50 years of Heavy Metal
Heavy Metal was born on Friday, February 13, 1970. On that date, the debut of the seminal band of a whole genre, Black Sabbath, was released. As a result of chance, the fate and the terrible conditions of the English working class of that time, the passage of time has just increased the legend of the Birmingham band.
The luckiest accident in the world
Rarely in the history of popular music can the origin of a genre be traced in such a clear way as in the case of Heavy Metal. Judas Priest gave it the aesthetics, pose, speed and power that would later characterize it, but it was Black Sabbath, with its eponymous debut, who laid its foundation both in sound and in theme. Before them, no one spoke in songs of death, war, pollution, nuclear threat, corrupt governments or the devil. Or if they did, it certainly wasn’t with the bluntness of the Birmingham people. On Friday, February 13, 1970, heavy metal was founded. And that is a truth as great and irrefutable as the legacy of that album.
There is a brutal anecdote, pure fruit of chance, which played a fundamental role in the birth of metal. Tony Iommi was a blues guitarist, who had already joined three Birmingham colleagues named Geezer Butler (bassist), Bill Ward (drums) and Ozzy Osbourne (vocalist). Determined to leave his job in a metal plates factory (where else?), he attended to work one last day, at the behest of his mother. The bad luck wanted his companion to be missing on the production line that day, which ended with Tony in charge of a task he had no idea about, and, consequently, his right hand getting crushed by a hydraulic press. The result: the loss of the last phalanx of the ring and heart fingers.
The doctors, who should be trialed for crimes against humanity, told poor Iommi that he would never play guitar again. However, a friend told him the story of Django Reinhardt, who had lost the mobility of several fingers in a fire, developed a technique for playing without missing them. Inspired by the story, Iommi switched his guitar strings to banjo strings (thinner), and lowered his tuning to C# in order to loosen his tension. The rest is History (of Heavy Metal, specifically).
“What is this that stands before me?”
Rain, bells, a riff out of darkness (and inspired by the Mars movement, from Gustav Holst’s “The Planets”). It’s hard to imagine the first reaction of people who, in the 70’s, heard for the first time the moaning voice of Ozzy Osbourne, the heavy rhythmic base like never before, and Tony Iommi’s degenerate blues riff opening up the track “Black Sabbath” from the homonymous album.
Because Black Sabbath came from the blues, just like his admired Led Zeppelin did. However, Iommi, Butler, Ward and Osbourne’s performance compared to previous blues-rock bands was groundbreaking and quite risky for this time. Using changes in guitar volume, they focused their sound on pounding, slow riffs backed by a much more aggressive rhythmic base than anything previously heard. The result was as devastating as it was misunderstood by critics. The legendary Lester Bangs, for example, said that “the whole album is a shuck […] just like Cream! But worse.”
Fortunately and once again, criticism and mass success went in opposite directions. Whether it was because of Vertigo’s fantastic promotional work, or its pioneering sound, or the gloomy and mysterious halo of everything surrounding the band, Black Sabbath had an almost immediate success, reaching the 8th spot in the British charts and shortly thereafter selling a million copies in the US market through Warner.
Beyond the wall of sound
The initial and doubly homonymous track “Black Sabbath” is made of all the ingredients that make their trademark sound and overall imagery. In the second track “The Wizard”, it draws on Tolkienian inspiration to mark point by point the steps with which Black Sabbath moved away from the blues suggested by Ozzy’s harmonica. There appears, for example, Butler’s bass following the riffs of Iommi, thickening its sound, or the twisted psychedelic guitar solos of the latter. In another popular fantasy literature reference, Black Sabbath recycled the title and leitmotiv from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft for the track “Behind the Wall of Sleep”.
It is surprising that the only direct reference to Satan in this first album by a band with such an evil aura as Black Sabbath is an innocent and heartfelt love letter from Lucifer himself. How the fantastic “N.I.B.” was taken in a plea for the arrival of the Antichrist from its supposed acronym (Nativity In Black) is a mystery. One as rare as positive to the black account of Birmingham’s quartet. And which, in passing, concealed (according to them) the involuntary plagiarism of Cream‘s “Sunshine of Your Love”.
Sui generis covers and more fuzz
If side A is a succession of primeval hymns that would pass into the history of Heavy Metal, side B has a lower profile. To begin with, of the three themes that originate from it, two are covers. The first, Crow’s “Evil Woman”, was a commercial maneuver by the band’s manager to sell the product to the label. Apparently they disagreed so strongly with the decision that they were glad when it failed as a promotional single.
Connecting both covers, “Sleeping Village” is a psychedelic and sweet track that increases the feeling that the second half of the album is far less planned than the first one. Not a surprising thing, by the way, when one remembers that the band recorded all the debut live in a single day in the studio.
The second cover and last song of the album was by a band admired by Black Sabbath; specifically, the project led by Aynsley Dunbar. “The Warning” however respects the original, less than Ozzy does the narcotics police. From the verse that gives the title to the song, mistakenly sung by Ozzy (“I was born without you, baby” instead of “I was warned about you, baby”) to its length (about three to ten minutes, via a psychotropic, dense and fuzz-laden jam), Black Sabbath take on Dunbar’s theme and sit on how to close a record that loud and big.
Happy Birthday Black Sabbath 🎉
In 1968 in the working-class district of Aston, Birmingham, four kids who barely reached their 20s formed a blues band. The first song they composed, the wonderful “Wicked World” (initially forgotten on their first album) was already in itself a whole paradigm shift with respect to the rock from which they came, as well as a grim cry of rebelliousness and nonconformism.
Two years later, with this fundamental debut album, they suddenly widened the musical range of human civilization. With this record, they opened a path never trod before them, which runs along the most extreme, noisy, dark and challenging edge of pop music. A path that had yet to be intricate, forked, lost and reappeared many times in the next fifty years.
But remember, without that hydraulic press accident, we might never have been able to get a glimpse of it.