CLASSIC ALBUMS REVISITED: Black Sabbath’s Genre Defining Debut Turns 50

Black Sabbath in 1970, photo by Warner Brothers Records

On the sleeve: a grainy picture of a woman dressed in black. A stagnant pond. A creepy looking mill house. 

And two words. Black Sabbath

On the record: Rain. Thunder. A tolling bell. Those three notes. That voice.

And just like that, in February of 1970 – appropriately enough on the 13th – the face of music was changed forever.

The story of how four young Brummies spent twelve hours inside a recording studio on the 16th of October 1969, blissfully unaware of the seismic impact they were about to have on a world, has been told countless times. But seeing as how it’s not every day you invent an entirely new genre of music, that story will continue to be told for many moons to come. 

Of course, there are those who still like to argue that bands like Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple, both of whom had released debuts in the preceding two years, could also lay claim to that crown – not to mention US act, Blue Cheer. But while those three bands (and others) had clearly found the overdrive knob and given it a good, hard twist, none of them sounded so ominously dark and portentous as Sabbath. Discovering a thicker tone and another level of distortion, the band formerly known as Earth became the sonic embodiment of DOOM. A sound so bleak and full of dread, it could only have originated in the industrial wasteland of a post-war West Midlands.

It wasn’t all grim and depressing, however. Following the groundbreaking title track, ‘The Wizard’ opens with legendary frontman Ozzy Osbourne playing, of all things, a harmonica. A jaunty prog-infused riff then takes over until mustachioed guitar hero Tony Iommi gets his fingers (or what was left of them anyway) on it, making it his own.

All of this while drummer Bill Ward, instead of playing aggressively like so many modern sticksmen would do, strikes his skins and cymbals not only with force but with a freedom and swing that, when coupled with Geezer Butler‘s four-string gymnastics, creates a warm, jazzy feel inside the darkness. All of these elements combine perfectly on songs like ‘Behind the Wall of Sleep’, and quite simply the best song ever written about a drummer’s pointy beard, ‘N.I.B.’. 

Even the album’s two cover versions, ‘Evil Woman’, originally by Minneapolis based band Crow, and ‘Warning’ by The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation, sound fresh while staying as true as possible to the source material. Sandwiched between the two covers on Side B is ‘Sleeping Village’. A song of two halves, the first part is a quietly acoustic piece, Ozzy’s dominant vocals assisted by a Jew’s Harp played by producer Rodger Bain, while the second half is an instrumental of differing moods and tempos.

Disappointingly, but also unsurprisingly, the world was simply not ready for this type of change, and the reviews at the time did not make for pleasant reading. “Bullshit necromancy” wrote The Village Voice, who also complained about the album’s “long solos”, while Rolling Stone described it as “just like Cream, but worse”. Time changes perceptions, however, and these days reviews as damning as those are now nought but a bad memory. Not that the band’s followers, even in those early days, cared one solitary jot. See, it wasn’t just heavy metal which was born inside those darkly magical grooves in 1970, but it was also the first signs of fierce loyalty shown by the next step in human evolution – the heavy metal fan.

And although the distinct “look” of heavy metal was still a few Judas Priest shaped years away, Black Sabbath facilitated that expansion from tasselled shirts and tasteless, crotch hugging red leggings into black leather and studded wristbands. The crosses, the songs about war and Satan, and that stockpile of ominous doom-laden riffs all pointed to Sabbath as the progenitors of something dark. Something frightening. Something from which mums and dads would attempt to shield their children for decades to come. 

So yeah, how did that work out for your parents, exactly?

GARY ALCOCK