Children of the Grave 

From Black Sabbath to modern heavy metal: The dark at the end of the tunnel

Wednesday, Jul 11 2001

Black Sabbath was different. Back in 1969, you could tell just by looking: These were sartorial exiles. Bill Ward, the drummer, remembers the impression he and his mates made when they started out. No Kinks-ish Edwardian outfits. No Beatles-esque Cardin suits. No Who-like fringes and jumpers.

”We weren’t exactly the neatest band,“ says Ward. ”We were what we were, which is four really poor guys. Ozzy had but one pair of sandals.“

Ward is strong, stocky, friendly. When he says ing-words, they usually end with the sharp glottals of working- class Birmingham, England, specifically the suburb Aston, where he and the others were raised. Playink. Waitink.

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To get money for drums, Ward worked in a factory. Smoke billowing from stacks outside, rubber smoke obscuring his vision inside. ”You had to take black rubber, put it on a mill, cut the rubber off the mill. You had to carry about 100 pounds of rubber, and stuff a machine full of it. I worked from 7 in the morning until 7 at night.“

The guitarist, Tony Iommi, worked in a factory, too. Arc-welder. He wasn‘t going to show up for work on his last day, but decided to brave it. That’s when he was put to work on an unfamiliar machine and chopped off the tips of two right-hand fingers. Born a southpaw, he plays with self-designed prostheses.

The bassist, Geezer Butler, also worked in a factory, as an accountant, till he got sick of it and drank and doped himself out of the job. People called him Geezer because that‘s what he called everybody else. Decades have passed; the name remains. ”It’s appropriate now,“ he says, ”isn‘t it?“

The singer, Ozzy Osbourne, was a slaughterhouse worker and convicted burglar.

1969. Only hints of impending darkness. Flower power blooming all over the world.

”I didn’t know what planet that was coming from, to be honest,“ says Ward. He and the others were inexperienced with peace and love. Gangs and toil they knew. ”Happiness I cannot feelAnd love to me is so unreal,“ Ozzy sang in ”Paranoid.“ An enormous worldwide hit expressing those emotions in 1970 -- well, it said something. It said that the times they were a-changin‘.

Black Sabbath made music -- heavy metal, it came to be called, after a line from Steppenwolf’s 1968 ”Born To Be Wild“ -- out of what they knew, felt and wanted. Humans continue to do the same thing. You don‘t have to be a factory worker to appreciate metal. You don’t even have to be poor. You just have to need something loud, powerful and organized on your side. (God knows you won‘t find it in politics.) Since billions need that at any given time, metal has never gone away, though its visibility has waned periodically, and it has changed its clothes and sounds to fit the times. Today, there is metal music for virtually every fragmentation of taste and attitude, from straight-edge vegan to flaming hatemonger: Check out the glossary of styles included herein, which is only a sampling. There could be something for you.

One could argue exactly when the birth screams of heavy metal first rent the pale empyrean -- with Led Zeppelin, or the MC5, or Cream, or Hendrix, or the Troggs, or Wagner. But it would be hard to argue that Black Sabbath wasn’t revolutionary. Or that any other band cast a darker shadow over metalmen to come.

It was fate. At least that‘s how it seems. For instance, Iommi and Ward saw an ad for a singer named Ozzy. Couldn’t be that Ozzy, the one they always saw around the streets of Aston. But it was that Ozzy. And he sang like nobody before him, not Elvis or Muddy or Little Richard, but some new kind of tortured prophet.

With Ozzy‘s old bandmate Butler, the four survived a couple of blues-jazz groups to become Black Sabbath. Thanks to a rare twist of historical synchronicity, you can actually hear the moment when the magical transition occurred. On their first album, released Friday, February 13, 1970, the first tune they taped -- composed through jamming, their usual mode -- was ”Wicked World,“ which shuffled and bopped along not unlike any number of boogie beaters then being whacked out by British blues revivalists such as John Mayall and Savoy Brown. Iommi diddled that tune on his beloved Fender Stratocaster and geared up for the next selection. But -- fate again -- the guitar crapped out on him. He reluctantly resorted to his backup, a Gibson SG, which is an entirely different creature. This guitar barfs out a much denser, heavier low end; when you turn it way up (the band was playing louder every day), a single sustained note on the E or A string sounds nightmarish. And a two-note chord on those low strings is simply the voice of Satan. The first recording Iommi used it on was a study in slow agony. It was called ”Black Sabbath.“

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