Right from the outset, Birmingham, England’s own Black Sabbath proved themselves to be a very special musical entity. While various groups had started laying down the foundations for hard rock and metal on both sides of the Atlantic, Sabbath are considered to be the first true heavy metal band, and their self-titled debut from 1970 the first true heavy metal album because it went into darker, heavier territory. This was working-class music borne from a town of metalworks in an area known as the Black Country. This was the music for underprivileged people who were not sure what kind of a future was in store for them.
The time and place of their genesis were crucial in terms of who Black Sabbath became.
Although the group’s debut opened with the ominous title track, the music would actually take a darker, more sinister twist on their second album, Paranoid, also released 50 years ago. While Sabbath’s seemingly occult leanings and imagery made waves with some people, there were other bands around the time, like Black Widow and the American group Coven, who in 1969 had released a song called “Black Sabbath,” that went into more overt Satanic territory. (Funnily enough, Coven’s bassist was Greg “Oz” Osborne.) And yet Sabbath still sounded more evil.
Bassist Geezer Butler was the main lyricist for the classic line-up of Sabbath, and on Paranoid he found inspiration in everything from the literature of H.P. Lovecraft and J.R.R. Tolkien (another Birmingham native) to the tragedy of drug abuse and the horror of war. After their debut came out in February of 1970, although unfairly derided by snobby critics, it was embraced by a legion of fans who wanted something different, who did not relate to the hippie movement that had become popular in San Francisco and whose music achieved international recognition. These were more intense sounds.
Sabbath’s second album, Paranoid, was released in September 1970. (Rhino Records reissued a 50th-anniversary edition of the record.) Paranoid would continue the dark, brooding trend from the first album, tackling serious topics even if some were embedded in more fantastical lyrical form. But it was clear that Butler and his bandmates had serious things on their mind, like drug addiction (“Hand Of Doom”), nuclear destruction (“Iron Man”), and, of course, the “War Pigs.” That latter song’s invocation of black masses was a metaphorical criticism of warmongers and not an endorsement of Satanism as some people had criticized. (Although Butler admittedly dabbled in that when he was younger.)
“There was a rebellious feeling in the air [in Birmingham] at the time,” Butler told me in a 2014 interview. “The hippie movement was going which was totally rebelling against everything. Two of me three brothers had been in the Army and absolutely hated it, and I was dreading being called up. Luckily, national service finished a couple of years before I was due to go in the Army. It gave you more of a sense of freedom. When the Vietnam War came along, we thought conscription would be back in England and we’d be called up to fight in the Vietnam War. That’s what started this whole rebellion thing about not going to war for anybody.”
The famous stories about Sabbath have been told myriad times. The title track to this album was written and recorded in two hours when the group needed one more track to make sure they had a decent running time for the album. It became one of their biggest hits. Tony Iommi‘s guitar-playing style came about because he accidentally chopped off the tips of two fingers in a sheet metal press, ironically on the last day of a factory job. He fashioned thimbles to wear on his damaged fingers so he could play guitar, and the doomy lower tunings he favored enabled him to play more easily as he could not feel his fingertips. They also generated an exciting new sound. Literally, this was heavy metal in life influencing heavy metal in sound.
Butler’s lyrics have always been thought-provoking. What is interesting about early Sabbath is that it had this anti-authoritarian slant, and while one would not necessarily say they were politically liberal, the quartet encouraged people to think for themselves and challenge the norms.
“There was a rebellious feeling in the air [in Birmingham] at the time … The hippie movement was going which was totally rebelling against everything.”
The one thing that is being mentioned more outside of metal circles only in recent years is the fact that Birmingham, England, then an economically depressed region that had also been a target of dozens of Nazi air strikes during The Blitz in World War II, itself serves as a character in the heavy metal world. Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and half of Led Zeppelin came from this area. (Later groups include Diamond Head, Napalm Death, and Godflesh.) And it is no surprise that a city whose air was choked by the pollution from ironworks would give birth to such intense heavy music that reflected a very different reality than what a lot of other urban and suburban kids experienced.
Birmingham influenced an entire genre of rock and roll that is still going strong today.
A major concern among these early metal musicians and their families was money. Butler told me he had been brought up vegetarian. His mother did not eat meat, and because they had seven children in the family and his father had about $30 a week to feed them, food options were limited.
Photo by James Fraser
“There was never that much meat around anyway,” Butler told me in 2014. “So I didn’t really miss it. Then the older I got, when we started doing up riders for the road, as soon as you would say you were vegetarian, people always would think you had fish for some reason. I said, ‘How is fish a vegetable?’ I always had these arguments with them, and I always had eggs and everything. I just decided to do vegan stuff, nothing to do with any animals or anything. I just went full vegan from there.”
Grim employment realities also surrounded them. In his autobiography I Am Ozzy, Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne recalled doing a lot of jobs that he felt he wasn’t any good at it, including plumbing, tuning car horns, and working on building sites. He says he excelled at killing animals while toiling away at a slaughterhouse, and while that did not turn him vegetarian, he said in his book, “I think that anyone who eats meat should visit a slaughterhouse at least once in their life, just to see what goes on. It’s a bloody, filthy, putrid fucking business.” Following that job, he did not want to work in a factory again, so he became a burglar.
“There we were, in Aston, Ozzy was in prison from burgling houses, me and Tony were always in fights with somebody, and Bill, so we had quite a rough upbringing,” Butler told Rebecca Woods of the BBC in 2017. “Our music reflected the way we felt.”
The darkness of the music also reflected the love of horror movies that Butler and Iommi had. Black Sabbath was the name of a famous Mario Bava horror anthology movie from 1963. In fact, Sabbath was called Earth before adopting that film’s title for their own moniker.
“We wanted to create a vibe like you get off horror films – try and create a tension within the music,” Iommi told the BBC. “We thought it would be really good to get this sort of vibe, this fear and excitement. It was a struggle. There was nothing like what we were doing. We’d taken on something because we believed in it, and loved what we were doing.”
The members of Judas Priest, whose 1974 debut Rocka Rolla was produced by Sabbath’s original producer, Rodger Bain, were equally affected by the depressed environment of Birmingham. Their music had dark, gothic underpinnings as well. In his new autobiography Confess, singer Rob Halford recalled how metalworks like G. & R. Thomas dominated the local landscape of nearby Walsall, and how his mother would hang white linens out to dry and bring them in streaked with soot.
“Passing it [the factory] on my daily walk to school was an endurance test I was not always sure I would survive,” wrote Halford in his book. “The choking fumes that swirled about factory and over the cut were incredibly toxic. If the wind was in the wrong direction, which it always seemed to be, fine pieces of grit caught in the smoke would blow hard in your eyes and stay there for days. They hurt like fuck.”
In a 1998 interview, Priest guitarist Glenn Tipton mentioned to me the steam hammers pounding out their own heavy metal rhythm in the Birmingham landscape. “It’s a hard life, and it gives you that determination as a youngster to get out of there,” Tipton, who once worked for the company British Steel, told me. “And we are determined characters.”
Although life was hard for the early pioneers of metal, the world received some great music and their careers allowed them to escape the stifling city that threatened to smother their lives. Birmingham today is not the same industrial town it was 50 years ago when Sabbath started out, and the iron industry and population have changed. Yet the impact that this region had not only on these people but on the heavy music that would spread globally is undeniable.
“We’ve toured everywhere else in the world but there’s nowhere like Birmingham,” Butler told the BBC. “It’s still the only place where I get nervous before I go on. It means the world to me. It’s where our hearts are.”
They are heavy metal to their core.
Published in partnership with Rhino.