The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd – what do they all have in common? If you said “they’re heralded as the most influential music artists of all time,” you’d be right. But what is often missing from such conversation is perhaps one of the most important bands of all-time – a band who has inspired a wealth of artists since the release of their debut album in 1970: Black Sabbath.
Black Sabbath were instrumental in injecting horror to the music world, unsurprising seeing as the band took their name from Boris Karloff’s 1963 movie of the same name. With music inspired by thriller writer Dennis Wheatley, their sound would contrast the clean image dominating the airwaves at the time. They proved that music was not necessarily a self-gratifying experience; that it could instead inspire anger, pessimism and a long-hard look at yourself in the mirror.
So let’s look at my six reasons that Black Sabbath are perhaps the most important band to grace the music world.
- You know a little thing called ‘heavy metal’? Yeah, these guys invented it.
Led Zeppelin declared themselves the “world’s number one band” after advance orders for their third album, Led Zeppelin III, reached almost one million in 1970. Yet as frontman Robert Plant admitted in Chris Welch’s brilliant biography of the band, “the audience turned round and said ‘what are we supposed to do with this? Where is our ‘Whole Lotta Love Part 2’? They wanted something like Paranoid by Black Sabbath!”
People didn’t want Zeppelin’s acoustic efforts because, elsewhere, Black Sabbath was crafting the art of heavy metal. Truth be told there were heavy bands and songs before Sabbath – many point to ‘Helter Skelter’ by The Beatles as an example. Elsewhere, Blue Cheer were creating dark vibes and Jimi Hendrix was pushing the boundaries of heavy rock. But Sabbath reeled in elements of blues and embossed intense distorted guitars beneath singer Ozzy Osbourne’s distinctive vocals. Pessimistic lyrics of dark subject matter offered warnings and suddenly a dark cloud hung over the psychedelic world of the early 70s.
- But they’re more than just heavy metal.
Black Sabbath, the godfathers of Heavy Metal that they became, were more than ‘just a heavy metal band’. They transgressed genres and drew inspiration from far-reaching music styles. They were a hybrid of all preceding genres with the distortion cranked up a peg and painted with pessimism.
‘Planet Caravan’ from Paranoid (1970) provides a melancholy, somewhat ominous, performance from the band. A repetitive guitar and bass composition finds itself layered over a set of bongo drums creating a somewhat progressive song reminiscent to the sound emulated on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (1973) – somewhere between ‘Breathe’ and ‘Any Colour You Like’. Just how long was a set of bongo drums sat in their studio?
Elsewhere, ‘Solitude’ demonstrated the band’s ability to write a heartbreaking love song as Osbourne laments “you just left as I begged you to stay” over Geezer Butler’s desolated bass guitar. ‘Fluff’ from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) is an uplifting acoustic arrangements with twinkling pianos similar to one found on a spotify playlist entitled something along the lines of ‘Concentration Music to Study to’. Yet, as is expected from Sabbath, ‘Sabbra Cadabra’ follows ‘Fluff’ and suddenly you’re in no mood to concentrate – you’re strapped into a dune buggy ploughing relentlessly down the beaches of hell at high-speed. Plus the sands’ on fire.
- They were a breath of fresh air to the music industry – an air that reeked of napalm, angst and harsh realities.
Whilst Cliff Richard sang ‘Congratulations’ on the radio, the boys from Birmingham were exposing mankind’s inner demons and future downfalls. In short, Sabbath’s 5 album releases between 1970 and 1973, an impressive feat in itself considering their brilliance, were the manifesto empowering a revolution in the music world.
