On Saturday 30 August, 1969, as John Lennon, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton made their way to Portsmouth to watch Bob Dylan play the Isle of Wight Festival the following day, a new musical language was being forged 400 miles north in a dingy club in small-town Cumbria – and there wasn’t an ounce of peace and love about it.
Black Sabbath, four working class Birmingham misfits who’d formed a band the previous year, were playing their first gig under their new name. Their loud, elemental and doom-laden music would almost single-handedly invent heavy metal, one of the defining musical genres of the late 20th century. But as Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward took to the stage in Workington, the cream of rock royalty heading south clearly didn’t get the memo. They arguably never would. Sabbath would remain musical outsiders almost all their careers: unruly interlopers who were loathed by their peers and the press and bogged down by accusations of Satanism and devil worship for years.
As Sabbath’s defining album Paranoid marks its 50th anniversary this week, how did four lads from Aston, Birmingham – “scum and they knew it,” as writer Mick Wall memorably called them in the opening sentence of his band biography – manage to leave such a lasting legacy? And why did this band from the West Midlands, who played their last show in 2017, strike the fear of God into mainstream society on both sides of the Atlantic?
Tom Allom, who was the sound engineer on Sabbath’s first three albums, tells me that the group’s music was unlike anything else around at the time. “It was a massive departure. When we did the first album [Black Sabbath, recorded in October 1969] I had never heard that style of playing. I couldn’t really fathom it. I didn’t really get it. You never heard anything like that on the radio,” says Allom, who went on to become long-term producer for fellow Midlands metallers Judas Priest, including on their seminal 1980 album British Steel.
Coming from the blackened heart of industrial Britain, Sabbath simply couldn’t relate to the era’s prevailing hippy ideals. As Osbourne put it in typically colourful fashion in 2005: “Back in the day it was, ‘If you’re going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.’ Where in the f___ was San Francisco? And the only flowers we ever saw in Aston were on a coffin going to a cemetery.”
So Sabbath ploughed their own dark furrow. They formed in 1968 with the decidedly less threatening name of The Polka Tulk Blues Band, complete with a saxophonist and slide guitar player. But they soon slimmed down to a four-piece, changed their name to Earth and – after Iommi had a brief and unhappy stint in Jethro Tull – finally settled on Black Sabbath. The sound was stripped back and heavy by necessity. This is because, aged 17, guitarist Iommi had lost the tips of the middle two fingers on his right hand in an industrial accident at a sheet metal factory where he worked as a welder. He therefore played guitar with two homemade thimbles attached to the top of his fingers and, in order to make the strings looser and easier to play, he tuned down his guitar. This gave his playing a dirge-like sound.
Add to the mix Butler’s bass which followed Iommi’s riffs to give them extra heft, Ward’s powerhouse jazz-influenced drumming and Osbourne’s atonal wail, and you have a sound that can only be described as unique. It sounded like hammers falling in the murk of an iron foundry. It was a sonic template that was quite literally created by heavy metal. And it was brutally honest: a pure reflection of the band’s personas. It was a sound that would influence generations of bands, from Iron Maiden a decade later to Nirvana a decade after that. No Sabbath, no heavy metal or grunge.
If their sound was bleak, then Sabbath’s lyrics could be equally morbid. But this was a double-edged sword that, largely due to a misunderstanding, would plague Sabbath for decades. The band took their name from one of their early songs, Black Sabbath, after it went down well at a pub gig in Lichfield. The song’s lyrics were written by Butler, who dabbled in the occult. He was lying in bed one night in his black-walled flat, inverted crosses hanging on the wall, when he saw a ghost at the end of his bed. “It frightened the pissing life out of me,” he has said.
So he wrote the song about the dangers of Satanism (he was so freaked out that he even painted his room orange after the event). But the song wasn’t interpreted as such. It was seen as a glorification of devil worship, a notion given ballast when, unbeknownst to the band, their record company added the creepy sounds of a funereal bell and driving rain to the song’s intro. When the accompanying album came out with an image of the black-cloaked figure on the front and a gatefold sleeve that opened in the shape of an upside down crucifix – again, embellishments that the band didn’t know about – then the tag of devil worshippers stuck. Their fate was sealed when it was discovered that the song contained an unwitting half-octave interval, a gap so apparently disturbing to the ears that the church banned it in the Middle Ages for being ‘the Devil’s interval’.
But, however erroneous these accusations were, the public loved it. So the band wrote more dark material. They became relatable underdogs. It was on second album Paranoid that Sabbath nailed their sound. Just eight tracks long, the LP contained the brutally heavy eight-minute anti-Vietnam song War Pigs, creepy sci-fi epic Iron Man, nuclear apocalypse freak-out Electric Funeral, and the mighty Paranoid, which would become Sabbath’s signature tune and their only smash hit single.
