Black Sabbath invented heavy metal and it only took them eight hours

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

They were four lads from a tough industrial British city. They formed a band, and went to Hamburg in Germany to play at The Star Club on the Reeperbahn for a residency. Up to seven sets a day. They lived together in a room above the stage, starting at noon and finishing at 2am. Gruelling stuff – but it was the making of the Fab Four: John, Terry, Bill and Tony.

Hang on a minute. No Paul or George? Doesn’t one of them criticise George Martin’s tie at some point?

John “Ozzy” Osbourne, Terry “Geezer” Butler (so called because he always called people “geezer”), Bill Ward, and Tony Iommi. That industrial city is Birmingham, not Liverpool, and these are the Fab Four members of Black Sabbath. And yes, they played a long residency in Hamburg – more shows than The Beatles in fact. 

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with Ozzy. Ozzy had some terrible jobs when he left school, aged 15, all set for a life as a factory worker. For a time he worked as a car horn tuner. His co-worker had been there thirty years and was as deaf as a post. Imagine deafness being the thing you have to look forward to after thirty years. Ozzy’s jobs were so awful, his best job was working in an abattoir. Imagine that being your favourite job. How awful was Birmingham’s job market that dispatching cows to the great pasture in the sky was the most enjoyable job on offer? He was there eighteen months. He only left after attacking a co-worker with a pole after his colleague cut his apron strings for a prank. Well, we’ve all done it… 

Inflicting hearing damage and killing animals: Ozzy’s first jobs were not as entirely unrelated to his musical career as you might at first think.

A 20-year-old Ozzy put an ad in Ringway Music shop window in Birmingham’s Bull Ring. “Ozzy Zig Needs Gig” it said, for no real reason. Soon afterwards there was a knock on Ozzy’s door. Geezer Butler was a trainee accountant but sported fashionable bell-bottomed velvet trousers and a luxurious moustache, all which would have given away to Sherlock Holmes that in his spare time he was a part time musician, if the callouses on his left hand and whiff of “herbal” cigarettes didn’t already point that way. His band were named Rare Breed, and they had just lost their singer. After a brief discussion, Ozzy was in the band. Unfortunately, Rare Breed were terrible, and Ozzy left three songs into his first gig, when the manager of the working men’s club in Walsall they were playing asked them to stop. Geezer quit the following day.

Geezer did know everyone in the Birmingham music scene however, including Robert Plant, whom he bumped into one day when walking around town with Ozzy. Plant had a difficult decision to make: whether to join the Yardbirds with Jimmy Page, or a local band called Hobbstweedle.

Tricky decision. I think it worked out okay for him.

Although Rare Breed petered out, Ozzy soon had another moustachioed knock on his door in answer to his advert in Ringway Music. It was Tony Iommi and Bill Ward, whose band Mythology had just broken up after a police bust for marijuana possession had left them with a bad reputation and no gigs. Iommi recognised Ozzy from school, where he had regularly hit the younger boy to keep him in his place. 

He greeted Ozzy with warmth. 

Actually, he didn’t. What he said was “Aw, f–ing hell! It’s you!” upon recognising Ozzy.

But Ozzy worked his charm, noticing something had happened to Iommi’s hand and asking about it in a concerned fashion. Tony Iommi had been a sheet metal worker but the machine had come down on his right hand and severed the tips of the middle and ring fingers. There’s never a good hand to lose a finger or two from, but as a left-handed guitar player, the right hand is definitely the worst option.

What’s more, the accident occurred on the day he was due to quit the job to take up music as a full-time profession. His guitar playing days were effectively over before they had begun.

A friend bought a profoundly depressed Iommi an album by Django Reinhardt. Django played gypsy jazz and used just two fingers to fret chords after burning his hand in a fire, and played the most intricate melodies. He was an extraordinary player.

This inspired Iommi. He still couldn’t play with two fingers, but like when the A-Team were trapped by gangsters in a garage with just their van, a couple of conveniently discarded sheets of metal and a welder’s torch, he got busy on his escape. Iommi made a couple of thimbles from melted fairy liquid bottles, glued on leather to the sanded down tips and finally – and crucially – loosened the strings so he didn’t need to press so hard. Slowly and surely Iommi gained his confidence and technique with these Blue Peter-esque improvised finger tips. A deeper tone and slower sound began to emerge as a result.

Back on Ozzy’s doorstep, against his better judgement, and perhaps only because Ozzy now had a PA system and microphone, Iommi welcomed Ozzy into the fold. Geezer soon joined after agreeing to switch from rhythm guitar to bass. After briefly flirting with Polka Tulk Blues Band – named after a brand of talcum powder used by Ozzy’s mum – they settled on Earth as the band name.

They tried to get gigs using the novel, and frankly ridiculous strategy of turning up with all their stuff in a van outside venues wherever a big band was coming into town just in case they didn’t show. And once, in 1968, this insane, lunatic strategy for stardom actually worked. With Jethro Tull.

The Tull were a no-show and were uncontactable when due to go on, so Ozzy and co got shoved onstage in their place, to keep the crowd happy. Eventually Ian Anderson did show up – his van had broken down on the M6 – and while Earth were whipping up a storm onstage, Ozzy saw Anderson nodding his head in approval; praise indeed. On the back of that gig, they found a manager who at the end of 1968 booked them a tour with Ten Years After. But just as they were all set, Iommi quit the band. To join Jethro Tull.

