“We were four f**king dummies from Birmingham”: the epic story of the birth of Black Sabbath

(Image credit: Chris Walter/WireImage)

Black Sabbath’s debut album opens with the sound of a storm and an air of deathly foreboding. Rain cascades, thunder cracks and a lone funeral bell begins to toll, as stark and chilling now as it must have been when it first pealed out 50 whole years ago.

It’s a fitting introduction to the most influential album in the history of metal. Half a century on, the bell that was meant to signify the end of someone – or something – instead symbolises the opposite: the starting point of an entirely new strain of music, a kind that endures today.

Sabbath weren’t the first to take the blues and encase it in concrete and steel. But no band, and no album, has so perfectly defined an entire genre. All of heavy metal’s soul is right there in Black Sabbath’s first record.

No one expected it to turn out the way it did, and certainly not the four original members of Black Sabbath. But that landmark debut album – released on February 13, 1970, a date loaded with portent – remains as imposing as an ancient monolith. 

This is how Black Sabbath invented metal as we know it.

Guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward spent the first half of 1968 living in Carlisle and playing with heavy blues outfit Mythology. But that band fell apart after they were busted for possession of hash. The pair returned to Birmingham, chastened but unwilling to give up on the dream of playing music. 

Tony Iommi: “We went into a music shop and we saw this advert saying ‘Ozzy Zig requires gig, owns his own PA.’ I said to Bill, ‘I know an Ozzy but it can’t be him.’”

Geezer Butler: “Ozzy had been to school with Tony, and they hated each other. Tony had bullied him at school.” 

Ozzy Osbourne: “People say he used to beat me up. He never did.”

Tony Iommi: “We drove around to his address, knocked on the door, his mother answered it and we said, ‘Is Ozzy in?’ She said, ‘Yes, just a minute.’ She turned round and said, ‘John, it’s for you.’ And when he came to the door, I said to Bill, ‘Oh no, forget it, I know this guy.’”

Ozzy Osbourne: “I have no idea what I said to Tony outside my house that night to make him change my mind and give me a chance. I think the fact I had a PA system probably helped.”

Geezer Butler: “My personal ambition was to avoid proper jobs and have fun doing what I wanted to do, play music, and hopefully make enough money to live on.”

(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The group’s first gig was at Carlisle’s County Ballroom on August 24, 1968, playing heavy blues jams and covers. They called themselves The Polka Tulk Blues Band and were augmented by second guitarist Jim Phillips and saxophone player Alan Clark. 

Geezer Butler: “We went down like The Titanic. I was told I couldn’t play bass properly and that Ozzy was a shit singer. Then we were in a massive brawl while loading up the van. So not a great experience. We decided to become a four-piece, rather than a six-piece after these [early] gigs. Bill suggested the name Earth.”

Tony Iommi: “We couldn’t get gigs to save our lives. In Birmingham, it was all soul and pop stuff. The only places that’d have us was the blues clubs. That’s when we met Jim Simpson.”

Jim Simpson (Black Sabbath’s first manager): “I was managing a band called Bakerloo, and  I opened a club called Henry’s Blueshouse in the upstairs room above The Crown pub to showcase them. Two names registered as members on the first night were Anthony Frank Iommi and John Michael Osbourne.”

Tony Iommi: “Henry’s was one of the few places you could see the bands you liked. We went down every week.”

Jim Simpson: “I got talking to them and found out they played in a band. They asked, ‘Can we play the opening slot?’ They soon became the headliner, one of the biggest attractions we had. And they asked me to manage them, so I said, ‘Yes.’ They were totally serious about it. They’d go anywhere and play anywhere they could.”

Tony Iommi: “We had a Transit van with a hole in the floor and no seats. We used to sleep in the van together after gigs. It smelled horrible.” 

Geezer Butler: “A gig in Weston-super-Mare ended up with us taking on a gang of skinheads – we won. Ozzy broke some bloke’s arm – he was beating up a little kid in the front row at one of our gigs, and Ozzy jumped off stage and beat the hell out of him, then got back onstage and carried on singing.”

Tony Iommi: “We played [famous London club] the Marquee. Ozzy had a pyjama top on and a tap around his neck.”

Geezer Butler: “Tony played flute at some gigs. At one gig, he was so stoned he thought he was blowing into the flute, which was somewhere near his chin, but he was blowing into the mic. So he did a whole breath solo.”

When they weren’t gigging, Earth rehearsed in a community centre in Aston every week. It was there that they began to hone their sound, turning their 12-bar blues into something more malevolent. 

Tony Iommi: “I was lucky, I could just come up with these riffs. I don’t know where they came from. The other guys expected me to come up with something, but that was good. The pressure gave me more focus.”

Geezer Butler: “We were going into a rehearsal one day and across the road there was a cinema, and there was a horror movie on. Tony said, ‘Innit funny, man, that people pay money to see a movie that scares the shit out of them? Why don’t we try to put that to music? Like an evil kind of music.’”

