The First Black Sabbath Album: Heavy Metal Explained

There it was, sitting with a bunch of other new records in the record library at WLVR, the student-run rock station at Lehigh University. I pulled it out and stared. I really didn’t know anything about the term “black sabbath,” so I had no point of reference. But that beautiful green-skinned witch in the center of the dark and foreboding cover gave me a pretty good clue.

To this day, the eponymous debut album by Black Sabbath remains one of the hallmarks of heavy metal music, although at that point we were just learning what that term coined by Mars Bonfire in his song “Born to Be Wild” really meant. Black Sabbath turned 50 in February 2020, but every consecutive listening of the album sounds fresh and, well, alive.

This was a remarkable achievement and introduction to Tommi Iommi, guitar; Geezer Butler, bass; Bill Ward, drums; and Ossie Osborne, vocals and harmonica. All selections are credited to the quartet.

And that’s not a misspelling: the original album says “Ossie.”

These original timings from the album don’t quite match up with the Spotify playlist below, but they’re certainly close enough for rock’n’roll!

 

“Black Sabbath” (6:20) opens with a rainstorm, then church bells, and finally thunder before the first thunderous chords from the band blow away the imagined serenity of the scene, the church bell keeping time along with Ward. The power of the metal music and the desperation in Osbourne’s voice drive home the message, purportedly based on a story Butler told to Osbourne.

What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me
Turn around quick, and start to run
Find out I’m the chosen one
Oh no

Big black shape with eyes of fire
Telling people their desire
Satan’s sitting there, he’s smiling
Watches those flames get higher and higher
Oh no, no, please God help me

Is it the end, my friend?
Satan’s coming ’round the bend
People running ’cause they’re scared
The people better go and beware
No, no, please God help me

Black Sabath – Photo credit: Chris Walter

The mood lightens in a positive direction with “The Wizard” (4:22). Osbourne’s harmonica adds to that sound. It is still a killer rock track, Iommi just getting wound up. Butler’s bass lines are inventive; he said this was based in part on Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.

Misty morning, clouds in the sky
Without warning, the wizard walks by
Casting his shadow, weaving his spell
Funny clothes, tinkling bell

Never talking
Just keeps walking
spreading his magic

Evil power disappears
Demons worry when the wizard is near
He turns tears into joy
Everyone’s happy when the wizard walks by

[Chorus]

Sun is shining, clouds have gone by
All the people give a happy sigh
He has passed by, giving his sign
Left all the people feeling so fine

[Chorus]

“Wasp > Behind the Wall of Sleep > Basically > N.I.B.” (9:44): it’s complicated. The medley begins very bouncy, then quickly descends into darkness with nasty guitar and rhythm section. “Wasp > Behind the Wall of Sleep” belong together.

Visions cupped within a flower
Deadly petals with strange power
Faces shine a deadly smile
Look upon you at your trial

Chill that numbs from head to toe
Icy sun with frosty glow
Words that grow read to your sorrow
Words that grow read no tomorrow

Feel your spirit rise with the breeze
Feel your body falling to it’s knees
Sleeping wall of remorse
Turns your body to a corpse
Turns your body to a corpse
Turns your body to a corpse
Sleeping wall of remorse
Turns your body to a corpse

Now from darkness there springs light
Wall of Sleep is cool and bright
Wall of Sleep is lying broken
Sun shines in you have awoken

At 3:35, those trail off with a drum intro to “Bassically,” a short Butler showcase before the first real heavy metal blasts in your brain, along with Osbourne’s definitive “OH YEAH!” and some of the nastiest bass ever to announce “N.I.B.” Ward pushes the pace as Iommi stretches out.

OH YEAH!

Some people say my love cannot be true
Please believe me, my love, and I’ll show you
I will give you those things you thought unreal
The sun, the moon, the stars all bear my seal

OH YEAH!

Follow me now and you will not regret
Leaving the life you led before we met
You are the first to have this love of mine
Forever with me till the end of time

Your love for me has just got to be real
Before you know the way I’m going to feel
I’m going to feel
I’m going to feel

OH YEAH!

Now I have you with me, under my power
Our love grows stronger now with every hour
Look into my eyes, you’ll see who I am
My name is Lucifer, please take my hand

Message clearly received.

Black Sabbath, 1970: Geezer Butler, Tony Iommi, Bill Ward, Ozzy Osbourne in , (Photo by Chris Walter/WireImage)

By comparison, “Wicked World” (4:30) sounds more light-hearted, with a jazzy rockin’ intro and great playing all around. The lyrics would suggest otherwise, however. That second stanza is prescient, to be sure. The instrumental section in the middle begins with fine noodling from Butler and Iommi before Iommi opens up and shreds.

The world today is such a wicked place
Fighting going on between the human race
People got to work just to earn their bread
While people just across the sea are counting their dead

A politician’s job, they say, is very high
For he has to choose who’s got to go and die
They can put a man on the moon quite easy
While people here on earth are dying of old diseases

A woman goes to work every day after day
She just goes to work just to earn her pay
Child sitting crying by a life that’s harder
He doesn’t even know who is his father

“A Bit of Finger > Sleeping Village > Warning” (14:32). “A Bit of Finger > Sleeping Village” serve as a short introduction (1:37) to the main event here. It begins with Iommi on acoustic guitar, Osbourne (?) on jaw’s harp, and Butler and Ward way in the background. Briefly, it shifts to rock before the mood changes entirely.

Red sun rising in the sky
Sleeping village, cockerels cry
Soft breeze blowing in the trees
peace of mind, feel at ease

No mention of wizards, Lucifer, or the like, yet “Warning” is the deepest, darkest tune on the album. Heavy is the word. Foreboding as well. The group rocks out briefly before Osbourne takes you to the depths of despair for eleven minutes, as Butler again lays down one nasty bed with Ward in cahoots, Iommi punctuating the song with his metal guitar.

Now the first day that I met ya
I was looking in the sky
When the sun turned all a blur
And the thunderclouds rolled by
The sea began to shiver
And the wind began to moan
It must’ve been a sign for me
To leave you well alone
I was born without you, baby
But my feelings were a little bit too strong

You never said you love me
And I don’t believe you can
‘Cause I saw you in a dream
And you were with another man
You looked so cool and casual
And I tried to look the same
But now I’ve got to know ya
Tell me who have I to blame?
I was born without you, baby
But my feelings were a little bit too strong
Just a little bit too strong

Now the whole wide world is movin’
‘Cause there’s iron in my heart
I just can’t keep from cryin’
‘Cause you say we’ve got to part
Sorrow grips my voice as I stand here all alone
And watch you slowly take away
A love I’ve never known
I was born without you, baby
But my feelings were a little bit too strong
Just a little bit too strong

At the seven-minute mark, the song shifts to a jam session of sorts — in the very best way possible — with Iommi leading Butler and Ward through at least six tempo changes as Iommi flexes again before returning to the head of the tune and a reprise of the last stanza with Osbourne.

 

If you haven’t listened to this masterpiece in ages — or ever — here is your opportunity to check out why Black Sabbath were the masters of metal reality.

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