Favorite Bands: Black Sabbath

Black Sabbath with Ozzy OsbourneThey were THE scary band growing up. And being from a religious household, avoid a band with a name like Black Sabbath seemed like a no-brainer. I mean, they probably were into human sacrifice and Satanic rituals. Right? The minor keys and Ozzy Osbourne’s crazed visage didn’t help matters. Hey, this was the guy who bit off a dove’s head at a record company meeting.

A funny thing happened on the way to adulthood. I got into Deep Purple, then Led Zeppelin. There’s a lot of overlap with Purple and Sabbath. Ian Gillan eventually sang lead for them. Glenn Hughes, who once played bass for Purple sang on a Tony Iommi solo album branded as Black Sabbath. Oh, they were still scary. But it was by design. I wanted to know how they did it.

What I heard was a garage band. The Sabs worked damn hard to break into the big time, but listen to their early work. They sound like a band playing just two doors down from you, no flash, no overdubs. They have a very live sound.

There are three songs that sum up the classic Sabbath. I’ll forgo the Ronnie James Dio years, Gillan’s turn at the mic, and the Iommi albums his label slapped the band name on in the name of sales. If you want to know about Sabbath, it can be summed up in “Paranoid,” “Iron Man,” and “War Pigs.” Of the three, “Paranoid” is the template for modern heavy metal. Not the glam, big-hair metal of the late eighties, but the dangerous, foreboding thunder that emerged from Metallica, Megadeth, and Motorhead. It’s also the source of one of the stupidest Christian radio rumors ever. Near the end of the song, Ozzy wails, “I tell you to enjoy life/I wish I could but it’s too late.” Some idiot with an agenda interpreted this as “I tell you to end your life.” Thus the myth of heavy metal suicide was begun. Listening to the song while writing this, I can safely say the radio pinhead was full of it. Guess they missed reading Exodus 20:16 before getting on their soapbox.

But listening to “Paranoid” and “War Pigs,” which is really Sabbath’s scariest song, you hear why they were so successful. There’s that raw, unadulterated Iommi guitar, the detuned guitar in minor key, the distortion, and the mad picking style the belies the fact that Iommi is missing a couple of fingertips. But what really gives Sabbath its menace is Geezer Butler’s bass. Butler is behind Iommi and Ozzy, plucking away, not really showy, but demanding to be heard just the same.

This is the sound that would carry Sabbath through its classic years, from 1969 through 1979.

It’s hard to believe, but Black Sabbath started out as a flower power group called Earth. While touring in 1969, the band discovered they were being mistaken for another band called Earth. They spotted a marquee on a theater announcing the Boris Karloff thriller Black Sabbath. Iommi noticed Boris was packing them in pretty good and wondered if a band could the same thing: Sell scary to crowds. Combining the movie title, some occult reading Osbourne favored, and a nightmare drummer Bill Ward had, they conjured up the song “Black Sabbath” from whence the band’s name came. The rest is history.

In recent years, two versions of Sabbath toured. Ozzy is a part of the band using the original name, featuring Iommi, Butler, and Ward. In alternating years, Ward would sit out while Ozzy did his Ozzy thing, and Ronnie James Dio and Vinny Appice would step in. This version was called Heaven & Hell after Dio’s first album as Ozzy’s successor, and lasted until 2010 when Dio died of stomach cancer.

The Sabs were indeed scary, but on purpose. Yet you see Ozzy nowadays as the befuddled but likeable dad, thanks to The Osbournes and his status as one of rock’s elder statesmen. Indeed, Ozzy has been, from the very beginning, a master showman, but it’s really Iommi who has influenced heavy metal the most. Like Ritchie Blackmore, he is a pioneer of distorted, aggressive guitar, blasting wider the trail blazed by Jimi Hendrix. Unlike Blackmore, Iommi can actually write. (Oh, don’t look at me like that. You all know Roger Glover wrote most of Deep Purple’s hits. And ghost wrote a few Rainbow tunes before joining that band.) When you want theater, you look to Ozzy (and to Dio, who really was the only singer with the gravitas to step into Ozzy’s shoes.) When you want musicianship, you look to Iommi, and quite often see Geezer Butler standing nearby plucking his Fender bass. Black Sabbath simply is heavy metal.