Black Sabbath changed the world of music 50 years ago this week with their genre-defining self-titled debut. To mark the occasion, Rolling Stone put together a comprehensive account of the record’s creation.
We spoke with 12 original sources, including the Black Sabbath’s guitarist Tony Iommi, bassist Geezer Butler, and drummer Bill Ward, and several of their collaborators and peers. Judas Priest’s Rob Halford recalled seeing the group when they were called Earth, Ten Years After’s Leo Lyons remembers the band opening up for them, and Status Quo’s Francis Rossi explained how all the bands at the time wanted to be “heavy.” We also tracked down the album’s cover designer, Keith Macmillan, and the mysterious woman in the woods, Louisa Livingstone, for their first-ever interviews about the album art.
Over the course of writing the article, the people we interviewed told us several stories that have gone either unreported or underreported, even after half a century. Here are five things we learned.
1. Judas Priest’s Rob Halford saw a big difference in the band when they changed their name from Earth to Black Sabbath.
The four members of Black Sabbath first played together as a six-piece group called the Polka Tulk Blues Band. They fired two members (a slide guitar player and saxophonist) and rebranded themselves Earth. It was around this time that Rob Halford, long before he joined Judas Priest, saw the band live.
“I have vague memories of seeing them as Earth in an obscure club in Birmingham and they were in a sort of heavy blues, jazzy prog mode musically,” he recalled. “There wasn’t much of anything going on visually to remember. I can only recall the very first Sabbath songs like [Crow’s] ‘Evil Woman’ which was a cover. There was still some freeform noodling going on when they played live, but essentially the heaviness was dominating. When they became Black Sabbath, they had homed in on their identity more. Tony’s riffs played an immediately stronger role, and they now had a unique character that set them apart from everyone else locally or any other band around. Ozzy looked and sounded special and the dynamic of Geezer and Bill set them up with a sound no one could match.”
2. The Black Sabbath album was written mostly during office hours.
After a short stint in Jethro Tull, guitarist Tony Iommi came back to Earth and told the guys they needed to take things seriously. After seeing how Ian Anderson had led his prog-blues group with an iron flute, keeping regular daytime rehearsals, Iommi suggested Earth do the same. They often started rehearsing at nine a.m. “Trying to get Geezer out of bed at that time in the morning was bloody hard, but we did, and we rehearsed, and we really worked at it then because it just felt that we had something to work for,” Iommi said. “I’d left a big band at that time, so to come back to our band, it was like, ‘Oh, blimey, he’s come back. We better pull our socks up.’ And I think everybody felt like that, including me.”
3. Geezer Butler wrote the lyrics to “Behind the Wall of Sleep” literally behind a wall of sleep.
The title of this quasi-psychedelic song echoes that of an H.P. Lovecraft short story (“Beyond the Wall of Sleep”), but the bassist said that nearly everything about the song came to him in his subconscious. “I was reading ‘Beyond the Wall of Sleep,’ and actually fell asleep and dreamed all the lyrics and the main riff to the song,” Butler said. “When I woke up, I wrote down the lyrics, played the riff on my bass so I’d remember it — we didn’t have any recording devices back then, so everything had to be memorized — and played it to the others at rehearsal.”
4. Album cover artist “Keef” originally tried to make the sleeve sexy but decided that wouldn’t work.
When Vertigo’s in-house album art designer “Keef,” whose real name is Keith Macmillan, first heard the Black Sabbath album, he was struck by how dark it was — and he knew exactly where he wanted to shoot the cover: a 15th-century watermill in the English countryside. For the past 50 years, Macmillan has shied away from interviews — he’s done just two prior to speaking with Rolling Stone, only because he had to — and he told us that this was his first “voluntary” interview, because he liked Black Sabbath so much.
Macmillan revealed that he had originally tried a few different setups with his model, Louisa Livingstone, where she was nude but then thought better of it. “She wasn’t wearing any clothes under that cloak because we were doing things that were slightly more risqué, but we decided none of that worked,” he says. “Any kind of sexuality took away from the more foreboding mood.”
Livingstone, who also has never given an interview about the album cover, told Rolling Stone that her most vivid memory of the shoot was how cold it was. “I had to get up at about 4 o’clock in the morning,” she said. “Keith was rushing around with dry ice, throwing it into the water. It didn’t seem to be working very well, so he ended up using a smoke machine. It was just, ‘Stand there and do that.'”
5. The album’s recording sessions almost ruined a cartoon being filmed in the studio upstairs.
Audio engineer Tom Allom recalls that London’s Regent Sound Studio was located beneath a prestigious studio that used to make TV ads. “They did a lot of animation, which meant the camera dolly had to stay totally still while they moved the objects that they were animating,” he said. “And I got a phone call going, ‘What’s going on down there, Tom?’ Geezer Butler’s bass was playing havoc with this great, heavy film dolly. It was just waltzing across the floor. I had to say to Geezer, ‘I’m very sorry, but this studio is only £10 an hour, but up there it’s £100, and they’re getting a bit cross.’ I had to persuade him that we had to put his bass direct into the board, instead of using an amp, and he didn’t like the idea of that until he heard the playback and he said, ‘That’s the first time I ever heard my bass on a recording.’ Coming out of the amp, it just sounded like this great sort of big, flatulent, flabby sound.”
For more stories about how Black Sabbath made their world-changing opus, read our epically thorough deep dive on “Heavy Metal, Year One.”