“One of the greatest things I have in my heart is that Black Sabbath were not a band created by some business mogul in London, like a fucking ditz,” the pioneering heavy-metal group’s excitable frontman Ozzy Osbourne tells Rolling Stone emphatically. “It was, ‘I know a singer, I know a guitar player.’ We all came from a three-mile radius and got together and we had a go. And here we are, fucking nearly 50 years up the road, and we’re still relevant today.”
As the group winds down the first leg of its farewell tour – dubbed “The End,” full stop – the band members haven’t lost sight of how they started. In a previous Rolling Stone interview this year, the singer looked back on Sabbath’s U.S. tour and remembered thinking, “This will be fun for a few years, then it’s back to the fucking factory.” That might have been the case had Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler and drummer Bill Ward not slugged it out for a couple of years before the 1970 release of their self-titled debut.
Black Sabbath formed in 1968 in Birmingham, England, a city Iommi has since called “depressing,” after a short-lived jazzy, blues-rock band called Mythology broke up, making the guitarist and Ward free agents. After answering a music shop’s oddly worded ad – “Ozzy Zig Needs Gig” – the guitarist and drummer met two musicians from another local group, Rare Breed: Osbourne and then-guitarist Butler.
“Rare Breed was just … we were a bit loony,” Butler says. “It was psychedelic stuff. We all used to go on with painted faces and do this stupid psychedelic show. We never used to get asked back to anywhere that we played, so I think we were probably really crap. But Rare Breed were really the only band that was doing that around Birmingham. Everybody else was doing soul and pop music, and we’d started doing the more bluesy stuff and copying bands like Art and Tomorrow.”
When the Rare Breed members met Mythology’s survivors, it turned out that “Ozzy Zig’s” three-mile radius was smaller than he’d even expected then. “I realized I went to school with Tony,” Osbourne says. Butler remembers the initial meeting as being casual. “We just got to talking one day about forming a band and that’s how it started,” he says.
Originally, the group called itself the Polka Tulk Blues Band, named after the cheap brand of talcum powder Ozzy’s mother used. The lineup at the onset included two other members, Iommi’s pal Alan Clark on saxophone and Osbourne’s friend Jimmy Phillips on bottleneck slide guitar – and because there were two guitarists, Butler switched to bass – but it didn’t last long.
Within a couple of months of touring in the north of the United Kingdom, both of the additional members were out of the band. Iommi thought Phillips messed around too much in rehearsal and that if they had a sax player they ought to have a full brass section also, so they were both asked to leave. Then there was the name. “It’s crap,” Osbourne remembers Iommi telling him, in his book I Am Ozzy. “Every time I hear it, all I can picture is you, with your trousers ’round your ankles, taking a fucking dump.” So in September 1968, drummer Ward suggested another name: Earth.
“[We played] old-style blues, really,” Iommi once said of the period. “When we started Earth, it wasn’t true Chuck Berry stuff. It was more the old … American blues.”
“People think of [Sabbath] as heavy metal, but they’re really a rock band, and they’re really a progressive rock band in the same way that Led Zeppelin is,” producer Rick Rubin, who helmed their recent 13 LP, told Rolling Stone earlier this month. “So much of it is rooted in blues and improvisation. 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.”
The group honed its repertoire and began writing original material, despite a hiccup in December 1968 when Iommi quit the group to play with Jethro Tull just long enough to appear in the film, Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus. He didn’t like the way Ian Anderson ran things and returned to Earth, and the group carried on, adapting the swinging, jazzy riff he’d come up with in his Mythology days and dubbing it “Wicked World,” one of their first originals. Before long, they were pioneering darker sounds.
“‘Black Sabbath’ was born. It was not written.” – Ozzy Osbourne
Butler still vividly remembers the event that put him and his bandmates on the course of heavy songs filled with dread. It happened in a vivid dream. “I was asleep and I felt something in the room, like this weird presence,” he recalls of a night, likely in 1969. “I woke up in a dream world, and there was this black thing at the bottom of the bed, staring at me. It was just this apparition. It just lasted a second. But it just freaked me out. And I told Ozzy, Tony and Bill about it. It was pretty scary at the time. I think that’s what inspired Ozzy to come up with the lyrics that open the song: ‘What is this that stands before me?'”
Osbourne delivered the lyrics – followed by the ominous verse “Figure in black which points at me” – over slowly grinding riffs. If Iommi’s chords were to be played together, it would be wholly discordant, a chord progression that 18th-century music scholars dubbed “the devil in music.” “You know, when I sang that song, that line just came out of nowhere,” Osbourne says. “I went, where the fuck did that come from? I don’t know where it came from. It was born, not written.” The group christened the song – a suspenseful, doomy, surrealistic paean to terror – “Black Sabbath,” taking inspiration from the 1963 Boris Karloff horror flick of the same name.
The whole sequence of events that led to the song’s lyrics still give Butler a chuckle. “As a child, I always had a lot of sort of psychic experiences,” Butler says of the experience. “That was one of the very last ones I had. It’s just one of those strange phenomena that you have. That was before I did drugs, by the way.” He laughs. “Maybe doing drugs killed that part of me brain.”
The quartet had a renewed sense of purpose but hit a speed bump in August 1969 when they learned that another group had been using the name Earth. As a remedy, Butler suggested Black Sabbath as their new moniker with the notion that if people paid money to feel scared at the movies, then the same must be true of concerts. “Calling it Black Sabbath instead of Earth was one of Geezer’s best ideas ever,” Osbourne says. “It’s a great name for a band.”
The change worked, and soon the band attracted the attention of a Birmingham blues club owner named Jim Simpson, who played in a band called Locomotive and offered the group to open for Alvin Lee’s blues rockers Ten Years After at his club, Henry’s Blues House. He later went on to become their first manager and procured them gigs at other blues clubs and used his connections to book them at the Star-Club in Hamburg, where the Beatles cut their teeth. He also got the band auditioning for labels, performing their heavy repertoire.
