Black Sabbath is the one band that all metalheads respect, and love, regardless of the metal genre they prefer. Whether you’re into thrash, groove, classic, or bleak metal, I’m sure you have a soft spot for the “prince of darkness” and company.
In the late 60s and early 70s, many bands like Led Zeppelin, or Deep Purple were changing their sound. Their blues-based rock was evolving, and they ventured into new levels of heavy tones. But, the one band that stood out, and gave way to a whole new genre that would last for more than 50 years is “Sabbath”.
This article is my homage to the godfathers of heavy metal.
The band was formed in Birmingham in 1968. The original line-up consisted of Ozzy Osbourne on vocals, Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass, and Bill Ward on drums, which remained unchanged from 1969 to 1978. In their long career, there were numerous changes in the lineup and Iommi remained the only original member.
Black Sabbath was among the first heavy metal bands in history and contributed significantly to the development of the genre. From 1970 to 2010 they sold more than 100 million records worldwide. They are also to blame for the birth of several heavy metal subgenres, in particular doom metal and stoner rock. In 2003 they were 85th on Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Artists list; 3 of their albums were named on Rolling Stone’s 500 Best Albums list:
- Master of Reality (300th place).
- Black Sabbath (241st place).
- Paranoid (131st place).
The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
Origins and the name
Black Sabbath’s first breath of air saw the light in 1966 in Aston, a town near Birmingham, when guitarist Anthony “Tony” Iommi and drummer William “Bill” Ward saw an announcement of a singer looking for other musicians to start a band:
“Ozzy Zig is looking for a band. He has his own amplification.”
Ozzy Zig was John “Ozzy” Osbourne, a bitter rival of Iommi in school. Iommi and Ward went to Ozzy’s house and decided to form a band. Osbourne brought in two other musicians who had played with him in the “Rare Breed” group. They were guitarists Terence “Geezer” Butler and Jimmy Phillips.
Butler later took up the role of the bass player, and saxophonist Alan “Aker” Clarke was also hired. The group initially chose the name “Polka Tulk Blues Band”, then shortened to “Polka Tulk”. Their first repertoire consisted mainly of blues. Clarke and Phillips left the group and the remaining members decided to change their name to “Earth”. The line-up performed in various venues playing covers of Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer, Beatles, and Cream. They recorded their first demo in 1968, which had moderate success in English pubs and allowed the group to make a name also in Germany, thanks to the resourcefulness of manager Jim Simpson.
After a short time, the name of the band was changed because of another group called “Earth”. The new name came from Butler, a great lover of Dennis Wheatley’s black magic and horror novels. He was a fan of the Mario Bava film called The Three Faces of Fear. The English version of the title was Black Sabbath.
The band transitioned from blues to an increasingly darker and heavier sound. The first record company Sabbath signed for was Fontana Records; later they landed at the newly formed Vertigo. With the new label, on February 13, 1970, the band’s debut album was released, simply titled “Black Sabbath“.
The “classical” period (1970-1972)
Black Sabbath was a great success and reached No. 8 in the UK. This was, in large part, due to later historical songs such as “Black Sabbath”, “The Wizard” and “N.I.B”. Their contemporaries Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin practiced a more melodic sound of rock ‘n’ roll and blues. The music of Sabbath, although with similar characteristics, presented heavier and darker sounds, with references to the devil and the occult.
Black Sabbath are not yet considered a metal band since at the time the genre had not yet been created. It will take in fact 15 years from their debut for the name “heavy metal” to be coined. A radical music revolution, that makes a whole movement of excellent bands born in the early 80s adopt the name both musically, and stylewize.
Returning to Sabbath, they are however to be considered innovators. They are undisputed godfathers of Metal and Doom. In the song “Black Sabbath” Tony Iommi uses the “Devil’s Triad” (a turn-based on the interval of three tones, precisely tritone, or diminished fifth, I – Vb). It is a strongly dissonant and disorienting musical interval that in the Middle Ages was called “Diabolus in musica”.
The next album, Paranoid, released in 1970, still represents the group’s greatest commercial success. It was No. 1 in the English chart, with four platinum records and one gold record. Paranoid is considered of essential importance for the birth of heavy metal, and rock history in general.
