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How Black Sabbath Made Heavy Metal Swing

Original drummer Bill Ward, superfan Henry Rollins, and others delve into the jazziness behind the band’s darkness

Black Sabbath performing live on stage at Paradiso in Amsterdam, Holland on December 04 1971. L-R Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne

Black Sabbath drummer Bill Ward, Sabbath superfan Henry Rollins, and others discuss the jazz undercurrents of the world's first metal band.

Photo by Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns/Getty Images

Jean-Paul Gaster still remembers the moment he realized the first heavy-metal band were playing jazz.

Growing up near Washington, D.C., the drummer — who for nearly 30 years has brought a loose-limbed swagger to the rhythms of esteemed hard-rock band Clutch — would sit with his father and watch live concerts on public television. Performances by big-band jazz greats Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa made a particularly strong impression on him.

A few years later, heavier sounds came onto his radar via bands like Black Sabbath and ZZ Top. At first, Gaster made no connection between these acts and the swing music he’d heard earlier on. But one day, as he spun Sabbath’s 1970 debut and zeroed in on drummer Bill Ward, something clicked.

“I remember quite vividly listening to Black Sabbath, and it was the self-titled record,” Gaster recalls. “I think in particular it was the first song on Side Two, ‘Wicked World.’ Bill Ward opens up that tune by playing jazz time on the hi-hat. He’s playing that figure that you hear so many of those big-band guys play: ‘spang-a-lang, spang-a-lang.’ And that drives the band. There’s no backbeat; there’s no bass drum there in particular. It’s really just the sound of those hi-hats that’s pushing the band along.

“I remember hearing Bill Ward do that, and it blew me away,” he continues. “Because here was this guy that was playing in this punishingly heavy band — as far as I was concerned, it was the heaviest music ever recorded at the time. But then to hear Bill Ward play these sort of jazz things that I’d heard Gene Krupa or Buddy Rich do on these public-television performances, it knocked me out. I hadn’t made that connection that a drummer like Bill Ward came up in a generation in which those were the drummers that he listened to.”

Bring up jazz with the founding father of heavy-metal percussion, and you’ll find that he’s not shy about revealing his sources. In a conversation I had with Bill Ward last year, the drummer described how when he was growing up in Birmingham, England, in the early Fifties, the sounds of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, and other big-band heavyweights — whose albums had made their way to the U.K. via American G.I.s during World War II — filled his family’s home. Ward’s interest in the drums took hold early, and by age 10 or so, he had worked up his own version of Gene Krupa’s buoyant floor-tom feature from Goodman’s 1937 classic “Sing, Sing, Sing.” 

“That was one of the easier ones for me to try and play because of Gene’s wide-open floor toms that were just so nice,” Ward recalled of his early effort. “It certainly wasn’t easy to emulate, but I had my version of what I thought was ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ and that was the easiest grappling hook that I could hold on to.”

Ward never met Krupa, but he makes a point of referring to the drummer his “mentor,” and still considers him a foundational influence.

“I think everything that I’ve ever played has somehow trickled down from Gene Krupa,” Ward said.

In general, connecting the dots between jazz and metal may seem like a stretch. Crank up, say, the mighty gallop of Iron Maiden or Metallica’s precision pummel and it might be hard to locate any lingering traces of swing. But rewind to 1970, the genre’s consensus Year One, and as a young Jean Paul-Gaster discovered that day in front of the stereo, that link is unmistakable. 

Ward’s “spang-a-lang” “Wicked World” hi-hat intro, a direct echo of the sort of crisp, efficient figure that big-band legend Jo Jones often used to propel the Count Basie Orchestra in the late 1930s, is just one example. Sabbath’s first two LPs — Black Sabbath and Paranoid, released just seven months apart — are crammed with rhythms that feel, in the words of Sabbath superfan Henry Rollins “elastic and intuitive,” and in many cases allude directly to jazz. Heavy metal’s original DNA, in other words, came encoded with swing. 

