More than half a century has passed since Black Sabbath first ushered in the art of darkness.
Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward combined to create a sound that was unholy as it was unearthly, changing rock music forever and providing a sonic template that's been copied, adapted and embellished by generations of musicians since but never, ever bettered.
The line-ups may have changed. Ozzy came and went, and came and went again. Nearly 30 members have passed through the band's ranks, some albeit for the very briefest of visits. And yet the songs, gloriously, remained the same. Those riffs. That ominous sound. Black Sabbath. Was ever a band more perfectly named?
These are Black Sabbath's 40 greatest songs.
“A song rather than a frustration-reliever screamer,” is how Ozzy billed Vol. 4’s ballad, written about Bill Ward’s separation from his first wife. Ironically there’s no input whatsoever from the drummer on the track.
39. Zero The Hero
The seven-minute stand-out on the ill-fated, Ian Gillan-fronted Born Again album. A favourite of Tony Iommi, who reckons his central riff provided inspiration for Guns N' Roses: “When I heard Paradise City I thought, ‘Fucking hell, that sounds like one of ours!’”
This 10-minute jam cover of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation’s 1967 single originally featured an 18-minute Iommi solo, but it was chopped down by producer Roger Bain. With just 12 hours to record the whole album, there was no time to argue.
37. Never Say Die
By his own admission, Ozzy had “given up” by the time the band recorded their eighth album, though the mordantly humorous title track sounds adrenalised. Plus it got Sabbath back on Top Of The Pops.
36. The Writ
Ozzy’s acerbic open letter to former manager Patrick Meehan (‘Are you Satan, are you man?’), venting the singer’s fury at the legal “bullshit”. “I got a song out of it at least,” a more chilled Ozzy reflected later.
35. Dirty Woman
By 1976 Black Sabbath were in search of direction. For the closing track of Technical Ecstasy, inspiration came from the prostitutes on the streets of Miami, resulting in a ‘tribute’ to the healing properties of ‘take away women for sale’.
34. Headless Cross
The title track from Sabbath’s 14th album Headless Cross, and their finest since Heaven And Hell. ‘There’s no escaping the power of Satan’, sang Tony Martin, making a convincing case for Sabbath entering the 90s as a band reborn.
33. Spiral Architect
“It’s a beautiful piece of music, mostly based around Ozzy’s voice, Iommi’s acoustic guitar and Will Malone’s string arrangements. It’s also the last one out on the record – an honorary spot, as everybody into vinyl knows.” - Mikael Åkerfeldt, Opeth
32. God Is Dead?
Inspired by a magazine headline, Black Sabbath's 2013 comeback found Ozzy musing upon the existence of a higher power in the wake of terrorist atrocities committed in the name of religion. Taken from the album 13.
31. Wheels Of Confusion
The opening track on Vol. 4 telegraphs Sabbath’s experimental mind-set. Out of their heads they may have been, but the interplay between Iommi, Butler and a brilliantly dextrous Bill Ward is pure joy.
30. Sabbra Cadabra
This bluesy paean to Geezer’s then-girlfriend had its lyrical origins in Ozzy repeating porno dialogue, to his bandmate’s amusement. Rick Wakeman charged Sabbath a ‘fee’ of two pints of Director’s bitter for his incandescent piano playing.
29. Planet Caravan
Twinkling, tripped-out psychedelia, that betrayed Tony Iommi’s jazz influences. Included on Paranoid “to make the heavier tracks sound [even] heavier”, according to the guitarist.
28. After Forever
Featuring a mocking anti-religious lyric from lapsed Catholic Geezer, the romping After Forever is one of the most musically sophisticated songs in Sabbath’s early canon, and is a result of the quartet feeling the pressure to follow-up the No.1 success of Paranoid with a more ambitious sound.
27. Hand Of Doom
“It’s funky, riffy, sinister and uplifting all at the same time. It’s like two songs for the price of one, really. I got a cassette of Paranoid from a friend when I was in seventh grade, and started, like everyone else, to learn all those amazing riffs. Secretly I wanted to be a drummer so I could play that funky drum lick in Hand Of Doom.” Charlie Starr, Blackberry Smoke
26. Electric Funeral
Loaded with stark, apocalyptic imagery of nuclear annihilation (‘Robot minds of robot slaves/Lead men to atomic graves’) and souls burning in hell, Electric Funeral sounds like the ultimate bad trip, although the funky turnaround at two minutes 17 seconds is inexplicably uplifting.
