One rainy Sunday a few weeks ago, I was stuck in traffic and listening to one of my all-time favorite records: Black Sabbath’s self-titled 1970 debut. Briefly, I lamented that I hadn’t gone into music criticism, despite my love of good music writing and Scrooge McDuck quantity of amassed
unsolicited opinions records. If only I had a some kind of venue to try my hand at it... and then I remembered that I did! Before I made it past the stoplight (it was that kind of rainy Sunday traffic) I had come up with the idea of a media review section for this blog, the name “Never Say Disc,” and our subject of its first post. Given our shared love of Black Sabbath and the fact that Halloween would fall on a Saturday this year, it was obvious that we'd need to inaugurate our new media section by talking about Black Sabbaths’s Black Sabbath. - B
While these three are rarely grouped together, outside the breadth of their influence, I find a definite commonality in their respective approaches: an emphasis on simplicity and repetition, combined with the backbeat shuffle rhythms of early rock’n’roll (especially Bo Diddly), played with stripped-down instrumentation and arrangement (John Cale’s viola notwithstanding) at aggressively high volumes. While many of their peers were following the Beatles’ exploration of layered sounds and oceans of overdubs, these bands made albums essentially reproducing what one might hear at a live concert (not entirely due to lack of funding and label support... but that was certainly a factor). While the Velvets explored repetition and drone as an extension of avant-garde visual art and literature, and the Stooges used it to represent a one-track adolescent id, Sabbath’s repetition added a sense of tension and dread to music that had become comforting and familiar.
"The blues is a chair, not a design for a chair, or a better chair .... it is the first chair. It is a chair for sitting on, not chairs for looking at or being appreciated." - John Lennon
The explosion of British rock in the 1960s came largely out of deep connection young people, particularly those living in poverty, with American blues. Heavier, blues based rock had already gone through several iterations by the time Tony, Ozzy, Geezer, and Bill tried their hand at it, and the sound had become largely predictable and formulaic. While their Birmingham drinking buddies Led Zeppelin took the approach of combining blues traditionalism with fantasy and psychedelia, their own band, Earth, would become the world-changing Black Sabbath by taking blues-rock and breaking it.
The opening track of Black Sabbath, the song that defined the band’s sound and gave them their name, perfectly encapsulates their approach from the very first three notes, famously forming a “diabolic tritone.” Hanging between the fourth and fifth in the minor scale, the sequence fails to resolve, creating a sense of tension and ambiguity. This effect is heightened by Tony's rapid trill between augmented fourth and perfect fifth - keeping the listener just on the edge of resolution and escape, but never quite reaching it.
This lack of resolution carries through to structure of the song itself. Even other heavy blues bands like as Cream (who Sabbath was regularly accused of ripping off in the early years) loyally kept themselves to the classic blues structure, primarily the 12-bar. The listener knows where the song is going, and a familiarity establishes a sense of community - knowing where the story will end, blues is a journey musician and audience take together. Sabbath, though, is having none of that. The simple, ominous riff of “Black Sabbath” repeats and… repeats, pulling back to a creepy, skeletal version when Ozzy is singing and exploding into massive chords between verses. One can only imagine how the very first listeners felt, waiting and waiting for the progression to move and only hearing that same riff go from ominous dread to open terror. When things finally do change up at the bridge, it’s an escalation, rather than a relief, with the bassline dropping from a choreographed marionette dance around the guitar part to a single, pounding note. The guitar starts a second repeated riff, faster and dizzying, before breaking into a raw and primal solo far sounding more like a series of screams than technical wizardry expected of lead guitar post-Hendrix. And, of course, that poor listener expecting solace as the cymbals fade is lulled into a false sense of security by the silence that follows… only to be blasted by the surprise, final assault.
“Black Sabbath” is a terrifying, unrelenting beast that toys with the listener's emotions and gut-level responses, dragging them into a realm of darkness and horror, even before the lyrics factor in … no wonder audiences loved it so much, the band changed their name and entire approach to match it. But, while repetition is obviously foregrounded, the title track doesn’t make obvious use of the backbeat groove mentioned above. The album’s next song, “The Wizard,” more than makes up for this, with Ward’s shuffle holding everything together through an even more stripped-down riff, equally divided between notes and rests. It’s utterly amazing that this was recorded live in the studio (including vocals!), something only made possible through the band’s intense familiarity each other's playing and with the material. The end result come across as… pure wizardry.