Listen to the way Ward’s snare-drum and ride-cymbal pattern shuffles along underneath Geezer Butler’s free-roaming bass throb during “Wasp,” the brief intro to Black Sabbath’s “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” or how Butler and guitarist Tony Iommi take flight over a delicate, gliding groove — the polar opposite of a thudding rock backbeat — on the uptempo jam near the beginning of the Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation cover “Warning.” Moving on to Paranoid, Ward’s sly hi-hat hiccups on “War Pigs” and “Hand of Doom” directly echo Krupa’s own cymbal chokes; the stygian stomp of “Electric Funeral” gives way to a nimble upbeat bridge with a distinctly jazzy feel; and the verses of “Fairies Wear Boots” sway with a subtle shimmy that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Sixties Blue Note album.

“So much of it is rooted in blues and improvisation,” Rick Rubin, who produced Sabbath’s final LP 13, told Rolling Stone in 2016 of the band’s core sound. “The people who have come in their wake don’t have the skill set that they have. It’s much more like jazz the way Black Sabbath play.”

“I think everything that I’ve ever played has somehow trickled down from Gene Krupa.” —Bill Ward

When it came to Black Sabbath’s early material, Bill Ward had plenty of opportunities to apply what he’d learned from his big-band heroes like Krupa. Sabbath’s original approach was, as Tony Iommi tells Rolling Stone, “the same old 12-bar blues really,” built on the template laid out by bands like John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Cream, and Ten Years After. But Geezer Butler took early cues from the jazz-informed style of Cream’s Jack Bruce, leading him toward his own unfettered, interactive bass approach, and Iommi also brought his own jazz interests to the table.

The earliest known Sabbath bootleg, recorded in Dumfries, Scotland, in November 1969, finds Iommi and Ward trading phrases like bebop musicians on an extended version of “Warning” and also includes a jaunty swing instrumental called “Song for Jim” — written during the band’s formative days performing as Earth and actually featuring Tony Iommi on flute — that’s unrecognizable as any kind of rock, let alone heavy metal. According to the song’s namesake, Jim Simpson — a Louis Armstrong–loving trumpeter who was Sabbath’s original manager — the latter piece grew directly out of Iommi’s affinity for swing-era guitar giant Charlie Christian.

“They even recorded a Charlie Christian–like song, an instrumental — it was called “Song for Jim,” Simpson said in an outtake from 1991 documentary The Black Sabbath Story Volume 1. “‘Cause Charlie Christian was — believe it or not, I know it’s true — a great source of inspiration for Tony Iommi. He used to love Charlie’s playing.” (Iommi himself named Christian as an influence, along with fellow jazz guitar heavyweights Joe Pass and Tal Farlow, during a 2011 interview with Jazz Times.)

Speaking to RS in January, Simpson also noted that Sabbath’s frontman, Ozzy Osbourne, also drew inspiration from Thirties jazz.

“He certainly liked a guy called Jimmy Rushing, who sang with Count Basie’s Orchestra, 1930s, 1940s,” Simpson says of Osbourne. “And in fact, the first thing that Ozzy ever recorded, or that Black Sabbath ever recorded, was called ‘Evenin’,’ which was a Jimmy Rushing song, recorded with Basie.”

That “Evenin'” recording doesn’t survive, but the members’ shared interest in various eras of jazz helps explain why “Wicked World” — the first original song Sabbath ever wrote, first released as the B side to their cover of “Evil Woman,” by Minneapolis band Crow — featured unmistakable elements of swing.

Osbourne himself highlighted this aspect of Sabbath in his 2009 autobiography, I Am Ozzy. “[I]n spite of our new direction we were still quite a straightforward 12-bar blues band. If you listened closely, you could also hear a lot of jazz influences in our sound — like Bill’s swing-style intro to one of our other early numbers, ‘Wicked World,'” he wrote. “It’s just that we played at 800 times the volume of a jazz band.”

Sabbath’s second original, the quintessentially sinister “Black Sabbath,” seems to move away from the overt jazziness of its predecessor, toward a dark, forbidding trudge. But here too, you find traces of the genre: in the main riff’s use of the tritone, an interval common in jazz and blues that employs the so-called blue note; and also in Ward’s playing. Listen to the way the drummer keeps a loose, swaying pulse on his ride cymbal during the main riff, making the chasm-like pauses between the beats feel that much more vast. 

