How The Sons Of The Black Country Changed The World
England’s Black Country, a region that is central to the West Midlands and the city of Birmingham, called so due to the amount of soot and ash that plumed from factory stacks during World War II. Munitions, aircraft, tank treads and engines were built and industrialized here for the sake of England’s efforts against the Third Reich war machine. You could say that the “Brummies” (a slang term of endearment used for Birmingham and surrounding areas dialect) won the war for the United Kingdom.
That said, the region took an absolute beating from the Luftwaffe and their daily combing raids trying to render England’s main weapons pipeline obsolete. Towns like Aston, Coventry and Sutton Caulfield, which help comprise the greater Birmingham area, were left for ruin after 1945, if not for the grit and determination of the working-class populace which slowly rebuilt the area, the West Midlands may have just vanished into the landscape. To this day, the heaviness that surrounds the region persists. This heaviness, this sense of dread, this gloom that helped to create one of the musical most original, challenging and brutish outfits, Black Sabbath. The foursome comprised of Messrs., Osbourne, Iommi, Butler, and Ward harnessed all that heaviness, the crunch of the English blues, a jazz-like swing, and the newly arrived amplified generation and created what was then called “heavy rock” and today is called “heavy metal”.
They are the templates for everything and everyone that has come afterward in what is the most often maligned yet enduring musical genre.
The Devil’s Note
From the Polka Tulk Blues Band to Earth and finally morphing into Black Sabbath, in no part thanks to Boris Karloff and a now infamous movie marquee sign, the foursome had to somehow take their voluminous structure and give it a platform, and with the advent of alternative lifestyles, the drug age and transformation, the Black Arts seemed to be a launching pad. Utilizing the “Devil’s Note”, the Tritone chording and the melody of Holst’s “Mars, Bringer of War” from his Planets Suite, they were able to chisel out their namesake song from their self-titled debut album. From it’s macabre front cover of an unidentified woman, a witch maybe, walking in a dying forest to its inverted cross insert (Vertigo Records idea) to the ominous title track and mood throughout the album, including the medieval tones of “Sleeping Village” to the thumping “N.I.B. Nativity in Black” and the blues-infused rocker “The Wizard”, Black Sabbath laid down a foundation that would be forever copied but never equaled or completely understood. Some may argue that Led Zeppelin, who preceded Sabbath by several months, had their own heavy movement and should share the honors of the first “metal” band. It’s a compelling debate but where Zeppelin ventured into folk and acoustics, Sabbath was not having any of it. They stuck to the thunderous rhythms of bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward, the tumbling riffs of guitarist Tony Iommi and the harrowing wails of vocalist John “Ozzy” Osbourne. The Four Horsemen had finally taken human form by way of four hard-nosed, post-War English punters looking for a way out of their blackened country.
This isn’t intended to be a history lesson; there are hundreds of books and chronological charts on the Sabbath timeline. This is about why Black Sabbath after 46 years still matters, maybe more now than ever considering that 2016 appears to be the year they finally close the books on their storied career with a final global tour and the opportunity for Iommi to deal with cancer that he’s been battling for the last (2) years. The other “Man in Black” has a well-deserved rest awaiting him.[quote float=”right”]What Black Sabbath has taught us to do is to slither back to our primordial selves and remember that we are a lumbering beast, slow and methodical with hiccups of velocity.[/quote] What Black Sabbath has taught us to do is to slither back to our primordial selves and remember that we are a lumbering beast, slow and methodical with hiccups of velocity. Listen to “Wheels of Confusion” from Volume 4, it is a sheer mass of syrup pace, not overly bruising or wicked but still forceful and more importantly, tasteful. Like a good uphill walk, the track moves thru its paces trying to attain the summit, and about a quarter thru, the peak is reached and the track gathers steam as riffs, drum fills and a pythonic bass swirls as our body weight scurries us down the mountain. In true Sabbath fashion, they find themselves back at step (1) having to face that steep hill again, a hard rock Sisyphus. But where the Sabs excel is their outros and “Wheels of Confusion” is a torch-bearer with its keyboard laden psychedelic shifts underneath a rampaging Iommi solo as he strangles the bloody life out of his Gibson SG. Why does this matter one may ask? Well, it teaches us that the grind is the journey with bits of light streaming thru from time to time, and no matter what goal is attained, come morning another steep hill awaits.
