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Black Sabbath, Birmingham, and the invention of heavy metal

Black Sabbath in 1970
(Image credit: Chris Walter / Getty Images)

"I went to see Spinal Tap and I didn’t think it was funny. I thought it was a fucking documentary, I did!” said Ozzy Osbourne in his customary understated style. “When they got lost on their way to the stage – that happened to me a thousand times! Some cunt’d change the signs around and you’d end up in the fucking car park with your guitar and your fucking platforms on in the rain.” 

We were seated in the ‘play room’ of Ozzy’s zillion-pound mansion in Buckinghamshire. And not for the first time I was asking him to reminisce about his days as the caterwauling, peace-sign making, cross-wearing singer in the greatest heavy metal band of them all – Black Sabbath. 

“It was different then,” he said. “People took the whole thing a lot more seriously.” 

They certainly did. Ozzy may be more famous these days as the tragicomic hero of the world’s favourite dysfunctional TV family, The Osbournes, but when he first found fame nearly 40 years ago as the frontman for Sabbath his contribution to the cultural landscape was seen as something infinitely darker and more subversive. In the early 70s, an era when it seemed possible to measure a band’s musical prowess by how ‘heavy’ they were, they didn’t come any weightier than Black Sabbath. 

There were, it’s probably fair to say, none more black. And, despite only having one recognisable hit single – Paranoid, No.2 in the UK, in August 1970, even fewer bands were more successful. As a result, the eight albums the original Ozzy-led line-up of Sabbath released throughout the 70s remain the benchmark by which every subsequent generation of heavy rock giants has had to measure up to. 

As Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich once told me: “Without Sabbath I don’t think there could have been a Metallica.” What’s perhaps more surprising is the widespread appeal Sabbath have had to less obvious fans like Nirvana, who Kurt Cobain accurately described early on as “a cross between Black Sabbath and The Beatles”. 

Or Faith No More, who recorded Sabbath’s War Pigs for their 1989 album The Real Thing. 

Or the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, who swiped the riff from Sweat Leaf for their ferociously funky 1991 single Give It Away

Or Ice T, Henry Rollins, Marilyn Manson, or any number of rough-stuff pop types who like to drop the name Black Sabbath into their interviews these days.

A four-piece formed in the summer of 1968 from the ashes of two locally well-known groups called The Rare Breed (Ozzy and Geezer) and Mythology (Tony and Bill), all four founding members of the original Black Sabbath – vocalist John Michael ‘Ozzy’ Osbourne (b. December 3, 1948), guitarist Frank Anthony ‘Tony’ Iommi (b. February 19, 1948), bassist Terence Michael Joseph ‘Geezer’ Butler (b. July 17, 1949) and drummer William ‘Bill’ Ward (b. May 5, 1948) – grew up within half a mile of each other, in the same narrow, grey streets of Aston, a tiny Birmingham suburb then struggling to come to terms with the mess Hitler’s bombs had made of it.

With the exception of Iommi, who was an only child, they all came from large, working-class families. And though they all shared a deep love of music – primarily The Beatles for Ozzy, The Mothers Of Invention for Geezer, The Shadows and Chet Atkins for Iommi, and a combination of all of the above and more for Ward – Ozzy admits that they all saw the opportunity to form a successful group “as the quickest way out of the fucking slums”. 

Along with bottleneck guitar player Jimmy Phillips and a sax player who may or may not have been called Lou Clarke (none of them can remember), Sabbath had actually begun as a six-piece under the name The Polka Tulk Blues Company. Their first three gigs – a caravan site in Cumbria, and two nights at a ballroom in Carlisle – “were a fucking disaster,” Geezer recalls now. “So Tony told the other guitarist and sax player to get on their bikes”. 

After that they started again as a four-piece called The Earth Blues Company – a mouthful quickly shortened to Earth. But the new band managed only a smattering of appearances before it all went out the window again when Tony was offered the job of replacing guitarist Mick Abrahams in Jethro Tull. 

“All the rest of the guys were like: ‘This is a great opportunity, you should do it!’” Iommi recalls now. “But I wasn’t sure.” The thought of decamping to London was so daunting he persuaded Geezer to go with him, “cos I didn’t know anybody down there”. 