Thanks to iconic songs like Paranoid, Iron Man, Electric Funeral, and War Pigs, Black Sabbath were able to touch thousands of people, and quickly grow their fan base. This album showed how deep and beyond the “black” image the band could go. Songs with more mature topics, such as the anti-establishment “War Pigs”, or the sci-fi Iron Man were just a taste of what was yet to come.
Master of Reality
In 1971 Black Sabbath released a highly successful third album, Master of Reality, the band’s darkest and most introspective album. Together with the previous Black Sabbath and Paranoid, it is considered fundamental for the birth of doom metal and sludge metal. In addition to the classics (Children of the Grave and After Forever), Master of Reality is known, above all, for its “sinister” stylistic elements in songs “Sweet Leaf”, “Lord of This World”, “Solitude”, and “Into the Void”.
Iommi plays with the guitar tuned in C sharp for the first time (one and a half tones lower than the traditional tuning), as does Butler with his bass. Iommi stated that the reason for the lower tuning was to better integrate Ozzy’s vocal style, and give heaviness to the music. Later, starting with the “Heaven and Hell” album, the guitar and bass were tuned in D sharp. Although Jimi Hendrix and others had already adopted this practice in the past, Black Sabbath were among the first to make use of the so-called “down tuning”, a practice that became almost standard for many rock and heavy metal bands.
The Experimental Age
Black Sabbath’s fourth album “Vol. 4” was released in 1972. The new album hinted to the first of the various changes in the sound with evident progressive rock influence. One of the strong points is the ballad “Changes”, in which Osbourne sings accompanied by piano and strings. It was a clear sign of how the sound of the line-up was evolving, but songs like “Tomorrow’s Dream”, “Snowblind” and “Supernaut” still show their heavier musical side.
In 1973 they released “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath”, an album rich in even more progressive rock atmospheres. This is also due to the presence of Rick Wakeman of Yes who appeared on keyboards, as an external member. Among the most evidently “progressive” songs are “Spiral Architect” and “A National Acrobat”. But the good old heavy and hard riffs are still there in “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and “Killing Yourself to Live”. The record was a success and went platinum, confirming the greatness of the band.
During this period there were a series of disruptions for the band. All members had serious drug addiction problems. The most obvious Osbourne and Ward, who, at the singer’s admission, used LSD every day for two years. A change of label (from Vertigo to WWA) postponed the release of the new album.
“Sabotage” was released in 1975. Musically, Sabotage is one of the most varied albums of the group, alternating heavy metal tracks such as “Hole In The Sky” and “Symptom Of The Universe” to original and unsettling experiments, such as the Russian-style choirs of “Supertzar” and the pop-rock sounds of “Am I Going Insane (Radio)”.
Their next album, “Technical Ecstasy” released in 1976, was the subject of heated discussions due to a more flexible sound and the presence of orchestral music and synthesizers. While some positively considered the record as very ambitious and innovative, many “early style” fans were disillusioned.
In 1977, at the end of the Technical Ecstasy tour, Osbourne left the band. In addition to the problems deriving from his now unstoppable addiction to alcohol and drugs, Ozzy had lost his father. The remaining members of the group came to rehearse for a few months with singer Dave Walker (ex Fleetwood Mac and Savoy Brown), with whom they began to work on new songs before Osbourne returned to lay down vocals for Black Sabbath’s 8th album.
“Never Say Die!” was released in 1978. The sound and style were far away from the popular “Master of Reality”, and “Paranoid”. The response was negative and some judged it as one of the worst albums of the Birmingham legends. Only the title track “Never Say Die” enjoyed popularity among their fans, although today many critics and fans consider the album refined and inspiring.
In 1979, due to irreversible conflicts with the rest of the band, Ozzy was fired. His drug and alcohol abuse had set the stage for the breakup. Many hardcore fans never considered susequent albums as “real” Black Sabbath. Things were just never the same after Osbourne’s departure.
Enter Ronnie James Dio
Osbourne’s departure was a tough blow to the band. Not only did he contribute to the making of the songs, but Ozzy was a perfect frontman who entertained the audience live. Finding a worthy replacement was a difficult task. After a while, the vacant position was offered to Ronnie James Dio, former lead singer of Elf and Rainbow.
This choice proved to be a success. The first album with Dio, “Heaven and Hell”, was released in 1980, and went platinum. It was the best result of the band since 1975 in terms of sales. Songs like “Neon Knights”, “Heaven and Hell” and “Die Young ” are still considered classics today. The album also featured Geoff Nicholls on keyboards. Although not always recognized as an official member of the group, Nicholls had an indisputable influence on the group, even at the compositional level.