Coming back to the term “tasteful”, one could hardly even conjure up the idea of subdued when one thinks of heavy rock. But that is exactly what separates Black Sabbath (and Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple) from the multitudes of acts that tried to harness their cauldron of fire, whether it was desert rock icons Kyuss, doom stoner outfit Electric Wizard, or the tactile thump of Helmet, utilizing a groove, atmosphere, pace and an understanding of the blues/jazz, modern acts tend to overplay their hands and play with a clinical approach and not an organic one. Now they can bury it in fuzz, feedback, and volume, but it still falls short of the ghost that haunts us. The spirit is there for these and thousands of other acts, but the end result is not comparable. Obviously growing up in such a dank environment with a much different cultural divide helped Sabbath create their sound, and without those qualities it is near impossible to replicate it. But then again, you can’t replicate an original. And here again is why Black Sabbath matters, originality counts, but sticking to your own path is even more important. From the 1970 debut record thru 1975’s Sabotage record (their prime recordings), the band never swayed from their intent. They spruced up their sound from time to time with keys, synths and orchestral strings for effect but come hell or high-water Black Sabbath was based on a pure knuckle-dragging ethos, one they created, procured and owned. Unlike the aforementioned Zeppelin, who crept into the realms of folk, mythology, acoustics or Deep Purple, who was pure pyrotechnics and a Leslie organ, Black Sabbath kept it simple, groove-laden, and built for the shoulders downward.
Lyrically, after their initial foray into the Dark Arts and the occult in order to set themselves apart (hardly the Satanists, yes, they lived in what could have been called Milton’s Acres of a post-war England, but they were church reared Christians and Catholics) and merit some media attention, the band squared its sights solely on the fall, depravity, and redemption of mankind. Sabbath was never scary. Creepy maybe, but they made us uncomfortable at first. The slow grind of their rhythms, the churning guitars and the Osbourne howl could rattle your mental cages, and their subject matter courtesy of Butler, a dry-humor master of the gallows. “War Pigs”, the opening salvo off of their sophomore record and what many consider the greatest hard rock/metal record of all time, Paranoid was where the band found their zone. Though not entirely gone, the macabre verve of the first record now sat on the shelf as the band tackled the more bruising ideas of man; plight, drugs, freedom, and a good “kicking”. “War Pigs” starkly stared the war machine right in the eyes, resting the results of conflict on the power brokers who built nations, putting the poor on the front lines as toy soldiers in their destructive games. Of course the whole track was devastating not only in its musical component of a merciless riff and thundering bottom end and groove but also in its contempt for those who govern. The follow-up track, the meat grinder “Iron Man” sought revenge against the war pigs promising to “seek his vengeance” and lead man to a brighter future. Pulling back from the European Theater and Southeast Asia killing fields, “Fairies Wear Boots” told the story of a fight between long hairs and skinheads at a pub, from the foxholes to the streets of their beloved Aston, Sabbath was able to convey the dark realities of life, leaving a bitter taste of gravel in your mouth in doing so.
On their third release Master of Reality, they started to veer into a more spiritual realm and in the case of the coughing fit opener ‘Sweet Leaf”, their prelude into experimentation of mind-altering substances. They had tackled heroin addiction before with “Hand of Doom”, but that was from an observer’s platform, with “Sweet Leaf” they once again were on the front lines, though reclined in a hammock no doubt. “After Forever”, a skyrocket of a track proved their grasp of religion and was a challenge to those who dare mock God above. For all their dark leanings, “After Forever” might be the most pro-believer recording of all time. “Is God just a thought within your head or is he part of you?” Lyrics like that coming from the same band that begged to ask, “what is this that stands before me…” Butler had proved his understanding of man’s struggle with the acceptance of higher powers and their own spirituality. Did it extend beyond their own ego, were they capable of surrendering to the notion of something grander? [quote float=”left”]Again, Black Sabbath matters because it looked into the heart of man, from the savagery of war to the peacefulness of faith, they represented the far ends of the spectrum, the taking of life and the reclamation of it.[/quote] Again, Black Sabbath matters because it looked into the heart of man, from the savagery of war to the peacefulness of faith, they represented the far ends of the spectrum, the taking of life and the reclamation of it. Dualities that to this day are just as woven into our conscious as they were at the height of the transcendental age, maybe even more so because we are more self-aware yet, the threat is now more varied and while we look to something to protect our souls and give us grace, Christianity is being thrown to the wolves. “When you think about death, do you lose your breath or keep your cool?” The former will always be the majority vote and Sabbath helps illuminate the need to retrieve your faith.
