The Story Of Black Sabbath, As Told Through Their Singles
On June 8, Black Sabbath will release Supersonic Years – The Seventies Singles Box Set, a lavish limited edition collection which traces their trailblazing career from their 1970 debut Evil Woman to 1978’s Hard Road. Although the band – vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward – were largely dismissive of the seven-inch as a format, the success of their 1970 single Paranoid started a run of hit singles for the heavy metal founding fathers.
“We didn’t intend to make a single in the first place, but after we’d completed the album, the Paranoid track was sufficiently short to be a ‘trailer’ for the LP,” Iommi told the Disc and Music Echo in 1971. “We really didn’t expect it to do anything at all. We don’t go into the studio to make singles. We make LPs only.”
To celebrate the release of their new seven-inch box-set, every day this week we’re taking a dive into Sabbath’s ‘70s history. Let’s start by taking a look back at the band’s humble beginnings in Aston, Birmingham…
The quartet recorded their debut album at London’s Regent Sound studio with producer Rodger Bain in October 1969. Budgeting constraints meant they had just two days to make their self-titled effort, but finished it in around 12 hours. The second day was earmarked for mixing purposes, but the band had to leave the studio early in order to play a show in Europe.
“We didn’t know any better,” Butler told Guitar World in 2015. “We just went in there and recorded it like a live gig.”
Many of tracks captured that day are nothing short of magnificent: the eerie doom of the title track, Behind The Wall Of Sleep and N.I.B all stand up almost 50 years later. During the sessions, the band recorded a cover of Evil Woman, a song by Minneapolis blue rockers Crow, who released the same track the previous year and was released as their debut single. The B‑side, Wicked World – which replaced Evil Woman on the U.S. version – emerged at the height of the Vietnam War and Geezer Butler’s lyrics were a blunt commentary on the draft: <‘A politician’s job, they say, is very high, for he has to choose who’s got to go and die’>.
“Geezer liked to put a lot of topical stuff, like Vietnam references, into our songs,” remembers Ozzy in his autobiography, I Am Ozzy. He had his ear to the ground, Geezer did.”
With their self-titled album – released on February 13, 1970 – the band’s blend of blues rock and sludgy, downtuned riffs birthed heavy metal as we know it. Not bad for a day’s work in the studio, really.
Black Sabbath – Evil Woman
Following the success of their self-titled debut, the band returned to London’s Regent Sound studio and Island Studios just four months later to record their second album with producer Rodger Bain once again at the desk. In comparison to their debut, the band really took their time with Paranoid, completing the record in <five> days.
“It was all done so quickly,” Geezer told Ultimate Guitar in 2010. “We started the first album, and the second album was almost all written in one go. We were on the road all the time, so we’d just literally write and stuff at gigs. I think half the Paranoid album was written when we’d written the first album. We didn’t really have time to think back then. It was just like, ‘We gotta write this, gotta write that’. As long as the four of us enjoyed what song we came up with, we’d just go in and record it.”
The eight-track album – which featured War Pigs, Paranoid, Planet Caravan, Iron Man, Electric Funeral, Hand Of Doom, instrumental Rat Salad and Fairies Wear Boots – was intended to be called War Pigs. Their label thought differently, thinking it may ruffle feathers in the States, who were still embroiled in the disastrous Vietnam conflict. Paranoid, the label decided, had the potential to be a hit and convinced the band that it would be a good album title, too. But this decision was made after the artwork had been completed by designer and photographer Marcus Keef.
“That album title had nothing to do with the sleeve,” Ozzy told Kerrang!’s Phil Alexander in 1998. “What the fuck does a bloke dressed as a pig with a sword in his hand got to do with being paranoid?”
Quite. Paranoid was released in August 1970, a month ahead of the album and went to Number 4 in the UK charts.
“It was originally called The Paranoid,” Geezer told Mojo. “The song was about myself. I was getting really down, and gloomy, and dark — and the doctor said, ‘Go down the pub and have a pint, you’ll be all right.’ I said, I’ve tried that. ‘Well, go and have two pints then.’ So I was really in despair when I wrote those lyrics. They were true feelings. Of course, Ozzy didn’t have a clue what ‘paranoid’ meant.”
The Wizard, a track from their debut, appeared on the B‑side. And who was this mystical character wearing “funny clothes, tinkling bell”?
“I was reading Lord of the Rings at the time, and I just based the lyrics on that – Gandalf,” the bassist told Metal Sludge in 2005.
Paranoid topped the UK charts and remained their sole Number One album, until the band released what was to be their last studio album, 13, some 43 years later.
Black Sabbath perform Paranoid on Top Of The Pops, 1970
Iron Man was the second single to be taken from the Paranoid, and features Tony Iommi’s iconic riff, which Ozzy described sounding like a “big iron bloke walking around”.
