Listen to This, Not That: Black Sabbath

By popular demand, I’m writing about Black Sabbath. My Twitter followers requested it and like Cosmo and Wanda from Fairly Odd Parents, your wish is my command! If you’re new to Listen to This, Not That, this is a series where we look at rock bands often played on classic rock radio that are well known for a handful of songs and dive deep into their discography. You don’t go to classic rock radio for variety and that was something I was always frustrated with, so I started this blog to talk about bands you may not know and to talk about your favourite classic rock bands in a new way: a fresh angle and approach. My blog exists to show you the other sides of classic rock that you may not know as much about. If you want to learn more about Black Sabbath, keep on reading!

I always start off these blog posts with a bio on the musicians since not everyone who reads these posts are superfans who can name all the musicians grandparents and know their birth charts by heart. Whether you’re a longtime fan who wants to read my analysis to hear some different perspectives or a new fan who wants to learn and wants to learn about a band in a non-intimidating way, I want to make this post accessible to you. We don’t take anything for granted here on The Diversity of Classic Rock. I’m writing the guide I wish I had when I was getting into classic rock

Who are Black Sabbath?

If you want to understand heavy metal and hard rock, you have to familiarise yourself with Black Sabbath. Of course you don’t have to like every band, but I think it’s important in classic rock history and appreciation that you understand the influential and pioneering bands in each subgenre and how they shaped music. Another thing that I particularly like is that half the band are vegan! Geezer Butler grew up not eating meat because his family couldn’t afford it and he’s been a vegan for nearly 30 years and Bill Ward is also a vegan. Who says that being vegan is only for crunchy granola hippies who listen to folk rock? With that said, let’s talk about who they are and why they’re so important in heavy metal and hard rock.

Black Sabbath were formed in 1968 in Birmingham by lead singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi, drummer Bill Ward, and bassist Geezer Butler. Tony Iommi and Bill Ward started off playing heavy blues rock in the band Mythology. They needed a bassist and singer and hired Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler from the band Rare Breed. Like a lot of bands, they didn’t have the name we know them as straight away. Before they were Black Sabbath, they called themselves the Polka Tulk Blues Band and Earth (a not so original name since another band in England had that name), neither name being as iconic as Black Sabbath. Imagine if they stuck with Polka Tulk Blues Band, that doesn’t sound like a superstar band name. The band’s start was a bit rocky with Tony Iommi briefly leaving the band to join Jethro Tull, even appearing with them on the Rolling Stones Rock n Roll Circus, but quitting not too long after that because it wasn’t right for him.

The band came up with the name Black Sabbath while looking out the window from the rehearsal room and seeing a cinema marquee that said they’re showing the 1963 Mario Bava horror film, Black Sabbath. Geezer Butler saw a lot of people queueing to see the movie and laughed at how people pay lots of money to see scary movies. They liked the sound of the movie’s title and wrote a song named after it. After that, they liked how scary the song sounded and said that’s the band’s name now and they played their first show as Black Sabbath in August 1969. Once they started releasing music, it was a meteoric rise to fame: albums doing well on the charts and influencing metalheads. Their first three albums are considered genre defining albums and masterpieces, essential listens for any hard rock/heavy metal fan.

There’s no doubt that they shaped heavy metal. A big part of their sound was a complete accident and quite tragic. Just before quitting his job, Tony Iommi was a sheet metal worker and cut part of his right middle and ring fingers off in an accident, which affected his ability to play guitar. At first, he was convinced that he would never play guitar again, but the foreman at the factory played some Django Reinhardt for him, and that inspired him to keep going because he also lost his fingers in an accident and played guitar so well. Now with parts of his fingers missing on the fretting hand, he would have to make adjustments and get creative. He didn’t switch to playing guitar right handed, which he admits would have been easier and something he wish he did at the time, but instead he made some thimbles to put on his fingers and used banjo strings instead of guitar and tuned his guitar lower to make it easier to play, giving Sabbath their trademark big, heavy sound. The lyrics are doomy, occult, and gothic. Typically Iommi wrote the music, Butler wrote the lyrics, and Osbourne wrote the vocal melodies.

