Black Sabbath - Biography
Reviled by critics, ignored by radio and blessed with an innate ability to fall prey to all manner of vices, Black Sabbath not only managed to survive life on the razor’s edge, they also laid the foundation for a whole new school of rock 'n' roll. Based on standard issue blues-rock, Sabbath slowed down the rhythms, cranked up the guitars and topped it all off with demonic vocals that explored all manner of anguish and mayhem. By building songs around seemingly simple riffs that took hold in the listener’s brain with ice pick precision, Black Sabbath gave birth to heavy metal music with a bloody vengeance that nearly bludgeoned them out of existence numerous times over the years. But they have proved to be the ultimate rock 'n' roll survivors, despite their self-destructive tendencies, and are now viewed as rock royalty, as proven by their election into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
Their twisted journey began in 1968, when two pairs of musical friends living in Aston, Birmingham, England, joined forces in a new group. Drummer Bill Ward and guitarist Tony Iommi came from the band Mythology, while bassist Geezer Butler and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne had just left Rare Breed. Looking to form a heavy blues band, the four found common musical ground and soon began working together, first under the name Polka Tulk, then as Earth. Playing a mix of improvised blues and covers of songs by the likes of Cream and Jimi Hendrix, they were soon gigging throughout Europe.
Iommi left briefly to join Jethro Tull, but quickly returned after a single performance, mostly because he didn’t care much for the way the group was directed by a single leader (Ian Anderson). When he came back, the members of Earth discovered that there was another band playing around England with the same name. So once again, they needed to come up with another moniker.
Butler had written a song, “Black Sabbath,” inspired by a novel of the same name by Dennis Wheatley; they had also noticed crowds lining up for a showing of the 1963 Boris Karloff horror film Black Sabbath across from a rehearsal studio they were using at the time. Butler, noticing that a lot of people seemed to be interested in scary movies, basically wrote the aural equivalent of just that, to which the group added a decidedly heavy sound, partly based in the way that Iommi played his guitar — he had suffered an industrial accident in 1966 at a sheet metal plant that resulted in the tips of his right fingers being sliced off. Encouraged by the story of gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who had incurred a similar malady and had fashioned prosthetics for his finger tips so he could still play guitar, Iommi used soft plastic tips on his fingers, and further compensated for his injuries by detuning his guitar and using lighter strings, both of which added to the heavy feel of his playing. So in 1969, the band took on their new name, Black Sabbath, which would soon prove to be a perfect fit.
Black Sabbath had stumbled onto a musical path that swam against the prevailing cultural tides of the times. By placing their occult- and horror-styled themes in a musical context that was repetitive, plodding and relentlessly heavy, their music went against the flower power/hippie vibe that was embedded in much of the era’s pop sounds. Ominous and forbidding, Black Sabbath struck a chord that seemingly reverberated inside every 15-year-old male past, present and future, a taste of rebellion set to power chords that would define the heavy metal genre.
With Butler writing the lyrics, Iommi coming up with the music and Osbourne fashioning the vocal melodies somewhere in the mix, Black Sabbath began attracting record company attention with their live shows, and the group signed with Phillips Records in December 1969. A month later, Fontana Records, a Phillips subsidiary, released Black Sabbath’s first single, a cover of Crow’s “Evil Woman (Don’t Play Your Games With Me).” Though it didn’t set the world on fire, the company gave the band two days of studio time to record an album, which, due to time constraints, was basically done live in one or two takes at best. Their self-titled debut came out on yet another Phillips imprint, Vertigo (which was home mostly to progressive rock bands), on February 13 (a Friday, of course), 1970. Black Sabbath reached the British Top Ten, and in May, Warner Brothers Records (their US licensee) unleashed the group on America. Although they didn’t meet with the quick success they had in the UK, by August the LP had reached the US charts, peaking at number 23. It would stay on the charts for more than a year, and eventually sold more than a million copies.
Black Sabbath also began the band’s legacy of critical disinterest and, in many cases, outright disgust. Rock critics dismissed the album en masse, with many doing so vehemently. It would also take a long time for radio to take any real notice of the band, and though reviewers and journalists would eventually use hindsight to heap belated praise on the band for their pioneering sound, Black Sabbath began and would remain a band of the people. Accordingly, disenfranchisement would become a key element in the success of heavy metal rock.