Taking inspiration from the frontman’s comment – not the Marvel superhero, although the film franchise has used the song in their soundtracks – Geezer wrote lyrics about a time-traveler who witnesses the end of the world and is transformed into iron by a magnetic storm on his return.
“He’s trying to warn everyone about the future of the world, but he can’t speak, so everyone is taking the mickey out of him all the time,” said the bassist. “He just doesn’t care in the end.”
For the B‑side, the bassist looked to the paranoia surrounding the Cold War – the relationship between the U.S. and the USSR following the second world war – and tacked his nightmarish lyrics onto one of their most doom-laden moments on Paranoid: <‘Buildings crashing down to earth’s cracking ground, rivers turned to mud, eyes melt into blood’>.
“It was about the atomic war that was imminent back then,” Geezer told IGN. “Everybody thought they were gonna get blown to bits any second, so it was just all about real life and what was going on.”
For their fourth album, the follow-up to 1971’s Master Of Reality, Black Sabbath – who’d recorded their previous three albums in London – traveled to the Record Plant studios in Los Angeles. There, they opted to produce the album themselves with their manager Patrick Meehan. While residing in a Bel Air mansion at 773 Stradella Road, the band’s taste for excess began to get out of hand.
Geezer says that the band’s cocaine bill was $15,000 more than the cost of recording the album.
“We were young blokes, doing what young blokes do,” Tony told The Guardian. “Nobody could control anyone else; I was doing coke left, right and centre, and Quaaludes, and God knows what else. We used to have [cocaine] flown in by private plane.”
Their indulgence wasn’t exactly a secret either and their debauchery is documented in the epic song Snowblind: ‘Build my dreams on flakes of snow, soon I’ll feel the chilling glow’.
“Vol. 4 is a great album,” Geezer told Guitar World, “but listening to it now, I can see it as a turning point for me, where the alcohol and drugs stopped being fun.”
Only one single, Tomorrow’s Dream; was released to promote the album. A simple, untempo bluesy number featuring an assured Iommi riff, isn’t a particular highlight when placed alongside other album cuts such as Despite boasting classics such as Wheels Of Confusion, Supernaut, Snowblind and the piano-led ballad Changes.
Its B‑side, Laguna Sunrise, however, is a far more interesting listen. An instrumental showing another side to Iommi’s doom riffs, backed with a sumptuous string section, Bill Ward reveals that the song was inspired by time spent away from the studio getting up to no good.
“We would just hang out with some of the heads in the Valley and get high, and we went to Laguna [Beach] to get high as well,” the drummer told LA Weekly. “Back then, for me there was nothing like dropping some windowpane [LSD] and just letting the surf roll in, you know?
“It’s a credit to Tony he was able to write this incredible melody and these incredible guitar parts which actually completely summarised Laguna,” he adds.“It just couldn’t have fit it any better, man.”
It’s a credit to the band they managed to get anything recorded at all.
Black Sabbath – Laguna Sunrise
When it came to writing the band’s fifth album, there was a moment when Tony Iommi was concerned if he had anything left in the tank.
“I just got stuck and couldn’t think of anything to write,” he told Loudwire’s Jon Wiederhorn in 2009. “I don’t know if it was pressure or what. We left Los Angeles, went back to England and we thought, ‘Well that’s it. We’re all finished. It’s over.’”
In a bid to recreate the hedonistic atmosphere which informed Vol. 4, the band returned to the Bel Air mansion, but the guitarist admitted he suffered a case of writer’s block and returned to England.
Several months later, the band rehearsed in the dungeons of Clearwell Castle in The Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, where Iommi discovered the gloomy, foreboding atmosphere helped him rediscover his mojo and <that> riff for Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – released as a single in 1973 – and sparked the album of the same name.
The band recorded Sabbath Bloody Sabbath at London’s Morgan’s studios and enlisted the talents of Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman – whose band were next door recording Tales from Topographic Oceans – who can be heard on Sabbra Cadabra. He was paid in beer after refusing money for his services.
While Sabbath Bloody Sabbath saw the band expanding their musical horizons – Iommi describes it as their “pinnacle” – the band, with Ozzy in particular, began to fall apart after years of substance and alcohol abuse.
“This was really the album after which I should have said goodbye because after that I really started unravelling,” the frontman told Mojo in 2013. “Then we ended up falling out of favour with each other.” Things would only get stranger from here…
Come back tomorrow for part two of this…
Words: Simon Young
Stay up-to-date with everything going on at Download Pilot this weekend: We’ve got reviews, galleries, videos, setlists and more!
Ahead of September’s long-awaited event, Slam Dunk Festival have added a whole bunch more bands to the bill!