The 1960s are a decade that has been largely romanticized by the generations that came after it. The Boomers that lived through it carry tales about free love and smoking marijuana like we’re supposed to sit and swoon over their vinyl copies of The Beatles. “Oh,” they say, “we had all this great music come out, and we marched in the streets and we even stopped a war. It was such a great time to be alive.” Everyone that comes after is supposed to chew on their envy in the corner, and there are a lot of the children of Boomers that do exactly this. You know them as the Wrong Generation crowd. They go onto YouTube videos and leave snide comments about how music was so much better in the Sixties and that they were born into the wrong generation, all their friends are dumb and listen to Justin Beiber and Rebecca Black.
All of this false nostalgia for a time that was never lived through is even worse given that it’s based on a series of lies.
First of all, no one listens to Rebecca Black. I’m fairly certain that there are more people that have referenced Rebecca Black in asinine comments on the internet than have actually listened to “Friday”. Somehow she’s become the spokesperson for the music of a generation that also includes Ty Segall, Arcade Fire, Kendrick Lamar, and Kamasi Washington among its legion of artists.
Second of all, the Sixties were a stressful, conflict-ridden time that ended in disaster.
It’s been 40 years and two major new wars since the Vietnam War ended in Communist victory. The 1960s were the prime time for American soldiers dying for a geopolitical strategy that assumed the viability of preventing Asia from falling to the Communists. Those Boomers aforementioned marched in the streets to protest the Vietnam War, and where did it get them? They were kettled, truncheoned, gassed, and disparaged. In the end, like at Kent State, they were shot and murdered by the forces of the State. All that happened was that the administration and the military-industrial complex ended the war exactly when they wanted to, at the very last minute before the prospect of victory was completely eliminated. At home, the decade kicked into gear with the assassination of a sitting President, reeled through the Civil Rights movement, and leaped headalong into the protest movement against the war. There were fracture lines along race, sexuality, employment, drugs, and virtually every other aspect of modern existence. It was a stressful time where revolution seemed a shout away – the French uprising in May of 1968 seemed to dovetail nicely with the American unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots at the Democratic National Convention later that year. Bombs went off, people died, and at the very end of the decade the Rolling Stones held a festival and decided to use the Hells Angels as security. The concert at Altamont ended up as a drunken mess where a man was murdered by the security forces, and it seemed to be an ill omen that drove in everything else that was waiting just around the corner.
That would be the 1970s, of course, and it would be a heavy economic downturn that would come about as the result of the supply shocks of the OPEC-initiated 1973 oil crisis. Corporate profits would stagnate, Deng Xaioping would open China up for business in 1979, jobs would vanish forever, and neoliberal economic piracy became the rule of the day. The rose colouring of the 1960s is the propaganda of the class that made it through the initial death shudders of Keynesian civilization intact or thriving. The poor and disadvantaged of the Earth have a different tale to tell.
One such poor and disadvantaged area was the city of Birmingham, England. Birmingham has been charitably described in the past as being an industrial hellscape, and it was dreary fifty years ago, too. My grandfather escaped the city in order to live in Canada, but for the youth of the late 1960s the opportunities to get out were few and far between. They worked in blue collar jobs, deadening factory work, and when they got out they drank, smoked, fucked, and listened to heavy blues music. The paisley folksy bullshit was an offshoot of the old British Invasion but was largely an American concern. The British kids of the mid-to-late Sixties were into the blues, and the louder the better. Starting a band was a popular way to beat the dead-end feeling of life in working class Britain. John “Ozzy” Osbourne was an unskilled labourer with a penchant for petty theft who’d wanted to be a rock star ever since hearing “She Loves You” on the radio in 1963. Tony Iommi worked in a sheet metal factory (a job that would claim the tips of the fingers on his fretting hand) and was inspired to adapt his guitar style after his accident by a recording of Django Reinhardt. Terence “Geezer” Butler was a working class Irish Catholic learning to be an accountant who found himself through LSD, Aleister Crowley, and Cream bassist Jack Bruce. Bill Ward was a lager lad with a love for jazz drumming and the heavier, more primitively pounding work of John Bonham. They would play in blues bands and knew each other from gigs across the city. Butler’s first band was Rare Breed, who would also feature Ozzy as their singer. Ward and Iommi played together in a band called Mythology. The two groups would eventually split up, and the four would come together in a new band called Polka Tulk.
Polka Tulk began when Ozzy put out an ad at a Birmingham music shop that went “Ozzy Zig needs a gig – has own PA”. Ward and Iommi answered the ad and, in need of a bassist, Ozzy mentioned his old bandmate Geezer Butler. The four of them began rehearsing as Polka Tulk before changing the name to Earth (Polka Tulk being a terrible name, after all). On 1998’s Reunion live album, Ozzy tells the crowd that they at some point decided that Earth “wasn’t a very good fucking name for a band”. The actual truth is that there was already a band called Earth doing gigs in Britain that was a minor league success. A name change was thus necessary.
