It’s the day before Valentine’s Day in a brand new decade. The 60’s are done. The Summer of Love was three years ago and we’re three years from the three day week of miners strikes and power cuts. Heavy Metal is born.
The place is not so unlikely. Aston, Birmingham. A grim, impoverished part of a city that is black with the soot of industry. Where a factory job was a life sentence, the only option to those born into a post-war world where Britain has declined from its Empire heyday. In a handy twist of fate, it’s a job in a factory that so shapes the sound that ushers at the beginning of Heavy Metal, and cements Birmingham as it’s foundling home. Black Sabbath’s eponymous debut album was brought to the world on the 13th February 1970.
Laid down in just 12 hours, performed as if live, and with minimal redubs, the lads were in the pub for last orders. The second day of mixing saw the band already back on the road for a gig in Europe. They didn’t even hear the iconic rain-lashed opening as it was added after they’d gone. No, this wasn’t one of those albums that are nurtured, agonized over and teased into the shape we find it in. This was a snapshot, a vignette, a momentary distillation of Sabbath as they stood that day.
They stood after a somewhat tumultuous beginning. All four band members grew up within a mile of each other. Ozzy and Tony knew each other from school. Ozzy had less than fond memories of the lad from the year above. “He had fists like fucking hammers” was his recollection. All four were also born within a year of each other in 1948-49 and all grew up loving music and showing a keen interest in playing an instrument.
Tony was the most musically adept. He was the one with the most experience playing in bands and he’d been gigging from Birmingham to Carlisle since his teenage years. As a welder, Tony should have been kept clear of most of the work in the factory but they were short-handed and he worked the press one day. It slammed down on his hand trapping his fingertips in the press. His immediate reaction to pull his hand out ripped the tips off the middle and ring finger of his right hand. Being a lefty, this was the hand he fretted with and he thought he’d never play again. And for a while, he didn’t. Until the factory foreman told him to listen to Django Reinhardt and he started to believe he could figure something out. With a soldering iron, a Fairy washing up liquid bottle and some bits of an old leather jacket, he made some makeshift fingertips and the rest is history.
Bill Ward grew up obsessed with hitting anything he could find in the kitchen and he made kits out of boxes and cigarette tins, even making his own sticks. His mom played piano and the music of Count Basie and Glenn Miller ran through his childhood home, leading to him being inspired by Joe Morello of the Dave Brubeck Quartet whose unusual time signatures he improvised and worked out on his own. He then moved onto Gene Krupa who aside from being in black and white movies Bill saw him as one of the pioneers of rock music “In the late forties into the fifties, he changed some of the styles of certain rhythms in drumming. Basically, when one listens to the history of Krupa it’s easily identifiable where the crossover into rock took place.” For Bill, it was Elvis Presley’s Jailhouse Rock that sealed the move from big-band Jazz to Rock and Roll and he never looked back.
Geezer was the baby of the family and his habit of calling every adult “geezer” as a kid stuck around as his nickname. He got his first guitar (only two working strings) at 11 and then his brother got him a brand new acoustic (all six strings this time) from George Clay’s Music Shop in Birmingham’s Bull Ring for £8. His long hair meant going down the Villa would have seen him getting his head kicked in by the skinheads so music became his distraction at every waking moment.
And then Ozzy. Obviously, Ozzy had to be different. His advert in the local music shop that advertised a singer needing a band, Ozzie Zig (has own PA). It had drawn the attention of Geezer who had been in various bands with various names and at a certain point in Rare Breed they needed a singer. In came Ozzy.
It also, much later on, drew the attention of Tony and Bill whose band Mythology imploded when the Carlisle police raided the band’s flat and arrest them all for possession of marijuana. In a previous band The Rest, the two had been aware of Rare Breed, though they were far more rivals than fellow co-conspirators in the Birmingham scene.
Tony said to Bill that he knew an Ozzy from school but that guy didn’t sing so it can’t be him. They walked round to his house, knocked on the door, and once his Mom had gone and fetched John (Ozzy) they both decided against it. Ozzy remembered the Tony he’d had run-ins with at school. Tony remembered the kid from the year below, and he was still adamant he didn’t sing.
The fact was inescapable though. Even Ozzy had realized it over a brew at Geezer’s house. They were in need of a drummer and a guitarist, Tony and Bill needed a singer. Geezer wasn’t keen on dropping his six strings down to four and being relegated to the bass but not to look a gift horse in the mouth (or risk crossing Tony) they formed Earth. Well not quite.