Indeed, Iommi had been there less than a week when he decided he’d made a mistake. Tull singer Ian Anderson was “separate to the other guys”, he explains. “He’d sit on one table and they’d sit on the other. And it just didn’t feel like a proper band to me. So I talked to Ian and said: ‘Look, I’m gonna leave. I miss my old band.’ But I tell you what, it changed our career. 

"I said to Geezer: ‘Let’s get back together again and fucking get some work done and make this happen. We can become big too. But let’s get rehearsing at nine o’clock in the morning and stop pissing around.’ I learned all this, basically, from Ian Anderson, because he cracked the whip. I realised that that’s what we had to do. And it really helped. It got us into writing our own stuff, and it just worked from then on.”

As 1969 dawned, Earth quickly began to make a name for themselves on the same local Midlands circuit that had already spawned bands such as Carl Wayne & The Vikings (who later became The Move, before splintering again, in the 70s, into Roy Wood’s Wizzard and Jeff Lynne’s Electric Light Orchestra); Deep Feeling (featuring Jim Capaldi, Dave Mason and Stevie Winwood, who later became Traffic); and the Band Of Joy (featuring future Led Zeppelin stars Robert Plant and John Bonham). 

Still relying mainly on covers and “extended jams” whenever Earth scored a spot at cooler local dives like Henry’s Blueshouse or The Penthouse, the turning point for Earth came with the first original number they wrote together, a doleful piece of “psychedelic blues” Geezer called Black Sabbath – an enigmatic title lifted from the 1963 Boris Karloff film of the same name (aka Black Christmas and Three Faces of Fear).

The maudlin, knife-quivering chords that Iommi repeats throughout the song were actually based on the opening of Mars, from Gustav Holst’s classical piece The Planets suite. 

“I loved Mars,” Geezer explains. “I was playing it on me bass one day [hums lumbering, dramatic opening], and Tony just changed it around slightly and it just seemed to write itself from there.” 

Ozzy improvised the lyrics around a nightmare experience that Geezer had related to him. “Cos like, I was getting into black magic and the occult and all that kind of cack at the time. And one night this thing appeared to me at the foot of me bed, and it frightened the bloody life out of me!” Geezer recalls. “And I told Ozzy, and he wrote the lyrics about it – like warning people against Satanism and stuff.” 

The first time they played the new song live was at a pub called The Poky Hole, in Lichfield, in April 1969. “In those days, when we played everybody would be stood at the bar drinking, not really paying attention,” Geezer recalls. “But for once everybody just stopped dead and listened. And we finished the song and it just erupted. They went nuts! We couldn’t believe it! And we realised then that we were onto something.” 

When, not long after, they discovered that there was another band called Earth, and Ozzy and co. decided to change their name, calling themselves after the first song they wrote together was a symbolic choice; the moment when they discovered their true musical identity.

Black Sabbath’s first album was recorded on two four-track tape machines in under 12 hours in Regent Sound Studios in London, at the tail-end of 1969. Titled Black Sabbath, it was released in Britain on the Vertigo label in March 1970. 

Much to the astonishment of the London-based music critics who had never heard of the band, the album was an immediate hit, both here and, even more astonishingly, in America, where it hovered ominously in the chart for more than 18 months. Ozzy remembers seeing the album at No. 17 in the Melody Maker chart the first week of its release and “my knees went to jelly. I was speechless. I couldn’t fucking believe it! And from that moment on, my life totally went off like a rocket.” 

Essentially a straightforward run-through of their live set at the time, the record finds the band still displaying all their bluesy roots (The Wizard, Evil Woman) while also beginning to stretch out and experiment with their sound (The Warning, the title track). 

It wasn’t until their second album, Paranoid, released just six months later, that the full potential of the band was first caught masterfully on vinyl. Once again a straightforward run-through of their ever-evolving live set, most of the material dated back from their days playing at the Star Club in Hamburg in 1969, when they had to get through six 45-minute sets a night, six nights a week. 

The only way they could do that, Ozzy explains, was “Tony would solo, we would join in and we would go into this great long jam which songs just sort of came out of. Originally, War Pigs was about 40 minutes long.” 

