Dancing was great and all.
But by 1970 — a decade and a half since Bill Haley & His Comets were credited with the first rock ‘n’ roll tune — the world was changing, and so was music. Rock ‘n’ roll had grown past adolescence and was looking to sneak out of the house, past the diner dance floors and into something edgier. It was the start of rock’s great rebellion: a time when the Jimi Hendrix Experience was making rock music bigger and flashier, when Led Zeppelin was making it louder.
And it was a time when rock was getting angrier. By the dawn of the ’70s — rock’s innocence teetering on the edge of the cliff — a band called Black Sabbath, a blues rock group from a broken English factory town, came along. They would punt rock music over the edge and into the abyss.
Inspired by horror films and the allure of the occult, Black Sabbath simply wanted to scare people. Today, well into their 60s, the band’s members are considered the godfathers of heavy metal, continuing to make a lot of people uncomfortable.
“What we did [back then] was almost like watching a horror film where you get the fear,” says Tony Iommi, the band’s guitarist, over the phone a few weeks ago. “I think we tried to create that in the music — create some suspense, something you can feel and something that is heavy.”
For some at the time, it was too much — too dramatic, too overdone. Rock music devoted to the occult? With slow riffs and tolling church bells? Silliness. Rolling Stone critic Lester Bangs hated Black Sabbath’s 1970 debut: “The whole album is a shuck — despite the murky songtitles and some inane lyrics that sound like Vanilla Fudge paying doggerel tribute to Aleister Crowley, the album has nothing to do with spiritualism, the occult, or anything much,” he wrote.
Bangs would eat crow over that one. Later that year, Sabbath would release Paranoid — considered by many the first heavy metal album, and one Rolling Stone would later rank as one of the greatest albums of all time.
Even more than the band’s eponymous debut, Paranoid held no punches back: “War Pigs,” the album’s first track, made no attempts to veil the band’s disdain for the Vietnam War; “Paranoid” talked of a man losing his mind; “Iron Man” tells the story of a man who foresees the apocalypse.
Today, Iommi says that back then the band was pissed off. They grew up in a shitty city. He’d lost two of his fingers on a factory line. Life was far from peachy.
“It was reality of the things that were happening in the world,” he says. “Not many were talking about it — it was all peace and love at that time. So we went the other way. … Where we came from was quite a rough and sort of a downtrodden area. We weren’t singing nice things, it was all grim.
“I think when we were doing it, it was all genuinely honest. It was a side we saw of life.”
So it’s interesting that now, 43 years after the release of the band’s first album, Black Sabbath continues to make music about the grimness and heartaches of the world. On the recently released 13 (the first Black Sabbath record in 18 years), they lament war and injustice, corporate greed and the death of God.
But unlike when Sabbath started, that’s hardly unique anymore. Urban Outfitters sells shirts adorned with upside-down crosses. Lady Gaga dresses up like a sexy nun in her music videos. Madonna burned crosses in the name of pop music decades ago. And Black Sabbath doesn’t exactly come from the same place of depression and poverty it did decades ago.
Iommi says the band might have gotten richer over the years and several waves of dark music have come to pass, but that hasn’t changed the way he and his bandmates see the world.
“I think the grimness is in life. All these things still happen in the world. You can turn the TV on and there’s not that many nice things out there. And that’s very sad,” he says. “And our personal lives — even though we live in luxury at the moment, it still doesn’t make any difference. You still have your downsides. It’s a feeling.”
So after all these years of writing songs like “War Pigs” and 13’s “End of the Beginning,” is Black Sabbath not a band calling for mayhem, like people may have guessed, but for peace? Have they been peaceniks all along? Iommi laughs.
“It would be great to say, we’d love to call for peace. But, God, you look at the world today and it’s just unbelievable … if you could cure that with music, it would be brilliant. You can try. You write about the things happening in the world.”
Black Sabbath with Andrew W.K. • Sat, Aug. 24, at 7:30 pm • Gorge Amphitheatre • $64-$150 • All-ages • ticketmaster.com • (800) 745-3000