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August 5, 2021

From the Vaults: Black Sabbath

 

     Black Sabbath have called it a day, but they won’t disappear anytime soon.  Classic Rock radio and magazines will continue to play their music and talk about their legacy.  The last time I visited Amoeba Music in Los Angeles in 2013 (just prior to the WOAS West Coast Bureau relocating to Oregon), I picked up a copy of their final studio album together, 13.  The twenty-something clerk looked over the counter and said, “Oh, is that new?  I didn’t know they had a new album.  I will have to check it out.  I love Sabbath.”  As she bagged my purchases, I casually mentioned that I had played Paranoid in my high school band back in 1970.  She looked me over one last time, apparently searching for just the right thing to tell the old guy who was buying a variety of blues CDs along with Black Sabbath’s 13.  All she was able to come up with was, “Wow!”  

     We did play Paranoid in The Twig back in 1970, but only once.  The truth be told, it was at a rehearsal in my folk’s basement and a kid who wanted to join our trio taught it to us on the spot. I had never heard the song before that evening but it was pretty basic and fun to play.  In fact, it took some time before I heard it on the radio and learned it was by a new English band called Black Sabbath.  In the end, we decided to stay a trio and Paranoid never made our playlist.  The band would remain off my radar until 1973 when my buddy Mitch upgraded his car tape player from 8-track to cassette.  He gave me his old player and a box of 8-track tapes which went straight into my beater of a Chevy Bel Aire and later into my Chevy pickup truck.  These tunes kept me awake on many of my late night commutes between band jobs in Marquette and my summer job at the Huron Mountain Club.  Among Mitch’s stash of 8-track tapes was Sabbath’s 1973 release Sabbath, Bloody Sabbath.  I liked what I heard on the album but did not get interested in their back catalog until they released a compilation of their work in 1975 entitled We Sold Our Souls For Rock and Roll.

     I have been a fan ever since, but never got deep enough to go back to the albums that sourced the music found on WSOSFR&R.  WOAS-FM’s West Coast Bureau musicologist, Todd,  recently sent a pile of music he had been collecting for me during the COVID-19 lockdown.  Among the dozen CDs he sent were the second and fourth Black Sabbath records, Paranoid (1970) and Vol. 4 (1972).  I took this to be an omen:  it is time to talk about the origins of one of the most iconic, pioneering, and heavy bands to come out of the late 1960s.  Contrary to the various urban legends that have grown up around the band, they weren’t pushing Satanism any more than The Rolling Stones were when they put out Their Satanic Majesties Request in 1967.  They were trying to sell records and as sometimes happens, they created their own niche in the music biz.

     Black Sabbath began as one of many blues based boogie bands that existed in the gritty factory town of Birmingham, England in the later half of the 1960s.  When Savoy Brown recorded their 1990 Live And Kickin’ album in New York City, guitarist Kim Simmonds introduced singer Dave Walker by describing his hometown, Birmingham, as, “A grim, ‘orrible place that has produced some of the best blues singers in the world,” (to which Walker added, “And a lot of really good bricklayers!”).   John Osbourne’s audition for the band was driven more by the public address system the band needed and the convicted and newly reformed burglar owned.  That Ozzy could actually sing was a bonus when he was asked to join the band now known as Earth.  Ozzy later recalled, “I was a terrible burglar and I got sent to prison when I was 17.  When someone said ‘Why not try being a singer,’ I said, ‘Sure, why not’.”  In the liner notes for the 2016 reissue of the band’s second release,  the author described the band in 1971 (before they became identified by  “The devil-came-down-to-Birmingham lyrics, inverted crosses and suchlike,”) as a band searching for an identity.  Bassist Geezer Butler and Osbourne had worked together in The Polka Tulk Blues Band.  Guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward were mates in the band Mythology.  When they came together as Earth, all of the elements that would become Black Sabbath were now in place.  A new name was in order when they discovered there was another band called Earth playing the small-time English music circuit.  A fan of horror films, Butler suggested Black Sabbath, the name of a popular Boris Karloff movie. 

