In the Beginning
Tony Iommi, guitarist for Black Sabbath, the band that started it all. “Let’s face it,” said former metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio. “Sabbath was the first heavy metal band, a band that stepped on buildings when they came to town.” (John Harrell)
You can tell what bands have staying power when you go into the headshops and you see who’s putting posters out. If you’ve got a blacklight poster, you’ve been immortalized. —Former Anthrax and White Lion drummer Greg D’Angelo
THE END OF THE SIXTIES was filled with equal amounts of promise and terror. The Woodstock festival, which began on August 15, 1969, in Bethel, New York, was the culmination of the peace-and-love generation; hundreds of thousands of hippies came out to celebrate. But by December 6, 1969, a similar festival at the Altamont Speedway in Northern California, headlined by the Rolling Stones, ended in violence and death when a Hell’s Angels security guard killed a fan in the audience.
We would have a man on the moon before 1970, just as President Kennedy promised, but back on earth, the Manson slayings and the threat of Vietnam proved how inhumane the world could be. Musically, there was a new British Invasion brewing, but its message was a harsh reflection of a troubled world, not an escape from it.
The music that Black Sabbath and the other fledgling heavy metal bands were playing at this time was far removed from the feelings of hope and promise of the 1960s. The members of Black Sabbath may have looked like hippies with their long, wavy hair parted down the middle and their huge bell-bottoms swallowing up their feet, but there was nothing peaceful or flowery about their music.
In the ’60s, the smell of incense filled the air, and everyone was singing about peace and love. And John “Ozzy” Osbourne wanted to puke. He thought to himself, What’s all this flower shit? I got no shoes on my feet. Taking a trip to a magic land full of peace, love, and sunshine seemed as realistic to Osbourne as taking a trip to Mars. The world was taking a dark turn at the end of the ’60s, and the music began to reflect that. “We got sick and tired of all the bullshit, love your brother
Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page playing a classic Les Paul guitar with a violin bow. When Page put his band together, he wanted a strong unit where everyone was a great musician. Led Zeppelin proved that great band line-ups are one in a million. (Neil Zlozower)
and flower power forever,” said Osbourne. “We brought things down to reality.” England became the giant petri dish where the germ of heavy metal music developed and grew.
Black Sabbath came out of Birmingham, England’s second-largest city. The four original members, Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Terry “Geezer” Butler, and Bill Ward, grew up in working-class families within a mile of each other in the town of Aston. The entire area had been bombed heavily during World War II and was still struggling to rebuild and recover during the years that the members of the band were growing up.
Drummer Bill Ward had fond memories of his youth in Aston, recalling the steam trains coming into the city, the factories, the Victorian-style homes, and the 450-year-old local mansion Aston Hall. “There was a lot of pride coming from Aston,” said Ward. “The people there were very resilient. Most people were just regular factory workers; they got by, and they made do. They would clean the front steps of their houses [and] make sure the brass was shining on the doors.” It’s not surprising heavy metal was born in a working-class environment. Heavy metal often carries the message of standing up for yourself, standing strong against impossible odds and overcoming them.
Growing up in Aston, there were only three options, according to Ward: Work in a factory, join a band, or go to jail. For Osbourne it was almost the last. He lived with his two brothers and three sisters in one room. His family barely got by. “It used to tear me apart to see my mother crying because she hadn’t got enough fucking dough left to spend on bills and things.” Eventually Osbourne turned to a life of crime. “I had to,” he said. “It was down to basic survival.” When he was caught burglarizing a clothing store and fined the equivalent of $60, Osbourne’s father decided not to bail him out, figuring that spending a little time in jail would teach his son a lesson. He spent six weeks in jail, where he tattooed the letters O-Z-Z-Y on his own knuckles.
During his stay in jail, Osbourne was locked up in solitary for several days for fighting another inmate, leaving him with a lifelong fear of being alone. Mixed in with murderers and hardcore criminals, the only thing that kept Osbourne from being beaten or raped was his sense of humor. When he got out, he decided to try to make a living as a singer. Osbourne put up an ad at a shopping center where he used to cop dope, and guitarist Tony Iommi saw it. Iommi had once known an Ozzy, but he didn’t think it could possibly be the same Ozzy he used to beat up in school. When Osbourne showed up at Iommi’s door, it turned out it was.