“I’m playing jazz throughout the song ‘Black Sabbath,'” Ward said last year, looking back on the iconic track, and singing his soft, swinging ride-cymbal pattern on the song to demonstrate. “That’s what it is there. I mean, I’m moving some other things around, but that is forever in there.”

Focus on Ward throughout the early Sabbath catalog and you’ll often hear him loping behind the beat, much as Elvin Jones did with John Coltrane in the early-to-mid-Sixties. Ward discovered that when paired with Iommi’s riffs, this approach had an alchemical effect, actually seeming to enhance the feeling of dread that pervaded the band’s repertoire.

“When you tend to pull back, it tends to give [the music] more volume, at least it did for me; it made it more draggy or more solemn,” Ward said. “I loved to do things that would pull back a little bit or play behind. [Tony and Geezer] could detune [their guitars] … that would be a way of them creating more volume and more dark, and with drums, to create that, you can just pull back a little bit — almost like trying to have an idea of what you think is morbid and then play morbidity, and create morbidity with your drums.”

For Henry Rollins, one of the rock world’s most vocal Sabbath connoisseurs, this jazz-derived “draggy-ness” of Sabbath’s music, their own morbid sense of swing, isn’t some kind of vestigial feature of the band; it’s the precise quality that makes them so compelling.

Rollins first became a Sabbath devotee in high school, but it was after he joined Black Flag that his appreciation for the heavy-metal architects grew into an obsession. Rollins says that around 1984, as the punk-rock trailblazers exited their early hardcore phase and began exploring sludgier tempos and more warped grooves, the band began consulting the Sabbath catalog almost as a user’s manual for how to execute and deploy these sorts of laid-back rhythms most effectively.

“The rhythm section of Sabbath really informed Black Flag, especially in that My War, Slip It In period,” Rollins recalls. “It was like, ‘Let’s see where the power really comes from.’ And that’s when we really started to try and slow everything down to see, ‘Can we pull the sheet off this thing and see how the puzzle fits together and get some of that feel for ourselves?’ We don’t want to emulate; we don’t want to be like them; we don’t want to rip off their riffs. We’re just trying to understand that power crystal and distill from it so we can do our thing with it.”

Drummer Bill Ward performing on stage at Alexandra Palace Festival, 1973.

Bill Ward said he did his best to “create morbidity” with his drumming in Black Sabbath.
Photo by Colin Fuller/Redferns/Getty Images

Specifically, Rollins says, Sabbath were “our guide as to that kind of behind-the-beat wallop, like a whip, where the whip-holder flicks the wrist but the reaction is almost a beat later, like wha-bam!

“It’s my opinion that Sabbath, the main propellant in that music, it’s not the guitars, which are mighty on their own; it’s what Geezer Butler and Bill Ward were doing,” he continues. “If you were to put a click track on Bill Ward, he might be in and out of time, but the feel is where it’s at, and they had this amazing feel. [I’d] never heard musicians in hard rock music, heavy-metal music play anything like those two together. 

“It’s a guitar band, for sure,” he adds. “But for me, it’s always about that swinging rhythm section.” 

Rollins’ observation that Ward can move “in and out of” conventional metronomic time is astute, because for Ward, straightforward rock timekeeping was never his goal. He was always looking for a more fluid, responsive, and yes, inherently jazz-like approach to complement Iommi’s monolithic riffs. He calls his style “orchestrational.”

“I’ve never regarded myself as a drummer. In fact, I have a lot of problems keeping time and being a drummer; I’m not sure what that’s supposed to look like,” he said. “However, playing orchestrationally, I paint in pictures, so I follow anything. If Ozzy says a couple of words or a melody, I’ll play to his melody. That’s where my heart is, inside that kind of structure. And I do that with Geezer; if Geezer just plays one bass note, I can structure all around him.”

He’s adamant that no other approach would have worked. 

“You can’t play a backbeat in Black Sabbath,” he said. “You can if you want to; it’s going to ruin the song.” 