They started as The Polka Tulk Blues Band, then The Earth Blues Band and then finally Earth. Eventually, they realized there was another band on the Birmingham circuit called Earth and they changed it to Black Sabbath. Geezer did play bass but had to borrow a mates broken down old thing with only three strings. He said, “I’d never played bass until I was on stage at the first gig that we played”.
As time moved on the band picked up some gigs, including residency gigs in Brondby, Denmark and Hamburg, Germany (at the same club the Beatles cut their teeth a few years before). The first song they properly started to build was War Pigs, which began as a 40-minute ramble designed to fill up the longer setlist a residency demanded.
Not long afterward, at home in their rehearsal room in Aston, they began to craft their infamous debut’s side 1 track 1. Geezer had been listening to Mars, from Holst’s The Planet Suite, and sat playing it on his bass when Tony started to change it a little bit. This change was unwittingly devilish and involved the triton or Diabolus Musica, the most toxic interval in music, equating to half an octave. In the Middle Ages, it was branded the Devils Interval and banned throughout the land. Tony is adamant he didn’t know anything about it when he started playing it but he did say he felt compelled to play it like he did….
Lyrically it’s a retelling of an episode of Geezer’s dabbling in the occult. He woke up with a figure in black pointing at him and considering his room was painted black and decorated with inverted crosses it wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine it was the devil himself. Geezer took the message to be “convert or clear off out of it” so he painted his room orange, started wearing a cross, and put away all his books on the occult.
With the Devil on their shoulder or not, the band took the song to a pub in Lichfield called the Pokey Hole and gave Black Sabbath it’s first outing. It brought the house down and they knew they were on to something good. From those earliest days it would have been impossible to see the band itself, let alone the album they smashed out in 12 hours, the way we look at it today.
Their inauspicious beginnings were like a lot of bands of that or any era.
Had trouble being signed? Check.
Reviled and derided by the music press? Check.
Strained relationships within the band from the beginning? Check.
Drugs on the scene from day one? Also Check.
To be honest, if it hadn’t been for Tony leaving to ever-so-briefly join Jethro Tull they’d probably have imploded before they started. Ian Anderson ruled the rest of Tull and set himself apart from the band, making the decisions and pushing them on. Tony performed with Tull on the Rolling Stones Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus which featured The Who, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and a new supergroup called Dirty Mac featuring Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, and Mitch Mitchell on drums. It gave the lonely Iommi an insight into how the big boys did it, and that they were often just as dysfunctional and quarrelsome as any band, which set his mind to the soon to be Sabbath he’d left behind. He’d been branded as lucky to land the Tull gig which wound him up, and he felt like he had the chops to not only play based on his own merits but that he could maybe run his own band rather than being a bit-part player in someone else’s.
The change on his return to Birmingham laid the foundation for the band, and the album, that both bore the name Black Sabbath. The album itself has its problems, its weaker moments, but it’s stood the test of time remarkably well considering the impact, the inimitable sound and the platform it gave the band.
The statement starts to be made before the needle hits the groove. A woman in black stares into your soul from the distorted color scape of a derelict looking watermill. On the inside the inverted cross that caused the band so much aggravation and was the source of incessant rumors of satanism, paganism, wiccanism. If there was an “ism” that the Christian Conservative press didn’t like, somehow Sabbath was responsible or at least involved.
The album is 8 tracks long and although it lacks the “greatest hits” line up that Paranoid enjoys, it has a great cohesive soul. Every track, bar one, flows into another almost as if they were not only written all at the same time, but all in one track and it was simply portioned up into easier to manage pieces.
The opener “Black Sabbath” is a masterpiece. It brings a sound that is all it’s own. Like the Blues have been smashed in the mouth with a broken bottle. This uglification of what had gone before is the true nexus of Heavy Metal. It’s a dirge of a song that is true Brummie style soaks you in a surprise rainstorm right out the gate. You can almost feel the macabre churchyard bell tolling your doom. As soon as “What is this that stands before me?” comes out of the speakers you know you’re in for something that is not like anything else that went before. It builds this slow, forbidding narrative for four and a half minutes before slowly ratcheting up the pace and then exploding for the final two minutes into much more recognizable rock riffs and crescendo.
Then comes Gandalf.
Not literally but the Wizard is inspired by the Tolkein troublemaker and the tone gives the old guy with the big beard a proper bluesey strut.
Gandalf the pimp if you will. Lyrically it suffuses what is largely a nothing narrative with nods in a word here or there to the source material. All apart from the “Never talking, just keeps walking” line which couldn’t be further from the truth.
If the Lord of the Rings had been about a wizard cutting about the Bullring on a funky as hell Saturday afternoon. This would be it.