I love to make connections and show similarities to previous bands I’ve talked about on this series. Hard rock is considered classic rock and these bands were no doubt successful on the albums charts, but that doesn’t translate to success on the singles charts. Similar to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath weren’t much of a singles band, but Led Zeppelin did get more radio airplay. Nerdy lyrics are just more radio friendly than occult lyrics. Critics didn’t like Sabbath as much as Zeppelin: they didn’t understand its darkness, or maybe they weren’t ready for it. Their earliest songs were recorded just over 50 years ago as of the time I’m writing this post (March 2021) and it sounds like it would have been released later than that, especially when you compare it with other releases from that time.

Even though the critics didn’t like them (When have critics been right? Take what they say with a grain of salt and think for yourselves), the fans made up for it. Black Sabbath have sold tens of millions of albums, toured all over the world, and every metal band pretty much cites them as an influence and loves them – many of them covering their songs and some bands even naming themselves after their songs. Rolling Stone, have to hand it to them, said it well: they were “The Beatles of heavy metal” – they respected who came before them and took the blues rock sounds of Cream, Blue Cheer, Vanilla Fudge and put their own spin on it with tuned down guitars, slowed down tempo, and pairing the music with macabre, gothic, occult lyrics. They took that music a step further.

Admittedly, Black Sabbath were a band that it took a while for me to like. I can explain. My gateway to classic rock was 60s beat music and garage/surf rock, that was what I was most used to listening to, still my comfort zone and the music that makes me happiest. Heavy metal and hard rock is quite different from that, but I opened my mind a lot more as time went on. At first, I thought it was a bit much when I first heard their songs, except “Paranoid”, how could you not like that one? It definitely grew on me as I got more into heavier rock music. I’ve only listened to their first four albums, so their later albums aren’t as familiar to me so I’m going in with an open mind and fresh ears, which might add to this deep dive, or not. Writing these deep dives is a learning experience for me the writer and you the reader.

Not That: The best known Black Sabbath songs

Given the information above, this is going to make the Listen to This, Not That harder to create rules for. I can’t exactly use the same rules that I did for The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Who, and Queen. The rules for this one are probably going to mirror those of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin: no chart hits (if any), no greatest hits, and I might take into consideration any live favourites/concert staples especially if they coincide with the other two factors. The greatest hits album I will be going with is the Greatest Hits album from 2009. I prefer to pick newer greatest hits albums because time is a filter and what might have been considered a band’s greatest hit in the 80s may not be considered that today. I want to look at what people remember most and what has stuck in people’s heads in the Not That section. The other reason I picked this compilation over the others is that it sold quite well. This compilation album primarily comprises of songs from the first 4 albums, bar “Never Say Die” from the album of the same name from 1978. Here’s the track listing in order of discography:

  1. “Black Sabbath” – Black Sabbath (1970)
  2. “The Wizard” – Black Sabbath (1970)
  3. “N.I.B.” – Black Sabbath (1970)
  4. “Evil Woman” – Black Sabbath (1970)
  5. “War Pigs” – Paranoid (1970)
  6. “Paranoid” – Paranoid (1970)
  7. “Iron Man” – Paranoid (1970)
  8. “Fairies Wear Boots” – Paranoid (1970)
  9. “Sweet Leaf” – Master of Reality (1971)
  10. “Children of the Grave” – Master of Reality (1971)
  11. “Changes” – Vol. 4 (1972)
  12. “Snowblind” – Vol. 4 (1972)
  13. “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” – Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)
  14. “Never Say Die” – Never Say Die! (1978)

Of these, the only two chart hits were “Paranoid”, which charted at #4 in the UK and #61 in the US and “Never Say Die”, which charted at #21 in the UK. Generally, Black Sabbath are not a chart/singles band, but an albums band. Remember that heavier rock music was more of a subculture and not the mainstream music of the 70s.

Taking a look at statistics for Black Sabbath, you can see that these songs pretty much make up most of the concert staples and material from their first three albums are the ones that are most played. I’ve spoken to Sabbath fans and they pretty much say it, the first three albums are essentials.

Listen to This: Beyond the Greatest Hits

Now we get to the part that you came to this blog post for, the discography deep dive. As I usually do, each album gets a section and I share a couple interesting facts and I share what songs I think are worth listening to. No live albums or albums not from the classic rock era (60s-80s). A bit of an arbitrary rule, but I do this because I’m trying to be efficient and this is a classic rock blog. I don’t really review new material from classic rock bands.

