Black Sabbath was an English rock band, formed in Birmingham in 1968, by guitarist and main songwriter Tony Iommi, bassist and main lyricist Geezer Butler, drummer Bill Ward and singer Ozzy Osbourne. Black Sabbath is often cited as pioneers of heavy metal music. The band helped define the genre with releases such as Black Sabbath(1970), Paranoid (1970) and Master of Reality (1971). The band had multiple line-up changes, with Iommi being the only constant member throughout its history.
Formed in 1968 as the Polka Tulk Blues Band, a blues-rock band, the group went through line up changes, renamed themselves as Earth, broke up and reformed. By 1969, they had named themselves Black Sabbath after the film Black Sabbath starring Boris Karloff and began incorporating occult themes with horror-inspired lyrics and tuned-down guitars. The band’s first show as Black Sabbath took place on 30 August 1969, in Workington. Signing to Philips Records in November 1969, they released their first single, “Evil Woman” in January 1970. Their debut album, Black Sabbath, was released on Friday the 13th, February 1970, on Philips’ newly formed progressive rock label, Vertigo Records. Though receiving a negative critical response, the album was a commercial success and reached number 8 in the UK Albums Chart, so the band returned to the studios to quickly record the follow-up, Paranoid, which was also released in 1970. The band’s popularity grew, and by 1973’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, critics were starting to respond favorably.
Osbourne’s regular use of alcohol and other drugs led to his dismissal from the band in 1979. He was replaced by former Rainbow vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Following two albums with Dio, Black Sabbath endured many personnel changes in the 1980s and 1990s that included vocalists Ian Gillan, Glenn Hughes, Ray Gillen and Tony Martin, as well as several drummers and bassists. In 1991, Iommi and Butler rejoined Dio and drummer Vinny Appice to record Dehumanizer (1992). The original line-up reunited with Osbourne in 1997 and released a live album Reunion. Black Sabbath’s final studio album and nineteenth overall, 13 (2013), features all of the original members but Ward, who left the band prior to the recording sessions due to a contract dispute. A year after embarking on a farewell tour, the band played their final concert in their home city of Birmingham on 4 February 2017, after which they broke up. Iommi has stated that he has not ruled out the possibility of new material or one-off shows under the Black Sabbath name.
They were ranked by MTV as the “Greatest Metal Band” of all time and placed second in VH1’s “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock” list. Rolling Stone magazine ranked them number 85 in their “100 Greatest Artists of All Time”. They have sold over 70 million records worldwide. Black Sabbath was inducted into the UK Music Hall of Fame in 2005 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006. They have also won two Grammy Awards for Best Metal Performance.
Following the break-up of their previous band Mythology in 1968, guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward sought to form a heavy blues rock band in Aston, Birmingham. They enlisted bassist Geezer Butler and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, who had played together in a band called Rare Breed, Osbourne having placed an advertisement in a local music shop: “Ozzy Zig Needs Gig – has owned PA”. The new group was initially named the Polka Tulk Blues Band, the name is taken either from a brand of talcum powder or an Indian/Pakistani clothing shop; the exact origin is confused. The Polka Tulk Blues Band included slide guitarist Jimmy Phillips, a childhood friend of Osbourne’s, and saxophonist Alan “Aker” Clarke. After shortening the name to Polka Tulk, the band again changed their name to Earth (which Osbourne hated) and continued as a four-piece without Phillips and Clarke. Iommi became concerned that Phillips and Clarke lacked the necessary dedication and were not taking the band seriously. Rather than asking them to leave, they instead decided to break up and then quietly reformed the band as a four-piece. While the band was performing under the Earth title, they recorded several demos written by Norman Haines such as “The Rebel”, “Song for Jim”, and “When I Came Down”. The demo titled “Song for Jim” was in reference to Jim Simpson. Jim Simpson was a manager for the bands Bakerloo Blues Line and Tea & Symphony. Simpson was also a trumpet player for the group Locomotive. Simpson had recently opened a new pub named Henry’s Blues House and offered to let Earth play some gigs in his club. The audience response was positive and Simpson agreed to manage Earth.
In December 1968, Iommi abruptly left Earth to join Jethro Tull. Although his stint with the band would be short-lived, Iommi made an appearance with Jethro Tull on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus TV show. Unsatisfied with the direction of Jethro Tull, Iommi returned to Earth in January 1969. “It just wasn’t right, so I left”, Iommi said. “At first I thought Tull were great, but I didn’t much go for having a leader in the band, which was Ian Anderson’s way. When I came back from Tull, I came back with a new attitude altogether. They taught me that to get on, you got to work for it.”
