Born out of bands called The Rockin’ Chevrolets, Mythology, and Earth, Black Sabbath came to be in 1969. There was a Boris Karloff movie of the same that came out a few years earlier but it is a little unclear if Geezer Butler got the name directly from that movie or if he just imagined it. The band, which hails from Birmingham, a rough working-class city in northern England, has been credited as starting Heavy Metal music. I don’t know if that’s true but they were definitely at the forefront of heavy rock & roll music.
Heavy Metal as a term was first used in Steppenwolf’s classic Born to be Wild. In that case they were actually referring to Harley Davidson motorcycles but the phrase stuck and later came to identify a genre of music. Heavy rock music dates backs to the mid sixties with early pioneers such as The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and Deep Purple. Notice a trend? Almost all of them were from England.
Heavy metal and hard rock have been around for over a half century and have splintered into so many sub-genres that it would be difficult to name them all. Birmingham, or more generally, England’s Midlands region, is home to some or rock’s most iconic rock bands, such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Judas Priest, and half of Led Zeppelin, which all have lent their hands in some form or another to the creation of hard rock and heavy metal. Bands such as Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Metallica, as well as bands from the grunge era of the early to mid nineties claim to have been influenced by Black Sabbath and Ozzy Osbourne’s solo work.
I love Black Sabbath and have been a fan of their music since I was a young boy- many years ago indeed. Their music has endured for decades. They have many diehard fans, and gain new fans every year. And for good reason. Their music is incredibly unique, punctuated by solid musicianship. They are one of rock’s truly great bands.
The original lineup consisted of Terrence ‘Geezer’ Butler on bass, Bill Ward on drums, Tony Iomi on guitar, and the inimitable John Michael Osbourne (of course, better known as Ozzy) on vocals. Geezer wrote most of the lyrics in the early days, with Tony being in charge of composing most of the music, Ozzy came up with the melodies and Ward provided his own unique take on drumming. It was a collaboration of friends who hailed from the same neighbourhood.
That lineup stayed intact until the late seventies when Ozzy left the group, as they were undergoing enormous financial and legal challenges, and their popularity was waning. Ozzy went on to form his own band as a solo artist. He had incredible success in the eighties and nineties during his solo career, surrounding himself with superlative musicians such as Randy Rhoads and Zakk Wylde, two phenomenal guitarists who played with Ozzy and different times. Randy Rhoads’ life was tragically cut short in a 1982 airplane crash, just as the Ozzy phenomenon was just taking off.
Ozzy later gained fame as the creator, curator, and leader of the Ozzfest series of outdoor concerts in the nineties. He also appeared in a reality TV series of his own in the early 2000’s that gained him a new generation of fans. The original Black Sabbath lineup got back together in 1985 to perform for Live Aid in Philadelphia and they got together off and on again throughout the years to perform charity events and to occasionally take part in various Ozzfest performances. They played for the Queen of England for her Diamond Jubilee and even had an audience with Her Majesty.
Tony Iomi overcame his fight with cancer and occasionally collaborates with Ozzy and Geezer, along with his longtime friend and collaborator, Geoff Nicholls. Bill Ward however, has faded from the scene due to health issues. Ozzy overcame his very well published struggles with drugs and alcohol and is nowadays busy promoting “hard and heavy” rock through his Sirius XM station, Ozzy’s Boneyard, and supporting new acts such as Post Malone. In 2003, he collaborated with his daughter Kelly and reached Number 1 in the UK with a remake of Black Sabbath’s Changes.
Tony Iomi and the band have collaborated with and/or have been friends with a whole host of rock royalty, including Brian May, Rick Wakeman, Ian Gillan, Cozy Powell, Vinny Appice, Ian Anderson, Bev Bevan, Eddie Van Halen, Gene Simmons, Alvin Lee, and John Bonham, who was even his best man at Tony’s first marriage. Tony Iomi and Jimmy Page are friends, even to this day. Imagine a jam with Tony Iomi, Brian May and Jimmy Page! Ozzy is friends with Paul McCartney and Elton John. Simply mind-blowing to think of!
