Few bands can claim to have invented an entire genre of music. The Beatles didn’t do it. The Beach Boys and visionary writer and producer Brian Wilson didn’t do it. Frank Zappa didn’t do it. Black Sabbath, a band once filleted by rock critics like Lester Bangs and targeted by generations of parents for allegedly ruining their children’s lives, did. In the course of their long career (44 years and counting), Black Sabbath altered the sound of music, became a cornerstone for every teenager who didn’t fit in and, in the process, redefined what was possible in rock.
Sabbath wrested rock away from saccharine producers, naïve hippies, and idealists, and gave it back to the folks that inspired blues music: the lonely, the desperate, the fucked-up, and the hopeless. Whereas blues offered a respite and a vacation from the dark night of the soul, Sabbath offered a trip to its heart. Their music allows you to confront your primal fears and, in the course of listening, transcend them. It also made — and makes — you feel completely alive. That’s the riddle of Sabbath; a song like “War Pigs” can unite a stadium and create a makeshift family.
For most of the fans who loved Sabbath the T-shirt that read “Black Sabbath Ruined My Life” was the ultimate inside joke. If Sabbath did anything, it was save our lives. Let’s go on a ledge: Black Sabbath might be the most influential band of our lifetime, the band that introduced what we think of as heaviness and wrote albums that will never be matched, much less copied. Black Sabbath changed the world, opening the minds of our embryonic cells to the never-ending well that is inspiration, the spirit, and the soul. Their music sparked one of the few revolutions that worked, a revolution of like-minded kids with guitars and dreams who didn’t want to fit in or work the system; they wanted to find their way out. Those kids founded bands like Iron Maiden, Slayer, Venom, and Celtic Frost. In the world of metal, Sabbath is magnetic north; all compasses point to it, the alpha and omega.
The visionaries that started Black Sabbath — guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, and drummer Bill Ward — rose beyond their humble beginnings in post-WWII England to become a global phenomenon, the fathers of heavy metal. To see how influential Sabbath is you only need to look at recent history; the band that once played dives in Germany and England decades later held a global press conference — the kind of event typically reserved for Hollywood elites — based on the news that they’d be writing a new record. Or, just go to your local record store — if there’s one left in your town — and spend time in the heavy metal section. That section of the store is there because of Black Sabbath. You might as well call it the Sabbath section.
Despite their ubiquity and the press around brand-new comeback album 13 — which just debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, their first time ever topping the charts — the roots of Black Sabbath aren’t the roots associated with success, with boundless creativity, even with systemic change. Their work ethic and sound was forged in industrial wastelands and hopeless, dead-end neighborhoods. The young Sabs played in scarred husks of buildings left after Germans bombed England during World War II. Their parents were of the generation that fought in that world-defining conflict; as children, the Sabs grew up around the emotions and problems that would fuel their best music: hopelessness, despair, addiction, and the unflinching hand of Fate. The apparition in their eponymous song — the figure in black, pointing — could have been a foreman consigning them to a life of hard labor only broken up by a few hours at the pub at shift’s end.
Early in their lives, the members of Sabbath appeared headed in a similar dead-end direction: Iommi worked in a sheet metal factory and thought his musical career was doomed when he lost the tips of two fingers, the most famous injury in rock history. He later learned to play around the injury — and altered his sound — thanks to the creative use of glue (with an assist from the Django Reinhardt catalog). Ozzy — who advertised his vocal services in an ad that said “Ozzy Zig Needs Gig” — worked in a slaughterhouse and a car horn factory. Butler and Ward came from similar humble circumstances.
The earliest versions of Sabbath were almost derailed when Iommi got an opportunity to play with Jethro Tull. He was poised for success — and even appeared in the Rolling Stones’ Rock N’ Roll Circus — but quickly decided that his future lay elsewhere. We’re all musically richer for Iommi’s decision to go his own direction, as he recounts in his biography Iron Man:
After I came back from London I said to the rest of the band: if we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it seriously and really work at it, starting with rehearsals at nine o’clock in the morning. Sharp! We booked a place in the Newtown Community Centre in Aston, across the road from a cinema, and started a whole new regime.
