1968: The Year Black Sabbath Transformed Rock

In the bustling industrial city of Birmingham, England, a musical revolution quietly began in 1968. Four young men, Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward, crossed paths, unknowingly about to make history.

A historic photograph from 1968 showcasing the members of Black Sabbath together as a band for the first time. They are seated casually on the grass, exuding the fashion of the era with flared pants and boots, and showing a mix of serious and relaxed demeanors. Behind them stands a simple wooden fence.
The first ever photo of Black Sabbath as a band, taken in 1968
Key Takeaways
  • Formed in the industrial city of Birmingham, England, Black Sabbath pioneered heavy metal with their 1970s sound, inspired by horror films, the occult, and their working-class roots.
  • Their dark lyrics, ominous riffs, and use of the “devil’s interval” (the tritone) set them apart from the era’s counterculture, reflecting the grittier realities of their industrial hometown.
  • The band’s self-titled song “Black Sabbath” and the iconic album “Paranoid” solidified their status as heavy metal legends, influencing countless bands and subgenres within the heavy music landscape.

Black Sabbath’s Early Days

Back in 1968 in Birmingham, a bunch of guys who loved music got together and formed a band. These weren’t just any guys; they were Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Bill Ward. They each had their own music gigs before. Iommi and Ward were part of Mythology, and Osbourne and Butler played in Rare Breed. Osbourne even put up an ad in a local record shop to find other musicians, which is how they all eventually came together.

They first called themselves the Polka Tulk Blues Band. The name might’ve come from talcum powder or a clothing shop – no one’s really sure. They also had a couple more members, Jimmy Phillips and Alan “Aker” Clarke, but that didn’t last long. They shortened their name to Polka Tulk, then to Earth, but Phillips and Clarke weren’t as into it as the others, so they left.

In the gritty industrial landscape of Birmingham, a group of aspiring musicians set the stage for what would become a revolutionary sound in rock history.

Things got interesting when Iommi briefly joined Jethro Tull in December 1968. He even appeared on TV with them, but quickly realized it wasn’t his thing and went back to his mates in Earth. This experience, though, changed his outlook on music.

In 1969, they found out there was another band called Earth, so they had to think of something else. They landed on Black Sabbath, named after a horror film. It wasn’t just a new name; their music started to get heavier and darker too. Butler once had this creepy dream, and they began using this eerie musical note called “the Devil’s Interval.” Their song “Black Sabbath” really showed off this new style, which was totally different from what other bands were doing at the time. That’s how they started moving towards what we now know as heavy metal.

Horror Influence on Black Sabbath

The origin of the name “Black Sabbath” is as captivating as the band’s music. In 1969, Geezer Butler penned a song inspired by the Boris Karloff movie “Black Sabbath,” a title that would soon become synonymous with the band itself. This inspiration wasn’t just a random choice; it came from a cinema right across the street from their rehearsal room, where the 1963 horror film was being shown. Butler found it fascinating that people paid money to get scared in movie theaters. This observation sparked a change, not just in their name but also in the thematic direction of their music, steering towards darker and more ominous themes.

“Black Sabbath,” the film, directed by Mario Bava, is a classic anthology horror movie. It strings together three distinct stories, each more chilling than the last, and all introduced by the legendary Boris Karloff. The segments, “The Telephone”, “The Wurdulak,” and “The Drop of Water”, each tell a tale of fear and the supernatural.

From a cinema across the street to the world stage, Black Sabbath’s name and sound were shaped by the eerie and suspenseful tales of a 1963 horror film.

In “The Telephone,” we’re plunged into a world of paranoia and fear, following a woman named Rosy who is terrorized by relentless, threatening phone calls. “The Wurdulak” presents a spine-chilling narrative about Gorca, a character portrayed by Karloff himself, who becomes an undead creature hunting those he once loved. The final story, “The Drop of Water,” haunts the audience with the tale of Helen Corey, a nurse who experiences the wrath of a ghost after stealing a ring from a deceased person.

The film itself was a product of its time, a low-budget creation with an international cast, reflecting the 1960s Italian film industry’s trends. Despite its initial commercial struggles in Italy and underwhelming performance in the United States, “Black Sabbath” left an lasting mark on the horror genre. There were even plans for a sequel titled “Scarlet Friday,” which aimed to bring back Bava, Karloff, and Christopher Lee, though it never materialized with their involvement. However, the film’s stature has grown over time, earning accolades and a significant place in horror cinema history, evidenced by its ranking in Time Out’s poll of the best horror films.

This cinematic influence profoundly impacted Black Sabbath’s identity, cementing their place as pioneers in the realm of heavy metal and marking a shift in their musical journey, now shrouded in the mystique and allure of the dark and macabre.

The Making of “Black Sabbath”

Geezer Butler’s childhood fascination with the paranormal and occult set the stage for the creation of one of Black Sabbath’s most iconic songs. Butler, who had experienced strange occurrences since he was four, including seeing orbs and premonitory dreams, recounted a particularly chilling incident from 1969. He woke up one night to find an indescribable, sinister figure at the foot of his bed. This “black thing,” as he called it, seemed to stare into his soul before vanishing into thin air. This haunting experience, which Butler interpreted as a brush with something devilish, became a pivotal inspiration for the lyrics of “Black Sabbath,” co-written with Ozzy Osbourne.

Butler’s deep dive into the occult was not just a passing interest. He had transformed his apartment into a shrine of the macabre: walls painted matte black, adorned with inverted crucifixes and Satanic imagery. He was also engrossed in a mysterious black book about the occult, given to him by Osbourne. Written in Latin and filled with images of Satan, the book mysteriously disappeared after Butler’s unsettling encounter, adding an extra layer of eeriness to the whole episode.

