Rain patters down as the wind whistles. Church bells ring, thunder cracks. Then, you’re enveloped in the ominous sound of the Devil’s tritone as a distorted voice wails, “What is this… that stands before me?”
Within 30 seconds, Black Sabbath’s self-titled song seals itself as the sound of pure evil in musical form. It telegraphed that the landscape of rock ’n’ roll was changing when released in 1970 – removed from feelgood hippie blues to the polar opposite, the chilling presence of the supernatural. And now it’s hailed not just as the first song of its creators’ legendary, 50-year-long career, but the touchstone of the entire heavy metal genre.
Black Sabbath didn’t plan to perfect the metal rulebook when they formed in 1968. When Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward and Geezer Butler first united, it was under the moniker of “the Polka Tulk Blues Band”. Together they played a form of hard, faintly folky rock. Although the band rebranded as Earth later in the same year, they still needed a hook: something to make them distinct from the soundscape of the day. Then the horror cinema down the road from their rehearsal space presented it to them.
“One day I thought that it seemed strange that a lot of people spend so much money to see scary movies,” Ozzy told NYRock in 2002. “Nobody really wanted to listen to us, so we decided to play slightly scary music. We liked it and, yeah, that’s how it all got started. That’s the story of Black Sabbath.”
It’s been woven into folklore that Black Sabbath’s dark, doomy style was also forced into the band and their eponymous song when Tony was 17 years old. At that age, the guitarist was a sheet metal worker and had the tips of his fingers sliced off in a factory accident. Doctors said he’d never play again, but he fashioned himself makeshift ‘fingertips’ using the melted-down caps of washing-up liquid bottles. So the story goes, he then had to downtune his guitar strings to reduce the pressure on his sliced-off digits. However, Tony’s since dismissed this as an urban myth.
“I would have liked to have not chopped the ends of my fingers off,” he told Classic Rock in 2016. “It became a burden. Some people say it helped me invent the kind of music I play, but I don’t know whether it did.”
Black Sabbath is in fact played in E-standard, your run-of-the-mill guitar tuning, and instead draws its eeriness from the tritone: an infamously evil-sounding note progression that has been associated with the Devil since the Middle Ages. Geezer’s claimed that the guitar part was inspired not by Satan, though, but classical – specifically Mars, The Bringer Of War, from the Gustav Holst suite The Planets. Black Sabbath’s tense opening certainly bears a striking resemblance to the movement, where slow, simple notes escalate in intensity.
The lyrics, however, were definitely drawn from the dark side. “I was getting into, not practising, but reading a lot [about] spiritualism and black magic,” Geezer remembered during the 1999 Sabbath video The Last Supper. “A lot of people were doing it at the time. It was the post-hippie generation, so all the peace and love was going out the window, and spiritualism was coming in.”
Apparently, Ozzy somehow got his hands on a 16th-century book all about these occult mysteries. When the singer leant it to Geezer, he “got a really weird vibe off it”.
“That night, I woke up suddenly and there was this black shape at the bottom of my bed,” the bassist continued. “It just vanished into thin air as I was staring at it. I thought it had to have something to do with this book that Ozzy brought around for me. I leapt out of bed, rushed to the cupboard to throw the book out, and the book was gone.”
Geezer told Ozzy about the experience the morning after. Three days after that, the singer used it as the core for Black Sabbath’s lyrics. “Figure in black… is watching me,” they narrate, so slowly as to emulate a moment of heart-stopping terror – before diving into more than a dash of artistic liberty: “Big black shape, with eyes of fire… telling people their desire. Satan’s sitting there – he’s smiling.”
When the song was finished, the band still officially called Earth christened it Black Sabbath, after a Mario Bava film that had been screened at that cinema down the road from where they practised. The music embodied the dark aura that the Brummie boys were out for so well that, in August 1969, they too became Black Sabbath. So began 48 years and 19 studio albums of heavy metal trailblazing. However, not one of the band’s releases in the half-century that followed could touch the impact, excellence and sheer horror of that very first song.