Classic Metal Hawk has posted in the past on the vexed question of whether Black Sabbath were the very first heavy metal band. But whatever your take on that, we can all agree they were one of the first practitioners. So how did it all come about for them?
You wouldn’t expect heavy metal to have been born into a cheerful environment, full of happy and optimistic people. And indeed it wasn’t. Settle in and read about the origins of the Godfathers of our music – Black Sabbath.
The city of Birmingham, UK, in the post-war era – the years immediately after 1945. A place that was, if we’re going to be polite, somewhat gritty. Run down in parts. Hard-bitten.
The city’s status as an industrial hub in the heart of England made it an obvious target for German bombing raids during the second world war, causing extensive damage in the so-called ‘Birmingham Blitz‘. Around 2200 citizens were killed with over 3000 injured. Thousands of buildings were destroyed, and children could regularly be found playing out in bomb craters after the hostilities ended.
Requiring massive redevelopment, Birmingham was subordinate to the national government in London in securing funding, and Birmingham city council was forced to accept national post war redevelopment plans heavily favouring other regions and cities – basically those that had been less prosperous prior to the war. Post war re-development was a means of national re-distribution of wealth, and there were other places that had a stronger case than seemingly prosperous Birmingham.
However, although the city as a whole prospered in the 30 years following the war, evidence of Birmingham’s post-industrial decline was already coming to the fore. Employment in the manufacturing sector fell by 10% between 1951 and 1966, and although in aggregate, that was outweighed by growth in the service sector and office-based jobs, the loss of factory employment would have been felt keenly by traditionally working-class areas that had relied on such work in the past.
Food rationing remained in place until 1954, adding to the gloomy mood.
In short, it was a city that was ripe for some form of escapism – something that could both capture the mood, and at the same time lift the spirits.
Aston, in the north of the city was one such working class district. And it was here that 4 young men, all born between 1948 and 1949, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, Terry ‘Geezer’ Butler and Ozzy Osbourne spent their formative years. As young men, a career in music was anything but a given, and all 4 of them worked regular jobs – sheet metal worker (Tony), slaughterhouse man (Ozzy), foundry worker (Bill) and (ahem) bookkeeper (Geezer – a relatively cushy number, though he did look after the finances for a metal factory).
All 4 were music freaks growing up through their teenage years in the 60’s, with blues being the main outlet. In the absence of any actual heavy metal at that time, it was as gloomy as music could get. They all played in bands from a young age, with Tony Iommi looking the most likely to make a career out of it in the beginning. Indeed, he had a gig with a semi-pro outfit The Birds and The Bees, and was all set to go on tour with them when disaster struck. Working his final shift in the sheet metal factory, an accident with a sheet metal press led to him losing the tips of 2 of his fingers. And his fretting hand fingers at that – it was difficult to imagine a more devastating injury for a guitar player – like a racehorse going lame.
Iommi went into a depression, but equally, showed the kind of resilience that would serve him well over the next years. Inspired by the 1920s jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, who’d lost 2 fingers after a fire and went on to have a successful career as a 2-fingered guitarist, Iommi resolved to find a way to continue playing. Showing remarkable ingenuity, he came up with Heath Robinson type prosthetic fingertips made from plastic bottle tops with leather glued to the ends.
That would have made it difficult to perform any day-to-day tasks involving delicate touch – but to develop into a world-class guitar player was a truly exceptional feat. Iommi down-tuned his guitars to make the notes easier to fret, and worked on a very deliberate fingering style, but still had to overcome the lack of sensation – feel – that most guitarists see as essential to their playing. The vibrato and precision bending that Iommi was able to master with his prosthetics are astonishing.
As soon as he felt able, Iommi started back playing with bands, and soon found himself alongside Bill Ward in 2 local outfits – The Rest, and later, Mythology.
In the meantime, Ozzy Osbourne was displaying an innovative approach of his own. Knowing that most bands struggle for decent equipment when starting out, he threw all the money he had into buying a public address system. When Ozzy placed adverts seeking singing gigs, they didn’t focus on his vocal qualities – he knew the words ‘has own PA’ would likely attract more attention, and so it proved. This approach got the attention of Geezer Butler, and eventually, the (new) fab 4 found themselves in the same outfit – the soon-to-be-legendary Polka Tulk Blues Band.
That’s right. Everyone knows the immortal ‘Paranoid’ by the Polka Tulk Blues Band, right?
Well, OK, they went through a couple of name changes along the way, first to Earth, and then finally to Black Sabbath. But it was meant to be, because Tony Iommi even quit a short stint with the better-established Jethro Tull to return to the Earth (so to speak) – but now with the benefit of a professional work ethic, and a clearer idea of the style he wanted to play.