Shortly after the release of the album, both of Bill Ward’s parents died in a short time span. His drinking problem escalated as a result, and he left the band. Ward was replaced by Vinnie Appice on drums.
The Devil’s Horns
Ronnie James Dio was proving to be a worthy substitute for Osbourne. He had an undeniable charisma, and the fans were loving him. His vocal performances were out of this world, and Black Sabbath was big as ever.
It was during the Heaven and Hell tour that Dio made famous the hand gesture of the horns, later adopted as a sort of “sign of recognition” by lovers of heavy metal. James said he learned this hand sign from his grandmother, who used it to ward off the evil eye.
Going back to the artistic activity of the band, Iommi and company, released their next album, “Mob Rules” in 1981. It was yet another success that confirmed their new style shaped thanks to the technical and compositional contributes of Dio. The album title track was chosen for the soundtrack of the Heavy Metal movie.
In 1982, Black Sabbath released their official live album “an “Live Evil”. It was a collection of their most famous songs. This release, however, brought new problems: Iommi and Dio gave rise to heated discussions regarding sound mixing. The guitarist accused the singer of coming to the studio after hours and raising the volume of his voice on the recording. All this triggered a series of quarrels that resulted in Dio and Appice leaving the band.
Exit Dio / Enter Gillan
The departure of Appice and Dio caused instability in the band. Cozy Powell was contacted for the role of drummer, but the answer was negative because he was already busy with Whitesnake. This gap was filled by the return of Bill Ward, but finding a new singer was more difficult. Nicky Moore of Samson and John Sloman of Lone Star were rejected. Iommi wanted to have Whitesnake’s David Coverdale but the singer refused.
Iommi and Butler turned to Ian Gillan, who free from musical commitments due to problems with his voice. The contact between the two sides is described by an anecdote: Gillan received a call from Iommi, who asked him to meet him for a chat. They met in “The Bear” pub in Woodstock and ended up getting drunk. The next day Gillan woke up confused and received a call from his manager, Phil Banfield, who told him to meet up with Black Sabbath to discuss with them having accepted the offer to become the new singer. Gillan didn’t remember anything from the previous night.
With Gillan in front of the microphone, Sabbath released “Born Again” in 1983. The album was a success ranking a solid 4th place in the UK charts. This album, like those of the Ozzy period, aroused protests from the P.M.R.C. The song “Trashed” was accused of instigating alcohol abuse and placed on a list called “The Filthy Fifteen”, issued by the association to indicate the 15 songs they considered most scandalous.
The partnership between Gillan and Black Sabbath was dubbed by many newspapers “Black Purple”, a fusion of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple. The tour was undertaken but Ward retired again and replaced by Bev Bevan, formerly of the Electric Light Orchestra. When the tour ended, Gillan returned to Deep Purple.
Instability and Controversies
After the departure of Gillan, the band resumed the search for a new singer. Spencer Proffer, the band’s new producer, contacted Ron Keel (ex Steeler and Keel) for an audition but was scrapped. The band, at Keel’s admission, wanted Ozzy to return.
Finally, the new official singer of the group became David Donato, who was with the band for about 6, but did not record any material. He was unexpectedly and mysteriously fired.
Even Geezer Butler left, forming the “Geezer Butler Band”, which did not record any albums. The original Black Sabbath lineup momentarily returned to the stage for Live Aid in 1985, organized by Bob Geldof, along with Elton John, Queen, David Bowie, The Who, Madonna, and U2. Iommi, who remained the only original member of the group, decided to temporarily stop Black Sabbath and embark on a solo project.
Meanwhile, Osbourne’s solo career was booming (he had previously released heavy metal classics such as “Blizzard of Ozz” and “Diary of a Madman”). The singer’s growing fame was increasingly overshadowing that of his former band.
In 1986 “Seventh Star” was released. Initially, it was supposed to be released in the name of Iommi but was later released, for contractual reasons with the record company, under the name Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi. After recruiting bassist Dave Spitz and drummer Eric Singer, the guitarist engaged various singers such as Rob Halford, Glenn Hughes, and Ronnie James Dio but found it difficult to employ multiple voices in an album. After rehearsing a piece with Hughes, Iommi decided to hire him to sing all the songs.