     Guitarist Tony Iommi fancied himself a drummer as a teen, but switched instruments when the excessive noise created by drums was weighed against the quieter guitar.  The left hander thought his career was done before it had really started when at age 17, he lost the tips of the middle and ring fingers on his right hand working in a sheet metal factory.  When told he would never be able to play with his fretboard hand so damaged, he was resigned to a guitarless future.  His glum view was reversed when his factory work foreman played him a jazz record by Django Reihhardt.  He told Iommi, “You know, the guy’s only playing with two fingers on his fretboard hand because of an injury he sustained in a terrible fire.”  This inspired Iommi who first considered switching to playing right-handed as he hadn’t been playing all that long:  “I did have a go at [playing right-handed], but I just didn’t have the patience.  It seemed impossible to me.  I decided to make do with what I had, and I made some plastic fingertips for myself.  I just persevered with it.”  The use of light-gauge strings helped him work around his injured fingers.  It also forced Iommi to use all of his fingers more.  When Tony later began tuning down his guitar to lower pitches, it not only made the strings easier to bend, but it also paved the way for the bigger, heavier sound that would become Black Sabbath’s signature sound.

     Butler acquired the name ‘Geezer’ as a lad from his habit of calling all adult men ‘geezers’.  Originally a rhythm guitar player in the John Lennon mode before joining Black Sabbath, he switched to bass because Iommi did not want to have two guitars in the band.  Butler later explained, “I’d never played bass until I was on stage at the first gig that we played.  Borrowed the bass guitar off one of my friends and it only had three strings on it.”  His love for mythological and horror books and films, Geezer became the band’s primary lyricist.  This kind of flies in the face of his original career studies to become an accountant.  His schooling wasn’t wasted as he ended up managing the band’s finances in the early days.

     As previously mentioned, Bill Ward came to the band along with Tony Iommi.  A fan of big band drummers like Gene Kruppa, Buddy Rich, and Joe Morello, Bill himself became a gifted drummer.  For some reason Ward was the butt of many a practical joke like the time he agreed to let Iommi squirt him with lighter fluid and set him ablaze.  Luckily this episode didn’t end his life, let alone his career.  Never one to over imbibe before he joined Black Sabbath, Ward ended up shortening his tenure with the band through excessive consumption of alcohol and other substances.  He also missed a final chance for a reunion with his Sabbath bandmates when he made contract demands  the rest of the band would not agree to.

     Their self-titled first album was pounded out in two days with a budget of only 600 pounds.  Amazingly, the album, “crashed into the album charts in both Britain and America,”  according to Wells’ liner notes:  “Even by the elevated standards of the music industry – where, as Sabbath fan David St. Hubbins (of Spinal Tap fame) once sagely observed, ‘there’s such a thin line between clever and stupid’ – it was an amzaing transformation.”  The problem was what to do next.  There is such a thing as the ‘second album syndrome’ where an artist shapes their first album over many years of rehearsal and gigs then has to write a follow up in a few months.  With the success of Black Sabbath, the band found itself crisscrossing Europe in a Transit van on a schedule of live shows not planned with the band’s health and well being in mind.  Such mismanagement can make some bands implode, but Sabbath managed to make it work to their advantage.

     According to Iommi, their second album began taking shape because of their insane schedule:

“We were on tour for a bit after the first record.  We had a stint at a club in Zurich, where we’d start at three in the afternoon and play seven 45-minute sets – for six weeks!  We didn’t have enough songs, so we’d keep playing the same things, which got really boring.  So we used that time to start jamming and making up things.  That’s when War Pigs came about, just jamming there.  We’d start playing something, somebody would say, ‘Oh, I like that,’ and then we’d make it into a song.   At the end of the six-week period, we had two or three real songs to start the new album with.”

     War Pigs began as a tune originally called Walpurgis in reference to the Witches’ Sabbath.  The one dimensional marketing campaign for the Black Sabbath album branded the band in the media (‘demonized’ is the word Wells used).  This in turn made their record label nervous and the band uncomfortable.  Iommi sums it up with an apt phrase:  “When the woodwork squeaks, out come the freaks.”  The band purposely steered away from the witchy subject matter and remolded their soon to be epic song into War Pigs.  The song was destined to be the album show piece and namesake, but then something odd happened as the album was nearly complete.  The band broke for lunch and Iommi, the riffmeister that he was, sat noodling about in the studio.  When the band got back, Ward confirms, “He was playing it on his own,  Geezer plugged in his bass, I sat behind my drum kit, we automatically grooved with him and Ozzy started singing.  We didn’t say a word to each other, we just came into the room and started playing.  I think it was about one-thiry in the afternoon,  Tony had the riffs, and by two o’clock, we had Paranoid exactly as you hear it on the record.”

