Ahead of tonight's sold-out Madison Square Garden show tonight, let's remember the many reasons why Sabbath is still the best.
Black Sabbath is currently in the midst of its final tour, appropriately titled The End. After Ozzy went solo in 1979, there was no reason to think that these guys would ever be on stage together again. The 1985 Live Aid set and Ozzy’s 1992 Costa Mesa concert encore whet fans’ appetites for an inevitable reunion that’s lasted fitfully since 1997. Now, following the 2013 release of their career benchmark number 1 album,13, the Sab Four is taking one last swing.
They're playing the first of two sold-out dates at New York City's Madison Square Garden tonight, so we thought now would be an excellent time to celebrate why Sabbath is the best.
1. Black Sabbath invented heavy metal.
There were heavy bands before Sabbath. Don’t forget that it was Sir Paul who wrote “Helter Skelter.” Cream, Hendrix, Zeppelin, Vanilla Fudge, and The Who were all on the scene well before Earth changed its name to Black Sabbath in 1969. But none bore the intent and follow-through of the boys from Birmingham. Martin Popoff’s 2015 tome Who Invented Heavy Metal charts the form from the trumpets at the Battle of Jericho in 1250 BC to the end of 1971. Popoff “somewhat facetiously” declares Johnny Burnette’s 1957 version of “Train Kept A-Rollin” as the world’s first heavy metal song. By book’s end, though, (spoiler alert) Sabbath is exhaustively hailed as the true inventors.
2. All four founding members are still alive.
There are not many acts from the Sixties that have avoided the death of at least one of its founding members. People are now calling The Who, The Two. Rolling Stones’ Brian Jones didn’t even make it to the 4th of July in ’69. Only two Beatles remain. According to many a Facebook post, John Bonham is drumming with Lemmy, Cliff Burton, Randy Rhoads, and Dio down in heavy metal hell right now. The last band anyone would have expected to survive is Black Sabbath. Makes you wonder if they made a deal down at the crossroads…
3. Black Sabbath welded blues to jazz to rock to classical.
The bombast of metal began with classical composers; Mahler and Wagner helped usher new magnitudes in music. This was not lost on Geezer Butler who was inspired by Gustav Holst’s ominous “Mars Bringer of War” from The Planets suite. Tony Iommi employed the devil’s tri-tone (a.k.a. diabolus in musica) via detuned power chords over a bluesy swagger. Bill Ward’s jazzy drumming completed this Satanic soufflé and an entire new form of music that hybridized what had come before and ushered in something new and terrifying.
4. Fuck flower power anyway.
Before Sabbath, most bands sang about love. Even if they covered other themes, love was always the answer. The Doors painted their dark canvas with shades of sex and death, but it remained a poetic approach. People say the dream of the Sixties died at Altamont on Dec 6, 1969. Sabbath had already recorded its first album of horror-inflected doom* on October 16. By September of 1970, the second album was out, with themes of paranoia, war, and drug abuse trumping any fancies that peace and love would conquer this brave new world.
*When I interviewed Iommi in 2013, I asked him when they first used the term "doom" to describe their music. His answer: “Doom? …from day one, really.”
5. They never let their disabilities keep them from succeeding.
Tony Iommi famously lost the tips off two fingers in an industrial accident the very day he planned to quit his grueling factory job. His boss felt terrible, and played a Django Rheinhardt album for the poor depressed guitarist. Young Tony was inspired by Rheinhardt’s inhuman flamenco jazz skills, made all the more impressive by the French shredder’s own digital mutilation from a candle flame that got way out of control. Rather than packing it in, Iommi crafted makeshift stubbs to complete his missing fingers, designed his own set of lighter gauge strings, and tuned down to C#. As for the rest of the band, it’s clear that Ozzy has not been a fully functional human being for many decades, despite his scientifically tested genetic mutations.
6. Per capita, Black Sabbath is still the heaviest band ever.
You will find many young, stupid people who will posit that Black Sabbath sounds old fashioned, that heavier bands have since played faster, slower, louder, or tuned into ranges of hearing that is suitable only for marine mammals. But Mayhem’s demo didn’t give people nightmares and it wasn’t cited by the PMRC; it inspired far more church burning than record burning by the church. When the eponymous Black Sabbath album came out on Friday the 13th of February 1970, it was genuinely scary. People left the room when they heard the rain, the church bells, and the ultimate riff. No matter what has come since, nothing has ever been this heavy, produced in a world so utterly unprepared.
7. Christians feared by Christians, followed by occultists.
Sabbath lyricist Geezer Butler was raised Catholic. The very first song the band wrote was about fear of the devil. “After Forever” from Master of Reality has been called the first real Christian rock song. Yet somehow, thanks greatly to Vertigo Records inserting an upside-down cross into the gatefold of the debut (and other marketing schticks) parents and churches condemned the band outright. According to the unauthorized “view from the crew” biography How Black Was Our Sabbath, evil women and Ouija-enthusiasts began showing up to early gigs. When the group declined an invitation from a Satanic organization to play at Stonehenge, they were reportedly put under a curse. From then until now, the band has collectively worn crosses to ward away the evil. Take that, mom and dad.
