Perfect Sound Forever

BLACK SABBATH

Poetic Sludge- the Early Years
by James Fleming
(February 2018)



Prologue: Fear Of The Unknown.

"The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."
- HP Lovecraft.


It's pure poetry.

The toxic dregs of rock n' roll coalesce in Middle-England and mutate into one crawling mass with a life all its own. Grotesque in its movements, hideous in its howling, it soon consumes the world. Leaving a trail of spawn and enlightenment in its wake, it shaped pop culture in its own ghastly image.

It is sludge. Slimed, creeping sludge. It is fear of the unknown made music. Where most would be too afraid to even look, it ventured. Bringing back tales to keep middle-class Earth awake at night, shivering with the fear of the unknown.

It's pure poetry. An epic to rival Dante's Inferno.



Part I: A Terrible Beauty Is Born.

The Voice:

He had a PA system.

Not even a dream. And only a hunger in the most biological sense. The stench of his slaughterhouse day job followed him home like his shadow. John Michael 'Ozzy' Osbourne's Birmingham home had coughed him up into a world light years from the swinging London of the late sixties and it looked like he would stay there. An unperson stinking of meat and with his nickname crudely prison-tattooed on his knuckles.

But he had a PA system. And a voice like nothing else before or since.

The Words:

A mind awash with science-fiction and Christianity. That's what Terence 'Geezer' Butler had. And the ability to take that mind and put it into words. He would supply the Heaven-heavy bottom end of their sound with his bass guitar virtuosity too. One half of the solid foundation for the pitch-black images he brought to life so vividly in his lyrics. Clear, concise, no-bullshit lyrics to send chills down Lovecraft's spine. And clear, concise, no-bullshit playing to anchor those horrors to this earthly plane.

The Pulse:

All the atmosphere of rolling thunder and the frightening power of lightning, Bill Ward's drumming was the second half of that solid foundation. Capable of complimentary jazz-inflected atmospherics as well as that age-old rock n' roll backbeat, his skin-battering pounded through their veins and their ears. Powerful, forceful, vital, Ward's drumming was intricate in its skill and tribal in its strength. A beating pulse surging through their limbs.

The Motivation:

There is no haunting without a motivation. And Tony Iommi's almost tyrannical ambition was the engine that drove them ever onwards into the unknown, an eight-legged spectre stalking the music press, the charts and their congregation's consciousness. He had two missing fingertips and enough fire to light the way through the netherworld. He said only what needed to be said and all the rest came through his guitar. Riffs sharp enough to flay skin were his forte. While over the years to come, the heavy metal solo would usurp the riff's throne, Iommi's riffs remain untouchable. Like the blacksmith's hammer striking the anvil, they echo through the mind. Striking a blow one simply does not forget.

They came together out of necessity, each needing each other's prowess. Ozzy placed an ad in a music shop window, and the other three followed their noses. Stalking this chance to the Osbourne's front door. The first and classic lineup of this first and classic band had come together. Marking the first step from the previous year's summer of love to the approaching decade's thirst for the darker side of life.

They would be called Earth for a short while, wrenching compositions kicking and screaming out of forty minute jams in Hamburg's iconic Cavern Club. But when it was discovered there was already a blues-rock outfit working under that name, they renamed themselves after their first composition. A song that a few hundred years ago would have got them burned at the stake. And Earth became this thing of sludge and poetry we know as Black Sabbath. Sludge in the weight and darkness of their music. Poetic in their story and their contributions to human creativity.


Part II: What Is This That Stands Before Me?

It was nothing more than a marketing ploy, releasing Black Sabbath on Friday the 13th February, 1970. And a marketing ploy that went largely unnoticed at the time. Capitalising on an unknown band's unknown fascination with the occult was never going to work. But Black Sabbath didn't need ill-fated marketing ploys.

They had word of mouth and they had the tunes. The first of their many bad reviews came from all corners: "Bullshit necromancy," "The worst of the counterculture," "just like Cream, but worse!" But Black Sabbath stood its ground and fought its corner, climbing to number eight on the UK charts and number 23 on the USA's Billboard 200. A no-name band from no-name England with a transatlantic hit LP. The first of a string of classic albums fired out at gatling-gun speed.