If you’re not familiar with Black Sabbath, I suggest you get to know them. Their music is all over the internet and most of their music is still available to purchase. They had three different lead singers over their career: Ozzy Osbourne, Ronnie James Dio, and Ian Gillan (best known as Deep Purple’s lead singer). Ian Gillan only recorded one album with them, tilted Born Again. That album was quite successful and had a couple of really good tunes.
Tony Iomi has been credited with being the first professional player to use ultra light guitar strings. Stemming from a work injury in which he lost the tips of two of his fingers on his right hand (he is a left handed player so they were on his fretting hand – YIKES!!!). He convinced a Welsh guitar string company to produce lighter gauge strings to help him play due to his infirmity. He also improvised his own prosthetic fingertips from a melted down plastic bottle and strips of leather for grip. Belgian guitarist, Django Reinhardt, who played guitar with only two fingers was a huge inspiration to him. The wider use of lighter gauge strings amongst guitar players took off soon after because they are easier to bend. Rock and blues guitarists incorporate a lot of string bending in their playing.
Here is a totally biased, personal selection of songs that I suggest you get acquainted with to discover this incredible band:
From the Ozzy Osbourne years:
- War Pigs, from the Paranoid album, which also features the title track, Iron Man, and Fairies Wear Boots, all popular and noteworthy songs but to me, War Pigs is the pinnacle of the album, both lyrically and musically . Probably their most political song, it consists of thoughtful and thought provoking lyrics, a very good musical arrangement, sprinkled with the right amount of rests, bridges, instrumental sections, and of course, Ozzy’s incredibly powerful vocals. It starts off with Geezer riffing on the bass and Tony laying down some power chords, over some really tasty subtle drumming, which leads to the sound of an air raid siren. The drumming and bass on this song are phenomenal with Tony playing nicely off the rhythm section with a nice array of guitar fills and power chords at different times. There is a really nice jam in the middle of the song. You will also hear some awesome bass and drums and some really impressive lead guitar work. Given its almost 8 minute length, timing and key changes, this is definitely not your typical rock song. Its almost orchestral in its arrangement and is a real masterpiece of rock and roll recording.
- Supernaut: from their album Volume 4. The intro guitar lick is absolutely guttural and incredibly heavy. One of the best guitar licks ever recorded, in my opinion. The bass is absolutely killer in this track too. You definitely notice a lot more overdubs and a more polished production in Volume 4 and on subsequent albums – signs of a maturing band.
- Snowblind: a song about cocaine addiction, also from the Volume 4 album. What I like about it is that there is a range in the musical styles. It mixes power chords and arpeggiated chords, playing brilliantly off the bass and drums. There is a really nice guitar solo in the middle. It’s not just heavy from stat to finish. What I didn’t realize before reading both Iomi’s and Osbourne’s biographies, it was about their own addiction to the drug. Nevertheless, it’s a great song.
- The Wizard, from their tremendous debut album, named Black Sabbath, the Wizard is a tremendous tune. This album also features Black Sabbath (the song), The Warning and NIB. The Wizard starts off with a great harmonica riff and winds up into a true heavy rock classic. I love the way they jam together for about a minute before the singing starts. Black Sabbath was the first band to write about black magic, which unfortunately gave them somewhat of an unsavory reputation that overshadowed their musical and lyrical brilliance and pigeonholed them into a narrow musical genre. Their record company’s marketing is also to blame for painting them into that corner. They were after all just four lads who loved to play great music together. At the time it was released, Black Sabbath was probably the heaviest album ever recorded. The urban myth is that the song NIB stands for Nativity in Black but it was really just a nickname they had for their original drummer, Bill Ward.
- Sabbath Bloody Sabbath from the album of the same name, is one their classics. It starts off with a few bars of an excellent guitar riff, leading right into Ozzy’s really powerful vocals. There are some great mellow bits in this song, featuring a little acoustic guitar punctuated with clean, jazzy sounding electric guitar fills. The song is much heavier toward the end but there is a real musical journey in this song. Recorded at a time when the first iteration of the band had reached the peak of its popularity and personal issues were beginning to surface.
