this message echo through centuries into supersonic years. Hail Black Sabbath, Lords of This World!

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