Buoyed by their success, the label quickly got the band back into the studio to record a follow-up album. Paranoid was released in Britain in September 1970, with the title track preceding it as a single; reaching the top five in the singles chart, the LP would go even higher, all the way to the top of the UK album charts. Since their first album was still selling well in the US, Warner Bros. held off releasing Paranoid until January 1971, with the title track once again acting as scout party for the album. The single did modestly well, peaking at number 61, while the album made it into the Top Ten, once again staying on the charts for more than a year and eventually selling more than four million copies. It would be their greatest commercial success, and would eventually be the record that many rock historians point to as the birth of heavy metal. Paranoid also featured the new genre’s first genuine anthem in the crunching assault called “Iron Man,” a song that stalled as a single but would go on to become the band’s trademark identifier.
With Paranoid, Black Sabbath was able to tour the United States for the first time, thus beginning a whirlwind cycle that found the band, for the most part, either on the road or in the studio. For their third album, the quartet was allowed more time in the studio — they would end up using two months this time — and Master of Reality appeared just six months (July 1971) after Paranoid hit US store shelves. Once again, they reached the Top Ten on both sides of the Atlantic while selling more than a million albums. Master of Reality added a number of fan favorites to the catalog (including “Sweet Leaf” and “Children of the Grave”), but the recording sessions also provided the band their first real opportunity to explore the middle feature of the ‘sex, drugs and rock and roll’ equation. It would mark the beginning of a downward spiral of excess involving drugs and alcohol that would eventually unravel the band.
After touring the globe in support of Master of Reality, Black Sabbath took its first break in more than three years of constant movement. Supposedly recharged and refreshed, the group got back together in Los Angeles in June 1972 to begin recording their fourth album. This time the musicians decided to broaden their sound palate by adding orchestrations, strings and keyboards to the mix. However, substance abuse once again became a problem, and drummer Ward was nearly fired from the band. But they managed to avoid completely derailing themselves, and in September, Black Sabbath, Vol. 4 became their fourth consecutive Top Ten gold record. Extensive touring soon followed, including their first foray into Australia.
In the summer of 1973, the group returned to Los Angeles to start work on their fifth album. They initially rented a house in Bel Air to begin the writing process, but fatigue and drug problems quickly stalled the proceedings. They decided to return to England, where they rented a castle, setting up the dungeon as a rehearsal space. It worked; the sound continued to evolve and enlarge as they adjourned to London to record. Yes keyboardist, Rick Wakeman, was even brought in to sweeten one of the tracks.
Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was the result, and for the first time in their career, Black Sabbath began receiving favorable reviews from the rock and mainstream press. Released in November 1973, it was their fifth consecutive million selling album, peaking at number 11 in the US and number four in England. A tour soon followed, concluding with an appearance before 200,000 at the California Jam festival in Ontario, California, portions of which were shown on the ABC television network.
The group switched management in 1974, and the ensuing litigation brought the Sabbath juggernaut to a crawl. It would be 20 months between albums this time, and Sabotage was the first Black Sabbath album — though it did reach the Top 20 — to be denied platinum status in the US, as musical tastes were beginning to change. The end of 1975 saw the issuance of the first Black Sabbath greatest hits compilation, a double record set entitled We Sold Our Soul for Rock ‘n’ Roll. It would eventually reach two million in sales.
Iommi and Osbourne began to disagree on the future of the band — the guitarist wanted to continue expanding the Sabbath sound, while the vocalist wanted to maintain the status quo. Technical Ecstasy was the compromise result, and it stalled at number 51 on the US charts. Osbourne’s frustration continued to grow, and finally, just before the band was to enter the studio to begin recording their eighth album in November 1977, he quit the band. The new trio enlisted former Savoy Brown vocalist Dave Walker to finish some live date commitments, but it would be a short sabbatical for Osbourne, who returned to the fold two months after quitting. Throwing out all the songs that had they had written for Walker to record, the group started the sessions for what would become Never Say Die! by writing in the morning and (hopefully) recording at night. It proved to be a difficult proposition that was once again flavored with substance abuse, and it would take five months before they were finished.
Released in September 1978, Never Say Die! continued the band’s slide down the charts, making it only as far as number 69. By the time they finished the support tour — with a youthful Van Halen enjoying success in the opening slot on their first worldwide trek — Black Sabbath would face trouble again as they set about writing songs for their next record. Toxicity in the form of drugs and alcohol finally brought it all to a halt, finally resulting in the exit of Osbourne, this time for good.