Iommi had been playing the guitar since he was a teenager, first jamming with Sabbath drummer Bill Ward when both were fifteen. When he was eighteen, Iommi was working in a factory when he got an opportunity to tour Germany with a group of musicians. According to Iommi, he came home after working only half of his last day at the factory, but his mother forced him to go back and work a full day. The guy who normally operated the metal press at the factory had not shown up, so Iommi was asked to fill in until the end of his shift. Soon after he resumed work, his fingers were caught in the metal press machine. He yanked his hand out, leaving behind the ends of his right middle and ring fingers. Obviously, Iommi didn’t go to Germany, and a doctor told him to find something else to do with his life besides music. Iommi wouldn’t hear of it. He had an incredibly strong will and was determined to play again no matter what it took. Because of his injury, and being left-handed, he had to relearn the guitar from scratch without the tips of his fingers. Iommi made thimbles out of melted plastic to keep his fingers from being torn up by the guitar strings.
Unable to feel anything when he played, Iommi learned his way around the fretboard by ear, which could have strengthened his improvisational skills. The plastic tips, however, were clumsy and often slowed down his playing, making it harder to get around the fretboard quickly. He sometimes became so frustrated that he’d smash his guitar against the wall.
The manager at the factory brought over a Django Reinhardt album for Iommi to listen to. Reinhardt was a famous jazz guitarist whose left hand was paralyzed except for two fingers, and he inspired Iommi to keep playing. At first he played with only two fingers, which helped him develop a number of techniques he might not have discovered otherwise. Supposedly he was one of the first guitarists to play just the low strings of a major chord instead of all six strings, which produced the “power chord.” “The guy had a lot of barriers to overcome just within himself,” said Osbourne. “For a while he thought he would never play again, but he mastered it.”
The four members of Black Sabbath first came together as a group in 1967, just as the blues-band scene in England was coming to an end. Most of the English hard rock and metal bands had strong roots in the blues, but each band gave it a unique interpretation that set it apart. On their debut albums, both Led Zeppelin and the Jeff Beck Group covered the Willie Dixon blues classic “You Shook Me,” and the two versions sounded nothing alike.
Much of Sabbath’s music grew out of jam sessions. When they got together to play, “nobody would know what was going to happen, which was incredible fun,” says Ward. The songs on the first three Sabbath albums, Black Sabbath, Paranoid, and Master of Reality, were all born from their jam sessions. The band would plod along jamming, then a song would suddenly come together. There was a little arranging done afterward, but for the most part the way the song was written in the jam session was the way you heard it on the album.
Black Sabbath’s sound was dark and morbid, more so than any other band at the time. They were one of the first bands to tune their guitars lower, often as much as three semitones, which gave their riffs more depth and texture and could make a single chord sound huge and oppressive. Many metal bands would later tune down their instruments, and the intense levels of volume and distortion at which Black Sabbath played is now standard for every hard rock and metal band. But what Black Sabbath was doing in the late 1960s was all new terrain. Never before had music sounded this dark, distorted, or loud. “I didn’t hear Black Sabbath’s music coming from anywhere else,” says Richard Cole, Led Zeppelin’s longtime tour manager, who grew up in the thick of the English music scene in the late ’60s. “[They were] perhaps more original than Zeppelin in that sort of way. It almost came from nowhere.” Ronnie James Dio, who sang with Black Sabbath from 1979 to 1982, said, “Let’s face it, [Black Sabbath] was the first heavy metal band, a band that stepped on buildings when they came to town.”
The band members’ depressing upbringings in Birmingham couldn’t help but seep into their music, and it’s what helped create the sound of heavy metal. “It just seemed like the right thing to do, to go with those moods,” says Ward. “Emotionally it was very satisfying for everybody, almost healing in a sense. Especially when you’re real young and there’s a lot of anger. Playing drums with Sabbath is the greatest transport one can have to deal with one’s anger.” It’s doubtful a band like Black Sabbath could have come out of Beverly Hills.