“I’m playing jazz throughout the song ‘Black Sabbath.'” —Bill Ward

Sabbath’s innate swing may have helped them attract listeners from outside the metal sphere. Consider Hedvig Mollestad, a Norwegian guitarist whose powerhouse trio specializes in a kind of heavy-metal fusion, bringing together spacious, serene improv and snarling, riff-driven hard rock with clear echoes of Sabbath — a band she covered with other musicians in 2014. She grew up immersed in jazz and only came to Sabbath and other heavy bands in her twenties. 

“I listened to a lot of rock music and I just thought it was boring until I listened to Black Sabbath, and that was a door-opener for me,” she says. “I think it was more the nerve and the intensity and the freedom that I felt that they had.”

Reflecting on Sabbath now, Mollestad does detect a certain jazziness in their work — she notes, for example, that Ward’s drum part on the verse of one her favorite Sabbath songs, “Fairies Wear Boots,” sounds “very swingy for such a heavy riff.” Though she hasn’t spent much time pondering that aspect of the band, she says it might help to explain why she was drawn to them in the first place.

“I’ve just been digging it and listening to it and enjoying it, and I haven’t been thinking about it in terms of ‘Where’s the jazz here?'” she says of her prior experience with Sabbath. “But that’s maybe because I haven’t been looking for it. Maybe that was why they came through to me then: because there was this swing.”

Gard Nilssen took a similar path to Sabbath fandom. A highly skilled Norwegian jazz drummer, he leads his own trio Acoustic Unity and since 2003 has worked in the cooperative band Bushman’s Revenge, who have explored gritty, rock-influenced sounds and even worked up an ass-kicking version of Sabbath’s “War Pigs” in 2012. Though he’s 35 years younger than Ward, like the Sabbath drummer, Nilssen grew up immersed in the big-band swing of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. And like Mollestad, he came to rock late, but fell hard for it; the qualities he savored in bands like Sabbath, Cream, and the Jimi Hendrix Experience were similar to the ones he appreciated in jazz.

“A lot of those British rock drummers, like Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, and Bill Ward — those are three of my favorites — they seem like they listen to the other musicians in the band in a more jazz way, more interplay and more dynamic than many other straightforward rock drummers,” Nilssen says. “The way they play, the way they listen, the way they react to riffs, and the way they feel, it swings more. Especially Bill Ward: He swings in a fantastic way, even if he plays really hard sometimes and really heavy beats.”

The looseness at the heart of the Sabbath sound has made their repertoire especially adaptable. Countless rock and metal bands have covered their early-era songs, but beyond the more-straightforward renditions, and fun outliers by everyone from Cake to the Cardigans, Austin’s Brown Sabbath set the band’s riffs to body-moving Latin funk; Alex Skolnick, guitarist for Bay Area thrash-metal veterans Testament, reworked “War Pigs” for his jazz trio in 2002, topping off the understated treatment with a wild noise solo; and on 2004’s Kind of Black, a group calling itself the Casualties of Jazz performed songs from the first three Sabbath album in the style of a classic jazz organ trio.

“I think it’s safe to say that there’s a very clear lineage between swing-era jazz, particularly big bands in which drummers were featured — Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa, for example — and early Black Sabbath,” Skolnick writes in an e-mail. “You can hear it all over the first two albums, from the swing-like groove in the middle of ‘Electric Funeral’ to ‘Rat Salad,’ defined by bombastic riffs and drum trade-offs. Even more so, the intro and outro of ‘Wicked World’ combines both these elements to the point that it’s not hard to imagine it being played by a big band with horns during an earlier era of music.”

When it came time to adapt some of his favorite rock tracks for the jazz format for his album Goodbye to Romance: Standards for a New Generation, he says he had an easier time with “War Pigs” than with any other song.

