British metal legends Black Sabbath were formed in Birmingham in 1968 by guitarist Tony Iommi, drummer Bill Ward, bassist Geezer Butler and vocalist Ozzy Osbourne. This iconic original lineup would give us eight albums before frontman Osbourne departed in 1979 as he grappled with numerous substance abuse problems.
Without a doubt, the first iteration of Sabbath is the most important. Together the four of them pioneered the burgeoning heavy metal sound, and their first three outings – 1970’s Black Sabbath and Paranoid and 1971’s Master of Reality – are seen as early cornerstones of the genre. It’s a testament to just how game-changing their work is that they remain so influential to this day.
Ozzy Osbourne has one of the most unique voices in all of rock music, and his insane off-stage antics rightly earned him the moniker the ‘Prince of Darkness’. For instance, the mention of him biting the head off a live bat only scratches the surface. Added to this power was guitarist Tonny Iommi. He pioneered a sound that would go on to influence doom, sludge and everything in between. His chugging riffs set a standard that many have tried and failed to reach.
Bassist Geezer Butler developed a fuzzy, rumbling tone and also doubled up as the band’s primary lyricist. Butler is such a legend that Jason Newstead, the former bass player of Metallica, once said, “All true metal bassists look up to Geezer as a pioneer and Godfather of our chosen instrument. The best, ever”. It’s true. You can trace all the key facets of metal bass playing back to the thunderous sounds of Butler, who wielded his bass like Thor with Mjölnir.
As for drummer Bill Ward, he is also rightly revered by those in the know, but in the mainstream, he often gets overlooked in favour of more illustrious drummers such as Neil Peart and John Bonham, when, in reality, he is equally significant. Ward helped to develop the metal style of drumming, alongside the likes of Ginger Baker and Bonham, but created far more foreboding rhythms than the aforementioned icons. Without him, the band’s muscular sound would not have had the vitality we all know and love.
However, Black Sabbath weren’t always the superstars we know them as today. They, like everybody else, cut their teeth playing in local pubs and clubs and learnt the hard way. At first, they went by the name Earth until they changed their name after being mistaken for another British group of the same name. At the time, they were just an ordinary rock outfit, playing groovy rock ‘n’ roll that channelled the essence of Cream and Jimi Hendrix.
Even after changing their name to Black Sabbath in 1969, they continued in this vein but slowly started to experiment with rhythms and tones, and started recording material. Luckily for us, one of these 1969 demos exists on the internet, ‘When I Came Down’, and it provides us with great insight into just how Sabbath developed their sound.
Remarkably, Osbourne’s vocals sound incredibly accomplished at this early stage, as does Iommi’s guitar playing. However, his playing is nowhere near as heavy as it would be over the next few years, but that’s understandable; they were finding themselves. Sabbath were on the verge of unearthing their true power, and by the sounds of it, this life-changing discovery was just around the corner.
Listen to ‘When I Came Down’ below.