In The Desert Of Seth

By G. B. Marian

Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath (1970)

The album cover for Black Sabbath’s 1970 self-titled debut

It’s not quite the “first” heavy metal record; it was preceded by Deep Purple’s Shades of Deep Purple (1968), the first Led Zeppelin album (1969) and Alice Cooper’s Pretties For You (1969). Yet one could argue that these earlier records were only “contractions” and that the release of Black Sabbath on Friday, February 13, 1970 was the actual birth of heavy metal itself. This album is required listening for anyone who truly wants to understand metal, and every metal record that has been produced since 1970 is descended from it in some way.

For those of you who are new to this subject, the original Black Sabbath band consisted of Terence Butler on bass guitar, Anthony Iommi on lead guitar, John Osbourne on vocals and William Ward on drums. All four of these guys were blue-collar kids who lived and worked in Birmingham, England. Butler became known to his friends as “Geezer,” which is a British slang term for “bloke,” “dude” or “guy,” and he was fascinated with religion, science fiction and the threat of global extinction by nuclear warfare (and similar threats). Iommi worked in a sheet metal factory and lost the tips of his middle and ring fingers in an industrial accident, which caused him to develop a more distinctive sound with his instrument. (He’s more famously known as Tony Iommi today.) John Osbourne – who was known to his friends as “Ozzy” – was a dyslexic kid with ADD who dropped out of school, worked in a slaughterhouse (among other things) and spent some time in prison for petty crime. And Ward – who usually goes by “Bill” – was the runt of the litter, on whom the other members would play occasional harmful pranks (e.g., setting his beard or his pants on fire, etc.).

Things got started when Iommi and Ward decided to start a blues band together. After meeting Butler and Osbourne, they started calling themselves the Polka Tulk Blues Band. They later changed their name to Earth, but they soon discovered there was already another band with this name, so they had to change it yet again. One night, Butler noticed a bunch of people lined up outside a movie theater to see the 1963 Mario Bava horror film, I Tre Volti Della Paura (“The Three Faces of Death,” which was retitled Black Sabbath in English). Realizing that people pay good money to be scared, the boys from Birmingham decided to re-think their band’s entire image. Out went the hippie stuff and in came the gothic witchy devil stuff. The band became Black Sabbath, and to cement their transition, Butler and Osbourne co-wrote an entirely new song – which is also named Black Sabbath – that tells a story about Satanists murdering people in the night.

In November 1969 the band cut a deal with Vertigo Records and started recording in a studio. According to Iommi, they simply went into the studio and recorded their entire live set in a single day. What we hear on the album today is essentially a live performance with all of the musicians playing at the very same time. There was no time for them to go back and re-record anything. After the album was mixed, it was released the following year. Critics hated it, of course, but it fared remarkably well; it even reached number 23 on the Billboard 200 after it was released in the United States by Warner Bros. Black Sabbath couldn’t have had any idea that their first record would become as culturally relevant as it eventually did, but there was absolutely no room for debate when they released the even more popular Paranoid later that same year.

The album opens with the sound of pouring rain and thunder cracking in the sky. A lonely church bell rings in the distance (as if to announce the funeral of the 1960s “flower power” movement). Then, with a final crack of thunder, the band bursts right into the opening cut – “Black Sabbath” – like a horde of zombies breaking down an iron door. The song’s description of a human sacrifice is made all the more disturbing by Ozzy’s feeble screams to God for help. The next track, “The Wizard,” tells of a sorcerer who frightens away demons to protect his village, and it includes a ghostly-sounding harmonica (played by Osbourne). “Behind the Wall of Sleep” appears to be based on Beyond the Wall of Sleep, an H.P. Lovecraft story in which a mental patient is revealed to be a misunderstood alien. “N.I.B.” (which is often thought to stand for “Nativity in Black”) tells of Lucifer seducing a maiden into becoming his lover.

“Evil Woman” (which was originally a song by a band called Crow) is about a relationship that has disintegrated, depicting the narrator’s ex-lover as a malevolent sorceress. “Sleeping Village” paints a pastoral image of a medieval rural community at daybreak, and “Warning” – which is a cover of a song by the band Retaliation – links the narrator’s feelings about a failed romance to cataclysmic changes in the Earth. Finally, “Wicked World” closes the album with its views on the general misery of the human condition, wailing at the dismal irony that we, as a species, can now send people to the moon but are still unable to defeat poverty, disease and war on Earth.

