A classic album stands the test of time. It stirs an emotion the first time you hear it, and can evoke the same response years down the road. If it kicked your ass the first time, it will kick your ass again even if you haven’t heard it in years. Such is the case with Black Sabbath’s iconic self-titled debut, celebrating its 45th anniversary this month.
Black Sabbath was originally known as Earth, a blues rock band, when formed in 1968. The lineup has changed over four decades, but the founding fathers came from economically depressed Birmingham, England. The band consisted of future guitar god Tony Iommi, heavy metal vocalist extraordinaire John “Ozzy” Osbourne, legendary drummer Bill Ward, and bassist/lyrics master Terence “Geezer” Butler.
It was Geezer Butler who brought the black to Black Sabbath. He was into all things dark and scary, even dabbling in the dark arts. His experimentation ended after an encounter with an apparition. A song was written about this incident called Black Sabbath, after the 1963 Boris Karloff film of the same name. Early audiences reacted so favorably to the track that when a name change was needed because there was another band called Earth, the group went with what worked. Thank you, metal gods, because nothing conjures feelings of evil and dread more than the name Earth. Can you imagine the band still called Earth with the members dressed in black, complete with inverted crosses? Neither can I. For more on the band’s history, please see here.
The Black Sabbath album was recorded all in one session in November 1969, and released in England on Friday, February 13, 1970. It would come to the U.S. three months later. The title track is dark and heavy. If it truly is about Butler’s otherworldly experience, it’s no wonder his dabbling with the dark side came to an end. The thunderstorm and bell in the beginning of the song, followed by the opening, “what is this that stands before me” is scary stuff. If you don’t agree, listen to it alone in a dark room. Ozzy’s “oh no, no please God help me” sounds like a man on the brink of madness. You can hear the desperation of the man confronted by Satan. Ozzy delivers the best evil laugh on the live version following “Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling.” You can hear it around 3:53 in the video below.
The second song is more upbeat. Wizard counteracts the devil in Black Sabbath. Instead of being confronted by a demon, the people are happy to be visited by a wizard. The wizard is a good thing, making people happy and upsetting demons. It’s influenced by the blues evident by Osbourne’s harmonica in the beginning.
The third track is comprised of four songs, only two have actual lyrics. Wasp is an instrumental bit leading into Behind the Wall of Sleep, possibly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s short story Beyond the Wall of Sleep. I’m not sure about that, but it’s an odd, trippy song. Bassically (not misspelled) is a Butler solo leading to another dark hit, N.I.B. I have heard that it is an acronym for either Nativity in Black or Now I Believe. The band refutes this, saying that Bill Ward’s facial hair resembled a pen nib at the time so the name stuck. The song is about Lucifer falling in love with a human. He tries to convince her to reciprocate his feelings by promising her the sun, the moon, and the stars. I think the prince of darkness may have originated this classic pickup line.
Track four is Wicked World. That sums up the gist of the song. Times were tough in 1970 and the same is true now. People are still in conflict and struggling to make ends meet. This song is timeless and could have been written today.
The last song on the disc is over 14 minutes of ominous goodness. A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village is only four lines, more of a poem than an actual song. It’s a fitting intro to Warning. In Sleeping Village, the people feel at ease until the warning starts. I just learned that Black Sabbath’s version of Warning is a cover song originally recorded by Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation in 1967. It’s another story of unrequited love. N.I.B. involved Satan, it’s anyone’s guess who the subjects are in Warning, but from the looks of the original group, it’s safe to assume they’re talking about mere mortals. Below is the original if you’re curious.
It’s worth mentioning that Black Sabbath had another song not found on the American release. It was a cover of American band Crow’s Evil Woman. It’s a good song, and a shame U.S. fans missed out on it unless you find a U.K. copy.
Artists are eligible for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio 25 years after the release of their first record. Black Sabbath’s debut made them eligible in 1995, but they weren’t inducted until 2006. What took so long for the founders of heavy metal to be included?
Black Sabbath’s debut album clocks in at about 40 minutes, consisting of four original tracks and one cover (or two depending on the version). From this album, heavy metal came screaming into the world, a leather-lunged infant who would spawn countless siblings. Times were changing. The sixties were at an end, and with it left hippies and flower power. Peace and love gave way to something sinister, heavy, and loud. Black Sabbath is a must have album for the heavy metal fan, a classic album “forever with me till the end of time.” Happy Anniversary.