An ambush no one saw coming. Not even Black Sabbath. Their debut album was recorded in two days, with one day reserved for mixing. With but a single day to record their opening punch, only the raw energy of Black Sabbath reveals the rapid-fire recording pace of the band and producer Rodger Bain. It's a testament to the four members' musical synergy and power that they managed to record all seven tracks, in one day, live.

With only Ozzy separated from the rest of the band in a vocal booth, and not a millisecond to spare, Black Sabbath just turned up, tuned up and let rip. Opening the Pandora's box and unleashing the sludge.

Black Sabbath asked the question on everyone's mind with the album's opening line. The main riff of the band's namesake track was a re-imagining of Gustav Holst's "Mars, The Bringer Of War." But where Holst shot for the heavens, Black Sabbath brought the otherworldly crashing to Earth. And the immortal question was posed: "what is this that stands before me?" This was an as-yet undiscovered cryptid. A mammoth, snarling beast captured for the first time on tape. We would come to define it as heavy metal. But in 1970, this nameless behemoth struck fear and awe into all that beheld it.

"Black Sabbath" has a tri-tone guitar riff, known in the past as "the Devil's interval," and was regarded as satanic and evil. Much as Black Sabbath would come to be regarded as the same. And it was this opening track that would lay the bedrock foundation for those accusations.

Iommi's riff roars through the rain and tolling bell that producer Rodger Bain decided - in a stroke of evil, mood-setting genius - to use as the LP's introduction. Geezer wrote the words, but Ozzy delivered them in a howl to send shivers down banshees' spines. The "big black shape which points at me" is brought vividly to life by the combined efforts of the four band members. As Bill ward would note, a straight backbeat would never have worked in Black Sabbath's malevolent tone. So atmospheric toms were applied liberally behind that riff and Butler's bass-anchorage.

Any other hard rock singer of the day - Robert Plant, Ian Gillan, Steve Marriott - could not have made the simplicity of Geezer's image-laden lyrics so frighteningly believable. But what Ozzy Osbourne lacked in vocal prowess, he made up for in individuality and character. Across Black Sabbath, he pulls these monsters, wizards and demons from their hellholes and sets them loose on the world. In 1970, this was unheard and unheard of. The shock of the new is a valuable tool. And Black Sabbath were a refreshing blast of black and white horror after the kaleidoscopic hippies of the 1960s.

More than any other song on Black Sabbath, the title track proved to be the predecessor of what was to become heavy metal. It started with that tri-tone riff, played at by turns punishing and ominous volume. It's that simplest of ostinati that makes Black Sabbath the template and benchmark for all its decades of ancestors.

As their albums progressed, Black Sabbath would move further and further away from their blues-rock origins. Their debut's second track, "The Wizard," combines a riff groovy in its blues origins with a two-chord verse section heavy enough to drag planets out of orbit with its own gravitational pull. At the same time, Marc Bolan was singing of wizards in his pre-glam outfit Tyrannosaurus Rex. But these Tolkien-esque fairytale odes have little in common with Black Sabbath's menacing epics. Sabbath's was a magic of the blackest sort. It was curses and cauldrons and voodoo. No fantasy this. But nightmares of vile sludge.

"N.I.B." proves their sixties origins to be fact. With a riff heavily indebted to Black Sabbath idols Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love," but lyrics of Satan's love for a mortal woman, it captures the transition from merely hard to shit-tonne heavy as it played out. It's poetry in motion.

Motioning from the old iambic pentameter ballads to the modern experiments in music and words. It was a new generation of rock fans, and they were hungry. There's nothing funny about peace and love and understanding, the dream remains the dream to this day. But too much of anything will make you sick. And by 1970, it was high time that the dark side of our human condition got to speak for itself.

Black Sabbath ripped the silencer from the rifle. By opening that hornet's nest, they let a fresh wave of disaffected kids know that to be angry, afraid and alienated was perfectly acceptable. Aside from little-known acts like The Velvet Underground and The Stooges, there had been little to no darkness on the airwaves. And certainly none on the charts. Alice Cooper's success was a year away. In 1970, Black Sabbath were the gateway to the nether realms.