While mulling over their options, the band went across the street to a cinema that was showing Boris Karloff’s 1963 horror classic Black Sabbath. One thing they noticed and talked about at length afterwards was the idea that people would pay money to get scared; fear and looming doom struck right at the animal part of the human brain, and it produced a weird sort of thrill. Horror films were always well attended, so what about making horror music? The seeds were already there. Iommi’s factory accident had maimed his fingers and left him unsure for a time whether or not there was a point to continuing to play the guitar. He’d eventually hit upon a solution involving lighter strings and melted plastic fingertips he would use to press down on these light strings. To reduce the tension and make it easier to play, he would also down-tune his guitar; the result was a much darker, “heavier” sound than was typical among even the heavy blues bands of the time. This sound, plus the realization that people loved to get scared out of their wits, led to the band changing their name to Black Sabbath, in homage to the movie that had changed their direction – and the direction of rock ‘n’ roll – forever.
Released February 13th, 1970 on Vertigo Records
Producer: Rodger Bain
Peaked at #8 UK, #23 U.S.
Right from the get-go, Black Sabbath is the sound of the disenchantment of youth exploding into its own bloody birth. The tritone riff of “Black Sabbath” – inspired, according to Butler, by a movement in Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” – sets the tone exactly. A thousand years prior to its release, using that kind of interval in music would likely get you burned at the stake, or hung, or at the very least chased out of town. It’s not just the tritone, though: it’s the way that Butler’s bass rumbles along with Iommi’s riff, it’s the tension that Bill Ward’s toms add in the fills behind the verses, and it’s the way Ozzy’s keening wail sounds like a ghost mourning it’s own demise. It’s very rare that a band can sum up exactly what they’re about in the course of a single song, but “Black Sabbath” sets that up for Black Sabbath. The entire history of metal came after, but I don’t think that there’s ever been a song that’s been heavier.
Of course, there’s more to Black Sabbath than just “Black Sabbath”. “The Wizard” belies the band’s roots in heavy blues music and their love of Led Zeppelin. The guitar work on “The Wizard” and “Behind The Wall Of Sleep” could likely have fit pretty well on Zeppelin’s debut album (one of the band’s favourite at the time, incidentally), but for the fact that they’re played quite a bit slower than anything Jimmy Page would have committed to wax. It’s the slower tempo of Iommi (and the oddly fleet-fingered lumbering of Butler’s bass) that makes the difference. Zeppelin’s heavy blues were hedonistic and airy; Sabbath’s were gloomy and filled with dread.
Another band that had a great deal of influence on the early Sabbath was Cream, Eric Clapton’s heavy blues band du jour. It’s not just the deconstruction of the “Sunshine Of Your Love” riff that you can hear on “N.I.B.” – it’s also the entirety of side two, which is given over to a heady blues jam that may not have the grace and effortlessness of Clapton’s playing but has the verve and tenacity to match it in other ways. “Wicked World” mines a jazz groove for some rare upbeat finger-popping, and the closing piece “Warning” substitutes raw, blistering tone and form for the innovation and progression that Cream had been famous for in the late 1960s.
Lyrically, Geezer Butler sets the groundwork for the obsessions of heavy metal lyricists for evermore (okay, him and Robert Plant) by channeling his Irish Catholic background and setting against his love of the occult, black magic, and Crowley. “Black Sabbath” details the soul of a man being run down by the Devil; “N.I.B.” flips that around and has Lucifer fall in love with a human woman and give himself over to her. “The Wizard” was written with Gandalf The Grey in mind, mirroring the Tolkien love that Zeppelin was also mining at the time. “Wicked World” would be the track that pointed the way forward, as Butler would eventually get more comfortable as a lyricist and start putting his political beliefs forward more often. “Warning”, finally, is that rare beast in the early Sabbath catalog: a regretful love song more in keeping with the traditional lyrical matter of rock ‘n’ roll.
On a side note, I thought for years that the person standing rather creepily on the album cover was Ozzy Osbourne in drag. As it turns out, the figure is a woman the band vaguely remembers as being named Louise. No one actually knows anything about her beyond that tiny factoid; there is no public record of her and if she’s still alive she’s apparently taking the secret of her place in rock ‘n’ roll history to the grave with her. Like the title track, the album cover sets up the tone of the album perfectly, another thing that would be very rare in Sabbath’s career.
