Early in their career, Black Sabbath released albums and launched tours at a breakneck pace. For a while the relentless record-tour-record cycle helped fuel their creativity – from 1970 though 1972, Sabbath issued four classic albums in Black Sabbath, Paranoid, Master Of Reality and Vol. 4.
These records spawned numerous anthems – The Wizard, Paranoid, Iron Man, War Pigs, N.I.B. and Sweet Leaf chief amongst them – and made Sabbath one of the world’s top hard rock bands of the era. And, as it would turn out, certainly one of the most influential on subsequent artists.
In fact, if it wasn’t for a band that contained several members affiliated with Sabbath’s hometown of Birmingham – Led Zeppelin – the Sabs would have been the undisputed global heavy music kings.
But, despite all of their success and popularity, when the group tried to settle down and write their fifth album in the summer of 1973, guitarist/songwriter Tony Iommi experienced something he never had previously – a wicked case of writer’s block.
“What happened was we’d done Vol. 4 in Los Angeles, and we had a house in the city,” the metal legend recalls. “We all lived there, and everything was great on that album. We came to England and toured and all the rest of the stuff, and then we were due to make another album.
"We went back to the [LA] house again, to do Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and I got writer’s block. It just went dead. We had the studio booked, same everything booked. And it was just one of those times.
"I really panicked: ‘Oh my God, I can’t seem to think of anything that we like!’ I could play stuff, but it just wasn’t sinking in; I didn’t like it. So we cancelled the whole thing, came back to England.”
Instead of jumping right back into the songwriting, the band – which, in addition to Iommi, still featured singer Ozzy Osbourne, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward at that point – took a little time off to recharge their batteries before getting back to work. But rather than rent an ordinary house to write and record, they had something else in mind.
“We rented an old castle in the Forest Of Dean [Clearwell Castle in Gloucestershire],” says Tony. “And it was just us there. What we did was set up the equipment in the dungeons of the castle to try and get some vibe going. And then that was it – we came up with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, and the rest came fairly shortly afterwards. The block had gone.”
In the Brian Ives-penned essay A Hard Road 1973-1978, from Sabbath’s 2004 Black Box multi-disc set, bassist Geezer Butler recalls how he and the band felt when Iommi presented the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath riff to them:
“When Tony came up with the riff to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, it was almost like seeing your first child being born. It was the end of our musical drought, the beginning of our new direction, an affirmation of life. It meant the band had a present – and a future – again.”
As with the majority of Sabbath’s early material, Butler was the song’s lyricist. In the same Black Box essay, he explains: “The lyrics to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath were about the Sabbath experience, the ups and downs, the good times and the bad times, the rip- offs, the business side of it all.
‘Bog blast all of you’ was directed at the critics, the record business in general, the lawyers, the accountants, management, and everyone who was trying to cash in on us. It was a backs-to-the-wall rant at everyone.”
Musically, the song is comparable to past Sabbath classics, with its mammoth Iommi riff, and includes a musical trademark long associated with the band – merging a heavy section (‘You’ve seen life through distorted lies/You know you had to learn’) with
a lighter one (‘Nobody will ever let you know/When you ask the reasons why’) – to create light-and-shade contrast.
And, harking back to such past compositions as Black Sabbath and Children Of The Grave, the song concludes with a long, instrumental jam section.
While the title track remains the best-known off the album, there is no filler contained within the rest of the record’s eight tracks. After the album-opening title track, one of Iommi’s most underrated guitar riffs is showcased on the mid-paced behemoth, A National Acrobat, before an instrumental ballad, Fluff, serves as a momentary palate cleanser.
Closing out the first side is another grinder that Metallica would later cover (on their 1998 covers compilation, Garage Inc.), Sabbra Cadabra, which also features none other than Yes’s Rick Wakeman tinkering away on the piano and Minimoog.
The second side kicks off with the incredibly titled Killing Yourself To Live, which leads to the spooky synth slither of Who Are You? and the straight-ahead headbanger Looking For Today, before wrapping things up with an epic, Spiral Architect, which contains input by a conductor and arranger, a chap named Will Malone.
If Malone’s name sounds familiar to astute readers, it’s with good reason – he would go on to produce Iron Maiden’s classic self-titled debut, in 1980 (allegedly, he was hired by Steve Harris and company due to his association with Sabbath, and in particular, this recording).
Although the band would begin to fracture soon afterwards due to drug abuse and burnout, Tony recalls that they were all getting along quite well on both a musical and personal level around the time of the recording of the title track from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.
“We had done what we always do: we go to a studio, lock ourselves in, and record the album,” he states. “Everything seemed to go all right on that album, I think. We didn’t have all the problems we had with some of the others.”
And yet, there were a few….odd occurrences outside of the band’s circle that happened during the recording.
“I recall walking from the dungeons one day, I think with Geezer, Bill, or somebody,” Tony reveals. “We were walking along the hallway, and saw this figure coming towards us. It’s a long corridor. This figure turned left into this room, which was the armoury room, where they had all the weapons. We followed, and went in. There was nobody in there.
"And there was no way out or anything – no other door. Very odd. Anyway, a few days later, the people who own the castle came to see if we were OK, and we said, ‘We’ve seen a few strange things happening here’, and we told them. They said, ‘Oh God, that’s the castle ghost. Don’t worry about him!’”
Released as the album’s lead-off single, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was the first Sabbath song to have a promo video shot to accompany it. In it, the group don’t mime the lyrics or fake playing their instruments – in fact they don’t even bother to pick up their instruments at all, as they waltz through what appears to be a forest.
“That was at Geezer’s house. That was Geezer’s garden we were walking around in,” Tony recalls of the ‘forest’ scene. “What I remember about that is that we just turned up and that was it, really – ‘We’re doing a video!’”
Unfortunately, an argument could be made that the Sabbath Bloody Sabbath album was the beginning of the end for the group’s original line-up.
Although they would manage one more bona fide classic, the oft-overlooked Sabotage, the last two studio offerings with Ozzy, Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die!, were largely muddled affairs that didn’t come close to the quality of their more focused and inspired earlier offerings.
And, despite the last album’s title, Ozzy would exit the band in 1979, bringing the original line-up to an end (although there would be various subsequent reunions, as well as a seemingly infinite number of Sab line-ups with various members, only Iommi serving as the sole constant through it all).
But on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and its title track, the Osbourne-Iommi-Butler-Ward line-up was still firing on all cylinders, and, in the process, kept their early-70s winning streak very much intact. So much so, that US metal radio host Eddie Trunk still ranks the song amongst Sabbath’s all-time best.
“Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is one of my all-time favourite songs by the band,” he says. “To me, it’s one of my all-time favourite riffs as well, and that’s saying a lot considering Tony is the all-time riff king!
"I also love the Anthrax cover back in the 80s [first included as a b-side on their 1987 single for Indians, before reappearing the same year as part of the I’m The Man EP]. I think it’s right up there with the all-time Sabbath classics.
"I mean, Sabbath have so many incredible songs and are the founders of metal, but Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was always an all-time favourite. To me, Sabbath never sound dated. I still play it on my radio show all the time. It’s a go-to Sabbath track for me!”