According to conventional wisdom, the name ‘Black Sabbath’ came from a movie poster spotted outside a theatre, and there’s no doubt that all the band members were horror enthusiasts – this was a movie genre that inspired not just the band’s name but also a great deal of their material.
So, how about that style? The guitar distortion went up, at least as far as was possible with the amps on the market at the time. Ozzy’s demonic, wailing voice would have been left field for anything more mainstream, but was the perfect fit here. And then there were the lyrics. Sabbath took the bluesy approach to lyrics and doubled down. Then doubled down again. And again. And again.
War. Death. Corruption. Depression. The (probably) impending nuclear holocaust. Even Satan. There’s some debate about how much of the Satan theme was performative versus genuinely held belief. At least some of the band had a real interest in the occult, though have generally kept coy over the years over whether this spilled over into practising.
Whatever, as sources for a completely new musical direction encompassing both escapism and working-class industrial gloom, the themes couldn’t be surpassed.
And all these factors resulted in 2 albums, ‘Black Sabbath’ and ‘Paranoid’ released within barely 6 months of each other in 1970 and representing the birth of heavy metal music as we know it today.
The critics were not on board. ‘Like Cream, but worse’ is a now famous quote that accurately captured the mood of the intelligentsia. But they would eventually recant. Not that the band cared – the albums were successful commercially, feeding the burning desire for diversion in hard-at-heel communities that Black Sabbath represented. Tours supporting the albums locked in the band’s status as the world’s first ‘real’ heavy metal band from the outset – and a working class heavy metal band too.
As the only band of their kind to begin with, Black Sabbath set the tone for early heavy metal – not through astonishing speed (in fact the opposite, building often tension by slowing things down, as in the track ‘Black Sabbath’ itself), and with the minor key riffing and horror inspired themes that did, and still do send shivers down the spine.
Even the cover of the first Black Sabbath album helps to capture that mood – a spooky, abandoned building, probably an old water mill in a wood, with a pale face woman standing outside. It conjures images of post-industrial Birmingham as well as the now familiar horror movie tropes.
So, yes, Aston had all the social issues you might associate with post-industrial decline. Violence, gloom, unemployment, alcoholism. All devastating problems to confront any local community. And yet, the background that inspired the birth of a whole new genre of music – something which not only had massive artistic merit but also a form which helped desperate people to cope better with their surroundings. The pain that Tony, Ozzy, Geezer and Bill suffered in early life was directed into something powerful.
Birmingham was therefore the birthplace not only of Heavy Metal, but of several bands that would go on to influence its direction of travel in later years. As well as Sabbath, there was Judas Priest*, Napalm Death, Doom, Diamond Head and many others.
The Hawk spent some time in Birmingham as a younger bird. By then, the city was no longer quite the heavy metal hotbed that it had been when all those bands came into being. Music had moved on, and the process of gentrification in the city was underway. But it still had its moments, and the Hawk couldn’t help but wonder what it must have been like to be there when it all started.
You’d have listened to songs like this in local gigs for a start.
* PLEASE READ – IMPORTANT LOCAL QUALIFICATION!!!
In the interests of total accuracy, Judas Priest hail from Walsall, not Birmingham, and most locals would probably not take kindly to the two places being conflated, even though they are only 10 miles apart. However, the overall point about the need for escapism in the post-industrial era probably played even stronger in Walsall. As noted, although manufacturing industry in Birmingham was already in decline after the war, overall prosperity in the city was good. Not so much in the surrounding towns, which felt the pinch even more, and for whom Birmingham looked like the proverbial city in lights. It’s all relative.
To illustrate the point, Priest’s first manager, Dave ‘Corky’ Corke got the gig, at least in part by bragging about his big-cheese status, and claiming to have an office in Birmingham. In fact, the ‘office’ was a car, which Corky parked next to a payphone outside a pub in the city. With a good stash of coins to work the phone, and always listening out for incoming calls on the same line, he broke down doors for the band and set them on their first tentative steps to stardom.
It’s a common theme of these bands getting started – the incredible level of ingenuity on display by everyone involved. The human spirit to triumph over adversity really can be exceptional.
Mind you, even Priest had to head over to Birmingham to get their first big TV break, playing their first ever single, ‘Rocka Rolla’ on the BBC. They had to fix their own costumes, so Rob Halford borrowed the gorgeous lilac shirt you see here from his sister, and the biker leathers were some way off at this point. Classic Heavy Metal indeed!
Hoping for comments from Birmingham on this one. Or Walsall. How has the scene changed over the years? And are the conditions right for a whole new Black Sabbath to emerge?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.