A swirling vortex to our "none-more-black" emotions. Besides telling us it was OK to be young and estranged, they proved that it was vital. For when emotion gets bottled up, havoc breaks loose. The aggression of Black Sabbath's music frightened the authorities of the 1970s - parental, educational, governmental or otherwise. Filled them with the fear of the unknown and revealed their stigma of "good" and "bad" emotions to be operating under false identities. "Good" was a pseudonym for "acceptable." And "bad" was "unacceptable."

On Black Sabbath, Osbourne, Iommi, Butler and Ward ventured into that unknown to bring us the message. That all emotions are acceptable. Maybe not pleasant, but perfectly right. And that to stigmatise emotions is to surrender to a life of slavery. We are not slaves. Emotions are. They did this with a handful of some of the finest rock songs ever written. The unsung tracks of Black Sabbath hold up as magnificent in their own rights. Behind The Wall Of Sleep takes its inspiration from a HP Lovecraft - the cult weird fiction writer whose work has influenced all manifestations of creativity. Its tale of obsession with a young bass-playing maiden for whom "If she asked me to I'd murder, I would gladly lose my soul," is an inversion of the love story rarely spotted in the wild. Where its shuffle-beat intro would be rendered warm and fuzz-toned in the hands of Eric Clapton and Cream, Sabbath moulded the track like sheet metal workers. The end result is what Iggy Pop described his music with The Stooges as: "the mega-clang."

Black Sabbath's sound was heavy as opposed to extreme, the direction metal music would take under the Motorhead influence. It may seem like a minute distinction, but it was one lost on many of heavy metal's followers who crossed the two over so they became almost indistinguishable. Sleeping Village combines that weight synonymous with Black Sabbath, but also hints at their progressive leanings that they would explore four albums down the line on Sabbath Bloody Sabbath.

With its austere acoustic guitar intro and dramatic shifts between major-key classic rock and cold-blooded sludge, "Sleeping Village" is an under-cited cornerstone of Black Sabbath. With just four lines of lyrics, it morphs into a showcase for the virtuosic talents of the musicians. Iommi's double-tracked guitar solo gives it a psychedelic edge, a postcard from the unknown to remind us of where Sabbath dared to venture.

In their singing of the unknown, of homo sapient's darkness, they brought the abyss up to the light of the surface, making it no longer a thing to fear. Fear is the great crippler, it wields a crowbar and has no qualms about taking it to your kneecaps. But Black Sabbath looked fear in the eye - either knowingly or unknowingly - and cast it down from its position of power. And fear of the unknown's iron-grip on humanity was lessened somewhat. Blessing future generations with enough room to manoeuvre in their fight against dogma and conformism.

Sabbath were more than ready to take that leap of faith, to face down the world with their own material. But the record company insisted on including a previously recorded cover version of "Evil Woman" by American band Crow. And that track along with their cover of "Warning," originally by Aynsley Dunbar, are the two low points on Black Sabbath.

They're far from the dismal lows of their final two albums with Ozzy, Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die! But sit "Evil Woman" next to preceding song "N.I.B." and album closer Warning next to the opening title track, and it's clear that Black Sabbath's own material was far stronger than the competition's, even at this early stage.

"Evil Woman" was a US top 20 hit for Crow the previous year. And it speaks volumes that Sabbath's version is superior to Crow's original which reeks of over-production with its crisp horn section and busier bassline. While "Warning" simply suffers from an extreme case of over-lengthening. It descends into a six minute jam session almost pallid in its ramshackle-ness. Mistakes like this would sadly play a big part in Sabbath's legacy: where their devout musical followers would include lengthy, pointless instrumental passages in their songs, robbing them of some of their initial strength and power. It's the taut, leaner compositions on Black Sabbath that pack the punch.

That opening question remains just half answered. It's been called heavy metal. But there is an extra dimension to the question that requires a four-dimensional answer."What is this that stands before me?" It's creativity, sweet joyous creativity, taken down a road no one had ever thought to take it down before. People have since taken sideways off the main thoroughfare, but this was the dusty highway that spawned those offshoots. It's this highway that would lead to Black Sabbath's triumphs and tortures.

It was the future. And not even an oracle with balls of clearest crystal would have seen it coming.


See Part II of our Black Sabbath article

Also see our article on Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi



Bookmark and Share


Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER

MAIN PAGE ARTICLES STAFF/FAVORITE MUSIC LINKS E-MAIL