Thus was born the quintessential Sabbath sound: Tony’s ability to stack up the riffs and turn them inside out; Geezer’s rumbling bass that shadowed the riff rather than countering it (“a trick I learned from Jack Bruce”); Bill’s jazz-derived percussive flurries; and of course Ozzy’s sneering, sing-song vocals. But perhaps its most bizarre component came from the fact that Tony had lost the tips of the two middle fingers on his ‘fingering’ right hand in a welding accident when he was 17, and now wore tiny homemade plastic caps on them. 

Iommi’s favourite players may have been Eric Clapton and The Shadows’ Hank Marvin, but his real, unspoken hero was Django Reinhardt, who had also lost two fingers yet continued to play into old age. “They said I’d never be able to play again,” Iommi remembers, the blow still registering in the lowered tone of his voice. “Then the manager at the factory where it happened bought me a Django Reinhardt record. And I thought: ‘Wow! You know, maybe I can play again.’” 

In truly heroic, Blue Peter style, he actually made his own prosthetic finger-tips out of an old washing-up liquid bottle. “I melted it down and made little balls, then got a hot soldering iron and just kept jabbing ’em in. Then I filed them down with sandpaper and glued little strips of leather across the top, so that I could grip the strings, and started to play.” 

Tracks like Iron Man, Fairies Wear Boots, Planet Caravan and, of course, the amphetamine-fuelled title track itself (which also provided the band with their first and only hit single) ensured that the Paranoid album would come to be regarded as Sabbath’s first real classic. It was also their first British No.1 and their first album to crack the US Top 10.

Still largely innocents abroad, Sabbath could not have imagined the chaos that awaited them when they arrived in America in September 1970 for their first tour. The dates had already been put back some weeks when the trial began for the slaying of Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson’s psychotic followers the year before, and anything to do with the ‘occult’ was viewed, briefly, as bad taste. 

When the band then wanted to call their second album War Pigs, once again their American record company, Warner Bros, forced them to reconsider, afraid that with controversy over the Vietnam war still raging the title would be construed as ‘inflammatory’ and record stores might refuse to stock it. But that didn’t stop millions of disaffected young Americans, then living under the shadow of the draft, picking up on the lines: ‘In the fields the bodies burning/ As the war machine keeps turning/ Death and hatred to mankind/ Poisoning their brainwashed minds…’, identifying War Pigs as an anti-Vietnam statement with real resonance. 

“It was an anti-Vietnam statement,” says Geezer, who wrote the lyrics. “We used to play American military bases in Germany, and I used to talk to the soldiers and they’d tell me these horrendous stories about Vietnam, and all the heroin people used to be on just to get away from it all. And that’s where the lyrics came from."

But it wasn’t just protests against the war in Vietnam that Sabbath’s American fans heard in their music. There was also the band’s irreligious image to deal with. Or as Tony puts it: “We attracted unbelievable amounts of nutters! There was every kind of Satanist, every Jesus freak.” 

At one gig the head of the American Hell’s Angels decided to pay them a visit. “About 50 bodyguards came in first,” recalls Geezer. “Straight into the dressing room, threw all the security out who are all going, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ Then the main man walked in, told us who he was, says: ‘I give you my approval’, and that we’d be all right wherever we went in America – whatever that meant. I mean, it’s all like a dream now. They stayed and watched the show and then they went – all in a big motorcycle cavalcade.” 

As Tony suggests, America was also the place where “we discovered the old waffle-dust”. Ozzy says it was the guitarist of a then famous American band who first turned the band on to cocaine. “He gave us this big rock and I went: ‘I don’t wanna know.’ But he says: ‘Come on, man, try one.’ So I did, and it was like [sniffs loudly] ding! ‘Oh, it’s not so bad.’”

After that, Ozzy says: “We used to have coke dealers coming round every day. Only it wasn’t just coke by now, it was everything – coke, acid, dope…” “It became a ritual,” says Tony. “Every time we’d do an album we’d get a load of dope and some coke and whatever else and off we’d go. I never used to want to leave the studio. I’d be in there all night, every night.” 

Third album Master Of Reality gave Sabbath their highest chart position in the US – No.8. And yet, just as the band was peaking creatively and commercially, things were already “starting to get out of control behind the scenes”, according to Geezer. Although they didn’t know it then, it was the beginning of the end. “There definitely came a point where it all started working against us,” says Tony. “But you can’t regret anything. A lot of it was sheer madness. On the other hand, we made some of our best albums then.”