Black Sabbath (1970)

You can definitely say that their discography started with a bang. This album is basically “Hello, we’re Black Sabbath and we write songs that are true to our name. Get used to it. It’s gonna be heavier than whatever you’ve heard before, we’re gonna make Led Zeppelin sound like Weenie Hut Jr’s.” The album cover is also pretty eye catching and witchy with a woman, Louisa Livingstone, in a black cape standing in a field with Mapledurham Watermill in the background. Remember what Rolling Stone said about Sabbath being The Beatles of heavy metal? Well, similar to The Beatles, their debut was pretty much recorded all in one session – what an epic session and history being made. Overall, you can definitely hear how this album influenced doom metal, stoner rock, acid rock, you name it. As half of this album is in the Greatest Hits above, my recommendations are the tracks not included in it: “Behind The Wall of Sleep”, “Sleeping Village”, and “Warning” – it definitely qualifies for an inclusion on my Perfect Albums list. It’s an excellent album for anyone who likes guitars and solos (“Warning” has a lot of great moments, as it’s an epic length song – Think Hendrix, Zeppelin, and Cream but heavier). “Wicked World” is a bonus track and also worth a listen. It’s an album you need to listen to in its entirety to understand heavy metal history since it’s basically the blueprint, but like any trailblazers, there are going to be the critics who pooh-pooh it, like Lester Bangs who said they were like Cream, but worse and said that the song titles sounded like Vanilla Fudge paying a poor tribute to Aleister Crowley. Robert Christgau called it “bullshit necromancy”. You can’t get more rock and roll than triggering the rock and roll establishment, right?

Paranoid (1971)

Originally supposed to be titled War Pigs, the band changed the album title because they didn’t want to get backlash from war hawks, although Ozzy later said it wasn’t true and that “Paranoid” was just the more marketable single on the album. Keep in mind that the Vietnam War wasn’t over yet and despite the UK not participating in it, the US is the biggest music market and you don’t want to piss off America (don’t be The Kinks, getting banned from America will torpedo your career). Not everyone was a peace loving hippie in the 60s and 70s. Being an early heavy metal band, you’re on thin ice. The title track was the band’s breakthrough single and Tony Iommi said that it got the screaming kids to go to their concerts, but they weren’t exactly thrilled with that because they wanted more of their dedicated fans who have been there from the beginning at the shows, not a bunch of bandwagon fans. It was one of their most successful albums, topping the albums charts and everyone knows “Paranoid”, “War Pigs”, and “Iron Man”, all of which get played on rock radio, but don’t stop there. “War Pigs” isn’t the only song on the album with political commentary: “Electric Funeral” is about nuclear holocaust and “Hand of Doom” is about soldiers coming back from the war addicted to drugs. “Rat Salad” is a solid instrumental.

Of course there were controversies with this album, like a nurse who had this album on her turntable, the last album she listened to before she took her life and people blamed Black Sabbath for her suicide, which is ridiculous and not understanding how depression works. No one takes their life because of music they’re listening to, it’s because they’re trying to get away from pain, they’re going through a hard time in life, health problems, financial problems, they feel hopeless, and they don’t make the decision overnight either. Music is often a person’s coping mechanism.

Master of Reality (1971)

Once again, Black Sabbath released a great album and you’ll definitely recognise the cover of this one. I love the colour scheme since purple and black are my favourite colours. You could say this album is the grandfather of doom metal, stoner rock, and sludge metal. Selling over 2 million copies, it was another success! On this album you’ll hear even more downtuned guitar like on “Lord of this World” and “Into The Void”, and of course on the well known song “Children of the Grave”. Track 2, “After Forever” (the b-side to “Fairies Wear Boots”), has a Christian theme, not exactly something you’d expect from Black Sabbath, but in actuality Geezer Butler is a Catholic. There are two short instrumentals, which are nice to listen to “Embryo” and “Orchid”, the latter definitely sounds unexpected and different from their usual material, but i like it – it’s beautiful. I love when heavy rock bands play beautiful more acoustic songs like that. Once again, listen to this album in its entirety, you won’t regret it.

Vol. 4  (1972)

Originally going to be titled Snowblind, the label didn’t want an overt drug reference (remember Nixon’s in office by this point and starting his racist, classist War on Drugs), so they went with a simple title. Props to Sabbath to at least being more creative than Led Zeppelin with their first three album titles (obviously poking fun at Led Zeppelin, don’t worry, I love them). It’s the band’s first self produced album and the first of theirs to be recorded outside of the UK, this time being recorded in LA.

