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Black Sabbath and the Birth of Heavy Metal

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Music
Wordcount: 2041 words Published: 18th May 2020

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You must write an essay discussing the contribution that a key entertainment industry figure had on the entertainment industry commenting briefly on audience and social or commercial impact. The essay topic and content will be drawn from an era of entertainment studied in the first six weeks of this course.

“Some people out there argue that heavy metal was not invented by Black Sabbath. These people are wrong.” (Smith, 2013). At the beginning of the 1970’s the Birmingham based quartet, consisting of bassist Geezer Butler, guitarist Tony Iommi, drummer Bill Ward and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne, unleashed their self-titled debut album upon the world.  The album laden with Satanic lyrics, witchcraft and the tritone chord now synonymous with heavy metal music (Holmes, 2018).  This would be the start of not just a nineteen-album career, but the start of a movement. A culture.  With over 70 million records sold worldwide (Jones, 2013) and a list of influences ranging from Nirvana to Metallica to Queens of the Stone Age (Butler, 2015), Black Sabbath take the crown for not just being the creators of heavy metal, but for being one of the most important, influential, bands of all time (Street, 2018).

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Economically speaking, the 1970’s were a time of unrest in the United Kingdom. Conflict and class wars were breaking out within the manufacturing industry, there was a downturn in the economy and an extremism was taking place in politics.  Inflation was rarely below 10% and soared twice to over 20%.  To make matters worse technical advancements and industrial deterioration caused the unemployment levels to soar, with over one million people being unemployed by the year 1972 (McGaughey, 2018).  With the economy in a state of decay and options for the working-class teenagers of Birmingham diminishing, Black Sabbath’s blue collared upbringings reverberate with fans who had finally been given a voice. “Dead end prospects and boring school seemed to inspire a music that was steeped in rage” (Cope 2010, 97).  ‘War Pigs’, a song released on Black Sabbath’s second album, ‘Paranoid’, would later be voted as the number one, heavy metal, anti-establishment song ever written (Boyd, 2017).  Anti-establishment was to become a common theme for heavy metal throughout the ages.  “Osbourne, Iommi, Ward and bassist Geezer Butler were blue-collar outsiders who had more in common with their audience than with jet-set rock stars” (Kot, 2015).  Ironically, if it had not been for Tony Iommi and his industrial upbringing, heavy metal would sonically, not be what it is today.  After enduring an accident that sheared off his fingertips, the only comfortable way for him to continue playing the guitar was to down tune the strings, releasing the pressure on his fingertips.  The down tuning resulted in a dark, gloomy tone that made up much of Black Sabbath’s catalogue (Galanek) and gave a distinct sound to the heavy metal genre.

‘Black Sabbath’ (album) and ‘Paranoid’ are both released in 1970, a time commonly associated with peace, free love and a non-violent ideology.  As the flower power movement passively protests the war in Vietnam, Black Sabbath are creating a counterculture.  Songs like ‘War Pigs’, ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Hand of Doom’ are an introduction into horror inspired lyrics and blue collared anger that, almost single handily, overthrows the hippies.  “Black Sabbath mirrored that dead-end world in dark, ominous music that buried the flower-power era beneath mountainous guitar riffs and cinder-block drum beats. It was a new sound – heavy, bleak and scorched with horror-film lyrics” (Kot, 2015). 

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With the ending of the flower power era comes a change in the drug culture and while marijuana and LSD continue to be taken, cocaine and heroin are introduced into the scene.  Ozzy Osbourne would be dubbed the ‘Prince of Darkness’ as lyrics from ‘Children of the Grave’ and ‘Black Sabbath’ shock people into thinking that the band is in someway affiliated with Satan (Munro, 2016).  Fans of the band look for ways to show allegiance to the group and battle jackets grow in popularity.  Similar to that of a biker jacket, battle jackets were denim or leather jackets emblazoned with pins or patches symbolizing the owner’s musical preferences.  Early Black Sabbath pins even incorporating a visual representation of the sign of the horns or ‘devil horns’, now symbolic of the genre (Offord, 2017).  The 70’s would also see the continuation of the space race between the USSR and the US which would inspire Geezer Butler to write ‘Iron Man’ (Dome, 2019), a song that would later be rated by VH1 as the top-heavy metal song of all time (Perkins, 2016). 

Vertigo Records were a subsidiary label to the parent, Philips Records.  A British company conceptualised by Olav Wyper, specialising in signing non-mainstream styles of music (Dome, 2016).  Wyper stating that “In those days, no label would think of signing anyone who wasn’t already working with a solid fan base, so we saw loads of gigs, looking for the sort of acts who fitted in with our vision” (Dome, 2016).  Black Sabbath would sign with the label in 1970 and although both albums released in that same year would get panned by critics, both albums would be certified platinum by both the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) (Cashmere, 2012).  Vertigo Records would later become the home for other heavy metal heavyweights including Metallica, Kiss and Def Leppard.  Musically speaking Tony Iommi would popularise the ‘Diabolus in Musica’ or the devil’s interval, a progression of notes that sounded grisly and unsettling.  Although the passage of music had been previously used in classical pieces of music, with the addition of the tuned down guitar and distortion affects of the times, Iommi would create a sound now synonymous with heavy metal music.  “Iommi used the technique in numerous other songs as well, playing at different speeds and with varying chord combinations, and when the band became successful the tritone became a staple of the genre. Throughout the decades, countless bands including Judas Priest, Metallica, Slayer, Marilyn Manson and Slipknot have all relied on the devil’s interval to add darkness and power to their music. Slayer even named their 1998 album Diabolus in Musica in homage to the technique” (Weiderhorn, 2019).

Since its birth in the 1970’s heavy metal has since splintered into an unruly number of subgenres.  Each can be arguably traced back to a Black Sabbath song.  ‘Into the Void’, with its down tuned guitars and slow, lurching musicality now prevalent within the doom metal genre while ‘Changes’, released in 1972, would later be mimicked by the hair metal era and bands like Gun’s n’ Roses and Motley Crue (Smith, 2013).  Black Sabbath would mark the beginning of the battle jacket, the sign of the horns and the devil’s interval.  Symptomatic, and still very relevant, features of a culture that gave a voice to the blue collared workers of Britain.  While to this day the band has seen the comings and goings of dozens of members, they have influenced thousands more making Black Sabbath not just the godfathers of heavy metal but the most important band to ever exist. 


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