Mapledurham Watermill today

The atmosphere of Black Sabbath is heightened by its gothic cover art, which features a picture of Mapledurham Watermill on the River Thames in Oxfordshire, England. Standing before the watermill is a green-skinned figure dressed in black (who I’ve always thought looks a bit like Ozzy Osbourne). When the record was first released, it included a gatefold sleeve that depicted an inverted cross. This naturally led certain critics to assume that the members of Black Sabbath were Satanists, and this allegation continues to follow them today. Of course, none of the band’s members have ever been Satanists; they’re all Christians of one kind or another. That’s why you always see them sporting crosses and stuff. I don’t know how religious they might consider themselves to be, but one thing’s for sure: the “Satanism” in their music is just pretend, like in horror movies. They use it to scare the shit out of people because people will pay good money to have the shit scared out of them. Black Sabbath already knew this principle worked in the movies, and they – as well as a number of other artists (especially Alice Cooper) – proved that it works in the music business as well.

That being said, one member of Black Sabbath did dabble in the occult for a little while, and that was Geezer Butler (who was also a fan of Dennis Wheatley, the author of such horror and adventure novels as The Devil Rides Out). According to Tony Iommi, Butler was always visiting occult book stores, reading books about magic and trying some of the things he studied. But at the end of the day he was only a dabbler, never a serious practitioner. Legend has it that Butler awoke one night in 1969 to find a shadowy figure standing at the foot of his bed, staring at him in the dark. This sleep paralysis nightmare scared the bassist into renouncing the occult and becoming a good Catholic again, but his fear of black magic was so potent that it inspired him, as Black Sabbath’s chief lyricist, to continue exploring the occult in many of the band’s songs.

I’ve always had some difficulty explaining what I mean by this statement, but the truth is that the eponymous Black Sabbath album is of deeply religious significance to me. Its thematic obsession with various social, mental, political and spiritual crises – as well as the use of apocalyptic imagery to illustrate these problems – could just as easily be explored in ancient Egyptian terms. If Christianity had never existed and the members of Black Sabbath were raised as Egyptian polytheists, they would probably have written their songs about the very same things; they’d simply have made references to Apophis instead of Satan and to Set instead of the Christian God. And while the 1960’s hippie rock bands tried to ignore evil and focus only on happiness and peace, Sabbath screamed in horror at the numerous evils they saw happening (e.g., the Vietnam War).

Yet the connection I feel between Black Sabbath and Set goes even deeper. There’s just something about the way the album sounds that makes it feel as if there was something else in that recording studio with the band – something dark but also empowering. Could it be the same shadowy figure that Geezer Butler claims to have seen in 1969? Could it be that this figure was not a demon, but Set Himself? Could it be that He was anointing Butler and his bandmates to bring a special message into the world? I guess that’ll sound pretty silly to most people, but I’m convinced it’s true. I discovered something while taking a video class during my sophomore year of high school in the spring of 1999. Using the video equipment that was available in that class, I copied the first Black Sabbath album to a VHS tape and then listened to the entire thing backwards, hoping to hear a backmasked message of some sort. For a good long while, I thought there was nothing…until I got to the very end of the recording (which was actually the beginning of the album). At the point when Ozzy Osbourne sings the very first lyric (i.e., “What is this…?”), I heard what sounded like a sentence, and that sentence chilled me to my very bones.

To be clear, I don’t believe for one second that Black Sabbath intentionally backmasked this message into their music; if it isn’t just an example of pareidolia, I’ve always figured that Someone snuck this message into the music when Sabbath weren’t looking. But because the message we hear in this audio clip is so meaningful to us, we in LV-426 have adopted it as a sort of “catchphrase” that we use in our prayers and rituals. To avoid contaminating other people’s reactions to it, I’ll refrain from stating what we hear when we listen to this clip; but here it is if you’d like to judge it for yourself.

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3 responses to “Black Sabbath: Black Sabbath (1970)

  1. nikkie June 25, 2013 at 12:26 pm

    Figures Mario Bava would have something to do wit this band, LOL.

    Like

  2. Erica Mary Eleanor October 4, 2016 at 10:06 am

    I’ve never listened to Black Sabbath but that was really interesting and actually makes me want to listen to some. Your descriptions of the songs did it for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • G. B. Marian October 6, 2016 at 5:39 pm

      If you’re interested in trying some, I recommend starting with this album. Though I will say that I am different from most Sabbath fans in that I actually love the stuff with Ronnie James Dio better than most of their albums with Ozzy Osbourne (except for this one). I’ll be reviewing one of the Dio albums sometime in the near future!

      Liked by 1 person

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