In their early days, Black Sabbath had a tough time getting gigs, and they played wherever they could. They used to go to clubs where Jeff Beck was booked to perform because Beck was known for blowing off gigs, and if he didn’t show up, Black Sabbath would be there ready to perform. A promoter in Birmingham named Jim Simpson started booking and eventually managing the band, but record labels wouldn’t go to Birmingham to see a band; you had to be good enough to play in London. The Marquee Club in London was where countless bands got their start. (The Who, AC/DC, and Yes played there when they were getting started.) The club was a 350-capacity room that was usually packed and always sweltering. When Twisted Sister played there over a decade later, the room was so hot that guitarist Jay Jay French came offstage and wrote in his diary, “If this is hell, I’m becoming an atheist.” Black Sabbath eventually got a gig at the Marquee in 1968, but legend has it the owner said they wouldn’t be allowed to return unless they bathed first. “They were the dirtiest, grubbiest, most intimidating lot I’d ever seen,” says Tom Allom, who engineered Sabbath’s first album and went on to produce for Judas Priest. They may have looked like long-haired, dope-smoking hippies, but there was something foreboding about their presence. Only later, Allom adds, “I found out they were actually very nice!”
The members of Black Sabbath knew what they were doing was different, but they had no idea how different their music was from what was going on in England until they saw how much resistance they were meeting. Fourteen labels rejected the band before Jim Simpson finally managed to secure a deal. Vertigo was a subsidiary label set up by Phonogram and had originally passed on Black Sabbath, but needed them to help fill out a roster of priority artists like Rod Stewart, Manfred Mann, and Colosseum. The band went into the studio and recorded a demo under the name Earth on a four-track machine. The first song the band wrote together was “Black Sabbath,” and soon the band would rename themselves Black Sabbath as well. The name was taken from a 1963 Italian horror film. Sabbath used to rehearse across the street from a movie theater where a horror film was playing. Osbourne thought: Isn’t it strange that people pay money to get the shit scared out of them? Why don’t we try and put that to music?
Black Sabbath’s first album was recorded at Regent Sound in London. It took only two days to record and another two days to mix. The entire album, including the cover photograph of a green witch in a psychedelic purple field, cost around £600 pounds, about $1,200. Allom, who engineered the album, recalls that it was very easy to record. “They were very proficient in the studio. Everything was first takes.” Black Sabbath played at nuclear volume in the studio, and the producer, Rodger Bain, went crazy. “You can’t turn it up that loud in the studio!” he screamed. “You won’t be able to hear anything else; you won’t be able to hear the drums!” He tried to get them to play at a lower volume, promising he’d turn up the mixes later, but the band wasn’t interested. “We don’t turn down, man, we turn up,” they replied.
When Black Sabbath’s self-titled debut album was released in February 1970, the label hyped the band as “Louder Than Zeppelin.”
Osbourne was just happy to be bringing home a record to his parents. The band members figured they would put out a couple of albums; then they’d head back to work in the factories. So everyone was quite surprised when the album went to No. 8 on the British charts. The song “Black Sabbath” was simple and startlingly effective. Osbourne perfectly described it as a song that has just three chords but “sounds like the gates of hell opening.” It was also played in a swinging jazz beat, though it’s played so slow you wouldn’t know it. A number of British drummers, including Ward, played behind the beat—an influence taken from jazz—and that gave their music tremendous weight. Inside the sleeve of the first Black Sabbath album was a giant inverted cross, which the band members insist was the label’s idea. Even though they wore steel crucifixes around their necks, they always wore them right side up. As the band was leaving for their first tour, Osbourne’s father gave them the crucifixes to wear. “We were four guys who were traveling in a vehicle that was falling apart, going across the sea to Europe in freezing cold, snow, stormy seas,” says Ward. “So the idea of having those crosses was [his] way of saying, ‘Hey, God bless you, and try and be safe.’ ”
Black Sabbath had toured Europe extensively before the band was signed, and now they were coming to America for the first time. As with most bands in the early ’70s, the scariest thing the musicians had to worry about was VD. One night Osbourne had to get so much penicillin shot into his rear end that he was hobbling and practically had to be helped to the stage. Sometimes on the road, Osbourne and Ward would get so drunk that the roadies would have to wheel them up to their rooms on luggage carts. Ward typically packed few clothes, but he made sure he packed “emergency booze” in case the drinks on the flight didn’t come fast enough.