While playing shows in England in 1969, the band discovered they were being mistaken for another English group named Earth. They decided to change their name again. A cinema across the street from the band’s rehearsal room was showing the 1963 horror film Black Sabbath starring Boris Karloff and directed by Mario Bava. While watching people line up to see the film, Butler noted that it was “strange that people spend so much money to see scary movies”. Following that, Osbourne and Butler wrote the lyrics for a song called “Black Sabbath”, which was inspired by the work of horror and adventure-story writer Dennis Wheatley, along with a vision that Butler had of a black silhouetted figure standing at the foot of his bed. Making use of the musical tritone, also known as “the Devil’s Interval”, the song’s ominous sound and dark lyrics pushed the band in a darker direction, a stark contrast to the popular music of the late 1960s, which was dominated by flower power, folk music, and hippie culture. Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford has called the track “probably the evilest song ever written”. Inspired by the new sound, the band changed their name to Black Sabbath in August 1969 and made the decision to focus on writing similar material, in an attempt to create the musical equivalent of horror films.
Black Sabbath was a heavy metal band, whose music has also been described as psychedelic rock, and acid rock. The band has also been cited as a key influence on genres including stoner rock, grunge, doom metal, and sludge metal.
Although Black Sabbath went through many line-ups and stylistic changes, their core sound focuses on ominous lyrics and doomy music, often making use of the musical tritone, also called the “devil’s interval”. While their Ozzy-era albums such as Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973) had slight compositional similarities to the progressive rock genre that was growing in popularity at the time, standing in stark contrast to popular music of the early 1970s Black Sabbath’s dark sound was dismissed by rock critics of the era. Much like many of their early heavy metal contemporaries, the band received virtually no airplay on rock radio.
As the band’s primary songwriter, Tony Iommi wrote the majority of Black Sabbath’s music, while Osbourne would write vocal melodies, and bassist Geezer Butler would write lyrics. The process was sometimes frustrating for Iommi, who often felt pressured to come up with new material: “If I didn’t come up with anything, nobody would do anything.” On Iommi’s influence, Osbourne later said:
Black Sabbath never used to write a structured song. There’d be a long intro that would go into a jazz piece, then go all folky… and it worked. Tony Iommi—and I have said this a zillion times—should be up there with the greats. He can pick up a guitar, play a riff, and you say, ‘He’s gotta be out now, he can’t top that.’ Then you come back, and I bet you a billion dollars, he’d come up with a riff that’d knock your fucking socks off.
Beginning with their third album, Master of Reality (1971), Black Sabbath began to feature tuned-down guitars. In 1965, before forming Black Sabbath, guitarist Tony Iommi suffered an accident while working in a sheet metal factory, losing the tips of two fingers on his right hand. Iommi almost gave up music but was urged by the factory manager to listen to Django Reinhardt, a jazz guitarist who lost the use of two fingers in a fire. Inspired by Reinhardt, Iommi created two thimbles made of plastic and leather to cap off his missing fingertips. The guitarist began using lighter strings, and detuning his guitar, to better grip the strings with his prosthesis. Early in the band’s history, Iommi experimented with different dropped tunings, including C♯ tuning, or 3 semitones down, before settling on E♭/D♯ tuning, or a half-step down from standard tuning.
Black Sabbath has sold over 70 million records worldwide, including an RIAA-certified 15 million in the U.S. They are one of the most influential heavy metal bands of all time. The band helped to create the genre with ground-breaking releases such as Paranoid (1970), an album that Rolling Stone magazine said “changed music forever”, and called the band “the Beatles of heavy metal”. Time Magazine called Paranoid“the birthplace of heavy metal”, placing it in their Top 100 Albums of All Time. Rolling Stone magazine ranked Black Sabbath number 85 on their list of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time. MTV placed Black Sabbath at number one on their Top Ten Heavy Metal Bands and VH1 placed them at number two on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock. VH1 ranked Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” the number one song on their 40 Greatest Metal Songs countdown. AllMusic’s William Ruhlmann said:
Black Sabbath has been so influential in the development of heavy metal rock music as to be a defining force in the style. The group took the blues-rock sound of late ’60s acts like Cream, Blue Cheer, and Vanilla Fudge to its logical conclusion, slowing the tempo, accentuating the bass, and emphasising screaming guitar solos and howled vocals full of lyrics expressing mental anguish and macabre fantasies. If their predecessors clearly came out of an electrified blues tradition, Black Sabbath took that tradition in a new direction, and in so doing helped give birth to a musical style that continued to attract millions of fans decades later.