     The last minute addition to the already recorded songs for the album was just too good to leave in the dust bin, but it took some convincing from producer Roger Bain to get them to even include it on the record:  “I remember pressing the talkback and saying words to the effect of, ‘That’s pretty good.  What is that?’ and sort of getting disbelief.  ‘You’re joking’ they said, ‘We’re just messing around.  We just made it up.’  I said, ‘that’s great – let’s do it!’”  The band thought the final product was a bit too pop for them, but in the end, it became the lead single for the still unnamed album.  It was released in mid-July and by the second week of October, it peaked at Number 4 on the charts.  The surprise hit single from a band that did not write hit singles landed them an appearance on Top of the Pops.  It also sent the record company scrambling before the album could be released.

     I often wondered what Sabbath was trying to say with the cover art for the second album.  The record company rightly decided to tie the album to the hit single and named it Paranoid.  It turns out the last minute change did not give them time to reshoot the cover photo that had been done for the LP’s intended original title:  War Pigs.  Of course, I never did connect the bearded, motorcycle helmet wearing man with a red sash brandishing a sword and shield with the song War Pigs.  The image was some label guy’s vision of what a War Pig would look like.  With the war in Vietnam still making daily headlines, the reworked lyrics fit right into the public’s anti-war sentiment, but the image did not exactly remind one of anything remotely military.  Until recently, I could not make heads nor tails out of how this image evoked the ‘paranoia’ hinted at by the album’s release title, but now it makes a little more sense.

     Paranoid came out on September 18, 1970 (the day Jimi Hendrix died) and bounded up the charts thanks to the unexpected success of the single.  It knocked Simon & Garfunkel’s Bridge Over Troubled Water LP from the top spot on the charts and revived sales of Black Sabbath.  By the end of 1970, both titles would appear on the top twenty best selling albums of the year list with Paranoid reaching No. 14 and Black Sabbath clocking in at No. 20.  Album sales alone did not totally alleviate the ‘weird and freaky’ business that came with their success..

     On the basis of the record company marketing of the first album, a character named Alex Sanders began coming to their shows.  As the ‘head witch’ in England, Sanders began inviting them to meetings of his little group (which they politely declined).  When Sabbath turned down an offer to perform a concert at Stonehenge to celebrate Walpurgis Night, Sanders supposedly put a hex on the band.  Taking no chances, Ozzy’s father, Jack, began fashioning crucifixes for them to wear to ward off any evil spirits.  Ward remembers the events leading up to the crucifix wearing in a slightly different context:  “Jack began making the crosses for us when he learned we were all having mutual dreams – we were all being visited by monks in our dreams.  I believed they were there to help us in our journeys and keep us safe and out of harm’s way.  Making those crosses was a gesture of love from Jack.”  The record buying public didn’t hear this angle so they interpreted the band’s jewelry choices in more sinister ways.  If one needs to separate themselves from the pack, so to speak, even publicity hinting at the band’s so-called ‘dark side’ stirred interest.

     As far as a sophomore jinx, Paranoid was anything but.  As Geezer explained it, “On the first album, we didn’t really know what we were doing, When you write your first album, you’re influenced by all the stuff that’s going on around you, and I think each one of us brought our own particular style into the music that we did.  So in the beginning, all the different influences you’ve had up until then came together on one album, and from there, it gets into this one sound rather than lots of different things.  When you realize that you’ve got your own sound, then you can just pick up on that, and keep it in one direction.  For me, that first happened on Paranoid.”

     The future would see more albums, dark times, successful tours, a revolving door of band members, break ups, reunions, and all the attendant drama of being a major league rock band.  As for 1970, we will leave the last word to Ozzy:  “After all these years, it amazes me how people’s perception can get so distorted over the years.  In the end, it was really down to four people:  Iommi, myself, Butler, and Ward.  We had a magic, we had vulnerability, and we were hungry.  We were nothing without each other, but together we were Black Sabbath, which was unstoppable.”

Top Piece Video:  The golden age of Black Sabbath – it is best to catch Ozzy and the boys earlier in their career before he got into the habit of punctuating the lyrics with F bombs!