Then I suggest you listen to their third album, Master of Reality, from start to finish. It was for this album that Iomi and Butler tuned down three semitones. This would mean the sixth string would be tuned to C#, the fifth to F#, the fourth to B, the third to E, the second to G#, and the first to C# as well. Master of Reality in my opinion, is one of their best and is somewhat under-rated. I tried this tuning on my guitar and did it ever sound weird. The strings also get very loose when tuned this way so they’re kind of floppy and go out of tune really easily. I don’t know how they did it but they somehow pulled it off.
Ronnie James Dio initially only recorded two albums with the Black Sabbath before going solo but they have gone on to form part of Black Sabbath’s lore and heritage. In the middle of the Mob Rules tour, Dio was already negotiating to form is own solo act so their association was bound not to last very long. Tony Iomi and Dio did remain friends for many years after, right up to their release of an album called Headless Cross, in the late eighties, when they got together again for a short period. They collaborated and performed off and on right up to Dio’s untimely death.
From the Ronnie James Dio years:
- Neon Knights – the first single from the Heaven and Hell album, it is a more upbeat and commercial than most Black Sabbath songs but features much of the excellent musicianship all of us Black Sabbath fans have come to expect, especially prominent is Iomi’s stellar guitar work. It is played at a faster tempo than most Black Sabbath songs. There is a fantastic bridge in this song that leads into a great pre-chorus and one hell of a guitar solo.
- Heaven and Hell – the title track of their first album with Ronnie James Dio as their singer. It is very slow tempo and kind of plodding song to start but the hypnotic monotone bass, soaring vocals and an outstanding guitar solo build up to a hard and heavy crescendo at the end. There are some really nice vocal harmonies interspersed throughout the song (I really don’t know who sang harmonies but from what I read, Bill Ward had a great singing voice but Tony Iomi did not). It is a masterpiece of metal recordings. Iomi was at his best in this song. There is a really nice classical guitar bit right at the end, showing just how versatile Tony Iomi is a guitarist.
- The Mob Rules – first recorded for the movie Heavy Metal, the song was re-recorded twice before becoming title track of the band’s second album with Dio as lead singer. The Heavy Metal soundtrack is fantastic and features songs from Journey, Don Felder (of The Eagles), Sammy Haggar (pre-Van Halen), Devo, Blue Oyster Cult, and a few other notable appearances. The Mob Rules album features Vinny Appice on drums for the first time, who took over for Bill Ward who had left the band in the middle of their Heaven & Hell tour. Mob Rules absolutely kicks butt as a true rock song. Outstanding guitar work, chugging bass, melt your face vocals, and rock solid drumming.
- Turn Up the Night – from the Mob Rules album is upbeat and sounds quite a bit like Neon Knights, with elements of Supernaut but it is an excellent song. Probably too poppy for most Sabbath purists but I like it. I really like the wah pedal work on the solos. Playing wah without overdoing it is a real talent. Trust me, I’ve tried…and tried…and tried.
- Children of the Sea – this song, from the band’s Heaven and Hell album, starts off with a very melodic arpeggiated guitar and pop inspired vocals. It builds in to hard charging rock rhythm, with Tony’s signature licks and Dio’s astounding vocals. A really solid tune.
I think Ronnie James Dio was technically a better singer but Ozzy’s delivery and showmanship is second to none. Unfortunately, Dio passed away in 2010 of stomach cancer: A sad and tremendous blow to the world of rock and roll.
There is real depth and variety to their music. I think it’s unfair and a disservice to only label them as a “heavy” band. There is also true poignancy and introspection to their lyrics.
Here’s a some proof that Black Sabbath’s music is still relevant to today’s listeners:
“Iron Man, My Journey Through Heaven and Hell With Black Sabbath” by Tony Iomi and T.J. Lamers, Da Capo Press, 2011, ISBN-13: 978-0-306-82145-5
“I Am Ozzy” by Ozzy Osbourne and Chris Ayres, Grand Central Publishing, 2009, ISBN: 978-0-446-56990-3
http://www.blacksabbath.com, The Official Black Sabbath website