Released September 18th, 1970 on Vertigo Records and January 7th, 1971 on Warner Bros. Records
Producer: Rodger Bain
Peaked at #1 UK, #12 US
Filling the gap between Cream and Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath’s first album was a big success, especially in their native Britain where it went to the Top Ten. Four months after it’s release the band went back to the studio to record a follow-up, comprised mainly of songs which had grown out of the live improvisations the band did during their endless tours of the club circuits. It’s arguably Iommi’s peak as a riff-writer: pretty much everything on Paranoid is iconic and has been celebrated in one way or another in the 45 years since its release. At the very least, the DNA of a lot of heavy metal that came afterward can be heard on the record. It’s not hard to imagine the path that leads from the crushingly heavy riff of “Electric Funeral” to Alice In Chains. The breakneck pace of “Paranoid” would give rise to a much more fast-paced form of metal when bands like Judas Priest (and, later, Sabbath themselves) would barrel ahead full-tilt. “Iron Man” is the birth of sludge metal while “Planet Caravan” would inspire a legion of band’s bong-laden softer moments. It’s also not hard to imagine where these songs sprang out of. “War Pigs” was born out of jamming on “Warning”, and the slam of the main two-chord riff definitely bears this out. “Paranoid”, written in 15 minutes so that the record label could be assured of a viable single, took a cue from the headalong power of Zeppelin’s “Communication Breakdown”. “Rat Salad” was a long drum solo much like Bonham’s own on “Moby Dick”. “Jack The Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots” continues the tradition of jamming two more fragmentary songs together, the same tradition that forms the entirety of side two of their debut. The jazzy interludes that serve as bridges are in full display here as well – the breakdown in “Electric Funeral” is jaunty, a direct contrast to the main section and “Hand Of Doom” rides a (quite a bit darker) jazz wave into a brick wall of heavy blues riffs in the same fashion that “Wicked World” did.
Lyrically, the album opens Butler up into a much more political bent than he showed on Black Sabbath. “War Pigs” is a vicious vision of Satan rising up and claiming the souls of the rich war profiteers and politicians and generals that destroyed the world. Familiarity has perhaps bred out the shock of what a radical call to arms it is, even among other songs of the era. Butler points the finger squarely at the enemy, without need for metaphor or subtlety: “Politicians hide themselves away / They only started the war / Why should they go out to fight? / They leave that role to the poor.” Before there was Joe Strummer, there was Geezer Butler, who would later talk about how he was into how political Bob Dylan had been but missed his presence in the music scene by the 1970s. “Paranoid” examines depression, although it’s more just the paranoia of being stoned; “Iron Man” came about because Ozzy cracked that Iommi’s lumbering riff sounded like a “giant iron bloke walking around” but it told a story of a self-fulfilling prophecy of hate and destruction. “Fairies Wear Boots” was about Ozzy’s encounter with a pack of skinheads one night. “Electric Funeral” channeled the generation’s fear of impersonal nuclear obliteration, and “Hand Of Doom” was one of the few songs of the era to discuss the phenomenon of American soldiers coming home from Vietnam with a habit for sticking needles in their arms. The Vietnam era in general weighed heavily on the album. The album was originally supposed to be called War Pigs – hence the odd looking soldier with the sword and shield on the front cover – but the record executives decided that the title was too deliberately provocative for the time.
Paranoid made the band huge, and they blew the door open for every disaffected generation after. It’s not quite hyperbole to suggest that every heavy band that came after the album stems in some way from the sludge that pours out of its grooves. Grunge is often said to be a combination of Black Flag and Black Sabbath, but Black Flag were listening to Black Sabbath when they made their proto-grunge My War album. The critics of the time were not kind to it, but retrospective is a powerful drug and the entire movement that has come after tends to colour perceptions a bit more. The surface Satanic imagery of the songs would also get them on the radar of the religious factions in society, which ramped up quite a bit after a nurse was found dead by suicide with Paranoid still playing on her turntable.
MASTER OF REALITY
Released July 21st, 1971 on Vertigo Records
Producer: Rodger Bain
Peaked at #5 UK, #8 US
After recording the founding document of heavy metal on Paranoid, there was no other real direction for Sabbath to go but heavier. Master Of Reality is heavier. Three of the songs feature Iommi’s guitar tuned down to C# and stripped of all reverb, producing a tone that was akin to a black hole swallowing all light. Butler’s bass is tuned down as well, creating a throbbing rumble that feels like doom approaching. Ozzy, meanwhile, pitched his wail up even higher, becoming a banshee howling over the apocalypse. The critics hated it (“monotonous” Lester Bangs called it, and he was among the kindest) but the kids ate it up, and many of those kids went on to form bands: Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, Mudhoney, Smashing Pumpkins, Nirvana, and virtually every other grunge-affiliated band from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Master Of Reality is the birth pains of sludge and doom metal, as well as lighter fare like stoner rock. “Sweet Leaf” especially is the ultimate stoner anthem, an homage to the band’s love of marijuana during the recording sessions and named after a slogan on a cigarette package. Those coughs that open up the album are in fact Iommi choking on the smoke from a large joint that was being passed around.
