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Back in the Day, Editorials

BLACK SABBATH At 50: The Moments Leading Up To The Release Of The Band's Monstrous Debut Album

Posted by on February 13, 2020 at 1:42 pm

Before Black Sabbath became Black Sabbath, Tony Iommi briefly departed the band while they were still known as Earth, cutting their Brummie beginnings short while he got with Jethro Tull (replacing outgoing guitarist Mick Abrahams). Ian Anderson had set his sights on Iommi becoming a part of Tull, and as things were a bit shaky with Sabbath, he jumped at the chance to be a part of an established band. Here's Iommi (from the 1982 book by author Chris Welch, Black Sabbath), on leaving Sabbath while they were just starting to figure things out: 

"I didn't really want to go and leave the boys, but it seemed like we had come to a bit of a dead-end, and I rated Ian Anderson really highly." 

Iommi described his time with Tull to working a "Nine to Five" job: show up at the gig, play and then leave. With Sabbath, it was different. They worked and also lived together. After two weeks with Tull, Iommi grew tired of the routine and returned to his pals, where he knew he belonged. They changed their name to Black Sabbath, only to find there was another band with satanic and occult tendencies from Leicester called Black Widow. If that wasn't bad enough, Black Widow's 1970 album Sacrifice included a song "Come to the Sabbat," and this was enough for the band to once again consider changing their name. Still, according to Sabbath's influential first manager, Jim Simpson, it was too late as the group had already solidified their image with their name, and weren't willing to lose the traction they had worked so hard to build. The name Black Sabbath immediately conjures the association of all things occult, and the myth around the band being satanically inclined would follow them everywhere. This was especially true when Sabbath first arrived in the U.S., where the group was widely perceived as a bunch of satan worshipers looking to corrupt all in their path.

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While trying to shop around Sabbath's debut, Simpson would receive fourteen rejections from major record labels hard passing on the sounds they heard. Finally, Vertigo, a label known for embracing progressive rock, signed Black Sabbath. Promotion for the album focused on perpetuating the association between the occult and the band, specifically Geezer Butler's dark dabblings in the world of Black Magic. During the making of the album, Butler became deeply engrossed with the book The Devil Rides Out by Dennis Wheatley. Here's some of the Butler-centric press released by Vertigo (also noted in Welch's book) pushing the idea Geezer was involved with some dark stuff: 

"Since changing their name to Black Sabbath, the band have awakened in themselves an interest in Black Magic, and the most deeply affected is Geezer. One night he succeeded in raising a demon in a churchyard and has been so terrified at releasing the hidden forces of the occult that he has sworn never to dabble in the black arts again." 

Other satanic stories made up by the promotional team at Vertigo included Geezer invoking a demon live on stage during a Black Sabbath show. It was also rumored Sabbath's mascot was the head of a black ram with a diamond embedded in its forehead. Then, of course, there was the album's release date of Friday the 13th, 1970. Prior to the release, the band had been playing gigs all around Europe for next to nothing, maybe $25 a show. After signing with Vertigo, Sabbath would command $50, as well as taking 50% of the door. They would play a few shows leading up to the release at the Mothers Club, including an attendance-breaking one at Henry's Blueshouse, a local hotspot where Brummie musicians from Sabbath and Judas Priest used to hang out and watch each other perform. Ironically, the attendance-record Sabbath broke at Henry's was previously set by Jethro Tull. Someone else watching Sabbath was Peter York, the former drummer for the Spencer Davis Group. York's reflections and recollections (via Welch's book) on the members of the rising Sabbath are worth revisiting in light of this 50-year milestone: 

On Tony Iommi: 

"The first thing that struck me when I heard Sabbath was Tony Iommi's guitar. I winced as Tony's original work hit me. He has a style that is refreshing and non-derivative. You can't be detached from your instrument and still lay down music of worth. Tony's involvement (in Black Sabbath) is complete and effective." 

On Ozzy: 

"Ozzy Osbourne doesn't cringe us all by doing the star routine, he just sings and reacts to his friends, and that's how it should be." 

On Bill Ward, who York had spent time playing with in a trio along with Bob Lamb of Locomotive

"Bill's improvement over the months I have known him is an object lesson for those who wonder why their playing just doesn't happen. Bill has got stuck into his instrument and worked hard, and it shows. Next time I see him, I'll break his wrists." 

On Geezer Butler: 

"He (Geezer) plays better than most bass players, supplying a solid cushion for the exploration of the others. Improvisation is nothing without a foundation, and if anyone's going to provide that, Geezer, we want it to be you." 

As we look back today on the 50th anniversary of their mind-expanding, innovative debut album Black Sabbath, most reviews of the record following its release were less than flattering. The notorious Lester Bangs famously referred to the album's sound as "just like Cream, but worse!" Another unnamed critic would echo Bangs' sentiments with a swipe at Tony Iommi calling his playing "so influenced by Eric Clapton, one wonders if said gentleman was hired for the session" adding Sabbath's music was "sadly unoriginal." Negative reviews (and there were lots of them) meant little to nothing to fans of the band, and the album would spend 66 weeks on the Billboard Album charts, peaking at #23. 

From the first doomy note on the album's title track to album's last, the vastly underrated ten-plus-minute cover of "Warning" by The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation (led by the prodigious drummer Aynsley Dunbar), Black Sabbath announced the arrival of heavy metal with 37 minutes of uncompromising sludgy riffs and groundbreaking diabolical jams. 

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Witness the birth of heavy metal by way of Black Sabbath performing "Black Sabbath" in 1970.

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