Tony Iommi: Wicked World was really the first one we wrote in that style. That was sort of more jazzy.”

Jim Simpson: “After a few months, we found out there was another band called Earth. So we needed a new name.”

Tony Iommi: “Jim Simpson came up with Fred Karno’s Army, after the Old Time Music Hall impresario. Ozzy’s idea was Jimmy Underpass And The Six Way Combo. Geezer came up with Black Sabbath.”

Geezer Butler: “My brother had seen the horror film Black Sabbath in the early 60s and he mentioned it quite a lot. I always thought it would be a great name for a band.”

Jim Simpson: “Geezer turned up late for a band meeting. I can see his face poking around my dining room door, saying, ‘I’ve got it, I’ve got a new name.’ And he paused: ‘Black Sabbath’. And there was a sharp intake of breath all around. It took two seconds for everyone to say, ‘Yes!’” 

Tony Iommi: “I thought, ‘Hmmm, yeah, that could work.’”

Jim Simpson: “Once they’d written the song that would become Black Sabbath, that really pointed the way.”

A skinhead was beating up a kid in the front row. Ozzy jumped off stage and beat the hell out of him, then got back up and carried on singing.

Geezer Butler

Tony Iommi: “The song Black Sabbath was really the second thing we wrote. I suppose that’s where it properly started.”

Geezer Butler: Black Sabbath had a totally different vibe to anything else we were playing at the time, which was blues-orientated. Black Sabbath had no blues overtones.”

Tony Iommi: “We were really interested in occult stuff, especially Geezer and I. Interested in what it was like on the other side of life.” 

Geezer Butler: “I was sort of a religious maniac when I was a kid. I wanted to become a priest. I literally loved God. [The occult] was all really intriguing – forbidden fruit.”

Tony Iommi: “We tried a ouija board and frightened each other. I think in those days, we were open to a lot of stuff. We were young and learning and just trying to experience things.”

Geezer Butler: “I was asleep one night and I felt something in the room, like this weird presence. There was this black thing at the bottom of the bed, staring at me. It was just this apparition. It just lasted a second. But it just freaked me out. And I told Ozzy, Tony and Bill about it. I think that’s what inspired Ozzy to come up with the lyrics that open the song: ‘What is this that stands before me?’

Ozzy Osbourne: “That line just came out of nowhere. I went, ‘Where the fuck did that come from?’ It was born, not written.”

Geezer Butler: “The first time we played Black Sabbath was in this tiny pub in Lichfield. The whole pub went mental. That’s when we realised we were onto something good.”https://youtu.be/MiY2JsGXrtM

Earth changed their name to Black Sabbath in the summer of 1969. With their following growing in the UK, Jim Simpson had already decided that it was time for the band to make inroads into mainland Europe. He booked them shows across the continent, including residencies at Hamburg’s Star-Club, the infamous Reeperbahn dive where The Beatles had earned their spurs earlier in the 60s, and Zurich’s Hirschen Club.

Tony Iommi: “We had to play five 45-minute spots a day, and at the weekend it was seven 45-minute spots. Well, we didn’t have enough songs. We’d have to make ’em up. We’d use them to jam and come up with riffs.”

Geezer Butler: “It was a great way of trying new songs, as there was hardly anybody in the audience. Plus we were permanently stoned. Downtime was spent trying to pull women so we could have somewhere to stay.”

Tony Iommi: “You’d be playing and there’d be a hooker at the bar. There was one bloke who would walk in, come to the front of the stage and do a handstand so all his money would fall out of his pockets. Then he’d get up, pick it up again and walk out.”

Geezer Butler: “The owner of the Hirschen Club thought he was a doctor and would come in with his doctor’s bag and shout at us.”

Tony Iommi: “We did a lot of dope. One night we were at this club in the middle of nowhere. Ozzy and Geezer saw someone leaping around outside being silly. To them was like an elf or something. It must have been the drugs, but that’s where the song The Wizard came from.”

If the lunatics and prostitutes of mainland Europe embraced them, they were having a harder time convincing record companies back home to sign them. They were turned down by 14 labels.

Geezer Butler: “We were always told to go away and write ‘proper songs’ by the record companies, at least the ones who had the decency to say anything. Most of them would walk out halfway through the song Black Sabbath.”

Jim Simpson: “I knew a publisher, David Platts, who gave us £1,000 to record an album that we could take to labels to convince them to sign us. The condition was that we used a producer they had, Rodger Bain.”

Geezer Butler: “We got £100 each and spent the rest on the album. I bought a jacket and a stereo system so I could actually play records. Somebody broke into my flat and stole the stereo, so all I had to show for the first album’s payment was a jacket.”

