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Music Review: Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath

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Post-war Birmingham was a grey and somewhat depressing city. Bomb damage scarred the landscape and war rationing was still very much the order of the day. It was into this environment on December 3, 1948 that one John Michael Osbourne made his first ever appearance.

Ozzy Osbourne, the Prince Of Darkness, has just turned sixty years of age. This remarkable landmark cannot be allowed to slip by unnoticed. The problem is that it is impossible to choose from his legacy of music over the last forty years. Right or wrong, I’ve decided to go back forty years to the very beginnings of Ozzy’s career.

In August 1969 a young Birmingham blues band called Earth changed their name to Black Sabbath. In December 1969 they were in the studio recording their first single "Evil Woman" and returned to add seven more tracks for the debut album.

Called simply Black Sabbath, the album marked a further major turning point in the development of heavy rock music. By that time fellow Black Country band Led Zeppelin were already huge, their first two albums launching tours that had conquered the States. Meanwhile Deep Purple were still working on an album that would also stun the music world, In Rock, released in 1970. The Black Sabbath album was very much part of this development, and actually succeeded in pushing the boundaries of heavy rock into altogether darker territory.

The original lineup of Earth — soon to be Black Sabbath — was made up of Ozzy on lead vocals, guitarist Tony Iommi, bass player Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward. Iommi quickly established himself as a doom laden riffmeister. When Earth opened for Jethro Tull at a gig in Stafford Ian Anderson asked him to replace the departing Mick Abrahams for the bands appearance at the Rolling Stones Rock & Roll Circus exactly 40 years ago.

Eventually Martin Barre filled the Tull slot and Iommi and Black Sabbath set about taking a change of direction. Geezer Butler and Bill Ward formed a wall of sound, powering a huge mountain of amps and cabinets as Sabbath quickly gained a reputation as one of, if not the, loudest bands on the circuit. Ozzy provided the vocals in his own inimitable style. This was enhanced by his own PA system, a 50 watt Triumph amp, and his own twin stacks.

When Earth made their debut at London's legendary Marquee Club in Wardour Street, Ozzy appeared wearing the top of a kitchen tap round his neck on a chain that he had 'borrowed" from a motorway service station. It formed a cross which soon became the trademark of Black Sabbath. Ozzy’s dad began making aluminium ones for all the band members and crew. When they had become successful Tony Iommi even had them inlayed into his guitar fretboard.

Whilst playing at Hamburg’s famed Star Club in 1969 they decided to change their name to Black Sabbath. On their return they went into the studio, still going under the Earth moniker, to record a single titled “The Rebel.” It was destined to be shelved. This initial session was handled by none other than the Gus Dudgeon and Rodger Bain, beginning a productive relationship that lasted through the first three Sabbath albums.

The band played under their new name for the first time on August 30, 1969 at a gig at Malvern Winter Gardens in Worcestershire. The set list included much of what made up their first album. This darker sound quickly established them as one of the heaviest rock bands around at the time. This earned them a slot on John Peel’s highly influential Top Gear programme, a breakthrough that confirmed their growing status.

Black Sabbath was recorded on a budget of £600 in just three days at the Trident Studios. Who can forget the impact it made when it appeared? The cover perfectly captured the macabre darkness of the band’s music. Taken at Mapledurham Watermill in Oxfordshire it showed a caped female figure staring ghost like at the camera. Released on Vertigo on Friday the 13th in February of 1970, the album was a landmark in rock history.

The interior artwork depicated a controversial inverted cross, soon to become the symbol of Black Sabbath. It wasn't until the first time the needle dropped though that the full impact was felt. Anyone around at the time who heard the opening bars of the album will never forget the shock of that first play. The titular opening track made its entrance with thunder, a sinister tolling bell, a thundering Iommi doom riff, and the now trademark Ozzy screams. Black Sabbath had arrived and the world was never quite the same again.

Most of the lyrics were written by Geezer Butler who tapped heavily into the dark imagery of the occult, fantasy, and black magic. Ozzy made his distinctive entrance singing, "What is this that stands before me?/A figure in black which points at me." When Ozzy added his desperate screams of the whole thing created a sinister, nightmarish, and unforgettable impression. Quite simply it scared the shit out of me.

As a statement of evil intent it worked magnificently. The Satanic images caused all sorts of problems for the band who found themselves the focal point for some weird cults around the world, a position that they tried to distance themselves from despite the themes present in the music.

"The Wizard" arrives dramatically with Ozzy’s harmonica. It was to be the bands first single released in December 1969. “Behind The Wall Of Sleep,” apparently inspired by H.P. Lovecraft's story of the same name, maintains the sinister atmosphere. All the now-familiar sounds are there: Iommi’s incredible riffs, Butler's powerful bass, Ward’s crash-heavy drumming, and Ozzy’s unmistable voice.

“N.I.B.” rounds off side one. Written from the perspective of Lucifer, the track that prompted much discussion over the title's meaning. "Nativity in Black" was often suggested by fans but later dismissed by the band who claim the inspiration came from Ward's nib-like goatee at the time. Opening with Butler's bass and another sinister Iommi riff it ends the side with more darkness than anything that had gone before.

Lengthy covers of The Crows' "Evil Woman" and Aynsley Dunbar's "Warning" are both given the full Sabbath treatment on the second side of the UK release. Sandwiched between was “Sleeping Village” which features Butler's bass prominently and a superb Tony Iommi solo break. It was a stunning first album and blazed the trail for their sophomore release, Paranoid.

Black Sabbath, sits right at the top of the list of albums that literally created heavy rock. Despite some bemused reviews at the time, Black Sabbath set a new course in rock history and remains one of the most dramatic of all debuts. If anyone out there thinks that Ozzy Osbourne is merely a television personality trying to hold together not only his interesting family, but also himself, they should get themselves a copy of this album and imagine the shock that its appearance created back in 1969. Ozzy isn’t called the "Prince Of Darkness" for nothing.

So with this brief look back into the very beginnings of one of rocks heaviest ever bands, let's wish him a happy birthday and congratulate him on reaching the grand old age of sixty. A truly remarkable achievement amid a truly remarkable career. Thanks, Ozzy.

For info on what he and the band are currently up to, venture over to the official Black Sabbath website or have a look at Ozzy's own site.

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About Jeff Perkins