Behind the Wall of Sleep is another taking inspiration from Geezer’s bedside table of books. H.P. Lovecraft’s Beyond the Wall Of Sleep. It plays out in a similar vein to the Wizard, but more guitars and less harmonica. It also shows more invention from Geezer on bass which he soon brings to prominence on N.I.B.
Low and behold the next track is N.I.B. itself. The story of the Devil falling in love with a human woman and being better for it. Not to mention one of the greatest intros to any song ever written, let alone any Metal song. The slow-building walk of a riff struts into your ears, presumably like the Devil making his way over to the bar to chat up the aforementioned woman. The heavy strum that opens the song properly? That’ll be the Devil asking “How you doin’?”. The rest of the song moves along just how that night would have gone. A journey through an evening of metal debauchery with Ozzy voicing the fallen Angel, and the rest of the band his cast of supplicant demons. Not bad for a song named for the shape of Geezer’s beard.
Now we hit the speed bump. Evil Woman isn’t awful. It does stand out from the rest of the album like some sort of intermission. I suppose even Beelzebub gets a coffee break. This was a forced inclusion of a track, a cover of a Crow song that Jim Simpson suggested the band do so they had something commercial to flog to an American audience.
Speaking of America, Sleeping Village sounds like Black Sabbath if it had been set in a Morricone Spaghetti Western instead of a demonic English village. The guitars that steal back control from the twanging “Fistful of Dollars” intro are the four horsemen of the Goth Apocalypse. Riding into town like latter-day Peaky Blinders, the smell of Aston still emanating from their black garb.
Warning is exactly that.
End of the album, last track on the first entry of Metal lore.
I was bored without you baby. Damn right we were and if anything our feelings now are a little bit stronger than they were before.
Hearing this album on the eve of Valentine’s day fifty years ago, possibly using the money you should have spent on a present for the missus, would have been special. Hearing it now with fifty years of history stacked upon it is even more special. A foundation stone that built an empire of catatonic riffs, cocaine-fuelled drums, and balls-out rock vocals. Inspiring our heroes that would follow from California to Kyoto and all the way back to the grime filled, soot-stained Birmingham that spawned the band, the sound, the soul of Heavy Metal.
What now then, fifty years later?
It’s easier to look at the past now that the band almost got back to their original line up. I suppose we’ll never know what the true facts are about the acrimonious split from Bill Ward unless someone puts out another book, but this was as close as we got to that line up from 1970.
We also get to pass over the endless carousel of band members and crap albums that categorize the heavy cocaine and “power trip Tony” times of the sans Ozzy years. A nod of course to Heaven and Hell and the pocket dynamo that is Ronny James Dio, but let’s face it Sabbath just wasn’t Sabbath with anyone else but the original four Aston boys. As Henry Rollins famously said, “Don’t trust anyone who doesn’t like the first four Sabbath albums”. Well said that man.
From the under-appreciated scumbags from the arse end of Birmingham, the perception of Sabbath has changed as much as the city they come from. As the grit and grime of Birmingham fell away through the last 20 years of construction and clean up the band’s coalescence back to the early line up has been greeted as the return of true rock icons. The reunion in 2011 and the release of “13” in 2013 gave rise to the sort of comeback that even Ozzy wouldn’t have believed “If you’d have told me I’d be playing with him (Tony) again I’d think you were fucking mental”. With Brad Wilk of RATM and Audioslave replacing Bill Ward on drums for the album and Tommy Clefutos for the touring, the world got Sabbath for six more years.
Their final performances were on their “The End” tour and finished with two dates on the 2nd and 4th of February 2017. They of course finished in Birmingham at the Genting Arena, part of a complex that they’d never have believed could have been a part of their city in 1970.
Also, they wouldn’t have believed the “Home Of Metal” exhibition at the BMAG (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery) and the subsequent Black Sabbath exhibition celebrating 50 years of the band. The Home of Metal exhibition came about in 2011 celebrating 40 years of Heavy Metal and it’s indelible links with Birmingham and the surrounding areas, focused primarily on Sabbath, Judas Priest and half of Led Zeppelin. The 50 years of Black Sabbath exhibition landed in the summer of 2019 and served as an appropriate send off to the band from the city that loves them so much.
An underdog of a city, ever in the shadow of London, and then to the music scenes of Liverpool and Manchester, produced the ultimate underdog band.
If Birmingham had produced a world-conquering pop band with mansions full of platinum plaques it wouldn’t have felt right. It had to have produced a band that was the sum total of its experiences in that dark decade of the seventies, and even if they’d fallen into obscurity the second Black Sabbath was released they’d have still been legends within the ring road of Birmingham. As it happens, 50 years later, they’re legends to many more people, from much further away.
Article by James Clinch