Before the world recognized Black Sabbath as heavy-metal forefathers, the band members wrote a song that gave them the chills.
“We knew instantly that ‘Black Sabbath’ was very different to what was around at the time,” guitarist Tony Iommi says of the piece that gave the group its name.
“We always wanted to go heavier than any other band,” bassist Geezer Butler says.
“I thought the song would be a flop, but I also thought it was brilliant,” drummer Bill Ward says. “I still think it’s brilliant.”
“When we played that song for the first time, the crowd went nuts,” Butler says.
Half a century has passed since Black Sabbath first scared the bejesus out of rock fans with their eponymous anthem. The song opens with the sound of a powerful thunderstorm and ominous church chimes before crashing into its lumbering, iconic riff. The guitar chords lurch seismically, each one like a gut punch before quieting down just enough for Ozzy Osbourne to paint his own vivid portrait of fear — “What is this that stands before me/Figure in black which points at me?” It’s a scene so unnerving that he eventually pleads to the heavens, “Oh, no, NO, please God help me,” before the guitar riff and church bells come around again to strike him down. “Is this the end, my friend?” he wonders aloud. The six-minute horror vignette was spooky yet thrilling, and the song, “Black Sabbath,” would serve as the prototype for a genre poised to captivate the world.
Artists like Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Led Zeppelin had spent the late Sixties edging into darker, denser terrain, but it was Black Sabbath who made heavy a way of life. When their debut album, Black Sabbath, hit U.K. record stores in February 1970 — on a Friday the 13th to capitalize on the album’s unsettling look and sound — it showed the world what “heavy” really meant. The album sleeve depicted a witchy-looking woman holding a black cat in a supernatural world, and the music inside delivered on the cover’s mysteriousness.
In between the LP’s stark, gothic, crushing riffs and dusky psychedelia, Osbourne detailed a date with the devil (“N.I.B.”), sang the praises of a benevolent sorcerer (“The Wizard”), and narrated more scenes of terror, like a “sleeping wall of remorse [that] turns your body to a corpse” (“Behind the Wall of Sleep”). The U.S. edition of the album, which arrived that June, improved on the original release by swapping in a lightning bolt of a blues track about the evils of society (“Wicked World”) in favor of the cover song “Evil Woman.” On each opus, Iommi, Butler, and Ward summoned monoliths of sound, wrenching their riffs about with abandon. The record was dark, direct, and raw — a true original.
Now, with 50 years’ worth of hindsight, you can hear that the album represented the start of a new epoch. Without Black Sabbath, Metallica wouldn’t have had the blueprint to write “Enter Sandman.” Judas Priest might never have broken the law, Iron Maiden wouldn’t have run to the hills, and Slayer would have never reigned in blood. These bands might have existed (Judas Priest did exist at the time of Sabbath’s debut), but it’s hard to imagine that any of it would have sounded the same. The echoes of the macabre imagery, powerful guitar riffs, and athletic drumming on Black Sabbath haven’t just rippled through the music of bands like Slipknot, Rage Against the Machine, and Pantera; they’ve also made their way into punk, indie rock, and even hip-hop. Yet on its own, Black Sabbath still sounds unique. If a Martian were to land on Earth and ask, “What is heavy metal ?” the best answer would be to play “Black Sabbath.”
(Rolling Stone Magazine)