8. Those album covers.
The photograph on the cover of the first Sabbath album is enough to give you goose bumps before you’ve dropped the needle on the record. To this day, no one knows the identity of the young woman who stands before the Mapledurham Watermill. We can politely gloss over the confused blur that is the war pig on the cover of Paranoid and the stony purple embossing on Master of Reality. By Vol. 4, the band had resumed its iconography with Ozzy’s fringe featured on the front, and that great sticker on Geezer’s bass in the interior photo book that nods toward the cheeky liner note thanking “the great COKE-cola company.” Drew Struzan’s Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’s illustration was so demonic that it was censored in Spain. On the Sabotage cover, Bill Ward had somehow shown up for the photo shoot with no pants; he ended up borrowing a pair of red rights from his wife. By Technical Ecstasy and Never Say Die, the group threw in the towel and hired Hipgnosis, the masterminds behind nearly every Pink Floyd jacket.
9. Black Sabbath earned a number 1 album in America in the 21st century.
The last time the Stones had a number 1 album in America was 1981. Rush has never had one. Judas Priest? Iron Maiden? Nope and nope. But Sabbath put out 13 in 2013—an era in which rock has mostly been swept under the rug by formulaic, pre-fabricated pop garbage. And despite many the online hater who only spun it once, it’s actually a fantastic album that proves the band knows how to do something that few metal bands today are able to deliver—good songwriting. People loved to complain that it sounded “too much like Sabbath,” but why can’t a band rip itself off when literally every other metal band has? Ozzy’s not AutoTuned, Iommi is one with the blues, and Geezer’s lyrics are just as feisty, sci-fi, and profound as ever. If you want the long version, I wrote 5,000 more words about my love of 13.
10. They are all incredible musicians.
It’s funny. When I was in high school in the late Eighties, word on the street was that the guys in Led Zeppelin were players, but Sabbath were slouches. This was largely based on myth and the ill-considered release Live At Last. Let me clue you in on something: Sabbath weren’t bad musicians—but they did have access to the best drugs. Hash and booze and blow did sometimes get in the way. But listen to the playing even on their debut. It’s on par with any band short of King Crimson. Geezer is the missing link between Paul McCartney and Steve Harris. Tony’s leads come direct from the source. Ozzy sounds like he was gargling hot honey, and Bill Ward’s chops will make you want to cry. They were a devastating unit then, and they still are today. Bands no longer apprentice themselves like they did in the Sixties. Black Sabbath used to play seven 45-minute sets a night during its residency at the Star Club in Hamburg. That was where the Beatles had honed their chops before dominating the world. Sabbath played more gigs at the Star Club than the Beatles, and could play circles around their heroes when it came down to it.
11. The singers of Rainbow, Deep Purple, and Judas Priest have all fronted Black Sabbath.
After Ozzy was finally given the boot in 1979 for a lot of really bad behavior, general ennui, and epic levels of alcoholism, Ronnie James Dio came into the fold. The Rainbow singer was everything Ozzy wasn’t: professional, pitch-perfect, a lyricist, and American. Dio made four studio albums with Sabbath, the fourth and heaviest being 2009’s The Devil You Know under the band name Heaven & Hell. When Dio first split from Sabbath after Mob Rules, Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan was brought in to sing on the 1983 Spinal Tap-esque rave up Born Again. And when Dio refused to sing for Sabbath as an opening act at the aforementioned 1992 Costa Mesa gig, Judas Priest’s Rob Halford stepped in to offer some metal god-level pipes to the party. “I’m not doing that.” Dio said, quoted in Iommi’s Iron Man autobiography. “I’m not supporting a clown.” R.I.P. RJD.
12. Let’s talk about Bill Ward.
He’s THE MAN. Ward is absolutely one of the all-time drum heroes in rock history. But my friends: it is still Sabbath without him. In fact, there is many a Sabbath record that features no founding members but Iommi--the one guy who kept the dream alive the whole damn time. Ward himself has no recollection of recording Heaven and Hell. Back in 1997, he was unable to keep time on the reunion track “Selling Your Soul," so a drum machine was used. He had a heart attack and missed all but two Sabbath shows in 1998. There were Ozzfests during which a fill-in drummer was stationed behind a curtain—just in case. If you are positioning yourself to boycott 13 or The End based on Ward’s absence, I ask you this: did you buy a copy of Ward’s 2015 album, Accountable Beasts? No? Then shut your fucking mouth. You don’t really support him, you just type a big game. If you’re one of the 700 people who bought this album and put your money where your mouth is, you have my respect. Bill Ward deserves our love. So does Black Sabbath.
13. The End really will be The End.
Yes, we all know that Sharon will flog Ozzy back onto the road as soon as she’s able, but this is the last proper tour for Sabbath. Maybe they’ll record again. Maybe there will be a farewell show or three. Maybe we’ll even see them kiss and make up with Bill Ward once and for all. But with the contracts signed, Iommi’s ongoing battle with cancer, and all of the guys pushing 70, this tour is the last chance to see three of the founding members of Black Sabbath on tour together. And if you fuck that up, it’s your own damn fault. If you’ve ever made it to the end of “Dear Father”--the last song on 13—you know that it ends right where the band started.Cue rain and church bells.