Sabbath Bloody Sabbath – How a Ghost Unblocked Tony Iommi

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Imagine doing something creative for a living. You’re a writer, an artist or a musician. You’ve had success and acclaim all over the world. Then one morning, you wake up and suddenly you can’t do it anymore – the creative spark has gone. What would you do? Let’s find out how Black Sabbath came up with a unique (and ultimately successful) solution to exactly that problem.


Imagine doing something creative for a living. You’re a writer, an artist or a musician. You’ve had success and acclaim all over the world. Then one morning, you wake up and suddenly you can’t do it anymore – the creative spark has gone. What would you do? Let’s find out how Black Sabbath came up with a unique (and ultimately successful) solution to exactly that problem.

A Formula for Dominance

Black Sabbath guitarist Tony Iommi had writers’ block. And this was a major problem for Black Sabbath. You see, the band had a very specific way of putting their songs together, which had fallen into place during the writing for ‘Paranoid’, their second album released in 1970.

In the studio to work on ‘Paranoid’, Sabbath were in a hole – nearing their recording deadline, they just didn’t have enough songs to fill up an album. However, as The Hawk knows only too well from writing this blog, there’s nothing like a deadline to concentrate minds. Tony Iommi came up with the famous ‘Paranoid’ riff, just like that – now 50 years old, but still a must-learn for any aspiring heavy metal guitar player. On hearing the riff, bassist Geezer Butler bashed out some lyrics, and they came up with an arrangement. All told, it took Black Sabbath about 2 hours beginning-to-end to come with an all-time classic!

Not only that, but at the same time, a formula was created for future song writing. Iommi would come up with ideas for riffs,  Ozzy Osbourne would think about the melody, Geezer Butler wrote most of the lyrics to suit what he was hearing (and which drugs he may have taken), and Bill Ward on drums would lock in one of his trademark pounding rhythms.

And it worked. Black Sabbath knocked out their first 4 albums in only a little over 2 years, all containing songs that the fans still regard as the crème de la crème of Classic Heavy Metal even today. They trip off the tongue – ‘Paranoid’, ‘Iron Man’, ‘War Pigs’, ‘Children of the Grave’, you can go on and on. Sabbath were Kings of the Heavy Metal World.

The Weakest Link

But you may have noticed a weak link in this chain securing world domination – if nearly all the songs depended on Tony Iommi coming up with a killer riff to get the band’s creative juices flowing, what would happen if Iommi’s inspiration should ever run dry? That question was about to be severely put to the test.

Despite their apparent undisputed dominance as gods of 1970s heavy metal, Black Sabbath’s tour in support of their ‘Vol. 4’ album in 1972-3 had not gone smoothly. Drugs were a big culprit as usual, with copious amounts of cocaine being consumed by everyone – but the constant drug haze was almost certainly compounded by what we’d today simply refer to as burn out. Black Sabbath’s relentless recording and touring schedule was catching up with them.

In his autobiography ‘I am Ozzy’, singer Ozzy Osbourne recalled a famous incident after a show at the Hollywood Bowl during that Vol. 4 tour. ‘Tony had been doing coke literally for days – we all had, but Tony had gone over the edge. I mean, that stuff just twists your whole idea of reality. You start seeing things that aren’t there. And Tony was gone. Near the end of the gig he walked off stage and collapsed.’

Sensibly, the band ended their tour and took some time off for once – a break not only from the grinding schedule but also from each other. But from the point of view of momentum, chemistry, whatever you want to call it, the overwork followed by no work was almost disastrous for the band. They came back together in LA to write a new album, and had nothing. Nada. Zip.

According to Iommi, ‘Everybody was sitting there waiting for me to come up with something. I just couldn’t think of anything. And if I didn’t come up with anything, nobody would do anything.’ Black Sabbath had their tried and trusted song writing formula, which everyone now expected to carry on as before. But no Iommi riffs equalled no songs at all. Iommi might have been annoyed with the others for failing to step in to help – he sure sounded that way when he made the comment. But it didn’t mean he wasn’t feeling the pressure. Even if a new song writing formula could be found, he’d still have to compose the guitar riffs and leads, and the well was bone dry.

Back to Blightly

Panic set in for a time, until in desperation, they all decided to up sticks, abandon their LA rock-god palaces, and move back to the UK, where a more suitable ‘Black Sabbath-y’ location might be found. Somewhere with the right vibe that would unblock the plumbing, and get some ideas flowing again.

Fortunately, the perfect venue was stumbled upon – Clearwell Castle. This was a gloomy gothic country pile in Gloucestershire in the west of England, constructed way back in 1727 as a rural get away for well-to-do English lawyer and politician Thomas Wyndham. Wyndham’s family occupied the house for over 150 years, but as with many English stately homes, if eventually encountered hard times. Subsequent owners struggled with the costs of upkeep, and the building slowly decayed. A fire ripped through the place in the early 1900s, and it seemed for a time that the place might end up being abandoned as a ruin.

But in the second half of the twentieth century, it was reprieved, restored and as part of the renovation work, someone saw fit to install a recording studio – one that saw traffic from several Classic Heavy Metal Bands, or at least ‘pre-classic’, with Led Zeppelin, Queen and Deep Purple all passing through at one time or other.

Spooked back to life

But the vibe was just what the doctor ordered for Black Sabbath, with the ‘spooky castle’ feeling re-invigorating the horror movie inspirations that had served them so well in the past. They started rehearsing in the castle dungeons, which was suitably chilling and creepy – and in fact that was the exact location where Tony Iommi got back to business, coming up with the iconic riff for the subject of this song blog – ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’. He played the riff to the others – and suddenly the creative tension vanished. Everyone knew instantly that Black Sabbath were back.

