Anthropologist and part-time rock critic George Starostin has suggested that for some people “heavy metal” is a label that they apply to heavy music that they don’t like. Definitions of the styles vary, but the close connection and yet occasional antagonism between hard rock and metal has lead to a game of tug of war whereby fans on either side of the fence each attempt to drag bands on the borderline like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple into their respective camps.
One band around which this conflict more rarely takes place is Black Sabbath. Around them, the argument is over, if it ever happened in the first place. Their classic early work is near-universally regarded in the metal world as the fundamental foundation of that style, an affinity and love for which is as integral to success as power chords and leather trousers. Whether by design or by accident, the Sabbath juggernaut has accumulated on its travels a dark and gloomy reputation that is a match for any even in metal. To many, Sabbath’s music conveys a pendulous atmosphere of pure dread, an effect not unexpected of a band that explicitly set out to replicate the aesthetic of horror films in their live performances and on vinyl. In addition to the sheer heavy nature of their sound, the classic original era of the band owes its status as heavy metal titans primarily to the uncompromisingly dark and doom-laden atmosphere created by their music, lyrics, themes and aesthetic.
However, a significant aspect of this reputation is that it has, to a large extent, been applied retrospectively. This approach has been useful to solidify the band’s (deserved) metal stardom, but it has also involved broad strokes of characterization which have sometimes glossed over important parts of the band’s music – that is, some of the band’s themes and lyrical concerns which don’t always mesh with Sabbath’s horror-metal edifice. The truth – sometimes bypassed – is that Sabbath, during Ozzy’s original tenure, had at least as much in common with the 1960s counter-culture that preceded them as they did with the waves of metal bands that followed them in the 1980s and beyond.
Hopefully by now the once generally held belief that Sabbath was in some way a “Satanist” band has been pretty conclusively crushed. Part of the defeat of this notion is down to people having looked more closely at the band’s lyrics and discovered not only an absence of the genuinely Satan-worshipping lines they were fretting about, but also a peppering of often rather overt Christian lyrics. One track that particularly exemplifies this process is “N.I.B” from the self-titled debut album, long held to be titled as an acronym of “Nativity in Black” or “Name in Blood” but subsequently revealed to be no more Satanic than a reference to Bill Ward’s distinctive beard at the time, which allegedly looked like a pen’s nib. While they are admittedly ambiguous, the song’s lyrics are now thought to refer not so much to the Devil trying to lure the listener to the dark side through Ozzy’s voice but rather about the Devil himself being reformed by the process of falling in love – hardly a Satanist narrative. Further symbolizing Sabbath’s occasional Christian tendencies, “After Forever” from 1971’s Master of Reality can stake a claim as being among the first Christian metal tracks. The song almost taunts those who don’t believe in God, reminding them “God is the only way to love”. A little later on the same album, “Lords of This World” is – like “N.I.B.” - sung from the perspective of Satan, who cruelly pokes fun at those who follow him, who “choose evil ways instead of love”.
References to religious themes gradually faded from the lyrics of the band’s original line-up, and when they did appear they were less favourable towards Christianity (although still not Satanic in nature), as on Vol. 4‘s “Supernaut” (1972), which proclaims “got no religion, don’t need no friends”. Sabbath’s interest in spreading messages through their music about the value of peace and love proved more of a long-standing fixture, however. This arguably began right from 1970’s Black Sabbath, which contained two admittedly dark and cynical love song covers (“Evil Woman” and “Warning”, originally by Crow and Retaliation respectively) and more significantly, a crucial early Sabbath original, “The Wizard”. While there is clearly some truth in the assertion that the song’s Gandalf-esque central figure is a stand-in for the band’s drug dealer, it’s hard to imagine that the lyrics don’t also contain more literal truth, as fantastical as they are. Whether a drug dealer or a magical figure, the wizard liberally spreads peace and happiness around the land, in an early example of Sabbath’s enduring fascination with marrying often light and hopeful themes with crushingly loud and aggressive music.