That’s the soon-to-be heaviest most demonic guitarist in the world playing with what we might uncharitably describe as Rock’s greatest flute playing flamingo impressionist. You can see Iommi on the Rolling StonesRock And Roll Circus, wearing a white cowboy hat, alongside Jagger and Lennon and the rest of them. He lasted just four days. But what a great four days to be in Jethro Tull. After the incredible high of playing with rock royalty, Iommi decided he didn’t like being a side man to a flamboyant, slightly potty show-off of a front man.

So he rejoined Ozzy. Hmm… Not sure he thought that through. Iommi became more determined to make a success of the band, having had a taste of life with Jethro Tull, and a Hamburg Star Club residency was the result. Having to fill four or more sets per night stretched Earth’s material, but this shaped the songs. One jam became a forty minute version of something they called War Pigs.

Back in Aston, Iommi noticed queues going around the corner of the nearby Orient cinema for a horror film near where they were rehearsing.

“Isn’t it strange how people will pay money to frighten themselves?” said Iommi. “Maybe we should stop doing the blues and write scary music instead”.

Off went Bill and Ozzy to write Black Sabbath, based upon a vision Geezer reckons he saw one night at the end of his bed of a “figure in black which points at me”. It was probably Ozzy getting up to go to the toilet. Geezer nicked the title from a Boris Karloff film, Three Faces Of Fear.

It turned out there was another local cover band called Earth, so a name change was proposed to go with the new song. Their manager, Jim Simpson, was not convinced calling the band Black Sabbath would be a great idea.

“I don’t think you’ll get anywhere with that, lads” he said.

Ozzy remembers the first time they played the song because all the girls in the venue ran out screaming, much to his chagrin.

“Isn’t the whole point of being in a band to get a shag?” complained Ozzy.

“They’ll get used to it” reckoned Geezer, who remembered the audience stopping dead in a trance until the end of the song, and then erupting and going nuts as it finished.

With the new name, Black Sabbath went back to the Star Club for another residency. When Ozzy once went through the numbers, he reckoned Black Sabbath ended up playing more shows in Hamburg than the Beatles. Not that I’d trust Ozzy to be able to work that out… The recording of the debut album was at Regent Sound Studios in Denmark Street – the same studio in which the Rolling Stones recorded their debut album. Black Sabbath had a budget of £500.

Simpson took the album to 14 labels and got 14 “no”s in reply. Until Vertigo, a new swirly-labelled part of the Philips group, said “yes.” Their advance was princely: £105 to each band member. Ozzy knew exactly how to celebrate: he bought himself a bottle of Brut aftershave. To smell nice, not to drink, in case you were wondering. That all came later.

Black Sabbath was released on Friday 13th February 1970. The critics hated it, but it reached number eight in the UK charts and number twenty-three in the USA. But as unexpectedly successful as it was, the album isn’t a success because of how many it sold. It’s a success because of what followed and the influence it eventually had. Judas Priest, Metallica, Iron Maiden, Nirvana, Slayer, Mastodon and countless others all owe their careers to this album. An entire genre of music invented by a guitarist without a full set of fingers, a jazz drummer, a former abattoir worker and, best of all, a trainee accountant.

And the most amazing part of this story? They recorded the whole album in just eight hours in a tiny studio at the back of what is now a guitar shop in Soho. Eight hours. It took them eight hours to invent heavy metal. (Well, eight hours, plus the two years before it, hustling for gigs, working in rubbish jobs in a tough industrial city.) After a run through of their live set and a couple of hours double tracking vocals and guitar lines, it was done.

“We were in the pub in time for last orders” said Ozzy.

Collectors’ Note: If you are a vinyl enthusiast, the first four LPs, including Paranoid, were released on the Vertigo label – recognisable by the distinctive psychedelic swirl. The first pressings have a large swirl on the label. Later ones have a smaller swirl and the word “Vertigo” directly underneath. The Master Of Reality album comes in a card ‘box’ sleeve with the lyrics on the back and early copies came with a poster of the band also. The box is a bit fragile and weedy, like the quiet one in the Wanted. Rather like the rock stars of 1972, it’s becoming increasingly tricky to find one in good condition and with few creases or blemishes but they do still exist. Sabbath Bloody Sabbath came in a gatefold cover originally with a lyric-clad inner sleeve so look out for one of those, as there are plenty of later non-gatefold versions.

This extract is taken from Every Record Tells A Story: A Vinyl Handbook, written by Steve Carr and published by i40 Publishing. Copies are available to order now.

Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath - Black Sabbath
Even first pressings of Black Sabbath in pretty poor condition are likely to fetch around £120 – records in good condition are more likely to go for around £250, excellent around £500. 2nd and 3rd pressings are more economical, with records in good condition reaching around £100.

Black Sabbath - Paranoid

Black Sabbath - Paranoid
First pressings of Paranoid pop up for around £150 on eBay, and there are versions of various quality on Discogs from €40 a piece. 

Black Sabbath - Master Of Reality

Black Sabbath - Master Of Reality
Master Of Reality also goes for around £150 for a first pressing. It's worth keeping an eye on eBay and Discogs listings for the odd cheap steal, or a first pressing in slightly better quality.

Black Sabbath - Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

Black Sabbath - Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is the most economical of Sabbath's first five Vertigo records to invest in, with what claim to be first pressings going on eBay from around £20.