Sabbath’s long career has yielded an array of musical riches: the blues drenched debut; the career-defining classic Paranoid; the progressive leanings of Sabbath Bloody Sabbath; the vocal heroics of the Dio era, and the eccentricities of Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan’s brief dalliance with the kings of metal. Like you would expect from any band with four-plus decades of history, Sabbath’s catalog is enormous and full of changes and detours, successes and also albums unworthy of the name Black Sabbath.
AC/DC — another product of the ’70s — kept their sound and approach intact when original vocalist Bon Scott died and was replaced with Brian Johnson. Sabbath changed with the vocalists and times. The one constant through every incarnation has been riff master Iommi, who loaned his wares both to classic albums and records that, while intriguing, could never compete with the classic lineup or the Dio albums.
In today’s hyperspeed musical world, four decades is the equivalent of a glacial shift. You could look at the pieces of Sabbath’s career almost like archaeological history. There’s the Ozzy era, which began when the band formed as the Polka Talk Blues Band and was called Earth before settling on the name on Black Sabbath, reportedly influenced by a Mario Bava horror matinee. The “classic” Sabbath lineup created their best-known albums, including Paranoid, Volume 4, and Master Of Reality, and lesser albums like Never Say Die! For some, this is the only lineup and the only Sabbath records that matter.
When Ozzy was fired for his addictions and teamed with Randy Rhoads to launch his solo career — the pair collaborated on the essential Blizzard Of Ozz and Diary Of A Madman records — the second wave of Sabbath began. The original lineup recruited vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Dio’s diminutive frame housed a voice that became synonymous with metal vocals. That lineup recorded Heaven And Hell, one of Sabbath’s greatest albums. The bloat of the late Ozzy albums disappeared and the edge returned. Dio’s vocal range allowed Sabbath to go into different directions, whether it was pensive songs like “Children Of The Sea,” rockers like “Country Girl,” or later, “After All” — a near-ballad given a proper outing during the Heaven And Hell tours that, sadly, were a farewell for Dio before he died of cancer in 2010.
The third wave is known as Purple Sabbath, which included the Born Again album and the tours with Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan (which produced some bootlegged concerts and Sabbath renditions of Purple classic “Smoke On The Water).” The lineup is responsible for many rock ’n’ roll stories that worked their way into Spinal Tap (see the individual write-up). The album is an oddity, but also a record that found a cult audience. The famous cover is also one of Sabbath’s perennial T-shirt sellers.
Sabbath throughout the late ’80s and early to mid ’90s was a fluid entity; Iommi partnered with vocalists Glenn Hughes and Tony Martin, and rejoined Dio for Dehumanizer. Metal was shelved as Nirvana ruled the airwaves. While Iommi-only Sabbath floundered, it set up the inevitable reunion of the original four.
A succession of reunions began in 1996. The original four reunited with shows in Birmingham in 1997 and a 1999 headlining appearance at Ozzfest that made the dreams of many longtime fans who’d never seen the original lineup together come true (this writer included). There was talk of a new record, but all we got were two subpar tracks on the Reunion double album: “Psycho Man” and “Selling My Soul.” Fans would wait more than a decade for most of the original lineup to get together and work on a new record.
The reunions continued. At this point Black Sabbath was big business. The Dio lineup reunited in 2007 — called Heaven And Hell for legal reasons — and later recorded the comeback album The Devil You Know. After Dio’s death, the original four got back together but quickly fractured when Ward left due to contract dispute. Rage Against The Machine drummer Brad Wilk replaced him on 13. The move alienated a section of fans; there’s even a Facebook page called “No Bill Ward, No Black Sabbath.”
Trying to list every band that has been influenced by Black Sabbath or every guitarist influenced by Iommi is a task meant for Sisyphus. Yes, Sabbath created a new musical genre. Yet there is nothing completely “new” in Sabbath’s sound; ultimately, it is the fullest expression of a language that began with the blues and evolved into rock music. It wasn’t about what Sabbath invented as how they took readily available tools and created an art form that would be defined by volume, speed, dexterity, and darkness.
Sabbath’s children are legion and ever-multiplying. In honor of their new album 13 — released in early June — we count down their albums from worst to best. Start the Countdown here.