The definitive heavy metal band, Black Sabbath, emerged from Birmingham in the British Midlands in 1967. Their debut album, Black Sabbath (1970), stormed to #8 in the UK charts.
As with all overnight success, it was somewhat deceptive. In an earlier incarnation called Earth (and before that – Polka Tulk) the band had clocked up ceaseless late-night miles and played more dates at Hamburg’s Star Club than The Beatles.
A reworking of their jazz/blues style and a change of name had caught the first wave of heavy metal – from the start, the Sabs were in the metal premier league with the likes of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin.
In the first half of the 70s, every Sabbath album approached metal classic status. Paranoid (1970) gave the band a UK chart-topping album, a hit single, and the stage favourite War Pigs.
Its sombre tone, and the Sabs’ dark showbiz trappings, also forged the band’s supposed reputation as ‘Satanists’ – an absurd image, but one that received a boost when vocalist Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a bat (and then had to be treated for rabies).
“When we came out of The Exorcist we had to all stay in one room together – that’s how black magic we were”.
Still, Paranoid certainly saw the Sabs at the peak of their powers, and they remained there with a great trio of early 70s albums.
Master Of Reality (1971) was a riff-laden romp and Volume IV (1972) was little short of brilliant, combining matchless metal with instrumental passages, while the ballad Changes showcased Ozzy’s vocal prowess in a chilling number that still retained an element of power.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) was another masterpiece, with a title track that is arguably the best ever Sabs number.
With the mighty Warner corporation behind them, Sabbath stormed the US. Tony Iommi’s crunching riffs re-worked basic blues at mind-numbing volume, while Bill Ward and ‘Geezer’ Butler held a solid backing track that left space for Ozzy’s vocals to approach hysteria.
The cynics might depict the Sabs as a bunch of dummies who had struck lucky, but this was music that made sense after three seconds of listening, appealed to the expanding FM rock radio market and sent long-haired kids into guitar shops by the million.
From the mid-70s much of Sabbath’s career would be beset by management and contractual problems, and by the all-too-predictable ‘musical differences’.
Basically, Iommi wanted to experiment and Ozzy wanted to party and stay basic. Geezer was largely behind Iommi and Ward could knock back as many drinks as Ozzy.
The tension could, on occasion, produce great music, but from Sabotage (1975) the music often had a self-conscious quality that undermined the strength.
Ozzy briefly left in 1977 and Dave Walker became the least successful in a string of Sabs vocalists who attempted the near-impossible task of replacing him. By 1978, Ozzy was back for Never Say Die (1978), but despite British hit singles and respectable business around the world, he was gone again soon after.
Unstable line-ups would become a Sabs feature from this point.
Ozzy Osbourne’s solo career would prove spectacular, bizarre, and extremely lucrative, especially in the US. Sabbath, meantime, laboured to recapture former glories, a struggle centred mainly on the vocalists trying to fill Ozzy’s shoes.
Ronnie James Dio, who had a pedigree taking in Rainbow, and a definite sense of his own identity, avoided copying Ozzy’s style on Heaven and Hell (1980) and Mob Rules (1981).
In the studio, the band were managing solid if predictable heavy metal, but this came at a price and no one was surprised when the acrimony boiled over. Dio split amid accusations that he tampered with the mixes to Live Evil (1983) to favour his vocals.
Ian Gillan had the vocal ability to lead Sabbath, but his stint out front marked the nearest any real metal band ever came to Spinal Tap.
Born Again (1983) managed to make most of the right sounds but lacked the songs to suggest this line-up had a chance.
Live, things got seriously strange on a US tour. The Stonehenge stage set was worrying enough and Gillan’s sketchy grasp of Sabbath lyrics was undermined as swirling dry ice blocked his view of his cue cards.
Classic metal songs were reduced to endless riffs and screams of ‘yeah’. Tragedy and comedy were seldom so close together.
The classic line-up re-formed for a perfunctory turn at Live Aid, and Iommi then recruited several notable metal faces for the forgettable Seventh Star (1986), the only Sab album that doesn’t sound much like Sabbath.
By the late 80s, however, Sabbath-inspired bands like Iron Maiden had taken the basic crunching style to new commercial and visual heights, and it seemed unlikely the Sabs could ever again be a major force.
Against all odds a contract with IRS saw the tide finally turning. New line-ups featured Iommi and a changing cast of dependable metal performers.
A return to classic Sabs values of hard work, unpretentious riffing and a little of the occult finally paid off. Tony Martin’s impassioned vocals and Cozy Powell’s solid skin thrashing enlivened some of the band’s best work and Iommi’s riff invention seemed limitless.
The title track to Headless Cross (1989) was an improbably simple stunner of a cut. Tyr (1990) was a conceptual album dealing with Norse myths. Dio’s gutsy larynx returned for Dehumanizer (1992), but Martin was back for Cross Purposes (1994), where the band confidently put the Sabbath stamp on a range of metal sounds from the ethereal to the bluesy.
A year later, the Headless Cross/Tyr line-up – perhaps the strongest Sabs crew since the original quartet – was reunited. By now Sabbath were once again established as a dependable and valued feature, appreciated by many as the band that set the metal agenda.
There was little chance they could recapture former glories, but there was real fire in most of their work for IRS. There were some surprises too – for example, the sparky Forbidden (1995) featured an unlikely vocal from rapper Ice T.
The biggest surprise of all – however – was Ozzy’s agreement in 1997 to return for Ozzfest 97, a re-union tour.
As ever in the Sabbath camp, humour and tragedy were never far apart; when Ozzy’s larynx failed him the rest of the Sabs took the stage at one date to play their greatest hits in tandem with the support acts. Predictably enough, the fans rioted and Spinal Tap II got a great plot idea.
By the end of the year, Birmingham got a great reunion as the Sabs – with Ozzy – sold out the NEC. The predictable live album had an uncharacteristically naff title – Re-Union (1998). It also premiered two new studio cuts which would have done justice to any of the first four albums.
Ward’s health problems cast a shadow over the UK reunion but the demand for action from the original line-up had a tempting financial angle that suggested this was nowhere near the end of Sabbath.
In November 2011 the band announced they were reuniting in their original four man line-up for their first new album in 33 years and a tour in 2012.
“Learn how to play two chords and then get yourself an attorney before learning the third”.
Terry ‘Geezer’ Butler
Ronnie James Dio