Master of Reality built upon Sabbath’s interest in love themes with the moodily atmospheric “Solitude”, something of an instrumental showcase for Tony Iommi’s less rocking skills but also a pure Sabbath original love song, a man’s expression of grief at a lost love. This was followed on Vol. 4 by “Changes”, even more nakedly romantic but similarly despairing. Even “Into the Void”, the album’s apocalyptic closer, concludes by applauding the refugees in a spacecraft fleeing a dying Earth for their efforts to build a utopian haven on another world. Later, Bill Ward-sung “It’s Alright” formed the purest distillation of positive thinking on 1976’s Technical Ecstasy, an album which also contained “She’s Gone”, another return to the lovelorn territory staked out by “Solitude” and “Changes” on earlier records, but imbued with a more yearning orchestral feel. The final Ozzy album, 1978’s Never Say Die!, continued the process by which more romantic, hopeful and ambitious themes predominated over the thunderous gloom of earlier albums. Most strikingly, it contained “Air Dance”, an alternately rocking and stately song about ageing made all the more fascinating by Don Airey’s wonderfully complex piano flourishes. Never Say Die!‘s title track was a raucous and motivational ode to refusing to give up, reflective of Sabbath’s desperation not to implode under the strain that drugs and alcohol had imposed on its members over the years and which were reaching a climax which would be demonstrated best by Ozzy’s firing from the band in 1979.
Whether it was Ozzy’s departure or his replacement by Ronnie James Dio that did it, the shift between the two men as Black Sabbath’s vocalist proved to be a critical marking point in the band’s history. With the traditionally well-regarded Heaven and Hell in 1980, the band stopped pioneering heavy metal and began instead the more banal task of participating in it. This not only brought the musical genre experimentation of the final Ozzy albums to an end, but also heralded a new (albeit brief) era of Dio-dominated lyrics, which proved disastrous as far as disseminating interesting messages was concerned. It is probably Dio’s era with the band that helped cultivate the retrospective analysis of Sabbath as a Satanist band. Whereas Ozzy had always gestured with peace signs on stage, Dio famously pioneered the widespread usage of the “devil horns”, now synonymous with heavy metal. While under Ozzy’s tenure Geezer Butler’s lyrics had been as frequently concerned with love and peace as they were with grim themes, Dio’s wordsmithing contributed to the production of heavy metal’s bleakest and most fantastical clichés.
By 1983 Sabbath was again in turmoil, unable to maintain a steady line-up and relying more heavily on musical and aesthetic shock tactics which resulted in widely abhorred records like Born Again, featuring former Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan on vocals and as much a stain on his reputation as on Sabbath’s. The band had become institutionalized; absorbed and constrained by the heavy metal idiom they had played a key – if sometimes accidental – role in creating. Black Sabbath’s process of accumulating instability and thematic and aesthetic self-imprisonment is not a unique case, but it is a particularly fascinating one. Across Ozzy’s time as vocalist – the band’s golden era in most respects – the band were deservedly able to gradually accumulate critical recognition, even praise, and then had that recognition undeservedly eroded largely because they began advancing their musical ideas to keep up with their lyrical ideas. Those ideas had always been influenced by the 1960s counter-culture the band’s members had lived through and been associated with, as well as its accompanying ideas about spirituality, love as a force for change, and peace as an objective. When Dio came into the band, he spearheaded a reaction against the musical and lyrical progress Sabbath had made with songs like “Air Dance” and synthesizer-imbued “Johnny Blade”. Sabbath regressed, constructed what was left of their sound around their own lowest common denominator. This contributed to the band’s irregularity of line-up and gradual descent into critical oblivion through the 1980s and into the 1990s.
Black Sabbath’s achievements between its formation in 1968 and Ozzy’s firing in 1979 were extraordinary. While their early efforts at pioneering metal are rightly recognised, their intriguing lyrical themes are often overlooked in cases where they do not tally with the later blacker-than-black heavy metal rewrite. Similarly, the band’s later efforts like Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die! are generally ignored by many, despite the fact that it was on these admittedly patchy albums that Sabbath approached what should surely be every band’s objective – combining their musical and intellectual ideas in a mutually-reinforcing way, all the while refusing to be swayed into duplicating the then-dominant sounds of the musical landscape, sticking to their own aesthetic.
Sometimes it is convenient to simplify our impression of a band’s story, its journey. Doing that in Black Sabbath’s case definitely helps the band fit into the out-and-out metal classification assigned to it by generations of metal performers and fans as well as most critics. But to conduct this simplification is also a disservice to Black Sabbath, and represents a willingness to overlook their more challenging, ambitious and yes – flawed work, as well as their efforts to disseminate ideas other than the grim metal orthodoxy ascribed to them retrospectively. It simply wasn’t all doom and gloom at the time – why should it be now? As far as a choice of how to look back goes, I’d take a flawed but varied Sabbath over a Sabbath of imagined perfect dark any day.