Gone were the jazzy interludes that broke up the tracks of Black Sabbath and Paranoid. Instead, every main piece on Master Of Reality hits like a ton of bricks, “Iron Man”-style. The opening riff to “After Forever” is breezy enough but the main riff is the ultimate in caveman pounding; Brooklyn hardcore band Biohazard didn’t have to change a thing to get the same effect on the Nativity In Black tribute album some twenty-five years later. “Children Of The Grave” burns everything in its path, melding chug-a-lug verses into a breakdown that defines what it means for a riff to bang your head for you. “Lord Of This World” is a more amiable groove than the others, the closest to the original Zeppelin-echoing heavy blues the first two albums mined. “Into The Void” is the real masterpiece here, though, a searing hypnotic pound through a desperate attempt to flee a war-torn, destroyed Earth.
Master Of Reality can also be considered a beginning of sorts of the hard times that would engulf the band over the next few albums. Black Sabbath and Paranoid were recorded pretty much live and off-the-cuff; Rodger Bain would set the band up in studio and then record the results, and that would be that. Master Of Reality was the first album they spent longer on in the studio, and the stress levels were amplified. The drums on “Into The Void” were especially difficult for Bill Ward to nail, leading to a few outbursts about just not playing it. “Solitude”, the lone full-length quiet track, was an exercise in multi-instrumental experimentation, with Iommi playing many different instruments and a delay effect added in the studio to Ozzy’s vocal.
The definitive take on Master of Reality remains the 33 1/3 book on the album written by John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. Unlike most 33 1/3 books, which are inflated guides to a single album, Darnielle’s take on Master Of Reality is a semi-fictional account of a young man who has been committed to a mental health hospital and uses the album to try to convey his problems and relate to people. It’s required reading for anyone interested in the impact that Black Sabbath had on people that weren’t writing music reviews for Rolling Stone or The Village Voice.
Released September 25th, 1972 on Vertigo Records
Producer: Patrick Meehan, Tony Iommi
Peaked at #8 UK, #13 US
If weed and booze was the impetus for the band’s first three albums, inspiration took a rather different path when it came to the appropriately titled fourth album. By 1972 Black Sabbath were a big deal – commercial successes drowning in money and women despite the critical backlash – and as was proper for the time they decamped to Los Angeles to record. Like every other band that ever recorded in Los Angeles, the members of Black Sabbath were offered increasingly ridiculous amounts of cocaine. They would do some lines, then they would do some more lines, and then they would get around to writing some songs and perhaps recording them. As Iommi remembers it, half of the allotted budget went directly to cocaine and the other half was spent staying in the studio doing cocaine as long as possible. It was very rock ‘n’ roll for the time, of course, but all that continuous substance abuse took its toll. The band graduated from doing lines to having suitcases (and, later still, speaker boxes) full of cocaine delivered to the studio. With the band looking to break out of the sludge-rock mould they’d pioneered, they naturally spent their time in L.A. experimenting with their sound. Unfortunately, the sheer amount of coke being done meant that a lot of that experimentation ended up being somewhat ill-advised. What sounds great after a few fat lines is rarely actually great while sober (as Oasis post-Be Here Now could likely tell you) and Vol. 4 is definitely that kind of album. “Wheels Of Confusion/The Straightener” and “Cornucopia” are attempts at progressing beyond the heavy stomp of old, but they substitute sheer volume and trickery for the solid riffs that Iommi and Co. were known for. “Cornucopia” was also frustrating to record; Bill Ward, addled and paranoid from the sheer amount of drugs he’d consumed, was unable to get his parts right on the track and was afraid that the others were going to get sick of him and fire him. While this was probably not much of a concern (there are few hard rock drummers as deft as Bill Ward) the band also probably was pissed off at him.
That said, it was a hard time for Ward in general. He was supplementing the cocaine abuse that he shared with the others with an increasingly heavy dependence on liquor, and his ability to handle it was slipping. At the same time, he was going through an acrimonious breakup with his wife and his bandmates were continuing to step up their vicious pranking of him. At one point the band found him passed out drunk in the Bel Air home they’d rented and covered him head to toe in DuPont gold spraypaint, several cans of which had come with the house. Unknown to them, the spraypaint blocked his pores completely and he began to suffer seizures, necessitating an emergency trip to the hospital.