Before Sabbath, songs were by-and-large sung with reference to ‘love’ as the answer. The Doors singer Jim Morrison spread such a message through elegant poetry; The Beatles concluded that love is all you need while Scott McKenzie sung “if you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear a flower in your hair.” But as Osbourne would assert:
“Suddenly we’re hearing this and we’re thinking, “What the fuck is San Francisco? What’s all this flower shit? I’ve got no shoes on my feet. I’m Starving. I don’t want to work… We just thought ‘it’s not real’, not for me. It’s alright if you’re living in the sunshine in San Francisco, but San Francisco was like someone coming to me and saying ‘Hey Ozzy do you fancy a trip to Mars?” (link)
Yes, music inspired hope through flowery imagery and rose-tinted lenses in the 60s yet it painted an abstract world embodied by bright colours and peace signs. But it just wasn’t real. America was killing in Vietnam, students were getting shot at Kent State and people were on the streets. The bitter alternative offered by Sabbath drained such colour and offered the harsh realities of war, death and paranoia. Uncertain futures lay ahead. Suddenly music could offer warnings, spread uncertainty and fear but incite enough anger and energy to stand up and make a change. And the people loved it.
- Parents hated them but, c’mon mum, they’re just misunderstood!
“They’re Satanists!” people and parents undoubtedly cried. Before Sabbath, religion only mixed with music when Songs of Praise was aired. But you’d better pray to God, the band would warn, cause Lucifer himself is only around the corner. Truth be told, however, the band were anything but Satanists. In fact, they turned down the chance to play a Satanist gig and were subsequently cursed; hence their decision to wear crosses – to ward off demons.
Take ‘After Forever’ from Master of Reality (1971) as the best example in which Osbourne sings, “God is the only way to love.” Later in the song, he continues: “perhaps you’ll think before you say that God is dead and gone/ Open your eyes, just realize that he’s the one/ the only one who can save you now from all this sin and hate.” Some call it the first Christian rock song.
Elsewhere, famous hit ‘Paranoid’ concludes “I tell you to enjoy life, I wish I could but it’s too late.” Life is sacred, to be enjoyed – not a message you’d expect from supposed Satanist death-wishers, right? Yeah, that’s cause they’re not. There’s far more than meets the eye.
- The riffs.
Speaks for itself. ‘Wicked World’, ‘Paranoid’, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Electric Funeral’, ‘War Pigs’, ‘Sweet Leaf’, ‘Supernaut’, ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’, ‘Symptom of the Universe’, ‘The Mob Rules’ – need I go on? Tommy Iommi’s ability to write killer riffs led him to concede in Steven Rosen’s ‘The Story of Black Sabbath’ that “if I didn’t come up with anything, nobody would do anything.”
Just listen to ‘Embryo’ from Master of Reality and let the 27-second interlude finish before ‘Children of the Grave’ filters in. It’s chilling and it’s relentless. Its creative, innovative music at its absolute finest.
- The catalogue of bands they inspired would make up the greatest concert ever.
Metallica, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Megadeth, Pantera – it’s almost an obvious fact that heavy bands such as these drew influence from the creators of the genre. Yet Black Sabbath’s ability to inspire did not remain idiosyncratic to the realm of metal.
Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins claimed to listen to Black Sabbath religiously at the age of eight. Kurt Cobain, himself an important figure for bringing grunge to the mainstream at a time when corporate rock (think Bryan Adams) and insufferable ‘rap’ acts like Vanilla Ice were doing injustice at the top, was inspired by Sabbath. Butch Vig claimed Cobain would plead with him to turn the treble off to sound “more like Black Sabbath” whilst cutting Nevermind (1991). Further afield, Alice in Chains, Slipknot and Soundgarden thanked Sabbath for their help realising their potential.
Even Arctic Monkeys provide an offering to the “Thank you, Black Sabbath” buffet. The Sheffield-band can be found incorporating ‘War Pigs’ into their live performances of ‘Arabella’. There is no limit to this band’s influence.
So there you have it – six reasons why I believe Black Sabbath are the most important band to bless this sweet earth. With an ability to release such innovative, unique music in the seventies yet still capture this greatness with the release of 13 in 2013 shows that talent is timeless. It does justice to how good this band is. Whether it was Osbourne, Dio, Ian Gillan (of Deep Purple) or Tony Martin fronting the band, the brilliance of Iommi’s guitar work and Butler’s lyrics carried this band through decades of change – and years of substance abuse.