Iommi, Butler and Ward soldiered on, and they picked Ronnie James Dio as their new vocalist. Formerly with Elf and Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow, Dio brought an entirely different sound to the mix. The group took their time in the studio (Butler also took a short leave of absence), and by the time they released Heaven and Hell in April 1980, the band seemed reborn. Once again, they sold a million records in the US while reaching the Top Ten in Britain. But by August, Ward had left the band due to health issues, and he was replaced by drummer Vinnie Appice. It marked the beginning of a state of flux in membership that would continue for the next two decades.
This line-up recorded Mob Rules, which built on the success of its predecessor, again reaching gold in the US. But by the time the group decided to record its next record live in concert, Dio and Iommi began having disagreements over the mixing of it, and Dio was gone by the time the resulting Live Evil was released in January 1983. Appice also exited, joining Dio in his new solo project.
Iommi persuaded Ward to rejoin Black Sabbath, and they set about selecting a new vocalist. After a few auditions (Whitesnake’s David Coverdale was one possibility nixed), they settled on ex-Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan. But what looked good on paper didn’t ignite magic in the studio, as Gillan’s style didn’t really mesh with the Sabbath crew, and the resulting Born Again met with mixed reviews and a lukewarm response from fans. The tour that followed also included a faux pas by the group’s management that would be adapted into the hilarious mockumentary Spinal Tap: the Stonehenge stage set they ordered was built to the wrong specifications — in real life, the set was too large to transport rather than too small to use. Ward left before the tour began, and Gillan left soon after it finished up. Disillusioned with all the changes, Butler quickly followed, leaving Iommi as the sole remaining member. He put the group on hiatus, choosing to work on a solo project instead.
In the midst of that project, the four original members of Black Sabbath were invited to reunite for the Live Aid benefit concert on July 13, 1985. They agreed to do it, performing a short three-song set without any fighting, but any possibility for a reunion was nixed by the multi-platinum success that Osbourne was enjoying as a solo artist.
Iommi returned to his solo project, but when he went to record it, the record label insisted that it be released under the Black Sabbath banner. Seventh Star was credited to Black Sabbath featuring Tony Iommi. Another ex-Deep Purple alumnus, Glenn Hughes, was in the vocal chair, but he would be gone by the time the supporting tour began, replaced by Ray Gillen. Subsequently, Gillen would eventually be replaced by former Alliance vocalist Tony Martin, along with a journeyman’s list of supporting players. The only Sabbath constant remained Iommi.
The next three albums, Eternal Idol (Sabbath’s last for Warner Bros.), Headless Cross (on IRS Records) and Tyr, featured Martin on vocals, but none of the three met with much commercial success, though they did get some critical kudos. In 1992, Iommi reunited the Heaven and Hell line-up of Dio, Butler and Appice to record Dehumanizer, and once again, Sabbath was a commercial commodity. But when the group was offered the opportunity to open for Osbourne in what was purportedly his farewell show, Dio balked, and left the band the day before the show. Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford stepped in to provide vocals, and Iommi and Butler joined Osbourne and Ward onstage for the first time since the Live Aid concert.
Iommi and Butler regrouped, bringing Martin back on vocals, and recorded what was planned as an Iommi solo project, but once again the record company insisted on releasing Cross Purposes as a Sabbath album. Butler left again after the support tour, and Iommi and Martin returned to the studio to record with the same line-up as Tyr. The result was 1995’s Forbidden, notable mainly for a guest turn by Ice T (his guitarist in Body Count, Ernie C, produced the album).
Deciding once again to pursue a solo career, Iommi put Sabbath on hiatus. But by 1997, Black Sabbath returned again from the dead, and this time, the reunion of Iommi, Butler and Osbourne (Ward had prior commitments with his solo project) took flight for more than a single show, as they co-headlined the traveling rock circus known as Ozzfest, which would keep the band together on and off into the new millennium. Along the way, the original line-up, including Ward, recorded a pair of shows in their hometown of Birmingham, England, for a double CD set entitled, appropriately enough, Reunion. It would garner the veteran group its first Grammy Award for “Iron Man.”
In 2007, Warner Records released The Dio Years, a compilation covering the Dio-fronted version of Black Sabbath. The project also included three new songs recorded and written by Dio and Iommi, and the pair decided to give it a try once again. This time, to avoid any confusion, they titled their project Heaven and Hell, so rather than going out to pasture, it seems that Black Sabbath has given birth to itself once more, even if it is under another name. Plans call for a new Heaven and Hell album in 2009.