The only single from the album, “Tomorrow’s Dream”, was spared the confusing mess of the aforementioned tracks by being only three minutes long; it was, otherwise, a song that was almost great but too unfocused to really make the leap. The same is true for the most part of “St. Vitus’ Dance”, although the short runtime makes for a much more satisfying listen. Part of the problem was the coke, for sure, but it was a bit more than that. They’d risen up from being working class folk working dead-end jobs and blowing their brains out with dirty industrial grade blues rock on the weekends to being Their Satanic Majesties. Now they were in a city awash in money, women, and drugs, being offered anything they wanted and given free rein over a major recording studio. It’s really the last part that signifies the problem with the record: there was no outside producer working on it. Production was largely handled by Tony Iommi, with some minor work done by the band’s manager, Patrick Meehan. Rodger Bain was able to get a raw, gritty sound even out of the dry, downtuned guitar; Iommi’s work made that same tone muddy and ill-defined. It’s also why a nothing track like “FX” was allowed to be put on – too much cocaine and too insular a bubble gives rise to terrible decisions.
Still, when Vol 4 is on it is dead on. “Supernaut” and “Snowblind” are two stone pillars of the Sabbath canon. The former rides a nimble riff into a blistering vocal from Ozzy, who’s honestly the best part of the entire record. The latter is the “Sweet Leaf” of cocaine, a heady anthem that manages to sound as glacial as no longer being able to feel your face. Amusingly, the record was originally going to be called Snowblind but the execs finally balked at that, settling for the much more straightforward and generic title it ended up with. “Laguna Sunrise” is a beautiful composition by Iommi, written on Laguna Beach after watching the sun come up at the end of an all-nighter. “Under The Sun / Every Day Comes And Goes” manages to conjure up that old blues-jamming feeling under the heavy sludge, and the out-of-left-field ballad “Changes” manages to bring the entire band together for one heartfelt moment. Iommi built the keyboard work, Ozzy provided the melody, and Butler fit the words to that melody. The words were inspired by Ward’s breakup, bringing everyone into the act.
The band would, years later, acknowledge Vol 4 as the point where the constant party stopped being so fun and started to become a drag. The stress of needing to constantly evolve their sound coupled with the sheer amount of drugs being shoved in their direction made for an unfocused, bleary sound that fell flat after the triumph of their first three albums. It still sold well, of course, and it for some reason became the moment that critics changed their minds about the band, but it is telling that only a couple of the songs were regular additions to the band’s setlists in the years to come.
SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH
Released December 1st, 1973 on Vertigo Records and January 1st, 1974 on Warner Bros. Records
Producer: Tom Allom and Black Sabbath
Peaked at #4 UK, #11 US
After an exhausting tour fueled by coke and groupies behind Vol 4, Black Sabbath decided that if it wasn’t broken they weren’t going to fix it. They set up shop at the studio in Los Angeles, brought in Tom Allom to produce, rented another house in Bel Air, and got to work. Unfortunately, they forgot that it was, in fact, broken in the first place, and it was even worse the second time around. The problems began at the end of the Vol 4 tour. Up for days on end and wired on cocaine, Iommi eventually collapsed and had to be hospitalized, necessitating an end to the tour. The band went their separate ways at the end of the tour and tried to regain some semblance of a social life back home in England, but their status as bona fide rock stars made this somewhat difficult. Butler recalls that they’d been in a sealed bubble of debauchery for so long that when he got home his then-girlfriend didn’t even recognize him. When they reconvened in L.A. to begin work on their fifth album, nothing happened. The songs fell flat, the riffs wouldn’t flow, and the band was at their wit’s end.
Defeated after a month of getting nowhere in America, the band fled back to England and set up shop in the old medieval fortress of Clearwell Castle. Supposedly haunted, the castle was a creepy old building in the middle of a forest that inspires rather dark thoughts. It was, in other words, the perfect place for Black Sabbath to get their mojo back. Shortly after setting up in the dark dungeon of the castle, Iommi came up with the powerhouse riff that drives “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” and the rest of the album flowed out from there. The difference between Sabbath Bloody Sabbath and its predecessor is night and day. That riff on the title track beats out pretty much anything on Vol 4 (except maybe “Supernaut”) and is easily one of the five most headbanging tracks the band ever recorded. “A National Acrobat” and “Sabbra Cadabra” show the power of Iommi’s twisting guitar work in completely different ways. The latter is actually my favourite Sabbath riff to play, and the lengthy, lumbering jam in the middle of it shows how powerful the Vol 4 songs could have been with proper guidance and production. The crushing “Killing Yourself To Live” touched on the death spiral that each of the band members knew was going on with regards to their increasingly out-of-control substance abuse issues, especially Iommi, who had basically gone out of his mind on coke by the end of the Vol 4 world tour and Butler, who had to be hospitalized at one point for kidney problems resulting from the sheer amount of liquor he was drinking. The haunting “Who Are You?” is the result of Ozzy playing around with an early Moog synthesizer (despite his not really knowing how to play it at all) and the soaring finale “Spiral Architect”, a song about the mysteries of DNA and the human experience, featured a gigantic orchestra that necessitated a move to a different, larger nearby studio.
