The PopMatters Music Blog
3 May 2008
Question: Is it possible that a band could sell over one hundred million albums, be referenced constantly by groups spanning multiple genres, and whose very name is considered synonymous with an entire type of music be underrated?
Improbable as it may sound, Black Sabbath is quite possibly the most misconstrued super group of all time. This certainly is not to imply anyone should feel sorry for these very loved—and very wealthy—avatars of heavy metal. Shed no tears for Tony Iommi. He is widely—and appropriately—acknowledged as one of rock music’s seminal guitar gods, the architect of a sound that, while distinctly his own, is anything but stagnant or formulaic; indeed, his body of work, considering only the music he made in the ‘70s, is varied, nuanced and deep. No, really. Of course, he’ll always remain in the shadow of Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page—just to name two of the undisputed heavyweights (not unlike Ray Davies will forever play bridesmaid to Lennon/McCartney and the Glimmer Twins). And that is as it should be. Still, there are two crucial elements working against a more sober and salient appraisal of his genius: the name of his band, and Ozzy Osbourne.
The all-too-easily disparaged (and, for the easily offended, objectionable) appellation Black Sabbath ensures that the band could never really be taken all that seriously. Not only is this a damn (albeit not a crying ) shame, it is enough to make one wish they had simply stuck with their original name. Earth, as the band was initially known in industrial Birmingham, England, is, incidentally, a much more appropriate word to associate with this very blue-collar and bruising band. Earth is the opposite or air, the ground is not ethereal, and water turns it to mud; if ever a band basked proudly and beautifully (and always unabashedly) in the mud, it is Sabbath. And despite all the silly mythmaking, the only thing demonic about this band was its proclivity for employing the musical tritone (also known as the Devil’s Interval) in its music.
Then there is Ozzy. God bless this clown prince of darkness; his antics often undermined the band even as his vocals made them immortal (if any live footage exists of him ever getting the lyrics right to a single song, let me know). And this was before he became Ozzy, , the moon-barking , PMRC-instigating Supertzar who conquered the world. Osbourne, to his considerable credit, was never in danger of taking the act, or himself, too seriously, and he was certainly enjoying the ride—not to mention the drugs—all through Sabbath’s decade of doom and domination.
And yet—and this is the larger and often overlooked point—the music this band made was, for the most part, dead serious: from the live-in-the-studio cauldron of blackened blues debut album, to the riff-heard-round-the-world title track from their follow-up Paranoid, this was an act with a considerable chip on its shoulder, and few punches were pulled until Ozzy, muddled and miserable, was asked to leave in ’79. From their eagerness to take on tough-talking politicians who can never quite find the courage to fight in the wars they start (“War Pigs”), to the dangers of hard drugs (“Hand of Doom”), to the pleasures of soft drugs (“Sweet Leaf”), to the ambivalence of drug-induced oblivion (“Snowblind”) to proto-thrash metal (“Symptom of the Universe”) to all-encompassing attacks on the system (“Over to You”), it is ignorant, even a bit hysterical, to dismiss this group as a simplistic one-trick pony. Granted, their music is not for everyone, but in this iPod age it would be a compelling experiment to cue up a track list that includes “Planet Caravan”, “Orchid”, “Embryo”, “Laguna Sunrise”, “Don’t Start (Too Late)”, and “It’s Alright”, then give an uninitiated listener ten guesses to name that band.
To be certain, Sabbath made some serious mistakes along the way: while the irreconcilable sludge of Master of Reality did (and does) augment its murky charms, the ham fisted (or red-nosed) production on Volume 4 does grave disservice to Iommi’s 40-minute guitar clinic—equal parts symphony and assault. And the band’s one truly mixed bag, the occasionally brilliant and mostly uneven mess that is Technical Ecstasy not only slowed momentum, but made it way too easy for critics (and even fans) to hastily—and wrongly—overlook their final album and possible masterpiece, Never Say Die!. Once Ozzy exited the picture, it is fair to assume that the band would have faded into the void if they had made the courageous decision to soldier on with drummer Bill Ward assuming vocal duties (the aforementioned “It’s Alright” and the last song on the last album, “Swinging the Chain”, offer evidence that this experiment may have worked out quite nicely). It was never going to happen, but they would have arguably made better albums in the Ozzy aftermath if they had given it a shot. Instead, with the very unsatisfactory Ronnie James Dio grabbing the mic, the good old bad days stayed in the ‘70s.
Looking back, one wishes they had just pulled a Brian Wilson and gotten Ozzy his own sandbox, or let him work the wet bar in the caboose of his custom-made crazy train. But then, he had to leave; it had to end so we could have the subsequent Behind The Music special. Without Ozzy hitting rock bottom there would be no rebirth, no Randy Rhoads, no PETA protests, no reality TV show. The Sabbath singer had worn out his welcome, but Ozzy’s work was not yet done: there were ants to snort, dove’s heads to decapitate, and most significantly, the Alamo to urinate on (and let’s face it: someone had to urinate on the Alamo).
And so, in the end, it is as it should have been: one band, one decade, one legacy—everything that came after comes with an asterisk. Nevertheless, the records need to be set straight: Sabbath is one of the very few bands that is actually better than it sounds. And we haven’t even begun to talk about Bill Ward’s (overlooked) drumming and Geezer Butler’s (criminally overlooked) bass playing…Still, with a name like Black Sabbath, it is tempting to associate the music with a band that only comes out at night. Nonsense. Looking at the sad state of affairs in our wicked world, we need them now more than ever.
Got no religion, don’t need no friends
Got all I want and I don’t need to pretend
Don’t try to reach me, ‘cause I’d tear up your mind
I’ve seen the future and I’ve left it behind.
True in ’72; true today. And when you look at it that way, every day is Earth day.
TO BE CONT’D…