The arrival of Tony Martin
In the early stages of the 1986 tour, Hughes left the band with serious vocal problems after being punched in the throat by the group’s manager, Don Arden during an argument, and was replaced by Ray Gillen.
During the preparation of the next album, “The Eternal Idol”, drummer Bev Bevan and bassist Bob Daisley joined the band. In the midst of recording, Gillen walked out of Black Sabbath and was replaced by Tony Martin.
Martin was much appreciated, his singing skills were compared, by many, to those of Ronnie James Dio and he actively participated in the writing of the pieces. The album had some references to the past (the homonymous Eternal Idol remembers the dark sounds of Master of Reality), keeping the style adopted in recent years (the great contribution of keyboards). Although many consider it to be very good, this album did not achieve significant success.
Sabbath released “Headless Cross” in 1989, an album that achieved success, greater than that of Seventh Star and The Eternal Idol. A video was made for the album’s title track and aired for a while on MTV.
In 1990 (again with a new bassist: Whitesnake’s Neil Murray, who already played on the Headless Cross tour), Sabbath consolidated their “rebirth” with another album; “Tyr”. This album sold quite well and was followed by a successful tour.
In 1992 Iommi decided to reunite the early eighties formation with Geezer Butler, Ronnie James Dio and Vinny Appice. The resulting album, “Dehumanizer”, was a very rough sounding work that brought great feedback from audiences and critics. The band prepared a very successful tour.
Black Sabbath rehired Tony Martin and Geoff Nicholls and, with new drummer Bobby Rondinelli, recorded “Cross Purposes”, accompanied by “Cross Purposes Live”, a box set of CDs and videos, released in 1994 and currently out of print. When Rondinelli left the group he was replaced, surprisingly, by the drummer of the original formation, Bill Ward, who took over in time to play the last 4 dates of the tour in South America.
Once again Ward and Butler left, and 1995’s line-up of Tyr met again, with Powell and Murray, who recorded “Forbidden”, which did not receive good reviews from fans and critics. Rapper Ice-T was hosted on vocals on the song “Illusion of Power”.
In 1997 Ozzy Osbourne gave birth to his successful festival, “Ozzfest”. In the latter part of the show, Butler and Iommi (and later Ward as well) appeared on stage to play some classic Sabbath pieces. The original line-up, thus reunited under the “Ozzy banner”, recorded a double album in 1998, “Reunion”, composed exclusively of Osbourne era songs in live version, but on which two new studio songs were featured.
Heaven & Hell
On March 13, 2006, Black Sabbath was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with Blondie, Miles Davis, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Sex Pistols. They were introduced by Metallica, who also played two pieces from Iommi’s lineup (Hole in the Sky and Iron Man).
When it seemed that the line-up had now reached its final decline and retirement from the music scene, in October 2006 a summer tour was announced in the main European heavy metal festivals with the formation of the album Heaven and Hell: Dio, Iommi, Butler, and Ward.
Paradoxically, their name for this tour was Heaven & Hell. In November 2006 Ward left the project because he vaguely stated that there was speculation about the new name of the group and was replaced by Vinny Appice. On April 3, 2007, the group released “Black Sabbath”: The Dio Years. The album was a compilation of songs composed with Dio and also containing previously unreleased songs.
On April 28, 2009, “The Devil You Know”, the first studio album by Heaven & Hell, a group formed by the old members of Black Sabbath, was released.
The Death of Ronnie James Dio (2010)
On May 16, 2010, the news arrives of the passing of Ronnie James Dio, after five months of fighting stomach cancer. The whole world of rock, in general, has clung to the legendary singer’s family, expressing their sadness as soon as they heard the news. These are the words of Ozzy Osbourne:
“I am very sad to learn of the passing of Ronnie James Dio … Metal has undoubtedly lost one of the greatest voices ever. My heart is close to his family and his many fans.”
Reunion with Ozzy, 13, and ‘The End’ final tour
In August 2011 Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi confirmed that the group’s original line-up had reunited and was currently rehearsing for a tour and a new studio album. Iommi and Ozzy Osbourne composed new material in June and planned to release the record for the following year.
The following November, during a press conference convened at the Whiskey a Go-Go in West Hollywood, the band announced their desire to reunite with the original line-up. They were planning a world tour and the recording of an album, the first with Osbourne on vocals after 33 years.