“I’d already stumbled upon the idea of arranging Scorpions, Aerosmith, and even Kiss tunes for jazz guitar, both as a fun alternative to more commonly heard jazz standards and an honest reflection of my musical journey up to that point. Once this became a full-blown concept, it felt like a glaring omission to not represent the mighty Sabbath,” Skolnick recalls. “Interestingly, ‘War Pigs’ is the tune that needed the fewest changes for a jazz guitar setting. While other songs required a complete chordal reharmonization and other alterations to work, there is something radical about simply hearing ‘War Pigs’ transferred to upright bass, minimal drums, and archtop guitar.”

Casualties of Jazz keyboardist Matt Rohde noticed something similar when he, bassist Chris Golden, and drummer Jimmy Paxson Jr. arranged pieces like “Fairies Wear Boots,” “Iron Man,” and “Wicked World” for their instrumental style.

“One thing that we noticed immediately is how well this stuff translated into an organ trio format,” he says. “It’s almost like some of these songs could have been written for that idiom.

“People sometimes who aren’t as familiar with Sabbath, they’ll hear the record and be like, ‘Oh, my God, you guys put this crazy swing beat on some of these songs,'” Rohde continues. “And you know, ‘Wicked World,’ that’s from the record. We didn’t make that part up; he’s just playing a swing beat. And Bill especially, you can tell he comes from a jazz background, just where he puts the beat — it’s very loose and very behind. They could have put out a jazz record if they wanted to, I think, if they put their minds to it.”

Although Sabbath never dove headfirst into jazz, Bill Ward says that the genre was a common language among the band members, and something they often dipped into during their downtime. 

“We’d warm up with a jazz melody before the show. We’d go backstage for a soundcheck, and we’d just play away, and Tony would lead us down a road of some jazz licks, like a jazz trio showed up or something,” the drummer recalled with a chuckle.

As the sound of the original Black Sabbath progressed, the jazzy elasticity of their earliest years receded somewhat. But there were always hints: the strut in Ward’s beats, from “Sweet Leaf” to “A National Acrobat”; the drummer’s delicate touch in the folky bridge of “Symptom of the Universe; or the torrid bop jam that breaks out during a 1973 live version of “Wicked World.”

Ward holds a special place in his heart for “Air Dance,” a track off the original lineup’s final studio LP, 1978’s Never Say Die. It’s a strange, haunting, almost prog-like piece, filled out with twinkling keyboard runs from Don Airey. During the verses, Butler and Ward play almost at a whisper, floating along underneath’s Osbourne’s yearning vocal, and the song culminates in a heated, fusion-y coda. Ward recalls that he chose a specific drum set for that track, “a little jazz Gretsch kit.”

During this time, the band was splintering. Another jazzy experiment on Never Say Die, “Breakout,” a swaggering riff piece complete with booming brass and wailing sax, actually aggravated existing tensions between Osbourne and the other members. “Tony, Bill and Geezer decided they wanted to do a song called ‘Breakout,’ with a jazz band going da-dah-da-dah, DAH, and I just went, Fuck this, I’m off,” the singer wrote in I Am Ozzy. “The bottom line was that ‘Breakout’ was stretching it too far for me.”

But Ward is proud of the chances the band took on Never Say Die, and for him, “Air Dance” represents a certain kind of openness. Heard in the context of their Seventies work as a whole, the song is a reminder that Sabbath — and by extension their most elite descendants, from Metallica, whose somber ballads hit as hard as their epic-scale thrash, to Ward favorites Type O Negative, whose brooding goth sensibility only made their crushing climaxes feel that much more infernal — were never just heavy; their sound was always shaded, dynamic, full of contrast and fluidity. 

Who says a heavy metal band can’t swing, either in the traditional “spang-a-lang” sense or in their own subtle way? It’s a question the original Sabbath asked again and again in their music. And “Air Dance” is a subtle summation of these efforts.

“When we did ‘Air Dance,’ I thought we were actually quite courageous doing that because it’s not necessarily quote-unquote a Black Sabbath song,” Ward said. “But I don’t give a damn about that because it is part of Black Sabbath; it is a Black Sabbath song.

“I was so happy that we were going into something that we always used to play on the side of the stage but we never actually played it on record,” he added. “It’s a part of our soul; it was a part of who we are.”

Additional reporting by Kory Grow.

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