“When I listen to songs like Supernaut I can just about taste cocaine,” Ozzy noted of this Vol. 4 piledriver in his autobiography. Ferociously funky, with a ear-worm Iommi riff, Supernaut is the supercharged sound of a gifted band at the peak of their powers.
24. Killing Yourself To Live
The mid-song ejaculation to ‘Smoke it! Get high!’ gives a clue as to the source material for this anxious song about a soul adrift in a world of ‘pain, suffering and misery’. Ozzy later noted that the hash the band were smoking at Morgan Studios during the album sessions was “phenomenal”.
23. The Mob Rules
The title track of vocalist Ronnie James Dio’s second album with Sabbath, a cautionary tale about blindly accepting authority, was written in John Lennon’s house Tittenhurst Park, originally intended for the soundtrack to the animated film Heavy Metal, just days after Lennon’s murder in New York. The film was shit, the song is a Sabbath classic.
22. The Wizard
“Back then we did a lot of dope,” is how Tony Iommi prefaces his explanation of the origins of The Wizard, the hard-driving second track on Sabbath’s debut, inspired equally by Tolkien and the band’s “magic” drug dealer. Ozzy doubles up Iommi’s main riff on harmonica – an inspired touch, which showed Sabbath were not the music Neanderthals they were made out to be by the music press.
Almost 10 minutes long, layered with studio trickery and featuring some of Tony Iommi’s most hook-laden riffs, Megalomania is a gloriously over-the-top exercise in labyrinthine excess. Bonus points are awarded for Bill Ward’s exemplary cowbell work.
20. Falling Off The Edge Of The World
With its gorgeous orchestral intro, searing Iommi riff and whisper-to-a-scream dynamics, the centrepiece of the Mob Rules album laid down a blueprint that acolytes Metallica would subsequently take to the bank. Sabbath biographer (and Classic Rock writer) Mick Wall calls this “journey-metal”, a most apposite description of the song’s ebb and flow.
19. Hole In The Sky
Bearing in mind how embattled Sabbath were at the time they recorded Sabotage, its opening track is a master class in straight-to-the-point metal. Sabbath truly swing here, displaying a lightness of touch few of their contemporaries – or followers – could emulate.
18. Sweet Leaf
“It’s heavy and super-funky. I first heard it at my friend David Santana’s house around 1975. His older brothers would play tons of Sabbath. Sweet Leaf was a favourite – his brothers were Latino stoner musicians from El Salvador. I remember one of them trying to play it on his black Ovation electric guitar which was shaped like a bat.” - Robert Trujillo, Metallica
17. The Sign Of The Southern Cross
A slow-burning epic from The Mob Rules, The Sign Of The Southern Cross has Ronnie James Dio all over it, with its references to crystal balls, sailing ships and ‘a rainbow that will shimmer when the summer falls’.
16. A National Acrobat
Tony Iommi called Sabbath Bloody Sabbath “a great leap forward”. With dueling guitars and Ozzy’s double-tracked vocals, A National Acrobat is an overlooked example of the band’s burgeoning confidence.
15. Die Young
With Dio on board, Sabbath genuinely sounded born again on Heaven And Hell. Tony Iommi claims that Die Young was guided by an invisible “fifth member”. The fact he also says there were “drugs galore” present in Miami during the sessions might undermine such mysticism, mind.
13. Children Of The Sea
First attempted, with different lyrics, while Ozzy was still in the band, Children Of The Sea was finally realised with Dio singing. Iommi envisaged a full choir in the album’s grandiose mid-section; in the end he had to settle for one chanting monk. “We were in stitches,” the Dark Lord admitted.
12. Fairies Wear Boots
“It has so many elements of a classic Sabbath song – killer instrumental passages that evolve as they go, that swing feel, and the monster riffs from the great Mr Iommi. And it’s so much fun to play. How can you go wrong?” Mike Bordin, Faith No More
11. Neon Knights
That Sabbath gained a new lease of life with Dio is evident from Heaven And Hell’s roaring album opener. With Ronnie singing of ‘circles and rings, dragons and kings’, Iommi delivers a scything riff that elevates the track skywards. Sabbath hadn’t sounded this alive or vital in years.