Because of their reputation, Black Sabbath attracted a lot of fans who practiced witchcraft. But the band was usually more worried about the Christian groups that protested their shows than the satanists who attended them. “I was always afraid that some of these people who said they had relationships with Jesus were going to pull the trigger,” says Ward. “The witches would simply park their asses in the hotel corridors, light up candles, and just do their thing. But with the [Jesus freaks] I became more alert and watched out for that flash. You never know when there’s a .45 coming out.” Women were frightened of Black Sabbath as well, and the band didn’t attract the best-looking groupies. “Honestly, other groups’ roadies used to get better-looking groupies than we did,” said Osbourne. “You’d turn over in bed looking for a glass of water, and there would be this thing lying there, looking like something Picasso painted on a bad day.”
The band quickly followed up the success of their first album with Paranoid, which was recorded in July 1970 and released in September of the same year. The album was going to be called War Pigs, which was the title of a song about the insanity of the Vietnam War. Before they completed the album, the band realized they were one song short. When the band went out for a drink at the pub Iommi said he had an idea for a riff. They went back to the studio, and Iommi played the riff for the band. Within twenty-five minutes, they’d written the song “Paranoid,” and it was added to the album at the last possible minute, right before the tracks were due to be completed. Geezer Butler wrote the lyrics to the song, as he did with most of Black Sabbath’s songs. He liked the sound of the word “paranoid” but claims he had no idea what it meant. He was relieved when he found out the title fit the song’s lyrics perfectly. “Paranoid” ’s simple, classic riff would make it the band’s trademark song.
Another track on the Paranoid album was “Hand of Doom,” a song about heroin. The band drank, took psychedelics, and would eventually turn to cocaine, but heroin was a drug that scared them. At one of Black Sabbath’s shows in America, after the lights came up and the crowd had dispersed, the band was horrified to see used needles all over the arena floor. They wanted the lyrics of the song to be hardcore and extreme, to show the horror of addiction.
Because of the dark nature of their music and lyrics, Black Sabbath became the rock and roll equivalent of a boogieman under the bed, a taboo to listen to, which of course is what helped make them so popular. Metallica vocalist James Hetfield liked the fact that when he told his friends his favorite band was Black Sabbath, they’d say, “Wow. My mom won’t even let me own that album.” As he put it, “Sabbath was forbidden, not the right thing to do.”
The Paranoid album turned out to be Black Sabbath’s biggest, selling more than four million copies in the States alone, and reaching
No. 1 in England. When they returned to the States, they were now headliners. When they came to New York, they played the Fillmore East with Rod Stewart opening. Anxious to see Black Sabbath, the audience loudly booed Stewart in an effort to get him off the stage. That’s when Black Sabbath knew they were really starting to get somewhere.
Black Sabbath released its third album, Master of Reality, in 1971. The band didn’t have much material ready and wrote most of the songs, including their classics “Children of the Grave” and the weed-smoking ode “Sweet Leaf,” in the studio. The album was written and recorded within three weeks. In addition to his punishing guitar work, Iommi also played flute on Master of Reality, adding haunting melodic passages to the song “Solitude.” One night he and Butler smoked too much hash before going onstage, and Iommi tried to deliver a mournful melody with his flute, but since it wasn’t up to his mouth, all the audience could hear was: “Psssfffttt! Psssffftt! Psssffftt!”
By this point, Black Sabbath had been playing and touring together for four years, and they were severely burned out. Small cracks in the band’s surface began to grow larger. Before forming Black Sabbath, Iommi had played very briefly with Jethro Tull, where Ian Anderson was clearly in control of the band. When Iommi formed his band, he wanted to be the one in charge. Iommi and Butler had always had a close bond personally and musically. They didn’t have to communicate in words; they were practically clairvoyant musically when they played together. But Osbourne and Iommi were never very close. Osbourne didn’t play an instrument, and it was hard for him to get his musical ideas across to Iommi. Iommi didn’t have the patience to listen, and Osbourne often felt Iommi was a bully. On later tours, Osbourne sang off to the side of the stage while Iommi stood in the center, making his dominance in the band clear.