While the music is excellent, in typical Behind The Music fashion, the band were going through problems behind the scenes… as in drug abuse and no they weren’t getting stoned this time, they got rock star money now so they can afford cocaine. While recording the album, they had cocaine delivered to them hidden in speaker boxes. Bill Ward felt like he was on the brink of being fired because of his disappointing performance on “Cornucopia”, struggling to get through the song. By this point, Lester Bangs had changed his mind about Sabbath and gave this album a positive review. Lots of great music on this one, besides the fan favourite “Changes”: “Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener” – that instrumental jam is great; “Supernaut” – a favourite of Frank Zappa’s and one of my favourite percussion moments in rock up there with “The Ox”, “Toad”, and “Moby Dick”; “Laguna Sunrise” is a soft, acoustic instrumental – absolutely beautiful – I love hearing heavy metal bands doing more acoustic songs; and “St Vitus Dance” has some late 60s early 70s psychedelic sounds in it.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)

By this point, things were not going well health wise for the band. At one concert at the Hollywood Bowl, Tony Iommi passed out. He was also experiencing writer’s block and since the songs always start off with him composing the music, the rest of the band weren’t happy with him. Sabbath decided to leave LA for home, England and rented the recording studio in Clearwell Castle. Perhaps some new surroundings would serve as inspiration. There were dungeons, an armoury, and they felt like the place was haunted. From there, the riff to the title track was created and they felt like they were on the right track again, but it was the beginning of the end for the original lineup. All good things come to an end, right? I like the tracks “A National Acrobat”, “Fluff” (if you liked “Laguna Sunrise” you’ll like this one), “Sabbra Cadabra” (Rick Wakeman plays piano and Minimoog on this one), “Killing Yourself To Live”, “Looking For Today” – all about the music industry and how your time at the top is so short, and “Spiral Architect” – what a perfect song to describe the mood for 2021, trying not to lose hope. Overall, another solid album.

Sabotage (1975)

We finally get to the part in Black Sabbath’s discography where there are no greatest hits, so any of these songs can be included in the Listen to This playlist. This album was recorded during a time when the band were dealing with litigation with their former manager Patrick Meehan and that’s the reason for the title and the angry sound on the album. Their manager sued them and that was sabotaging them as a band. Bill Ward joked that this is probably the only album made with lawyers in the studio. During the recording of the previous album, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, they realised they were being ripped off. The album cover is something that fans consider cursed and not very good or aesthetically appealing. Maybe they should have taken a rain check and rescheduled the photoshoot for a different day, might have been worth it. The band didn’t discuss what they would be wearing for the photoshoot, which contributed to the not very cohesive look. It’s not as good as the previous albums, but there are some tracks worth listening to like “Symptom of the Universe”, “The Thrill of It All”, and “Supertzar”. I found myself skipping songs, to be honest.

Technical Ecstasy (1976)

This album was recorded in Miami and the reasoning for this choice was they wanted a change from the doom sound they were known for and open people’s minds who might have been turned off by their trademark sound. I respect when bands want to change with the times and try something different, but this was a failed experiment for Black Sabbath and it’s not just fans who thought this, the band were even thinking it too. Ozzy wanted to leave the band at this time and was tired of Tony Iommi saying that they should sound more like Queen or Foreigner. I guess an important lesson is learnt here, never try to sound like another band, it’s only going to sound second rate. The synthesisers sound cheesy. This album can be skipped if you’re not a die hard fan or someone who feels the need to listen to everything. It’s my job as a music blogger to listen to everything and tell you what I think so you don’t waste your time listening to crap. I’m willing to give everything a chance and I really want to like everything I listen to and I can’t say that this album is my thing. Respect to them for trying something different, as I said before. I think it’s pretty cool that one of the songs on here, “It’s Alright” has Bill Ward on lead vocals rather than Ozzy Osbourne – his voice isn’t bad and the song is worth a listen, very poppy and McCartney like, but that’s not a bad thing. “All Moving Parts” is about a drag queen who becomes President of the United States, pretty cool. The reason they wrote that song is because of America being a sexist society. Some outdated language in it since it’s from the 70s.