According to Rolling Stone‘s Holly George-Warren, “Black Sabbath was the heavy metal king of the 70s.” Although initially “despised by rock critics and ignored by radio programmers”, the group sold more than 8 million albums by the end of that decade.
Influence and innovation
Black Sabbath have influenced many acts including Iron Maiden, Slayer, Metallica, Nirvana, Korn, Mayhem, Venom, Judas Priest, Guns N’ Roses, Soundgarden, Body Count, Alice in Chains, Anthrax, Disturbed, Death, Opeth, Pantera, Megadeth, the Smashing Pumpkins, Slipknot, Foo Fighters, Fear Factory, Candlemass, Godsmack, and Van Halen. Two gold selling tribute albums have been released, Nativity in Black Volume 1 & 2, including covers by Sepultura, White Zombie, Type O Negative, Faith No More, Machine Head, Primus, System of a Down, and Monster Magnet.
Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, who, along with bandmate James Hetfield inducted Black Sabbath into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, said “Black Sabbath is and always will be synonymous with heavy metal”, while Hetfield said “Sabbath got me started on all that evil-sounding shit, and it’s stuck with me. Tony Iommi is the king of the heavy riff.” former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash said of the Paranoid album: “There’s just something about that whole record that, when you’re a kid and you’re turned onto it, it’s like a whole different world. It just opens up your mind to another dimension…Paranoid is the whole Sabbath experience; very indicative of what Sabbath meant at the time. Tony’s playing style—doesn’t matter whether it’s off Paranoid or if it’s off Heaven and Hell—it’s very distinctive.” Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian said “I always get the question in every interview I do, ‘What are your top five metal albums?’ I make it easy for myself and always say the first five Sabbath albums.”
Lamb of God’s Chris Adler said: “If anybody who plays heavy metal says that they weren’t influenced by Black Sabbath’s music, then I think that they’re lying to you. I think all heavy metal music was, in some way, influenced by what Black Sabbath did.” Judas Priest vocalist Rob Halford commented: “They were and still are a groundbreaking band..you can put on the first Black Sabbath album and it still sounds as fresh today as it did 30-odd years ago. And that’s because great music has a timeless ability: To me, Sabbath are in the same league as the Beatles or Mozart. They’re on the leading edge of something extraordinary.” On Black Sabbath’s standing, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello states: “The heaviest, scariest, coolest riffs and the apocalyptic Ozzy wail are without peer. You can hear the despair and menace of the working-class Birmingham streets they came from in every kick-ass, evil groove. Their arrival ground hippy, flower-power psychedelia to a pulp and set the standard for all heavy bands to come.” Phil Anselmo of Pantera and Down stated that “Only a fool would leave out what Black Sabbath brought to the heavy metal genre”.
According to Tracii Guns of L.A. Guns and former member of Guns N’ Roses, the main riff of “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses, from Appetite for Destruction (1987), was influenced by the song “Zero the Hero” from the Born Again album. King Diamond guitarist Andy LaRocque affirmed that the clean guitar part of “Sleepless Nights” from Conspiracy (1989) is inspired by Tony Iommi’s playing on Never Say Die!.
In addition to being pioneers of heavy metal, they also have been credited for laying the foundations for heavy metal subgenres stoner rock, sludge metal, thrash metal, black metal and doom metal as well as for alternative rock subgenre grunge. According to the critic Bob Gulla, the band’s sound “shows up in virtually all of grunge’s most popular bands, including Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains”.
Tony Iommi has been credited as the pioneer of lighter gauge guitar strings. The tips of his fingers were severed in a steel factory, and while using thimbles (artificial fingertips) he found that standard guitar strings were too difficult to bend and play. He found that there was only one size of strings available, so after years with Sabbath he had strings custom made.
Culturally, Black Sabbath have exerted a huge influence in both television and literature and have in many cases become synonymous with heavy metal. In the film Almost Famous, Lester Bangs gives the protagonist an assignment to cover the band (plot point one) with the immortal line: ‘Give me 500 words on Black Sabbath’. Contemporary music and arts publication Trebuchet Magazine has put this to practice by asking all new writers to write a short piece (500 words) on Black Sabbath as a means of proving their creativity and voice on a well documented subject.
- Tony Iommi – guitars (1968–2006, 2011–2017)
- Geezer Butler – bass (1968–1979, 1980–1985, 1987, 1990–1994, 1997–2006, 2011–2017)
- Ozzy Osbourne – vocals (1968–1977, 1978–1979, 1985, 1997–2006, 2011–2017)
- Adam Wakeman – keyboards, additional guitars (2004–2006, 2012–2017)
- Tommy Clufetos – drums (2012–2017)