The haunting figure that visited Geezer Butler one night became the muse for Black Sabbath’s dark lyrical journey, melding the occult with heavy metal.

The musical composition of “Black Sabbath” marked a significant shift from typical blues rock to a heavier, more ominous sound. Central to this transformation was the use of the tritone, notoriously known as “the Devil’s Interval.” This dissonant and unnerving sound, created by a G5 power chord followed by an octave into a tritone away from the chord’s root, was integral in defining the band’s darker musical direction.

An unexpected influence on this seminal track came from classical music. “Mars” from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” suite played a role in the creation of “Black Sabbath’s” distinctive riff. Butler introduced a fragment of this classical piece during a rehearsal, prompting Tony Iommi to develop the song’s ominous tritone. This fusion of classical elements with heavy metal was not only innovative but also instrumental in shaping the evolution of the genre.

The Industrial Roots of Black Sabbath’s Sound and Style

The members of Black Sabbath, hailing from the industrial landscape of Birmingham, England, shared a common, working-class upbringing that deeply resonated with their fanbase. Many of their fans came from similar socio-economic backgrounds, finding in Black Sabbath an outlet for their frustrations and a departure from the more middle-class counterculture of the time. The band’s music and message provided a voice for those grappling with limited opportunities and futures often confined to factory work.

Black Sabbath’s aesthetic, including their album artwork, was a direct reflection of their environment. Take, for instance, their “Greatest Hits” poster, which employed Bruegel’s The “Triumph of Death” painting to depict a desolate landscape overrun by skeletons. This imagery echoed the post-war reality of Birmingham, a city still bearing the scars of Luftwaffe bombings and housing demolitions. It wasn’t just an artistic choice; it was a nod to the bleak reality of their hometown.

From the factories and bombed-out landscapes of Birmingham, Black Sabbath drew inspiration, creating a sound that was a stark contrast to the prevailing counterculture of the era.

In stark contrast to the “flower power” and hippie culture prevalent in the late 1960s, the members of Black Sabbath, molded by their experiences in Birmingham, found themselves out of sync with these ideals. Their music adopted darker, more introspective themes, not just as a form of rebellion, but as a true reflection of their own reality.

With Geezer Butler as the primary lyricist and Tony Iommi as the musical mastermind, Black Sabbath’s songs frequently explored themes like war, social chaos, the supernatural, the afterlife, and the eternal struggle between good and evil. These themes were a mirror to the late Sixties, marked by events like the Vietnam War, the rise of hard drugs, and clashes with authority, all of which mirrored the challenges faced by the working class.

The band members’ personal experiences in factory work also left a tangible imprint on their music. A defining moment was when Tony Iommi lost two fingertips in an accident at a sheet metal factory. This led him to invent a unique playing style, using plastic fingertips and loosening the guitar strings, thereby creating a bass-heavy, thicker sound. This innovation was a significant contributor to the heavy metal genre, characterized by slower tempos and a heavier, more distorted sound, as heard in tracks like “Black Sabbath,” “Children of the Grave,” and “Electric Funeral.”

The industrial backdrop of Birmingham not only influenced Black Sabbath’s sound but also set the stage for the development of a new style of metal music. This unique sound became a cornerstone of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), influencing bands like Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Motorhead. It also paved the way for more experimental sounds, including the incorporation of electronic elements in what would become known as Industrial Metal, exemplified by bands like Godflesh, who also hailed from Birmingham.

Pioneering the Heavy Metal Revolution

Black Sabbath, along with other pioneering bands like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, played a crucial role in the birth of heavy metal during this period. Their unique blend of blues, psychedelic rock, and classical music elements resulted in a sound that was noticeably heavier and darker than anything that had come before. This innovation was a defining moment in the evolution of heavy metal.

The 1970 release of Black Sabbath’s album “Paranoid” marked a significant milestone in this journey. Widely regarded as one of the most influential heavy metal albums ever, “Paranoid” stands as a genre-defining album. The tracks, charged with intense emotions like rage and anger, were characterized by the use of tritones, ominous guitar riffs, and the so-called “Devil’s chords.” The album’s dark atmosphere was further enhanced by the innovative use of technology.

The release of “Paranoid” marked a turning point in music history, as Black Sabbath pioneered a new, heavier sound that would become the hallmark of heavy metal.

The 1970s witnessed major advancements in musical technology, significantly influencing Black Sabbath’s musical style. They were among the first bands to make extensive use of distortion and fuzz pedals. This resulted in a sound that was deep, rich, and characterized by a sense of anger, a stark contrast to the cleaner electric guitar sounds of blues. This approach to sound manipulation, aided by technological progress, was a vital contribution to the development and popularization of the heavy metal genre.

Black Sabbath’s innovative use of musical techniques and technology, combined with their distinctive sound and dark thematic elements, not only laid the groundwork for heavy metal but also influenced countless bands that followed. Their pioneering efforts in the late 1960s and early 1970s solidified their legacy as one of the most significant bands in the music history.

Twisted Opinion

With their dark themes and heavy sound, could Black Sabbath’s music truly be the product of Birmingham’s industrial heartland, or is there something more sinister at play?

“Sinister?” Bah! You posh wankers in your fancy offices wouldn’t know sinister if it bit ya on the arse! Demons? We got real demons in Birmingham alright – they’re called shift supervisors, and they’ll drag ya to hell and back if ya miss yer quota. You think Ozzy’s screechin’ about some old devil? Ha! He’s just singin’ about a twelve-hour shift at the forge after a night down the pub!

Bert “The Hammer” Higgins (age 91),
Chief Complainer of the Aston Malleable Ironworks