The opening riff of the song is one of Classic Metal Hawk’s favourite Black Sabbath riffs of all time. Iommi plays it once by himself. Then once again, with Butler and Ward coming in with the rumbling bass and pounding drums. Then once again, this time with Ozzy joining on the vocals. Each repetition ramps up the tension to a new level.

The dynamic drops through the floor in the chorus / interlude with its acoustic backing, but then we’re back to the riff, this time even more tense with Iommi doubling it up with a higher octave lick. The guitar solo plays over the same looping riff, cranking things up even higher. Then we get into the second phase of the song. Iommi brings in another new riff, with the guitar down-tuned so much that you wonder how he even gets a tone out of it. Later on, there’s the long outro section with plenty of wild, discordant licks played over the top.

That outro has been heard and loved over the years not only by fans but also by some Classic Heavy Metal legends. Slash from Guns N’ Roses called it ‘the heaviest s*** I have ever heard in my life. To this day, I haven’t heard anything as heavy that has as much soul.’ Brent Hinds from Mastodon thought the same passage conjured up ‘dreams turning to nightmares, Heaven turning to Hell’. The Hawk prefers the first part of the song to the second – the main riff with the first verses followed by the guitar solo. But they come together to make a truly legendary song, which at the time brought a new heaviness to the metal genre.

Original and Best

Thrash gods Anthrax added a cover of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ as a B-side on their rap-crossover single ‘I’m the Man’, showing you their love of heavy metal ancestry and the level of appeal they thought it had for fans. It’s a nice version, but somehow fails to capture the atmosphere of the original recording. As far as The Hawk is concerned, Black Sabbath were the original masters of atmospheric heavy metal horror, and probably always will be. See what you think.

Geezer the Poet

Like many outpourings from the pen of Geezer Butler, it can be hard to assign a lot of meaning to some of the lyrics. The song title is thought to derive from ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, a political diatribe by John Lennon and Yoko Ono about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and a massacre of civilians by troops on the streets in 1972 – though of course Black Sabbath cover completely different territory. Butler was basically writing about the ups and downs of being a member of Black Sabbath at the time. Massive highs, oceanic depths and everything in between – and crying out about the mental strain of coping with that roller coaster. There’s also a pop at general ‘baddies’ and villains encountered along the journey – record label bosses, bean counters, critics and so on.

Ozzy got into character for that ‘screw them all’ attitude extremely well, and the Hawk can definitely hear a little more passion in certain lines – this one especially at the start of the second verse:

‘The people who have crippled you / You wanna SEE THEM BURN.’

Iommi’s Favourite

Perhaps surprisingly for a song that many people (themselves included) thought saved Black Sabbath from the creative scrap heap, the song hardly got a live run out at all during the 70s, though it did pop up in shows later on. Maybe they just thought they couldn’t do it full justice outside of a dank castle dungeon. Anyway, Iommi rated it as one of his favourite Black Sabbath songs, thanks to the heavy riffing combined with the light and shade dynamics.

Seeing Ghosts

Unfortunately, despite pulling triumph from the jaws of disaster with the song (and indeed the rest of the album, which was well received even by critics this time around), the band hadn’t managed to resolve the long running personal tensions between themselves during the recording. In fact, things were probably made worse by the paranoia-inducing surroundings. After a rehearsal in the castle armoury one night, Iommi and Ozzy claimed to have seen a figure in a black cloak which then disappeared into thin air. The castle owners duly confirmed the presence of a ghost in the building.

That set everyone on edge – Black Sabbath members were already famous for their developed interest in occult topics, remember – and the paranoia was only compounded by the constant practical jokes the band members played on each other, with which they terrified each other relentlessly. As usual, Bill Ward was on the wrong end of it more than anyone, to the point where he’d go to bed at night with a dagger.

(It’s all anecdotal, but Ward’s reputation as the victim of most of the joking / bullying that went on in the Black Sabbath camp was probably justified. In another famous example on a Sabbath tour, Ozzy sprayed Ward’s penis with an aerosol can he’d found whilst they were both taking a piss standing next to each other. The can turned out to contain a highly toxic substance which everyone found hilarious other than poor Ward himself. In Ozzy’s autobiography, he also describes an incident in which Tony Iommi allegedly doused Ward’s cock with a can of blue spray paint. This may or may not be the same incident, with Ozzy passing the blame on to Iommi.)

Back to the castle shenanigans, and from the same autobiography Ozzy noted that ‘We weren’t so much the Lords of Darkness as the Lords of Chickens*** when it came to that kind of thing … We wound each other up so much none of us got any sleep. You’d just lie there with your eyes wide open, expecting an empty suit of armour to walk into your bedroom at any second to shove a dagger up your arse.’

After a while, nobody could stand to stay in the castle overnight, or even after dark – they’d go home at the end of each day instead.

Beginning of the End

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly the tipping point for the original Sabbath line-up – what was the beginning-of-the-end, the straw that broke the camel’s back and made their eventual split inevitable? Their spell in spooky Clearwell Castle is certainly a candidate. Ozzy said later that ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath was really the album after which I should have said goodbye because after that I really started unravelling. Then we ended up falling out of favour with each other.’

They staggered on for another 5 years, putting up with each other (or not, as the case may be) until eventually the drug and booze fuelled rows caused the famous schism with Ozzy being fired. He went on to different (and wilder) things, which you can read about on The Hawk’s blog. 

But for now, let’s revel in Black Sabbath at the height of their 70s heavy metal powers. And if it took an encounter with a castle ghost to deliver it, the ghost chose his timing well.

The Hawk has never visited Clearwell castle – but let us know in the comments if you have – is it as spooky as it sounds? It sure helped give us one of The Hawk’s favourite ever Black Sabbath numbers – how does ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ rate in your own Black Sabbath pantheon?

Share your thoughts below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.

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