Sabbath still had one truly great album left in the chamber, but Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is where the band really began to unravel. The group’s serious substance problems were reaching epic proportions and their in-fighting was becoming a big problem as well. Ozzy was checking out of the group even by 1974, Iommi was annoyed at being left to handle production on the band’s end by the others (leaving him isolated in the studio while the others went out and had a social life), and Butler was aggravated by Ozzy’s seeming inability to pick up the slack on writing lyrics (even though history has proven that he’s obviously much better at it). The writing was on the wall for the band, but they managed to prove that they weren’t completely out of it yet.
Released July 28th, 1975 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros. Records
Producer: Mike Butcher and Black Sabbath
Peaked at #7 UK, #28 US
The last great Black Sabbath album was recorded in a period of time that can be charitably described as a nightmare. Having discovered that Patrick Meehan was colluding with their record label to cheat them out of royalties, they fired Meehan and were instantly sued by him. The recording process of Sabotage was marred by a constant litany of visits to lawyers offices, letters delivered to the recording studio, and affidavits needing to be signed, often at the mixing board according to the band. With the constant distractions it’s a wonder that Sabotage turned out even half as well as it did. Iommi suggested in later years that actually working on music was like a respite from the constant legal wrangling that took place in 1975. Given that the band had to spend most of their days embroiled in legal shenanigans, the nights were given over to writing and recording. The process took longer than any previous Sabbath album, and led to grumbling on the part of Ozzy that the whole thing was taking entirely too long.
Still, the band was spot on for the most part. “Hole In The Sky” was a headbanger second to none, and “Symptom Of The Universe” gave birth to thrash metal. “Megalomania” expanded the band’s prog reach to its eventual extreme, pushing close to ten minutes and full of shifts between straight-ahead rock and something more approximating a boogie. “The Thrill Of It All” rode a riff that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Master Of Reality before launching off into a synth-driven rock ‘n’ roll odyssey circa the middle of the Seventies. The use of synth – a divisive instrument among the band’s fanbase – would feature heavily in both the oddly orchestrated “Supertzar” and the strange choice of sole single, “Am I Going Insane (Radio)”, a track that would feature very little guitar work at all. “The Writ” would end the record with another proggy stomper, this one featuring lyrics actually written by Ozzy about his disillusionment with the record industry and with the position the band found themselves in with regards to their former management.
The record is, as I mentioned above, the last great Sabbath album. Things would unravel from the release of Sabotage onward, and it would culminate in the seeming destruction of the band within four years. They were holed up in the studio, angry and paranoid, seemingly under siege on all sides and still trying to do everything themselves. On Sabotage it still worked, but the next two albums would be a different matter entirely.
Released September 25th, 1976 on Vertigo Records
Producer: Tony Iommi
Peaked at #13 UK, #52 US
By 1976 the band was in need of a vacation and decided to record the next album in the sunny environs of Miami. This proved to be a relaxing process for everyone except Tony Iommi, who was forced into the position of producing the whole thing while everyone else took a break. Butler and Ward drank and snorted and soaked up the sun; Ozzy did the same while plotting breaking off into a solo career. Iommi holed up in the studio, did a lot of cocaine, and chased after a rock ‘n’ roll game of Keeping Up With The Joneses. Ozzy recalled that during the recording process Iommi was obsessed with staying modern, chasing after Queen and Foreigner to keep their names relevant. Therein lies the real issue with Technical Ecstasy.
That issue is that the album is all over the place and at times shockingly derivative. Derivativeness on the whole is something that Sabbath fans should be somewhat familiar with; after all, the early classics were somewhat indebted to Cream and Led Zeppelin, even if they took those influences in a much heavier, darker direction. There are parts on this record, however, that are complete head-scratchers. “Rock ‘N’ Roll Doctor” is probably the most egregious of these, given that it’s a warmed-over Kiss rip-off that comes off as completely unconvincing in the recording. “Gypsy” recycles a bunch of rock cliches that were well-worn when Robert Plant was doing them, and “She’s Gone” is a go-nowhere sort of ballad that mistakes string sections for depth. “You Won’t Change Me” repeats the problems of Vol 4 in that it overstays its welcome and prefers to spin its wheels rather than go anywhere useful.