“We used to do these auditions for record companies, and they’d just leave after the third song or something,” Butler recalls. “I’ll always remember one producer told us to go away, learn how to play and learn how to write some decent songs. We were rejected again and again by company after company, and then the management at the time had this great idea to write some pop songs. And it wasn’t even us that wrote them: It was another band that he was managing who wrote them, and we hated doing them. You can tell that when you listen to them.”
One of those tunes a poppy, piano-driven number called “The Rebel” that Simpson’s Locomotive bandmate Norman Haines had written. They also tried their hand at writing an original, titled “A Song for Jim,” a jazzy, syncopated song, which featured Iommi on flute. Snippets of those tunes appeared in the 1992 home video The Black Sabbath Story, Vol. 1, but they never got a proper release, though the latter has leaked online as has another Haines-penned tune, the bluesier “When I Come Down.”
The earliest known Black Sabbath bootleg was recorded in Dumfries, Scotland in November 1969, and it contained “Song for Jim,” complete with Iommi’s flute, along with other rarely played tunes: covers of Elmore James’ “Early One Morning” and Buddy Guy’s “Let Me Love You” and a jittery blues cut, “Blue Blooded Man.” But perhaps what’s more interesting is that it contains Black Sabbath’s “The Warning” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep,” among other future classics. “When we were recording songs like ‘The Rebel’ and ‘Song for Jim,’ that was our management trying to get us a record deal,” Butler says. “We were playing ‘Black Sabbath,’ ‘Wicked World’ and ‘N.I.B.,’ but record labels told us to go and write proper songs. They just didn’t get it. So they tried to make us a pop band.”
“Sabbath don’t write fucking hit singles,” Osbourne says. “Sabbath is like a clever mistake. I’ve always said, no matter what Tony Iommi and myself have been through with each other personally, I’ve never took it away from him: There’s no guy on the face of the earth that can come up with riffs like him. He’s fucking brilliant with ’em.”
The day after playing Dumfries, the group would record many of these songs in a London session, which recently came out as bonus-disc outtakes on the deluxe edition of Black Sabbath, but despite the palpable elation that runs throughout the recording, the group was frustrated with the material they’d been asked to perform in addition to their original songs, which they preferred.
“We stuck to our music and never sold out.” – Geezer Butler
“When you’re on the inside looking out, you don’t realize how people are going to react to your music, ’cause it came natural to us,” Osbourne says. “We just did it. We didn’t go, ‘Oh, we’re gonna be the next this and that.'”
The most annoying thing, the bassist recalls, is that the pop songs trick didn’t work. “They didn’t do anything for us, so we insisted that we’ll just keep playing live shows,” Butler says. “We figured we’d forget making records.”
As it happened, though, Simpson had other plans. Using some music-industry connections, he secured studio time independently at a London studio and the band cut an album about a month before the Dumfries gig over the course of two days in October 1969. The session cost a reported £600, and the band members spent only about 12 hours in front of microphones, treating the sessions like any other gig and playing their regular repertoire, including a poppy cover of a song by a band called Crow titled “Evil Woman,” with a few overdubs thrown in for good measure.
In January 1970, the record label Philips took an interest in the recordings and issued “Evil Woman” as Black Sabbath’s first single that month on its subsidiary, Fontana. A few weeks later, on a Friday the 13th, Philips’ “underground” imprint Vertigo released the band’s debut full-length, Black Sabbath, with a witchy, pink-hued cover. It would come out in the U.S. that summer via Warner Bros., and it would go on to become one of the most influential LPs in rock, thanks in part to the heavy sensibility of Black Sabbath’s original songs on the track list.
These days, Black Sabbath’s “The End” set lists have sported three selections from Black Sabbath – “N.I.B.,” “Behind the Wall of Sleep” and, of course, “Black Sabbath” – as well as several other tunes that came into existence around the time and appeared on Paranoid later that same year. The group’s Seventies output served as the foundation for heavy metal, even if that’s not where the band members’ roots lie. Although they’ve gone through several band member changes since then and the lineup today still isn’t quite the same as it was when they started – Ward is not performing after a contract dispute sidelined him prior to the recording sessions for the band’s 2013 comeback LP 13 – the band members haven’t lost sight of their beginnings.
“Can you believe it, man?” Osbourne asked a Chicago audience early in the End tour. “From 1968 ’til now, man. I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for your loyalty over the years.”
“Our manager goes, ‘Your album enters the British charts at 17 next week.’ And I go, ‘Fuck off, you’re winding me up.'” – Osbourne
“We were just a genuine, original band,” Butler says now, looking back. “We stuck to what we wanted to do instead of listening to other people. That’s what I’m most proud of. We stuck to our music and never sold out.”
“I can remember as if it was yesterday being in a club in Birmingham, and I’ve got a small fucking advance so I went out on the town looking for the chicks,” Osbourne says. “And Jim Simpson comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve got some news to tell you.’ And I go, ‘What’s that?’ And he goes, ‘Your album enters the British charts at 17 next week.’ And I go, ‘Fuck off, you’re winding me up. No way.’ ‘No, it’s true.’ And that was it. And the first Black Sabbath album stayed on the charts for quite some time. I was like, ‘Why?‘ It was such a great surprise.” The record would later be certified gold in the U.K. and platinum in the U.S.
When Osbourne looks back and considers all that has happened since the release of the first LP, Black Sabbath’s legacy isn’t something he worries about. It’s simply something he’s grateful for. “The very fact that people remember us today is good enough for me,” he says. “We saw, we came, we conquered.”