Time again for another edition of S-Tier Songs, where I highlight the best of the best. For more info and the list of entrants so far, head here.
Today it’s really simple – the first song on the first album from heavy metal’s first band. In the spirit of convenience, the group chose to name their band, song and album all the same thing.
Black Sabbath – Black Sabbath
Let’s just lead with this thought – imagine hearing this for the first time in 1970 when it came out.
Seriously – I know the 1960’s were a golden age of music and had divergent offerings from all around, but think about hearing this in 1970 for the first time.
The bells, the thunderstorm, then that RIFF. No matter what else Black Sabbath had, it has always been the riffs of Tony Iommi, the absolute god of heavy metal guitar, that made this band what it was. And the riffs in this song were the noted birth of heavy metal in general and specifically doom metal.
This was just other-worldly and I can’t imagine what it would have been like to hear it without context upon release. People can always point to Cream as a boarding ramp for Sabbath and heavy metal, but Cream didn’t tread this ground. And any other precursor to heavy metal – Hendrix, Mountain, Steppenwolf, whoever else – wasn’t here.
And I didn’t hear this until 1990. I was 13 and got a home stereo system for Christmas, I snagged this and several other classic albums on cassette to break in my system. Hell, I’d heard Ozzy solo but I hadn’t really dug into Black Sabbath. Even hearing it as a dumb kid 20 years after it first hit was a mind-altering experience. I knew Sabbath were regarded as the founders and masters of the metal I was getting die-hard into, but I didn’t know it was like this.
Everything is just so ominous – the opening riffs, the barely-there presence of Bill Ward’s drums and Geezer Butler’s bass, and Ozzy Osbourne’s haunting vocals. In lockstep with the lyrics that paint this dark and dismal picture, it is just something straight from Hell.
This dirge goes on for over four minutes, then things kick into high gear. Iommi offers a higher tempo riff, Bill and Geezer join in at full volume, and Ozzy wails away through the descent into Hell. The last minute lets Iommi head out on a solo and the band slamming along in a dissonant yet perfectly coherent mess. Heavy metal was born.
It can be said that the song, and by extension the band, was blues music mutated into a volatile concoction. Black Sabbath were a blues band named Earth before changing gears, and blues music has influenced every notable Western music movement around. It would only stand to reason that there’s a pretty direct line from the blues to this godawful, Satanic wailing. And, as Sabbath would showcase on the rest of their debut album, it was a very direct line without much padding inbetween.
But, this isn’t the blues. This is not the music of the Mississippi Delta – this is the cacophony of life in industrial hell, aka Birmingham, England in the postwar 20th Century. Heavy metal was born there and would continue to flow out of there for decades beyond.
The lyrics behind Black Sabbath are dark and occult-based. The tale behind the lyrics is both stark and amusing. It has been told both by Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler in various places, by Geezer in the liner notes to Sabbath’s 1998 live album Reunion and Ozzy’s 2010 biography I Am Ozzy. The gist is that Geezer had an occult phase and decked his apartment out in all black and with spooky decorations. Ozzy, a noted thief at this point in life, lifted a book about the occult and gave it to Geezer. Geezer woke up from a nightmare and saw a figure in black pointing at him. Geezer went to throw the book away but it had vanished. He swore off the occult and relayed the tale to Ozzy, who penned the lyrics to the song. Combine it and the legendary Iommi riffs, and a whole new thing was born.
Sabbath would go on to further and refine the heavy metal template the same year with Paranoid. But the song Black Sabbath especially would also lead to a new subset of metal down the road. Bands like Saint Vitus, Candlemass, Pentagram, Witchfinder General and Trouble would take what Sabbath established and make some memorable (and depressing) metal. Crushing dread via riff and vocal would be its own subgenre.
Why is this an S-Tier song?
Purely on its own, Black Sabbath is a crushing, haunting work that communicates dread and despair in a way not heard before its time. It is also the beginning of an entire movement in music that happens to be my favorite and is a highlight in a long catalog produced by the world’s most important and influential heavy metal band.