“Killing Yourself To Live” off of their fifth and arguably best and most far-reaching record Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, best summed up the record’s search for hope. The album’s artwork may have alluded to man being overcome by our sins but inside, the music and words were seeking the light. The front cover demons that swarmed the man’s nightmares are replaced on the backside by angelic figures protecting his dreams. “Just take a look around you what do you see. Pain, suffering and misery. It’s not the way that the world was meant”, what’s down is up and up is down, shaking the chains of what is expected to become what is supposed. While “Looking For Today” chides the here today, gone later today ego of self-pleasure (for the Snap chat, selfie generation, a 40 year old track still blinds them) telling the listener that life is far-reaching and not just an inch in front of your face. The song didn’t offer any solutions but did put a mirror to the problem of narcissism and that with some introspection, the world was better off with you serving it instead of the reverse. The album was chock full of weighty numbers including the meaty title track that contained no less than five different main riffs; needless to say Iommi went into his mainframe to retrieve these things. The closing track “Spiral Architect” could be considered Butler/Osbourne’s tour de force. A wandering psych-tipped rocker that reaches into the deeper regions of the mind and matter, “of all the things I value most in life, I look inside myself and see that my world is good”, if this is not a concession of hope then I have been reading the wrong books and listening to the wrong people. If there is an area where Black Sabbath mattered, really mattered it is in self-empowerment. No not the ego-driven satisfaction that they drove a stake thru with Sabbath Bloody Sabbath but the value of self-realization that you have a bigger part to play in the world and in doing that, the ego can somehow be rewarded in ways a false sense of entitlement never could.
Their sixth record and the one that seemed to close the door on the prime era, Sabotage, was a step back from any singular notions and was split into a tireless look into the world and beyond, the damage that men can do to one another and the Devil of the music industry, the lawyer. If there were any ideas or ideals to pull from Sabotage is was that the band were being torn apart a bit by the cruel tactics of foul players on their management team, but they still could put their cards into the hands of the universal dealer. ‘Megalomania” and “The Writ” were poison pens with pinpoint accuracy, shining a light on their own self-confessed lack of business sense as locusts in business suits took advantage of the band for years, kept them in cars and homes and drugs, all the while taking 90 cents on every dollar. But the album didn’t fully cave to depths of loathing as it still found glory in the blue above with “Hole In The Sky” and the bold ‘Symptom of the Universe”, a crushing metal track that goes from full bombast to flamenco mid-song and carries you away on a lush ride to the ending. Osbourne’s desperation to take us away to another sphere inside a black hole was so clear that you could hear the spittle hitting the microphone thru the grooves of the record, “ a symptom of the universe, a love that never dies”, powerful and immediate. So as Sabbath were finally starting to lose a bit of steam (though they had two proper records afterwards), Sabotage proved that what mattered was regardless of the unforeseen schemes of our fellow man, there is a brighter star to help guide us away from the dreck. You just have to be willing to allow your soul to soar and not be pinned down by the greedy and the venomous.
An Unreachable Plane
Much has been said about Black Sabbath, most of it true probably but let’s cut to the chuff here; their original powerful and primal music will not be equaled, it’s on a plane that is unreachable. Your band can buy all the Gibson SG’s, Orange Amplification, Tama drums and Big Muff pedals it wants but the secret to the Sabbath sound is that there is not one, it’s singular. It can be hinted at but that is where it ends, not matter how many drop D tunings you can muster, what you can’t concoct is the time, the spirit and the determination, or for that matter, the talent to even come close. Bless all those who try, but at the end of the day, a blessing is all you’ll get.
Sadly, 2016 as reported will see the band retiring from the recording and touring world (yes, a few select or charity gigs will no doubt pop up) and this will bring so much sadness to the masses. We’ll miss the stalking menace of Iommi, the thumping fingers of Butler, the presence of Osbourne and the swing of Ward. Combined these four set the template for a whole new world from Germany to Wyoming, a glorious blast of iron, ore and metal, the sounds of WWII factories from which Black Sabbath was born. Why Sabbath mattered and why it will continue to do so long after they have left this mortal coil is not only their sound but the key ideals that were presented in this piece: persistence, originality, introspection, hope and tenacity. Who knew that four punters from the lower neighborhoods of the Black Country could speak of the virtues of the good soul while laying down so much dinosaur killing power?