On 13th January 2013, through the band’s official Twitter profile, “13” was announced, the group’s nineteenth studio album, released in June of the same year. On April 19, the band released the first single from their new album, titled “God Is Dead?”. The “13” album proved to be a tremendous success and peaked at number one on the UK sales charts. For the first time also on the Billboard 200 in the US. Ozzy himself said he was shocked by the success of the record.
The album was supported by a large-scale musical tour, which began in 2012 and ended in 2014; year in which Black Sabbath won the second Grammy award for “Best Metal Performance”.
On 30 September 2015, the band announced their farewell world tour “The End” with Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, and Geezer Butler. The tour did not feature Bill Ward and the drums were played by Tommy Clufetos. The tour began on January 20, 2016,
On 4 February 2017, they held the last concert in their hometown where they formed almost fifty years earlier in 1968 at Birmingham’s Genting Arena. On November 17th, 2017 the last live album “The End: Live in Birmingham” was released which documents the last performance of Black Sabbath.
The Sabbath Heritage
Peter Steele, Type O Negative“Black Sabbath are the ones who gave birth to what we usually consider heavy metal, and there isn’t a band around today that isn’t influenced, to any degree, by Tony Iommi’s group.”
Black Sabbath had a huge impact on subsequent generations. They are recognized direct and indirect influences on different musical genres: heavy metal, thrash metal, stoner rock, grunge and doom metal.
Despite being characterized by multiple subgenres, the heavy metal movement was influenced by them. Among the bands that have given credit to Sabbath for being their main influence are Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Venom, Electric Wizard, Opeth, Saxon, Samson, Angel Witch, Demon, Fear Factory and Type O Negative, just to name a few.
Along with the lesser-known Pentagram, Sabbath are considered godfathers of doom metal, a subgenre of heavy metal characterized by dark melodies and slow rhythms. In fact, Black Sabbath have songs characterized by fast rhythms (like Paranoid). However, slow tracks such as Iron Man, or several songs off the Master of Reality album, have clearly influenced bands like Saint Vitus, Cathedral, Candlemass, Anathema, My Dying Bride, Paradise Lost, and Sleep.
Black Sabbath has to be credited for the genesis of stoner rock, born in the early nineties, also rich in slow rhythms and guitars with low tunings. Among the groups of the genre that were inspired by Black Sabbath, we must certainly mention Kyuss, Unida, Slo Burn, Hermano, Fu Manchu, Karma to Burn, Master of Reality, Monster Magnet, Nebula, Orange Goblin, and Sleep. Some believe that Black Sabbath are also among the inspirers of the grunge movement.
Black Sabbath Discography:
- 1970 – Black Sabbath
- 1970 – Paranoid
- 1971 – Master of Reality
- 1972 – Black Sabbath, Vol. 4
- 1973 – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
- 1975 – Sabotage
- 1976 – Technical Ecstasy
- 1978 – Never Say Die!
- 1980 – Heaven and Hell
- 1981 – Mob Rules
- 1983 – Born Again
- 1986 – Seventh Star
- 1987 – The Eternal Idol
- 1989 – Headless Cross
- 1990 – Tyr
- 1992 – Dehumanizer
- 1994 – Cross Purposes
- 1995 – Forbidden
- 2013 – 13
I hope you enjoyed this article, and maybe learned something new about the first heavy metal band. People are people, and we often tend to forget or disregard the importance of certain artists and bands. I have recently discovered that many people think that Jimmy Hendrix, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, Nirvana or Sabbath are overrated. Although I don’t have to personally enjoy their music, only someone who doesn’t know music could say something like that.
These are people who have changed music, and made it what it is today. They have been revolutionary. It’s enough to do a little research, and things become clear. Music before these bands, and artists was one way. Music after these artists was something else, and never could go back to the previous state due to the impact they made.
Elvis Presley was the first to shape music in such a way. Every single performer and frontman since has been influenced by him. The Beatles showed everyone that music knows no rules or creative boundaries. Hendrix changed guitar playing forever, and without his heritage, we would have not seen one Eddie Van Halen, Dimebag, or Satriani. The Rolling Stones reminded everyone that the blues was the initial spark for all rock and roll. Nirvana made it acceptable to be an anti-rock star and made it cool to be an outcast. Black Sabbath created a sound and imagery that made metal what it is today.
Without any of these artists, music would have been a totally different animal from the one we know and love today.
Stay safe and stay tuned