While it’s tempting to analyze every track on the record, all of the major elements of Black Sabbath’s sound and approach are evident in these two songs. Over the rest of the album, each member gets their chance to take the spotlight without ever once dropping their intense interplay. The effect of Tony Iommi’s hand injuries on Sabbath’s sound, through light strings and low tunings, as well as Geezer’s bass taking on a rhythmic melodic role that might normally be handled by guitar, are well-known, but I’d like to take a moment to discuss Ozzy’s vocals. They are, to put it bluntly from a technical perspective, utterly terrible - he has virtually no range, when he does try for a melody he’s usually just following the guitar part with a delivery that could best be described as a nasal whine. After all, the band first brought him because he owned his own PA system. And it’s one of the best things that ever happened to rock music.
In a post-punk (not to be confused with the genre "postpunk") world, Ozzy’s vocals aren’t nearly as striking as they must have seemed at the time - we’re used to a naturalistic approach to vocals, emphasizing emotional honesty over technical ability. But to get an idea of the difference between Ozzy’s approach and one more accepted at the time, one only needs to compare their version of “Evil Woman,” the only cover song Sabbath did over their entire career, with the original. David Wagner is very much in the shaggy style of the late '60s, but he shows a wide range and melodic sense, wheras Ozzy… sounds like Ozzy. And the distance between audience and performer drops away. He’s not a gifted superstar, he’s a regular bloke singing because he can. To borrow a phrase from Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra, who had his own epiphany when seeing the Ramones, “anybody could do this... I could do this!”
And that is one of the reasons Black Sabbath means so much to me. Like the others mentioned above (and the Ramones for that matter), listening to them always makes me want to go out and do it myself, musically and otherwise, and the raw accessibility of the first album most of all. This venture is one such project, and for that, Ozzy, Geezer, Tony, and Bill, I am eternally grateful.
Iron Man." Of course, that song isn’t even on the first album, and the version I heard may have been off of the Speak of the Devil Ozzy album. After all, by the time I could have started to really appreciate Black Sabbath, Ozzy was already doing his own thing and Sabbath had moved on. Whatever the circumstances, I was hooked as a young child and could often be found tapping out Black Sabbath beats on a pair of Hit Stix - something my brother seemed keenly proud of at the time.
Back in the mid '80s, there was still a great deal of "Satanic Panic" going on, and it's somewhat amazing to me that I was even allowed to know about things like Dungeons & Dragons and Black Sabbath. The connection between both RPGs and metal shouldn’t be a surprise considering that both of them share fantasy at their very roots. D&D certainly took some inspiration from Lord of the Rings, and the Black Sabbath song "The Wizard" was at least partly based on Gandalf, per Black Sabbath bassist and lyricist Geezer Butler. Perhaps somehow, that common link to the fantasy world is what drew me to both things. I can’t say my family was very religious as I was growing up, but maybe the "Satanic Panic" was part of brother's glee in "corrupting" me with heavy metal. If there is a hell, I guess I'm likely going there, since my love of both roleplaying games and classic metal hasn’t at all waned over the years.
I’d almost forgotten it's been fifty years since the first album came out (and their second, as well), and the music feels just as amazing to me today as it did as a kid. One surprising item, when preparing for this post, was hearing Black Sabbath’s cover of "Evil Woman." I had never heard this as a kid growing up in the US, and my copy of the album doesn’t include it. Luckily, I was able to catch it, and some isolated track recordings from Sabbath’s second album on YouTube. You'd think the content and relatability of the album might age over time and grow stale, but even taking Evil Woman from the list, it's still a record I listen to time and again. In fact, here I am, listening to the album years later (and fifty since its release), still tapping out the music on my desk (albeit with no HitStix, this time), as it fills my head and my soul. If that doesn’t say something about an album, I’m not sure what does.