Ozzy Osbourne: “We had no experience of anything except playing live. Jim Simpson just said to us, ‘On your way to catching the ferry over to Switzerland, stop off at [London studios] Regent Sound and record your album.’ It was almost an afterthought.”

Tom Allom (engineer on Black Sabbath): “I hadn’t seen the band, I had no idea what they sounded like, and I hadn’t heard anything like it before. I was completely mystified by it. But Rodger Bain completely understood what they were doing.”

Geezer Butler: “We treated it exactly like a gig – we set up the gear, put mics in front of the speakers and drums, and recorded the album.”

After hearing the album, my father turns to look at me and goes: ‘Are you sure you’re just drinking the occasional beer?’

Ozzy Osbourne

Tom Allom: “There was a film studio in the building above us. They shot TV ads there. While we were recording, they rang down to say, ‘What’s going on down there?’ It turned out Geezer’s bass was so loud that they were having trouble with their camera. It was waltzing across the floor.”

Tony Iommi: “It took a day to record. The next day was the mixing. Then we disappeared off Europe. We didn’t even listen to the album.”

Ozzy Osbourne: “When we got back from Switzerland, Jim said, ‘Come on, I’ll play you your finished album.’”

Jim Simpson: “We met at New Street Station in Birmingham and went to my house.”

Ozzy Osbourne: “It started with all this thunder and lightning – it blew my mind.”

Jim Simpson: “The record label had put the sound effects on afterwards. The band didn’t know anything about it. That was the first time they’d heard all that.”

Geezer Butler: “We only had one copy each. I was too apprehensive about showing my parents the album, as they were staunch Catholics and I was dreading that they would see the inverted cross in the gatefold sleeve. I’m not sure they ever saw it.”

Ozzy Osbourne: “My mum and dad put the album on the radiogram [a piece of furniture that combines a radio and a record player]. After hearing it, my father turns to look at me and goes: ‘May I ask you something son? Are you sure you’re just drinking the occasional beer?’”

Jim Simpson did a deal with the newly formed Vertigo Records to release the record. Black Sabbath’s debut album was released on Friday, February 13, 1970. It was housed in a striking gatefold sleeve, the cover featuring a ghostly female figure in front of an old watermill – her identity is still a mystery.

Jim Simpson: “The man who signed them was Olav Wyper. Vertigo used to release albums in batches of three. One of the bands he was due to release an album by had let him down, so he called me and said, ‘You know that group you were talking about from Birmingham…?’”

Ozzy Osbourne: “Jim Simpson rang me and asked if I’d heard the news. I go, ‘What news?’ He said, ‘Your album’s entered the British charts.’ I go, ‘Fuck off!’”

Tom Allom: “I was astonished when I heard it had gone up the charts.”

Jim Simpson: “It sold 6,500 records in the first week. Olav Wyper said, ‘How did you do it? Did you buy it into the charts?’ I said, ‘There’s a market out there waiting for a Sabbath record. I’ve been telling you that for weeks.’”

Tony Iommi: “The press hated us. I remember somebody did a review of a gig that said, ‘They were rubbish.’ I thought, ‘That’s funny, we cancelled that gig, we didn’t play.’”

Geezer Butler: “They made themselves look silly by not realising what was going on outside their offices.”

Black Sabbath invented heavy metal, plain and simple. Tony was the guy that played the first heavy metal riff. It all started from there.

Judas Priest’s Rob Halford

Jim Simpson: “Bands who sounded like Sabbath started to come thick and fast. One of the first ones I heard was Judas Priest.”

Rob Halford (singer, Judas Priest): “I had seen them play at [blues club] Mothers in Erdington when they were still called Earth, a long time before I joined Priest. They were brilliant even then.”

Tom Allom: “When I listen to the early Judas Priest albums, especially the ones I before I worked with them, there’s a really obvious Sabbath influence.”

Rob Halford: “Black Sabbath invented heavy metal, plain and simple. Tony was the guy that played the first heavy metal riff. It all started from there.”

Jim Simpson: “It’s magical. There’s nothing that led into that album – it was a huge leap beyond anything else. Those four boys came up with that sound and that style all on their own, and here we are, 50 years later, still talking about it.”

Tony Iommi: “We started something and created a music that eventually people loved.

Geezer Butler: “I always thought it was a bit of a miracle for four blokes to have the same musical tastes and ambitions, all within a couple of streets away from each other.”

Ozzy Osbourne: “We were four fucking dummies from Birmingham. What did we know about anything?” 

Dave Everley

Dave Everley has been writing about and occasionally humming along to music since the early 90s. During that time, he has been Deputy Editor on Kerrang! and Classic Rock, Associate Editor on Q magazine and staff writer/tea boy on Raw, not necessarily in that order. He has written for Metal Hammer, Louder, Prog, the Observer, Select, Mojo, the Evening Standard and the totally legendary Ultrakill. He is still waiting for Billy Gibbons to send him a bottle of hot sauce he was promised several years ago.