Allom says the whole album was completed in London in a matter of days. Although well drilled musically, he says the band were “wild”. “When they came in to record the Paranoid album – I don’t think I’m fantasising – Bill Ward had his left foot in plaster because they’d had an altercation with some skinheads and he’d climbed a lamppost to try to get away from them and he fell off. I don’t think any of the others have mentioned it because they probably don’t remember. Thank God it wasn’t his right foot as he wouldn’t have been able to play the bass drum. I think Tony had a black eye,” Allom recalls.
The song Paranoid was actually an afterthought. The band were one track short and while everyone else was in a pub near Tottenham Court Road, Iommi had stayed in the Regent Sound studio to work on a riff idea he’d had. “He came running over to the pub and said ‘I’ve got a new idea. Come on, let’s have a go on it’. It was Paranoid,” says Allom. The song was written in minutes.
The album would go on to sell over four million copies and make superstars of Sabbath in America. But it was here where their reputation as devil worshipers would come back to haunt them.
A 1970 US tour was cancelled as it would have coincided with the murder trial of actual Satanist Charles Manson, whose followers scrawled ‘Pig’ on the wall in victim Sharon Tate’s blood. The closeness to War Pigs was too much for their US label to risk. But the tour wasn’t cancelled in time for label Warner to call off a promotional stunt through the streets of San Francisco called The Black Sabbath Parade. Floats and freaks, led by a Rolls Royce draped in black, processed through the city. The whole thing was organised, with Warner’s backing, by Anton LaVey, the head of the Church of Satan.
Middle America hated it. But so did the band. Back in Birmingham, Osbourne saw footage and was so scared he refused to leave his room “for f___ing weeks”. When they did hit the road, fans would paint crosses on blood on their dressing room doors and witches would turn up at gigs (though, comically, would scurry away when the band walked on stage wearing crosses). Once, the band returned to their hotel to find 20 black-clad Satanists sitting outside their rooms holding black candles and chanting. Terrified, the band clambered over them and locked themselves in their rooms. After a few inter-room phone calls, they burst back out simultaneously, blew out the candles and sang Happy Birthday. The Satanists scarpered.
The band’s problem was that they couldn’t counter the black magic accusations because the snobbish rock press refused to interview them. And when Rolling Stone did finally speak to the band in 1971, they were so angry that they decided to play up to the image. Butler told the magazine he was the seventh son of the seventh son and could see the Devil. Osbourne, meanwhile, predicted his own death.
Things took a sinister turn in the early 1970s when a nurse committed suicide and the Paranoid album was found on her turntable. Moral outrage ensued but an inquest concluded that the band was not to blame for her death.
Allom says that the band’s vague dabbling in the dark side was always “tongue-in-cheek” and stemmed from their rebellion against the “namby-pamby sixties”. “It was, ‘We’re not going to wear flowers in our hair, we’re going to worship Satan.’ Get that!”
But Sabbath were actually playing into an existing pop tradition. They saw what Middle America didn’t: that all good bands had a gimmick. Years before Sabbath, groups had started consciously building their images on artifice, be they Johnny Kidd & The Pirates (Kidd was born in landlocked Willesden) or The Monkees (manufactured for a sitcom). Even The Beatles’ peace and love shtick became impossible to swallow once details of the band’s painfully messy break-up spilled into the public arena. Sabbath were just another – extreme – example of rock ‘n’ roll pantomime.
Since Sabbath’s heyday, whole musical genres have been cast in the gloom-laden image they invented: from straight-up thrash metal – there’d be no Metallica without Sabbath – to black metal, death metal, doom metal, sludge-core, war metal or any of the other bewildering array of sub-genres of heavy metal. Marilyn Manson, Slipknot and My Chemical Romance (Grammy winners or nominees all) owe their entire horror-shlock stage personas to Sabbath. Emo heartthrobs My Chemical Romance released a concept album in 2006 called The Black Parade, which owed a clear debt of gratitude to 1970’s Black Sabbath Parade in San Francisco.
But music’s obsession with the image tick it’s not confined to ear-crunching noise. Even Ed Sheeran and Lewis Capaldi, two of music’s most successful and image-free stars, have turned their normalcy into a thing. Being normal has become their tag. File under normal-core. Sabbath built the filing cabinet. It’s crudely hewn from Black Country steel and it’s not going anywhere.
The irony, of course, is that Sabbath developed this image almost by accident. As Osbourne once said, it gave them “endless free publicity”. He has fully acknowledged that it was a “joke”, a joke that tipped into parody when the singer played up to his Prince of Darkness image with wife Sharon in reality show The Osbournes.
But all good jokes stand the test of time. And this one has lasted well. Yet it would be nothing without the music behind it. Half a century after it was released, Paranoid sounds as grippingly bleak and terrifying as ever. There’s timeless substance behind the pantomime. “Sabbath were misunderstood. But I don’t think they’re under-rated now,” says Allom. “Now they’re legends. Real legends.”