By the Black Sabbath Vol. 4 album, released in 1972, the band was partying hard and starting to lose its focus. Osbourne recalled that recording the Vol. 4 album “was like one big Roman orgy. We’d be in the Jacuzzi all day doing coke, and every now and again, we’d get up and do a song.” In the album’s liner notes, the band thanked “the COKE-cola company.” The album was originally going to be titled Snowblind, but Warner Bros., the group’s American label, balked at the obvious drug reference.
Warner Bros. didn’t think much of Black Sabbath’s music to begin with. In fact, the first time any of the Warner executives came out to see the band live was in 1979, and then only because the label’s baby act, Van Halen, was opening for them. Nor was Black Sabbath popular with the critics, and they endured years of bad reviews. In the ’70s, Iommi said, “Nobody likes us except the public.” But Black Sabbath’s fans, like most metal fans, didn’t let bad reviews influence their record-buying decisions. In fact, whatever the critics liked, metal fans usually avoided like the plague. “I don’t give one fuck about a rock critic,” said John Kalodner, the legendary A&R executive of Geffen Records and Sony Music.
“I was one, and I know they’re full of shit. They mean nothing. The only thing that matters to me is the radio stations that play rock records and the kids who buy them.” “Ultimately, it’s the kids who make the decision,” said Jon Bon Jovi. “Not the critics. Record-company guys are paid to tell you how great a record is; the critics are paid to tell you how bad it is. Both of them get their records for free. It’s the kids who’re gonna buy it and listen to it.”
One of the few critics who understood Black Sabbath’s music was Lester Bangs, now considered one of the greatest rock critics in history. In the ’80s, metal magazines were overrun with sycophants and group-
ies who gave their favorite bands literary blow jobs because they craved the perks of access and were scared of being cut off if their reviews were too critical. Bangs turned down anyone in the music business who tried to woo him, and he was never afraid to call it as he saw it. If he liked a band, you knew he was sincere. While many critics dismissed heavy metal, comparing it to a group of grubby cavemen thumping their instruments, Bangs saw Black Sabbath’s music as worthy of serious attention. “Despite the blitzkrieg nature of their sound, Black Sabbath are moralists,” Bangs wrote in Creem. “Like Bob Dylan, like William Burroughs, like most artists trying to deal with a serious situation in an honest way. They are a band with a conscience who have looked around them and taken it upon themselves to reflect the chaos in ways they see as positive.”
Black Sabbath would gain critical acclaim only after Kurt Cobain and many of the Seattle bands acknowledged their influence in the ’90s. The band was clearly ahead of its time, and it took some time for the world to catch up. In the 1983 edition of The Rolling Stone Record Guide, each Black Sabbath album received a one-star review. In the revised 1992 edition, several of their albums received three stars.
But in the 1970s, Black Sabbath’s day in the sun was still many years off. In 1974, Jim Simpson, who had managed the band early in their career, sued them for wrongful termination. After he filed suit, the band realized that their current managers had screwed them out of millions of dollars. The lawsuits went on for two years; the band spent a year off the road until their legal problems were straightened out. As Osbourne would later remark, “I liked the first four albums, but after Sabbath Bloody Sabbath , we were just making albums to pay our lawyers.”
With their Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and Sabotage albums, Black Sabbath’s songs moved away from topical issues to reflect the brutal realities of the music business. “Killing Yourself to Live” was about the grind of life on the road. “The Writ” was a diatribe against their former manager; one line went, “You bought and sold me with your lying words.” Even the title of the Sabotage album was a reference to the band’s negative experiences in the music business. “You’ve got to be really careful of the business side of it, not to sign anything until you’ve had it read,” said Iommi. “First thing to do, before you learn to play, is get a lawyer.”
Excerpted from Bang Your Head by David Konow. Copyright © 2002 by David Konow. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.