Like Vol 4, however, there are some very solid tracks embedded among the flailings of a band on its way down. The opener, “Back Street Kids”, is a thundering rocker, the sort of thing that “Wheels Of Confusion” should have been. “It’s Alright” is an anomaly in the Sabbath catalog in that it features Bill Ward singing (he has a pretty good voice, as it turns out) and it sounds like a Seventies track from one of the Beatles’ solo projects. “All Moving Parts (Stand Still)” is weirdly funky and shows that Butler still had his finger on political concerns (the song is about a transvestite President of the United States and the inherent misogyny of America). “Dirty Women” is a take on the same vibe that brought out “Snowblind” and has proved to be the most enduring of any of the songs off of this confused, grasping record – it was a highlight of the band’s reunion tour in the late 1990s.
The biggest failure of the album is that it largely abandons what made Black Sabbath work for the previous six years and tries to stay relevant to the contemporary music scene. On one side, California was knocking with breezy soft rock – Rumors was less than a year away and, at the same time and in the same studio, The Eagles were crafting Hotel California. Both would go on to be massive sales forces at a time when Sabbath-esque hard rock was falling by the wayside. The bands that Sabbath were awkwardly trying to ape – Kiss, Uriah Heep, the heavier parts of Bad Company, etc. – were no longer the cutting edge. Punk rock was emerging quickly out of England, and within a year The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, and The Clash would put paid to the sort of bloated rock ‘n’ roll hijinks that Sabbath had gotten mired in. Hard rock would follow the path of Judas Priest, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal would put Sabbath riffs on speed and evolve into thrash metal, and within ten years bands would be putting on eyeliner, teasing their hair, playing pop songs and calling themselves “metal”. It would be fifteen years before Sabbath would be a relevant cultural force again, although it wouldn’t stop remnants of the band from trying in that interval. First, though, they had to fall apart, and the story of that destruction lies in their next album, the final of the Ozzy years.
NEVER SAY DIE!
Released September 28th, 1978 on Vertigo Records and Warner Bros Records
Producer: Tony Iommi
Peaked at #12 UK, #69 US
“Never Say Die!” (#21 UK)
“A Hard Road” (#33 UK)
Black Sabbath’s original lineup fell apart for all intents and purposes during the Technical Ecstasy tour. The infighting, the death of Ozzy’s father, and the exhaustion of doing hard drugs continuously for at least six straight years prompted Ozzy to check himself into an asylum for a short period at the end of that tour. Shortly after he formed a new band, Blizzard Of Ozz, and the band replaced him with Dave Walker, who had sung previously with Savoy Brown and Fleetwood Mac. A few songs were sketched out with Walker, and there was even a television appearance with him on the BBC, but Bill Ward eventually called Ozzy and negotiated him coming back to record Never Say Die! with Black Sabbath. They booked a studio in Toronto based on some sales brochures and set out to record the album in the winter of 1978.
As someone who has lived for a few years in Toronto, it’s difficult to overstate the sheer stupidity of this move. Never do anything in Toronto in the winter. It’s bleak, depressing, dirty, and exhausting. It’s no surprise that the recording sessions were a confusing mess for everyone involved.
Ozzy came back but he was far from sober. The Madman Himself was nearing the peak of his Madness and his antics drove the rest of the band mad along with him. He refused to sing any of the melodies or lyrics that the band had written with Walker. The band put their foot down about “Swinging The Chain” and when Ozzy refused to sing it Bill Ward stepped in and did it himself. The winter was particularly bad in Toronto in 1978 and it dragged everyone down with it. They would write songs in the daytime, record them at night, and patch things together at the end. As a result, there is a peculiar feeling of the record being disjointed. All of the finished songs are longer than they need to be, and no one seems to be willing to make an effort throughout. The tempos are too rote, and the riffs are pastiches of other band’s riffs. The leadoff track/lead single “Never Say Die!” retools a Kiss amalgamation into something workable, and “Junior’s Eyes” and “A Hard Road” contain the structures of much better songs. The album version of “Junior’s Eyes” tacks on another two minutes to the version that the band played with Walker on the BBC and does nothing with them. “Johnny Blade” awkwardly marries airy synths with stabbing hard rock chords and features a very tired-sounding Ozzy Osbourne. “Air Dance” and “Breakout” are surprise jazz-fusion numbers that showed the experimentation that Iommi wanted from the band (and that Ozzy absolutely despised). “Over To You” and “Shock Wave” are lethargic hard rock numbers that are easily forgotten when they’re over (although the former features some vaguely interesting piano trills embedded within).
Ozzy would go on to get fired from the band for being a drunken, drugged-out clown and in 1981 would call the album “disgusting”, but it’s not as bad as that, if we’re going to be fair about it. The bones of very good songs are present throughout, but they’re buried under exhaustion, ego, and hazy drug-fueled self-indulgence. There are people that actually really like it – Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil, for example – and there’s a rough charm to most of it. It isn’t actively awful. It’s just a poor execution of decent material, and as such it’s a lowlight of the band’s catalog and an ignominious ending for Ozzy’s tenure in the band.
Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats – The Night Creeper
Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats are as The Sword were – a Sabbath-worshipping doom metal band with a serious case of the groove. Where The Sword have moved on to allowing other Seventies hard rock icons into their sound, Uncle Acid have chosen to stay the course. If you caught Mind Control two years ago, The Night Creeper will seem instantly familiar, and this can be good or bad depending on your thoughts on recycled Sabbath riffs and rotted psychedelic atmosphere. Even if you’re getting tired of bands reappropriating classic rock, however, there’s a lot to like about The Night Creeper. This is serious head-nodder music; the band can mine a groove like very few other bands, and they can manipulate the flow like masters. When “Inside” starts bouncing after the hazy dream-inducement of the title track, you’ll start jumping up and down without even realizing it. It’s “Slow Death”, though, that brings the creepy horror film vibe to it’s peak, with it’s atmosphere of dread fueled by a musical space that is not often found in Uncle Acid songs.
What it comes down to is this: if you haven’t soured on hard rock riffs after all of these years, then The Night Creeper is right up your alley. Otherwise, take a pass.
The Sword – High Country
Legacies are tricky things for bands to maintain. Styles change, viewpoints go in and out of fashion, and there are bands (like The Who) that seem to swing on a continuous pendulum between being cool and being what my mother once called “fogey rock”. Some groups, like the Stones or the Boss, avoid having to keep up with their legacies simply by never stopping the active musical phase of their career. Some groups, however, cast such a wide net of influence that their presence can be felt in a distributed network of power, divided out over a legion of bands who reinforce and reproduce their sound. If Foucault had ever written about rock ‘n’ roll bands, he would have been fascinated with the legacy of Black Sabbath.
There are whole genres of music dedicated to the output of the Birmingham hard rock pioneers. “Doom Metal” is just another way of saying “we play the slower Sabbath songs with deeper distortion on the guitars.” “Stoner Rock” is just another way of saying “we play the faster Sabbath songs and you can pry our tube amplifiers away from our cold dead hands.” This is not to say that bands within those genres can transcend their influences and become something greater; Sleep began as a band of blatant Sabbath worshippers and ended up as #2 in the stoner/doom pantheon. Queens Of The Stone Age began with fusing their love of Sabbath riffs with clipped, breezy desert phrasing and ended up being every rockist’s go-to band of choice.
Then there’s The Sword. The Texas band has been blazing a trail of their own for several years now, getting on to most people’s radars with their well-regarded third album Warp Riders and then keeping the Sabbath Dream alive by peaking on the Billboard 200 at #17 with 2012’s Apocryphon. This sort of success tends to bring a band like The Sword to a crossroads: you can either continue to double-down on the Tony Iommi riffs or you can try to diversify. There are problems with both – contempt through familiarity vs. alienating your fanbase for potentially little growth – and that’s probably why the band uses High Country to walk a line between doing both. The album is largely Sabbath-inspired hard rock riffs, but there are moments here and there where different moments of the 1970s surface. It boogies in places. There are flourishes of psychedelic rock. Rather than being a rote re-do of the sludge-metal heroics of Warp Riders, High Country dials up some Hawkwind and Blue Oyster Cult and proceeds to party. It’s a sunnier and more open album than their previous efforts, and while it’s still indebted to the ghosts of the Seventies, it’s a path for progress that doesn’t require completely reinventing the band from the ground up. Thus, while it doesn’t quite achieve the heights of the past, it’s also much better than it could – should – have been. It sets the band up well to transcend the doomy Sabbath influence and forge something more lasting toward the stoner/doom canon – something like Sleep, or QOTSA, or even something like fellow Texans …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead: a mix of discrete influences that becomes something new.
California X – Nights In The Dark
California X’s self-titled debut was the best Dinosaur Jr. album recorded by a band that wasn’t Dinosaur Jr., who were incidentally also making great Dinosaur Jr. albums at the time. It’s a great basis for a one-off album, but you can’t do that twice; Yuck tried it, and look where it got them. On their second album, then, California X try that whole “growth” thing, with middling results. They’ve added a second guitarist and seem to have developed a love for doom metal, or maybe just reappropriated Black Sabbath. The heaviness of the guitar work here is appreciated but it’s also oppressive, more suffocating than joyous. When it works, it works well, as on the two-part “Blackrazor” epic, where plodding doom rock bleeds into a kick-ass up-BPM track full of tossed-off Iron Maiden guitar melodies. When it doesn’t, like on “Hadley, MA” or the attempt at capturing magic twice that is “Summer Wall”, it meanders badly. Coupled with the fact that the production over-emphasizes the low end at the expense of clarity and this is a sophomore album that takes the band in a slightly new direction, but doesn’t really do them any favours.