Never Say Die! (1978)

This is the last album with the original lineup. Ozzy briefly quit the band, but he came back to record this album. The album was recorded in Toronto and they didn’t like the studio because the sound was dead in there and it was too late to switch studios so they ripped the carpet off the floor and tried their best to create a live sound. Besides the title track, which is on the greatest hits compilation, you can skip this album. Ozzy Osbourne was fired in 1979 because he became unreliable and was on drugs. He wanted to start a band called Blizzard of Ozz, but instead that became the name of his debut solo album.

Heaven and Hell (1980)

New decade, new lead singer. Their new lead singer was Ronnie James Dio, formerly of Elf and Rainbow. They were thinking of changing the band’s name and starting fresh, but instead they continued as Black Sabbath. Coincidentally, Tony Iommi and Ronnie James Dio met at The Rainbow in LA. Good timing too! Iommi needed a new vocalist and Dio wanted something to do so he joined Black Sabbath. After a few disappointing albums, this is what I call a comeback! Finally some life and flavour! Definitely an album you should listen to in its entirety.

Mob Rules (1981)

The second album with Dio, but critics say it’s a disappointment compared with the last album. It’s definitely not as good, but there are some good songs on it like “Turn Up The Night” and “The Mob Rules”. Overall, it’s forgettable compared to the last album. You can skip this one unless you’re a die hard fan or must listen to everything.

Born Again (1983)

Black Sabbath have a new vocalist and this time it’s Ian Gillan of Deep Purple. What is this, a supergroup? This is also the last album with Geezer Butler and Bill Ward. The album cover is cursed, then again, Black Sabbath aren’t known for having the best album covers, sorry not sorry. At one point, the band were thinking of releasing this album under another name, but their manager, Don Arden (yes, that same one who ripped off The Small Faces), insisted on having the name recognition and keeping it as Black Sabbath. Ian Gillan didn’t stay for long because Deep Purple reunited in 1984. It was for the best because as talented of a singer he is, he’s not the best fit for Black Sabbath since his musical background is totally different. It’s like putting apples or strawberries in pasta or bananas on a pizza (the latter was a thing from an episode of Doug – but I don’t think you’re gonna like it). I love all those foods, but not mixed together.

This is not a good album, period. It’s boring and feels robotic to me. I think it would have been better if Heaven and Hell was their last album. The only redeeming thing about this album is the funny story of how when they toured to promote the album, Don Arden wrote 15 metres instead of 15 feet for the height of the Stonehenge set and it was too big to fit into any venue so it just sat there in storage, a waste. This was famously parodied in This is Spinal Tap, but instead of Stonehenge being too big, it was too small!

After this album, the rest of the discography can be more described as Tony Iommi and Friends, not Black Sabbath. It’s not Tony Iommi’s fault, but Don Arden for making him release it as a Black Sabbath album, I want to make that clear.

The later albums

I can’t really recommend anything here since it’s alright at best, but I will say that Seventh Star is better than Born Again, but I think it sounds cheesy. When “dinosaur” rock bands make music in the 80s, it’s not that great – trying too hard to stay relevant and keep up with the musical trends. Lots of newer bands from then to listen to instead, that’s where the good 80s music is. Coincidentally, they use another Deep Purple vocalist, Glenn Hughes from Mark III/IV. I believe this when it comes to rock bands: either they quit while they’re on top and you’re wishing for more or they keep going way too long and the quality of their work declines and you’re wondering what happened to them.

Thinking about it in TV show terms, it’s like The Simpsons, started off as a great show. The older seasons are brilliant, but they really should have quit earlier because the newer episodes don’t have the same magic. Coming back to previous Listen to This, Not That‘s I’ve written, I’m glad Led Zeppelin didn’t continue making music into the 80s since they were already going downhill by the end of the 70s. Or as much as I love The Kinks, there were so many times when I was listening to things from Preservation Acts 1 & 2 onwards and I was like “are you sure this is the same band that released Village Green?”. Again with The Who, every album after Quadrophenia was a letdown and especially got bad by Who Are You (an album I consider unlistenable, save two tracks – “Trick of the Light” was the best on that album), you can’t change my mind. I was frustrated by the end of the discographies in all these cases.

Below is the playlist for this blog post:

Stay tuned for the next Listen to This, Not That, which will be about The Doors.

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